There are nine remaining FBS teams that have yet to lose a game. Seven will be in action in Week 9. And all seven will be taking their quest for perfection tours on road trips. The odds are high that someone is going down for the first time, but who? No games will draw more attention than Washington-Utah and Clemson-Florida State for their potential impact on the initial College Football Playoff rankings, which will be unveiled in just a few days.
Below are the breakdowns and predictions for the 10 most consequential and entertaining games of Week 9.
10. Baylor (6-0) at Texas (3-4)
Baylor is on a weekly crusade to prove it belongs in the top 10 and the title chase. Charlie Strong just wants to win a game to temporarily dial down the pressure coming from all angles.
The Horns are in danger of a third straight losing season for the first time since the late 1930s, and the fallout has been predictable. The Bears, on the other hand, are the highest rated Big 12 team, though a soft schedule has produced more questions than answers. And while the overall stats look great, no one will really know Baylor’s ceiling until it travels to Oklahoma and West Virginia later this year.
The Bears might be overrated, but it won’t be evident in Austin. They’ve got too much speed, on both sides of the ball, for the floundering Longhorns. Plus, the retooled O-line will neutralize Texas’ pass rush, creating space for Shock Linwood and time for Seth Russell to connect with KD Cannon.
Prediction: Baylor 37, Texas 28
Line: Baylor -3
9. Cal (4-3) at USC (4-3)
The Bears and the Trojans share the same record, but not the same direction.
It’s been an up-and-down year at Cal, as the Bears have followed each win with a road loss. USC, on the other hand, is on the verge of becoming the Pac-12’s Oklahoma, a national power program that started slowly before regrouping in recent weeks. And with a little help and continued revitalization, Troy has a shot to get back into the South Division hunt.
The Bears can score behind the passing of Davis Webb and the running of Tre Watson and Khalfani Muhammad. But they can’t stop anyone, even getting trucked by lowly Oregon State earlier this month. The Trojans will capitalize behind budding quarterback Sam Darnold, elite wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back Ronald Jones, who’s poised to make the most of his opportunity to supplant injured Justin Davis this week.
Prediction: USC 45, Cal 28
Line: USC -15
8. Florida (5-1) vs. Georgia (4-3)
It’s the Gators and the Dawgs in one of the sport’s most storied and passionate rivalries.
This perennial matchup in Jacksonville really matters to each schools’ fan base. It matters to the SEC East race as well. Florida controls its own destiny, Georgia can play spoiler and Tennessee will be watching the outcome from Columbia, S.C. with particular interest. The Gators’ only loss came to the Vols, while the Bulldogs have dropped three of the last four, including an ugly showing to Vanderbilt in Athens on homecoming.
These teams are similarly stunted on offense, using first-time starting quarterbacks and rarely snapping off explosive plays. There’s a big gap between the defenses, though, with the edge going to Florida. Even if an ankle injury shelves star linebacker Jarrad Davis, the Gators will suffocate Georgia by stacking the box on running back Nick Chubb and daring rookie quarterback Jacob Eason to beat the air-tight corner tandem of Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor. Won’t happen, so Florida will still control its East Division destiny by the close of Week 9.
Prediction: Florida 26, Georgia 20
Line: Florida -7.5
7. West Virginia (6-0) at Oklahoma State (5-2)
The Mountaineers are unbeaten midway through the season. And the entire country is finally taking notice of their unannounced rise to prominence.
West Virginia sort of snuck of on the college football world this fall. But it’s getting tough not to be impressed by a program that held Texas Tech and TCU to 27 combined points in lopsided wins over the last two weeks. Oklahoma State is hoping to use the Mountaineers as its own personal launching pad back into the Big 12 title chase.
The Mountaineers are for real this season, certainly by the Big 12 barometer. There’s no one left on the schedule that Dana Holgorsen’s multi-faceted team can’t defeat, including the Cowboys in Stillwater. Both teams can score, but West Virginia sports the stingier defense, a far better O-line and the end-to-end physicality to wear down Okie State in the second half.
Prediction: West Virginia 35, Oklahoma State 27
Line: West Virginia -4
6. Northwestern (4-3) at Ohio State (6-1)
The resuscitation of Ohio State as a Big Ten and national contender begins this week in Columbus against one of the hotter teams out of the West Division.
The Buckeyes lost a game they shouldn’t have, at Penn State, last Saturday night. You know, just like they did in 2014, when they still went on to win the national championship. Ohio State has the time, talent and staff to get right back in the hunt. But the team must correct what’s ailed it this month, namely on offense, against Northwestern, which has won three in a row, including road trips at Iowa and Michigan State.
A lot will be learned in the ‘Shoe about OSU’s potential to regroup. The Wildcats are talented, from running back Justin Jackson and wide receiver Austin Carr to defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, linebacker Anthony Walker and safety Godwin Igwebuike on D. But the Buckeyes, operating with a renewed sense of urgency, will turn to a stacked secondary, which will pick three Clayton Thorson passes, and feisty line play to silence the Cat attack in a double-digit win.
Prediction: Ohio State 34, Northwestern 16
Line: Ohio State -26.5
5. Auburn (5-2) at Ole Miss (3-4)
Auburn is hot. Like dark horse threat of winning the SEC West hot.
At 1-2, this looked like another dismal season on The Plains that would result in another coaching shakeup. However, at 5-2, capped by last Saturday’s 56-3 demolition of a pretty good Arkansas team, the Tigers are suddenly one of the hottest teams in the country. This weekend, Auburn has a shot to pour more dirt on Ole Miss, which is in real danger of finishing below .500 in a season it started ranked near the top 10.
The Rebel defense is falling apart, particularly against the run. And Chad Kelly no longer looks capable of bailing his teammates out. In other words, really bad matchup all-around for the home team. Auburn will pummel the overmatched Rebel defense with runningback Kamryn Pettway, while its own D, which has allowed more than 19 points just one time, will add to Kelly’s frustration.
Prediction: Auburn 38, Ole Miss 27
Line: Auburn -4
4. Michigan (7-0) at Michigan State (2-5)
Think Washington-Oregon earlier this month. The host had been dominant of late in that series, too, but the visitor will arrive with a bloodthirsty appetite for revenge.
Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines have shown no mercy this season in getting to No. 2 in the polls behind Alabama. And now they have a shot to pay back a despised rival, which has taken seven of the last eight meetings but is also mired in a nasty five-game losing streak. This is the proverbial bowl game for Michigan State, which is about to miss the postseason for the first time in a decade.
This will get ugly … fast. The Spartans will take an early 3-0 lead, and then not score again. Michigan State is in disarray, which Michigan will be more than happy to further in East Lansing. The Wolverine D, which leads the country by a wide margin, will maul a Spartan team lacking the blocking and quarterback play to keep Don Brown’s unit on its heels. The postgame handshake between Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio will be tense and frosty.
Prediction: Michigan 49, Michigan State 3
Line: Michigan -23.5
3. Nebraska (7-0) at Wisconsin (5-2)
The Huskers are the undefeated team in this Big Ten West showdown, yet they’re the one with the most to prove in Madison.
Nebraska is the Big Ten’s Baylor—unbeaten and top 10, but who have you played? The Huskers get their chance this week to dispatch a national statement, while taking a gigantic step toward a division title. Standing in their way, though, is a Wisconsin squad whose only losses have been to Michigan and Ohio State by a touchdown apiece.
Jack Cichy is out for the year and T.J. Watt is hurting, bad news for the Badgers on defense. Still, it won’t prevent them from frustrating Nebraska, especially inconsistent quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. Wisconsin will clamp down on a Husker offense that’s been average the past month. And Paul Chryst’s offense will get just enough from Corey Clement and Jazz Peavy to remain alive in the West.
Prediction: Wisconsin 26, Nebraska 16
Line: Wisconsin -8.5
2. Washington (7-0) at Utah (7-1)
It’s the top team out of the North versus the highest ranked South squad, as the Pac-12 decides who’ll be its cover boy entering November.
The fourth-ranked Huskies travel to No. 17 Utah in what both hope will be the first of two meetings this season. Washington is the Pac-12’s best—and maybe only—playoff contender, plowing through the schedule, save for the Sept. 24 Arizona trip. The blue-collar Utes continue to overachieve for Kyle Whittingham, carving out contention with physicality and running back Joe Williams, who actually retired from the sport earlier this year.
Winning in Sack Lake City is never easy. But U-Dub is a complete football team that can win games in myriad ways. The Utes, on the other hand, are one-dimensional on offense, and had some issues in pass defense last week against backup UCLA quarterback Mike Fafaul. The Huskies are about to enhance their playoff resume, while also paving a lane to Santa Clara for South contenders Colorado and USC.
Prediction: Washington 35, Utah 27
Line: Washington -10
1. Clemson (7-0) at Florida State (5-2)
The Noles are likely out of the ACC race, the result of losing to Louisville and North Carolina. But they can spoil Clemson’s perfect season this weekend in Tallahassee.
This annual ACC game of the year lost some punch when Florida State fell twice. But it still matters in a big way, both in the Atlantic Division and College Football Playoff chases. For the Seminoles, it’s a chance to salvage a season that won’t end up living up to expectations. For the Tigers, it’s the last big hurdle before the league championship game, meaning it would take a significant upset to keep them out of the final four for a second straight year.
Clemson has had four close calls, including an escape of NC State before the break that should have been a loss. But FSU has been flawed as well, especially on defense and in pass protection. The Noles also have far less experience under center, with Deondre Francois versus Deshaun Watson. Plus, the Tigers have been significantly better on D, in all phases, the difference in what’ll be another tight, down-to-the-wire affair for the defending league champs.