- ACC reporter.
- Joined ESPN in 2012.
- Graduate of the University of Delaware.
Week 9 gives us our first Big Ten matchup that has potential College Football Playoff implications — Ohio State vs. Penn State (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET on ABC). Even though Indiana upset Penn State last weekend, both teams are considered the best in the Big Ten.
We break down everything you need to know ahead of the week’s biggest game:
What we’re most looking forward to
Lyles: Just getting another sample out of both teams — but especially Penn State. So far this season, we’ve seen how a team’s opening week doesn’t necessarily mean much (looking at you, Mississippi State), and PSU is probably better than its performance Saturday against Indiana.
Hale: A Justin Fields incompletion. They’re like a solar eclipse — they come around only once every few years. Kidding aside, Fields had just one incomplete pass in the opener, but made arguably his biggest contribution with his legs. He had eight scrambles that netted 55 yards — 20 of which came on third down — and a touchdown. Fields forces defenses to pick their poison, and he’s more than happy to beat you with his arm or his legs.
Player to watch
Lyles: I’m going to be unapologetically basic here and say Fields. This is one of the biggest games on Ohio State’s schedule, and with a limited amount of chances to make his case for the Heisman, he would really benefit from a big game.
Hale: Shaka Toney could be the key to an upset win for Penn State. Against Indiana, Toney was a beast, racking up seven tackles, two sacks and a QB hurry. There’s no perfect recipe for slowing down Fields and the Ohio State offense, but if Toney and the Penn State line can disrupt the Buckeyes’ backfield often enough, they’ve at least got a chance.
How does Penn State pull off the upset?
Lyles: If you’re a Penn State fan, the best hope here is that Ohio State has a down game and plays out of character. But if last week was any indication, Ohio State doesn’t look like they’re going to have that issue. Strategically, Penn State just has to hope to limit Fields, because there is likely no way to completely stop a player with his talent.
Hale: Step 1 in achieving any victory is to know your opponent. Let’s check in with PSU head coach James Franklin.
OK, so Penn State has that covered.
Step 2 is a little more complicated, and it’s all about forcing Ohio State to prove it has a second gear. Against Nebraska, the Buckeyes struggled on the ground unless Fields was running. Is that a measure of some opening game rust or a real problem? Penn State’s defense needs to find out. That likely means spying Fields to keep him in the pocket and getting enough pressure from the front four to force the Buckeyes’ hand.
Lyles: Ohio State 41, Penn State 28
Hale: Ohio State 33, Penn State 24
What else is worth watching?
Oklahoma State at Texas (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET on Fox)
You may have written off the Big 12’s playoff chances when it lost to three Group of Five teams in the opening week or when Texas and Oklahoma both lost back-to-back games. That’s fair. But it turns out there’s another potential playoff contender in the conference, and it’s winning in an absolutely shocking way. We’re talking about Oklahoma State, which has traded in a high-flying offense for a smothering defense. The Pokes lead the nation in sack rate on non-blitz plays, are fourth in yards-per-attempt, seventh in QBR allowed, 10th in designed runs stuffed for a loss or no gain and 11th in yards-per-play. This week will be its biggest test, with Sam Ehlinger and Texas coming to town. The Longhorns haven’t met expectations thus far, but Ehlinger’s 24 touchdowns leads the nation.
UCF at Houston (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET on ESPN+/App)
Knights QB Dillon Gabriel has tallied 2,178 passing yards and 20 total touchdowns through his first five games and is averaging 436 yards per game passing — 55 more than the second-most productive QB in the country, Alabama’s Mac Jones. If Gabriel maintains that average this week against Houston, he would be the first QB not coached by Mike Leach to throw for 2,600 yards in his first six games in the past 15 years.
Notre Dame at Georgia Tech (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC)
We’ve reached the midpoint of Notre Dame’s season, and the Irish still haven’t played an opponent with a winning record. But Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech still has some serious value. If there has been a clear blemish on Notre Dame’s résumé thus far, it has been the downfield passing game, which struggled throughout the season before finding some magic in receiver Ben Skowronek, who had two long touchdowns last week against Pitt. The job should get easier this week against the Yellow Jackets, whose defense has allowed the second-most passing TDs (18) and fourth-most completions of 20 yards or more (27) in the country.
Does the SEC invest in a CoinStar machine?
Lane Kiffin had plenty to complain about following a controversial ending in a loss to Auburn last week, but he did his best to hold his tongue. The result? He got fined anyway. But don’t ever suggest Kiffin won’t get the last laugh.
What does Rutgers do for an encore?
The Scarlet Knights surprised everybody last week with a comfortable win over Michigan State in which they forced the Spartans into seven turnovers. That’s not a formula Rutgers can rely on every single game, but seeing how they fare against a newly ranked Indiana team should help give us a better idea of how good (or bad) this team is.
Travis Etienne goes for a record
Since 1978, Ted Brown has held the record for the most career rushing yards in ACC history. Given the sheer number of elite backs to come through the league in the 42 years since — Dalvin Cook, C.J. Spiller, Warrick Dunn, Tiki Barber — it’s almost a miracle the mark has stood for so long. And yet, with just 43 more yards vs. Boston College on Saturday, Clemson’s Etienne will eclipse Brown’s mark and hold the record on his own. It will be a fitting moment. Etienne has averaged more than 7.6 yards per carry in his career, scored 64 times on the ground, and has been the league’s Offensive Player of the Year in each of the past two seasons. In short, Etienne is the best back ever to play in the ACC, and after Saturday, he’s likely to have one more record to prove his case.
Memphis at Cincinnati (Saturday, Noon ET on ESPN)
Can Memphis find the end zone? No doubt Cincinnati has a ferocious defense, but its red-zone performance has been the Bearcats’ biggest weapon in a 4-0 start to the season. Of the 74 teams to have played at least three games so far, no defense has been better than Cincinnati’s in the red zone, allowing a touchdown on just a quarter of their opponents’ drives inside the 20. Last week’s win included two SMU drives that ended with a turnover on downs and two short field goals in the red zone, turning what might’ve been a close contest into a Bearcats blowout. Memphis won’t go down so easily. The Tigers rank No. 2 nationally in red-zone TD rate.
Player to watch
Lyles: The Florida Kyles
We’re talking Trask and Pitts here. The Gators play for the first time since their 41-38 loss to Texas A&M three weeks ago. If Trask and Pitts can keep their early-season chemistry going and the defense just kind of shows up, UF can bounce back.
Hale: Kansas State RB Deuce Vaughn
If you haven’t been paying attention since K-State’s opening loss to Arkansas State, it might come as a bit of a shock to find the Wildcats are now ranked 16th in the country and have a shot at making the Big 12 title game. Perhaps the biggest reason for the turnaround is their freshman tailback. Vaughn has blossomed into one of the most dynamic threats in the country, averaging 134 yards from scrimmage per game, and he’s the only player in the country to account for 300 yards on both the ground and through the air so far. Vaughn will run into a tough test this week, however, with West Virginia entering play leading the nation in total defense (among teams with multiple games played).
Under-the-radar game of the week
Lyles: Arkansas at Texas A&M
Hello, it is I, the person still very intrigued by everything that is Arkansas football this season. I’m not necessarily confident they are going to upset Texas A&M this week, but I do want to see how much of a football game the Hogs are going to give the Aggies. The Razorbacks have been the best story of the college football season thus far, and at worst, I think they’re at a point where they’re at least going to be competitive.
Hale: Northwestern at Iowa
Do you like offense? Just can’t get enough of QBs airing it out for big plays? OK, you may want to skip this one, then. Neither team has made its bread and butter with offense, but that doesn’t mean this won’t be an intriguing matchup. Iowa fell on a late TD against Purdue last week, while Northwestern continued the Big Ten tradition of embarrassing Maryland.
The Wildcats haven’t started 2-0 since 2015, when they finished 10-3. Meanwhile, Iowa hasn’t opened a season with two losses since 2000, Kirk Ferentz’s second year on the job.
Upset of the week
Lyles: Georgia State over Coastal Carolina
The magic has to be up for the Chanticleers at some point, right? And don’t get it twisted — as someone who likes Sun Belt football, I’ve enjoyed their success. But Georgia State is a worthy opponent. The Panthers are 2-2 but those two losses have come by a total of only 10 points. Plus, they may be facing a Coastal team without injured QB Grayson McCall.
Hale: Charlotte over Duke
The Blue Devils had an off week to try to figure out their offensive woes, but the formula is simple. Duke has tossed 12 interceptions in six games, and it ranks fourth from the bottom in red-zone TD rate. That sounds like the recipe for an upset, and getting a win over an in-state Power 5 school would amount to something of a Super Bowl for Charlotte. We imagine the party in Club Lit will get a little rowdy if Will Healy’s team can pull this off.
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