As we enter the final weekend in October, conference races are in full swing. There are pivotal games throughout the Power Five that will quite naturally affect the College Football Playoff picture. We feature one game from each league in Week 9, though perhaps not in the order you might expect. Read on.
No. 4 Washington at No. 16 Utah
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, FS1 | Pregame.com line: Washington by 10
The Pac-12 gets top billing this week, not only because this could be a preview of the conference title game. Quite simply, it’s a game that both participants need to win if they want to retain a path to the playoff that won’t require help. The Utes have lost once. A second setback wouldn’t automatically eliminate them from winning the Pac-12 South, but it would make their case for inclusion in the four-team field a tougher sell.
Though the Huskies would seem to have a greater margin for error, their résumé remains thin despite passing the eye test on the field. Their demolition of Oregon carries no heft at all, and even their best win against Stanford hasn’t retained its value.
Huskies’ QB Jake Browning has amassed 1,708 passing yards and 26 TD throws, albeit against some soft defenses. The Utes might prove harder to torch through the air, especially if DE Hunter Dimick is able to generate pressure. The Utah offense has been rejuvenated thanks to the return of RB Joe Williams. LB Azeem Victor and the Washington front will try to keep him contained.
No. 6 Nebraska at No. 11 Wisconsin
Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN | Pregame.com line: Wisconsin by 8½
The Cornhuskers are in a nearly identical situation to Washington, sporting an unblemished record that nonetheless lacks anything truly noteworthy. A win in Madison would change all that. But the road to the Big Ten West crown still goes through Wisconsin, which drew the short straw from the conference’s scheduling computer but can still claim the division with a win here and some help down the road.
Nebraska’s most pressing problem will be solving the Badgers’ stingy defense that ranks fourth in the country in third-down stops. Cornhuskers’ QB Tommy Armstrong can make things happen outside the pocket, but he’ll have to avoid LB D.J. Watt. Wisconsin RB Corey Clement has improved his average to 4.35 yards per carry, thanks in part to last week’s strong outing at Iowa.
No. 9 West Virginia at Oklahoma State
Saturday, noon ET, Fox | Pregame.com line: West Virginia by 3½
The eventual Big 12 champion, even one that goes 12-0, might still be anything but a lock for a playoff berth depending on how the other major conferences play out. The Mountaineers would figure to have the best case so long as they keep winning. But this trip to Stillwater is one of several obstacles remaining on a tricky second-half slate. The Cowboys aren’t out of the Big 12 title chase themselves, though they’re now behind the eight ball thanks to a loss to Baylor.
WVU’s defense continues to be what separates the Mountaineers from most of their Big 12 peers. There are yards to be had, but Cowboys’ QB Mason Rudolph must beware of CB Rasul Douglas, who has three of West Virginia’s seven picks. QB Skyler Howard isn’t making Mountaineers’ fans forget about Geno Smith, but he takes care of the ball and makes sound decisions.
No. 12 Florida vs. Georgia in Jacksonville
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS | Pregame.com line: Florida by 7½
Yes, we all know the teams in the SEC East haven’t quite measured up to their counterparts from the West. But the winner of the division will get one shot at the conference title regardless, and the Gators right now can get there on their own. The young Bulldogs have been inconsistent, but the talent is there to pull off an upset, and they’d like nothing better than to do it against their fiercest rival.
The problem for Georgia, of course, will be making headway against the Gators’ defense that ranks second in the country. Bulldogs’ QB Jacob Eason threw the ball effectively in his most recent outing against Vanderbilt but was victimized by breakdowns by the kicking team and questionable play calls. Florida hasn’t exactly been an offensive machine, either, but the Gators have been more effective when QB Luke Del Rio has been able to go. He’s battled a knee sprain but should be available for the “Cocktail Party.”
No. 3 Clemson at No. 14 Florida State
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC | Pregame.com line: Clemson by 4½
Many observers — including this one — had this game pegged among the top five of the entire season when schedules were first unveiled. But as events have unfolded, its actual significance in terms of the playoff race is negligible. The twice-beaten Seminoles are now extreme long shots to win the ACC Atlantic, even if they do win this much-anticipated home clash with the Tigers. And, as much as Clemson would like to win it, it isn’t an absolute must. As long as the Tigers successfully negotiate a more manageable November slate, they’ll still play for the ACC title.
The game should still be well worth watching, however, and a strong performance from QB Deshaun Watson could help him in the Heisman race. His backfield mate, RB Wayne Gallman, expects to play despite sustaining an apparent concussion against N.C. State two weeks ago. The injury news wasn’t as good for the Seminoles as S Derwin James has not been cleared to return as hoped from arthroscopic knee surgery. The FSU defense has performed better since being torched by North Carolina on Oct. 1, but it might take some explosive plays from flashy TB Dalvin Cook to keep the Seminoles in it.
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