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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Richard Johnson

The Top 10 College Football Matchups to Track in Week 9

And just like that, we’re basically into November. The College Football Playoff committee rankings are right around the corner, and the season has certainly arrived at its business end. So with that in mind, the games on tap give title contenders a chance to impress the committee as they sit down to deliberate for the first time.

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Ohio State (-14.5) at Penn State

Simply put, the Buckeyes have owned the Nittany Lions in recent seasons. Excluding an epic 2016 blocked field goal victory in Happy Valley, Ohio State has won 9 of its last 10 matchups with Penn State. This year, thanks to a rekindled defense, the Buckeyes look like arguably the most complete team in the country and they still aren’t even playing their best player as Jaxon Smith-Njigba continues to work back from a hamstring injury. They haven’t needed him this season, and if Penn State plays like they did on defense against Michigan a couple weeks ago, they still won’t.

Matchup to watch: Penn State’s rushing defense vs. Ohio State’s rushing offense. CJ Stroud and the passing game get the headlines, but TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams have a one-two punch that helps keep the engine going. Michigan proved that Penn State can be bullied up front. Will the Buckeyes drive the point home?

Oklahoma (-1.5) at Iowa State

The Sooners are coming off a bye week, and if that betting line should tell you anything, they’re not their usual selves. This game’s actually to stay out of the cellar in Big 12 play for both teams, which means the mighty have truly fallen.

Matchup to watch: Iowa State’s offense vs. Oklahoma’s defense. Even in a win the last time out, the Sooners gave up 42 points to Kansas. You would think over the bye week that Brent Venables and Co. can figure something out on that side of the ball … because if Iowa State (which hasn’t scored more than 24 points against a Power 5 opponent) can score on you, it signals that a big problem still remains.

Notre Dame at Syracuse (-2.5)

The Irish have been up and down this season playing plenty of close games and clearly needing some time for Marcus Freeman to develop something in South Bend. Syracuse is coming off of its near-upset of Clemson and the Orange are looking to prove that they aren’t just a flash in the pan as their schedule turns up after a soft first seven games.

What to watch: Sean Tucker’s touches. The dynamic running back seemingly vanished during the second half against the Orange, something Dino Babers addressed after the team’s loss to Clemson.

"That’s something that should not happen,” he said. “I agree with everyone else. He should have more carries than that in a football game. That has been addressed.”

The oversight can’t happen again if the Orange hope to have success on offense.

The undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes have won nine of their last 10 matchups against Week 9 opponent Penn State.

Jay LaPrete/Associated Press


Illinois (-7.5) at Nebraska, 3:30 p.m.

The Illini are hoping to go a long way to clinching the Big Ten West if they can beat the Cornhuskers. Their recipe is simple and effective: run the hell out of the ball with RB Chase Brown and play fantastic suffocating defense. It’s worked so far, but will it continue?

Matchup to watch: Casey Thompson vs. the turnover bug. There is nothing that Illinois’ defense wants more than turnovers. They’re second in the country with 12 interceptions and play a sticky brand of man defense. Thompson has an 11-8 touchdown to interception ratio this season. He needs to avoid putting the ball in harm's way in the air or Illinois will do exactly what they want to: sit on the game thanks to extra possessions.

Cincinnati at UCF (-2), 3:30 p.m.

Welcome to the Group of 5’s showdown game this week. Tulane remains hot at 6-1, but Cincinnati and UCF aren’t just going to let the Green Wave take the conference title without a fight. This game will go a long way to determining who will be atop the AAC at the season’s end.

Matchup to watch: Cincinnati’s run game vs. UCF. The Bearcats really miss Jerome Ford and Desmond Ridder’s dual threat ability this season. They aren’t getting sustainable success from the run game like they’d like as they’re 93rd in rushing success rate. The bad news? UCF’s defense is 7th in rushing success rate allowed.

Florida vs. Georgia (-22.5/in Jacksonville), 3:30 p.m.

The Dawgs are looking to yet again have their day against the Gators in the annual rivalry tilt. Florida comes in with one of the worst third-down defenses in the country, and while Georgia’s offense is efficient, it lacks a vertical gear with AD Mitchell still banged up. But if Florida can’t get them off the field, UGA will just gladly keep on driving. Florida has to figure out a way to force punts and field goals, or it’s gonna be another long day.

Matchup to watch: Florida’s receivers vs. Georgia’s DBs. The Dawgs are built a little differently on defense this season than they were last year, especially now that Jalen Carter—one of the best defensive tackles in the country—is still battling the injury bug. It’s been largely up to their talented core of defensive backs to keep the lid on offenses this season. UGA is still great on that side of the ball, it just isn’t quite the warhammer up front we got used to on last year’s generation unit. Florida, however, has struggled to find a true Dude at wide receiver and it’s contributed to Anthony Richardson’s struggles.

Oklahoma State at Kansas State (-1.5), 3:30 p.m.

K-state’s unbeaten run in league play came to an end against TCU last week, but the race for the Big 12 title game still heavily involves these two teams who have actually lost to the Frogs in consecutive weeks. This game may loom very large when we start to talk about potential tiebreakers at the end of the regular season.

Matchup to watch: Kansas State’s quarterback situation. The Wildcats are banged up at the QB position and that particularly matters in how they use QB1 Adrian Martinez as a threat in the quarterback run game. Whether he plays or not is one thing, but if he’s not at or near 100% it could hamper K-State’s run game. The Wildcats’ offense as a whole is something to watch.

Top-ranked Georgia is coming off a bye week. The Bulldogs are facing the rival Florida Gators in Jacksonville.

Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports


Kentucky at Tennessee (-12), 7 p.m.

This is where you figure out if Tennessee is truly championship caliber. Alabama has been upset before in season’s past, but this game at home—with alternate uniforms and a new energy around the program—is a huge spot for the Vols to continually prove that the third Saturday in October wasn’t just a flash in the pan.

Matchup to watch: Will Levis vs. Tennessee’s defense. In a perfect world, Kentucky might just sit on the ball with a great run game and try to make sure Hendon Hooker and Co. can’t touch the ball. The problem is, they tried that last year and the Vols scored nearly 50 points with just over 12 minutes of possession time. This year’s Tennessee offense is even more potent, so it will be on Will Levis to keep Kentucky at pace on the scoreboard, because the Vols will score (they’re one of the best teams in the country in the red zone). Levis has got a big arm that NFL scouts love, but his down-to-down decision making will have to be great, not just his deep ball shot plays.

Michigan State at Michigan (-23), 7:30 p.m.

Last year’s rivalry game saw Michigan State hit numerous chunk plays to pull off an improbable upset. If they hope to do it again the formula can’t be the same—because the players aren’t the same. Michigan’s just as solid as last year but the Spartans look like they’ve run out of the magic that powered them to a Peach Bowl last season.

Matchup to watch: Michigan State’s defense vs. its own efficiency. Standard down, passing downs, third downs … no matter which way you stack it up, Michigan State has struggled to get off the field in big spots. They’re one of the worst third down teams in the country, for instance. Nobody pitches shutouts in today’s college football so that’s not really the standard, but they have to figure out a way to get stops against the Wolverines. Penn State showed that it’s possible to limit Michigan in the red zone at least … in the first half.

Michigan running back Blake Corum has been instrumental in the Wolverines' offense.

Kirthmon F. Dozier/USA TODAY NETWORK

Ole Miss (-1.5) at Texas A&M, 7:30 p.m.

The Aggies limp into this game having lost three straight, and Ole Miss will be hoping to get back winning ways after getting embarrassed by LSU when it looked like they were going to be a surprise contender for the SEC West crown. The Rebels may still cause some ruckus in the divisional race, and if they’re going to do so they need to dispatch the Aggies which is looking a bit easier than it should be as A&M continues to struggle.

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