Last week was the gold standard for why we love college football. Every year, we cruise along the first several weeks thinking we know everything and we start to get lulled into a sense of security. Then, right around mid-October to early-November, usually on a week where there aren’t a lot of Top 25 match-ups, an avalanche of upsets happen.
Maybe we should have known Clemson and Washington State were going to go down last Friday since it was Friday the 13th. But, that’s not even where the craziness ended. All told, seven Top 25 teams went down to un-ranked foes and five teams were knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten. As a fan of pure chaos when it comes to college football and college basketball, I really enjoyed last Saturday. Fans of those teams probably did not. However, it’s worth remembering that right around this time last year, Clemson lost to Pitt, we thought that was it for them in the Playoff race, and they ended up as national champs. It’s October, still a long way to go.
With that, it’s on to the top games to watch this week. One note, if you find yourself wondering just how sideways Tennessee’s season has gone, go ahead and look at the line for their game against Alabama this week. It’s nuts.
#25 Memphis @ Houston (-3), Thursday, 8:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Some sweet, sweet Thursday night college football action for you to start your weekend. Two of the top teams in the American squaring off in a battle that could end up deciding the West Division down the line.
If you haven’t gotten the chance to watch Memphis’ offense yet, here’s your opportunity. The Tigers are one of the most potent attacks in the nation rolling up 40 points per game with particular explosiveness through the air. Quarterback Riley Ferguson averages 7.7 yards per attempt and not one of his receivers is below 10.2 yards per catch. The Tigers have hung 48 on UCLA, 70 on UConn and handed Navy their first loss of the season by putting up 30 points on the Midshipmen.
Houston’s defense presents a tough challenge for the Tigers. The Cougars have star lineman Ed Oliver back from injury and he can be quite a disruptive force in the middle of the line. Combined with linebacker Matthew Adams (57 tackles 4.5 TFL), the Tigers offensive line will have to work to protect Ferguson. Memphis has played mostly shootouts this year, and Houston has the offensive talent to match it, it’s just consistency that’s been missing from the Cougars attack so far this year.
#20 UCF @ Navy (+7.5), Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET (CBSSN)
Get ready to hear the name Scott Frost a lot for the next several months. The Knights head coach has turned this program around from 0-12 the year before he took over in 2015 to now an undefeated 5-0 and the 20th ranked team in the country.
They’ve done it on the back of an offense that is the highest scoring unit in the country producing 50.3 points per game combined with a defense that has been one of the nation’s stingiest allowing just 16.3 PPG (16th). That isn’t a combination you often see from up-tempo, spread offense teams, because the defense is often on the field for so many plays that they eventually tire out. UCF’s average time of possession per game is 29 minutes (77th) and they’ve grinded out possessions with a running game averaging 226.6 yards per game. The offense runs through the highly efficient McKenzie Milton who’s completing 70 percent of his passes and has 15 TDs to just 2 interceptions.
Navy’s defense has a tough task on its hands, but the offense could help it out if the triple-option attack is able to limit the number of possessions UCF gets by grinding out long drives. Navy leads the nation in time of possession at 36 minutes per game and rushing at 397 yards per game. They’re coming off a loss to Memphis and playing at home in Annapolis, so there’s definitely potential for a rebound win. But, UCF’s defense, led by 2016 American DPOY Shaquem Griffin, is stout against the run, allowing just 110.2 yards per game.
#11 USC @ #13 Notre Dame (-3.5), Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
It feels like it’s been awhile since these rivals played each other when they were both ranked highly. This year’s game has a little something extra to it as both teams enter with one loss and this game feels like a potential elimination game for the College Football Playoff. It would be tough for the loser to get into that top four spots at the end of the year.
Notre Dame has quietly been one of the most dominant running teams in the country, ranking 5th while racking up 308 yards per game on the ground. The attack has been led by Josh Adams who is averaging nine yards per carry this season. But, the Irish have varied their ground attack in Brian Kelly’s system with four other guys also getting 20 or more carries so far this season. The Irish have won based on their rushing attack and stingy defense as the team ranks in the Top 15 in both scoring offense (40.8 PPG) and defense (16.8 PPG).
For USC, much of the hype has of course been around QB Sam Darnold. After struggling early in the year, Darnold has started to find his form in recent weeks with six touchdowns and just one interception in his last two games while throwing for over 600 yards. The accuracy issues have still plagued him, but he’s been better at taking care of the ball. Ronald Jones continues to give the Trojans a potent rushing attack, and the defense has been solid. They’ll be tested by this Irish rushing attack and this should be another entertaining installment of this classic rivalry.
#19 Michigan @ #2 Penn State (-9.5), Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Welcome to the biggest game of the week. Happy Valley will play host to ESPN’s College Gameday prior to this Big Ten clash at night and the atmosphere will be insane. Michigan routed Penn State 49-10 at the Big House last year, a game that many pointed to as the reason the Nittany Lions were left out of the Playoff. Now, at home, Penn State has a chance to exact some revenge.
You’ve likely heard about Penn State’s main weapon at this point, running back Saquon Barkley. The junior is an athletic freak who is in the race for the Heisman Trophy this season amassing 1,044 total yards and eight total touchdowns through six games. He does everything for the Nittany Lions, including returning kicks, and is the driving force behind the offense. He’ll face a stout Michigan defense however, one that is sixth in the nation against the run allowing just 85.8 yards per game. This next three games for Penn State is a potential Heisman winning stretch for Barkley if he shows out with Michigan at home, Ohio State away and Michigan State away.
As much as has been said about Barkley and the offense, Penn State’s defense deserves some love too. They’re currently the stingiest unit in the country allowing just nine points per game while ranking ninth in total yards allowed at 285.2. That’s not good news for a Michigan offense that has struggled mightily this year, ranking 79th in scoring (27.2 PPG) and 86th in total offense (376.3 YPG) and are relying on their previously backup QB in John O’Korn. Michigan’s defense should keep them in this game, it’s just a question of whether the offense can do enough to pull the upset.