Everything you need to know in college football following Week 9
Even with the top four remaining the same for the College Football Playoff, it was a wild Week 9 that included de facto elimination games for the Big 12 and a few scares for other top 10 teams around the country. The big four remains intact with Louisville and Ohio State lurking though we’re one slip up away from potential chaos in the race for the playoff.
The first playoff standings will be announced Tuesday night as the committee unveils their first impression of the nation’s top teams, and while there may not be a lot of drama at the top, pay attention to teams No. 5 through 10 to see which the committee may feel has the best chance at crashing the party.
Here are your top takeaways from Week 9 in college football.
- Battle-tested Clemson is ready for the playoff
Many Clemson critics will point to their being one NC State field goal away from elimination from the list of undefeateds, but aside from that, they’re a battle-tested team that has found a way to win in multiple situations. The latest was a 37-34 win over talented, yet underachieving, Florida State. They outlasted Auburn 19-13 in Week 1 in a game that we thought was closer than it needed to be at the time, but that was before Auburn’s recent turnaround. They handed Louisville their first loss, surviving the Lamar Jackson Show in the process. And even with the luck against NC State, they managed to pull that game off in overtime. Saturday night was more of the same as it took a full-team effort to beat Florida State and a shaky outing by Heisman candidate QB Deshaun Watson was capped by Watson making big plays down the stretch when it mattered. Perhaps I’m on the optimistic side for the Tigers, but this offense is loaded with playmakers and a talented quarterback who has yet to live up to his immense potential. They may be ready to go off at any time, but the key for Clemson is that even when Watson has not brought his best, they’ve gotten strong performances from their defensive line led by true freshman Dexter Lawrence (87.6 season grade), CB Cordrea Tankersley (87.3) or safety Jadar Johnson (83.5). Emerging playmakers on defense combined with the talented offense will have Clemson ready for their playoff run.
- Michigan showing a more well-rounded attack
There’s no denying that the strength of the Michigan team lies in the defense where they boast one of the best defensive lines and secondaries in the country. They can pressure the quarterback, stop the run, and cover on the back end, making it extremely difficult of any team to sustain offense against them. But the real key to Michigan’s quest to run the table will be quarterback Wilton Speight, who has graded at 69.1 overall this season but has shown signs of improvement in the last two games. Last season, it was Michigan QB Jake Rudock who graded among the nation’s worst signal callers through nine weeks before turning it around and grading among the best in the country starting in Week 10. If Speight continues this progression, Michigan will be able to take advantage of playmakers like WR Amara Darboh and TE Jake Butt and this offense will give the defense a bit more leeway in their quest to carry the Wolverines to a championship.
- Washington passes its biggest test
We’ve been trying to give Washington the proper litmus test all season. They crushed Stanford 44-6 on national television on a Friday night, then ended their losing streak to Oregon in convincing fashion by a score of 70-21. However, it’s not the same Stanford and Oregon teams we’ve been accustomed to seeing the last few years, so Washington’s road trip to Utah was their biggest test of the season and a 31-24 victory has them geared up for a playoff push in November. The Huskies have the playmakers on both sides of the ball to run the table and outlasting a tough Utah team on the road was a necessary step in their quest for a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Washington has the balance to compete for a national title, from QB Jake Browning distributing on offense to their run stoppers up on the middle on defense to CB Sidney Jones and safety Budda Baker locking it down on the back end. However, even with Utah in the rearview mirror, four Pac-12 games remain for the Huskies. It’s never an easy road through the conference and they’re entering their most important November in many years.
- Big 12’s playoff hopes just about gone
We’ve slowly played the elimination game on a weekly basis for the Big 12. Oklahoma got their elimination papers early with losses to Houston and Ohio State, as did Oklahoma State with a Week 2 loss to Central Michigan. Middling years from Texas, TCU, and Kansas State left the Big 12’s hopes in the hands of Baylor and West Virginia who came into Week 9 as the lone undefeateds in the conference.
They’re undefeated no longer as West Virginia fell on the road to Oklahoma State while Baylor lost in Austin to Texas, leaving the Big 12 likely on the outside looking into the College Football Playoff for the second time in three years. West Virginia’s hopes of remaining undefeated were slim anyway as they’re just hitting the heart of the Big 12 schedule, while Baylor also has a trip to Oklahoma to contend with down the stretch. Still, it was another bad day for the Big 12 as the conference that is generally viewed as fifth-best in the Power-5 this season no longer has a perfect team to carry the conference’s flag.
- Louisville survives – Lamar Jackson plays like Heisman front-runner
This was no “off” day from the Heisman leader, even with though it took late-game heroics for Louisville to defeat 2-6 Virginia. Quarterback Lamar Jackson did little to hurt his Heisman chances with a 77.1 grade for the game including another big day on the ground with 13 carries for 123 yards. As has been the case all season, Jackson had some ups and downs in the passing game, but the near-loss had as much to do with his losing 96 air yards to drops (including a potential early touchdown) and even then, he managed to battle back to lead the Cardinals to victory with the game-winning touchdown pass. Jackson remains the best big-play weapon in the land and he still sits atop the race for the Heisman Trophy.
- Florida now in full control of the SEC East; Tennessee from Cinderella to disappointment
While Florida did control their own destiny coming into the week, it was a much more challenging destiny when compared to Tennessee’s and the expectation was that the Vols would win out and win the SEC East while Florida would slip up along the way. Instead, Florida took care of business against Georgia, and Tennessee lost to South Carolina, essentially allowing Florida to lose one of their remaining three SEC games – at Arkansas, vs. South Carolina, at LSU – and still book a trip to Atlanta as SEC East champions.
It’s not always pretty for the Florida offense, but the defense continues to play at a high level while breeding new stars along the way. This week it was true freshman defensive end Jabari Zuniga leading the way with an 83.1 grade to go with five pressures and two run stops while CB Duke Dawson got his hands on two passes on only six targets while finishing at 89.2 for the game.
As for Tennessee, a poor offensive line and inconsistent passing attack has finally caught up in recent weeks and they’re now left to root for two of Florida’s three opponents to play spoiler while trying to run the table in their remaining slate of SEC games against Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt.
- Auburn as hot as any team in the country
As we’ve discussed in recent weeks, first impressions are difficult to break as evidenced by USC and LSU starting out slow and taking a while to earn back respect as a top team. Auburn is in the same boat as early-season losses to Clemson and Texas A&M and an 18-13 win against LSU highlighted a struggling offense. However, since that game, Auburn has averaged 48.0 points per game, including their latest 40-29 win over Ole Miss, as the run game has turned the corner behind running backs Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway while QB Sean White has settled in as the starter for the Tigers. Defensively, Carl Lawson has led the way with the nation’s No. 3 pass rush grade at 89.6 while cornerbacks Carlton Davis (83.6), Johnathan Ford (78.1) and Joshua Holsey (77.5) have all played well on the back end.
In what would have sounded crazy weeks ago, Auburn may be Alabama’s biggest challenge on the road to the College Football Playoff and the Iron Bowl is shaping up to be a play-in game for the SEC West title.
- Boise State’s bubble has burst, Wyoming the real deal
Last week we highlighted Boise State and Western Michigan’s quests for undefeated seasons and a possible berth in a New Year’s Six bowl. Unfortunately for the Broncos of the blue turf, a loss to Wyoming 30-28, leaving them to fight for a Mountain West championship rather than a spot on New Year’s. Credit Wyoming who is quietly 6-2 on the season and 4-0 in Mountain West play as it was QB Josh Allen led the way for the Cowboys. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Allen is an intriguing quarterback physically and his athleticism was on display with an on-the-run laser into the end zone for the deciding touchdown. He’s currently the top-graded Mountain West quarterback and a player to keep an eye on when Wyoming sneaks onto your television late on a Saturday night.
As for the New Year’s Six being crashed by the Group of Five, Western Michigan gets the stage with some Tuesday night #MACtion against Ball State as they look to stay undefeated and in the mix to crash the party.
- Another quarterback to put on the radar
Last week, I acknowledged my appreciation for true dual-threat quarterbacks, giving credit for their ability to open up the run and pass game even if it comes with some inconsistency in the passing game. When highlighting the top rushing quarterbacks on designed runs, South Florida’s Quinton Flowers checked in at No. 2 on the list behind Lamar Jackson and he went off against Navy on Friday night to close that gap even further. Flowers still ranks second with 733 yards on 82 designed runs, good for 8.9 yards per attempt to go with eight touchdowns. He also ranks right behind Jackson with a 95.6 rushing grade as his dual-threat ability has South Florida sitting at 7-2 on the season and 4-1 in the AAC. Over the last four weeks, Flowers is the No. 2 quarterback overall behind Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and South Florida is now tied with Temple at the top of the AAC East standings.
- Performances that caught the eye
- The big game for South Florida QB Quinton Flowers included 176 yards on 13 carries, including a 10-carry, 141-yard effort on designed runs alone. He finished with an 85.0 grade for the night.
- Oregon true freshman QB Justin Herbert has justified his move into a starting role and he went off for 489 passing yards and another 52 on the ground. He may be the shining light in this disappointing season for the Ducks.
- Northwestern WR Austin Carr currently ranks No. 2 in our wide receiver grades at 89.9 and he was on full display with 158 yards on eight catches in Northwestern’s near-upset of Ohio State.
- Clemson interior defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence continued to raise the bar for true freshmen with two sacks, a QB hit, and three hurries to go with stellar work in the run game against Florida State.
- Auburn CB Joshua Holsey was targeted 10 times, allowing only two receptions for 34 yards while intercepting a pass and deflecting four more.