Week 9 of the college football season has begun, and multiple teams with an inside track to the playoff have big tests.
Tennessee survived its biggest challenge so far, outlasting Alabama 52-49 in Knoxville. The Volunteers will now host a Kentucky team coming off a bye that already has shown a propensity to knock off ranked opponents.
Sticking with the SEC East, Georgia and Florida will travel to Jacksonville to partake in an annual rivalry game that is still in search of its own name. Unfortunately for the Gators, they enter the matchup as more than three-touchdown underdogs, but anything is possible in Jacksonville.
Farther north, Michigan will host bitter rival Michigan State in a contest that always seems to bring fireworks, while Ohio State will travel to Penn State for the Buckeyes' most important game to date. Ohio State has won five straight against the Nittany Lions and rolls into Happy Valley 7-0.
Oklahoma State looks to build off the momentum of a comeback win at home against Texas with an away game versus Kansas State, and out west, Oregon travels to Cal after a statement victory against UCLA in Eugene.
College football's last weekend in October is here, and these are the biggest storylines this week.
A few things have changed for Tennessee (actually a lot) since the Vols last faced Kentucky. Their 45-42 win over the No. 18-ranked Wildcats last season in Lexington snapped an 11-game losing streak against nationally ranked foes. Before that contest, which featured 1,073 yards of total offense, Tennessee's last such victory came back in 2018 with a 24-7 win over No. 11 Kentucky.
That's the way it's been for the Wildcats in this series. They've lost 34 of the past 37 meetings, although Mark Stoops has two of those three wins in the past five years.
Stoops has built Kentucky's program from the ground up with a pair of 10-win seasons in the past four years. Josh Heupel, in just his second season at Tennessee, has orchestrated an even more stunning turnaround. The Vols (7-0) are ranked No. 3 in the AP poll. They beat Alabama for the first time in 16 years. Tennessee leads the country in scoring offense (50.1 points per game) and is looking for its fifth win of the season over a ranked opponent.
For the first time in two decades, Tennessee is legitimately in the national championship conversation at a point in the season when the leaves are changing. A fifth win over a ranked team would match the number of coaches the Vols have had since Phillip Fulmer was fired in 2008.
These are dizzying times on Rocky Top indeed. But Heupel said his team is not about to get ahead of itself with a rested, healthier Kentucky team coming into Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.
"We're still in the beginning stages of this journey, really the halfway point," Heupel said. "For us, the preparation, being real with each other, competing every day is going to be critical. ... So far, these guys have handled it the right way."
In other words, any mention of the trip to No. 1 Georgia in two weeks is off-limits.
Kentucky (5-2) was off last week, which should ensure that quarterback Will Levis will be as healthy as he has been since suffering a turf toe injury against Ole Miss on Oct. 1 and missing the next game against South Carolina. Levis threw for 372 yards and three touchdowns last season against Tennessee. One of Kentucky's chief problems this season has been protecting the quarterback. The Wildcats have allowed 26 sacks in seven games.
Levis will need to hit some big plays down the field against a Tennessee defense that is ranked 130th out of 131 teams in pass defense (329.7 yards per game). But the Vols have been stout against the run. They're giving up just 90.8 yards per game on the ground, tied for eighth nationally. That's where Chris Rodriguez Jr. comes in for Kentucky. He is a tough runner between the tackles, excellent after contact and can help shorten the game for the Wildcats if he is able to get it going against Tennessee's D.
In Kentucky's 27-17 win over Mississippi State two weeks ago, the 224-pound Rodriguez ran the ball 31 times for 197 yards and two touchdowns. -- Chris Low
Before the season, an Ohio State schedule featuring Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa -- all before Nov. 1 -- projected as one that could hold up against that of any national title contender. The way it turned out, the Buckeyes are still trying to peel off the ain't-played-nobody label, despite their flat-out dominance.
Ohio State has won every game by double figures and the past six by an average of 38.7 points. Another convincing win at Beaver Stadium should enhance Ohio State's profile heading into the first College Football Playoff rankings reveal, although thumping Penn State likely doesn't carry the same value after what Michigan did to the Nittany Lions on Oct. 15.
"We know that we have to bring it every week," Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said. "This is part of that competitive excellence, that competitive stamina. Going on the road and winning a game like this is going to be huge."
Following the Michigan loss, Penn State responded well last week against Minnesota, and the Lions might match up better against the Buckeyes than the Wolverines, especially because of a talented secondary led by safety Ji'Ayir Brown and cornerback Joey Porter Jr. Michigan used Penn State's aggressiveness on defense against the Lions, to the tune of 418 rushing yards, but Penn State D-coordinator Manny Diaz likely will keep the pressure on Ohio State's C.J. Stroud if he can.
The Lions are looking for more sacks, collecting 15 through the first seven games.
"Obviously, we are challenging routes more in terms of the balls that are getting broken up, hopefully forcing the quarterback to hold onto the ball longer," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "So in theory, we should be able to be more disruptive on the quarterback with sacks and pressures and things like that."
Franklin has steadfastly supported his quarterback, senior Sean Clifford, who overcame an early interception against Minnesota to pass for 295 yards and four touchdowns, winning Big Ten offensive player of the week honors. Clifford played well in last year's loss at Ohio State but received little help from Penn State's offensive line and run game. The hope is that with improvement in both areas, combined with home-field advantage, Penn State can beat the Buckeyes for just the second time in State College since 2005.
Ohio State star wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (hamstring) is expected to play for a second straight game, but he could once again have a plays limit. Smith-Njigba has been limited to five receptions in three games, although teammates Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr. have filled his production void with 1,333 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns.
The Buckeyes will look for more in the run game after Iowa limited them to 2.2 yards per carry with a long of 13 yards. -- Adam Rittenberg
The Cowboys will visit K-State for one of the biggest matchups of the Big 12 season thus far and what could shape up as an elimination game for a spot in the conference title game.
Both teams have already played the conference leader, TCU, and lost. According to ESPN Analytics, Oklahoma State has an 82% chance to reach the Big 12 title game with a win while Kansas State would have a 36% chance with a victory.
Kansas State coach Chris Klieman is 0-3 against Mike Gundy and the Cowboys since arriving in Manhattan, but Klieman is emphasizing to his team that it gets to play at home for the first time since Oct. 1 and still has a chance in the title race.
"Everything is still in front of us, but it's all about our preparation, and this is the next opportunity," Klieman said this week. "Now we've got five one-week seasons left."
Klieman will likely be going into the game with starting quarterback Adrian Martinez as a game-time decision after an undisclosed injury in the first series sidelined him in a loss to TCU last week.
"I hope Adrian is available, but I don't know if he'll be available. And there's other kids like that," Klieman said. "We tried to manage our way through Deuce Vaughn being banged up, and he carried the ball not as many times as he typically does. We hope Deuce is healthier this week, but we'll see."
The Wildcats got a full dose of Cowboys quarterback Spencer Sanders last year when he threw for 344 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score in a 31-20 Oklahoma State win. But the Cowboys know they will have to stop the run against a tough K-State team that averages 232.1 rushing yards and hopes to keep Sanders -- and an Oklahoma State offense that averages 44.7 points per game -- off the field.
The Cowboys struggled early to stop the ground game last week against visiting Texas, allowing 161 rushing yards in the first half; but they tightened up in the second half, yielding just 43 yards while rallying for a 41-34 win.
"You know, unless you're playing Mike Leach, you've got to stop the run, you got to run the ball effectively," Gundy said. -- Dave Wilson
Michigan State handed Michigan its only regular-season loss last season in a 37-33 decision over the Wolverines. It didn't prevent Michigan from making it to the conference championship game or the playoffs, but that loss has stuck with the Wolverines.
The teams are set to play Saturday night at Michigan Stadium in their annual rivalry game.
"Nobody's watched the highlights of that game or the film of that game more than we have," Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh said on the Inside Michigan Football radio show. "And also, this year's tape. But you really want to just know them, you want to master what they're doing so you can use it against them. And I'm sure they're doing the same thing up the road, no question about it."
Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker had five rushing touchdowns in last year's victory, and the Spartans held Michigan without a rushing score. Walker is now in the NFL, and Michigan State has been trying to get its run game going, rushing for 106.1 yards per game, which is No. 116 of all FBS teams.
Michigan, on the other hand, is ranked No. 7 in rushing yards per game, and running back Blake Corum has had 666 yards on the ground in the past four games, which is the most for a Michigan running back since Mike Hart in 2004. Corum's 13 rushing touchdowns are also the most through the team's first seven games in program history.
That is going to make for a challenge for Michigan State to stop the Wolverines' ground attack. Harbaugh said he expects it will be a physical game, as the team with the most rushing yards typically comes out on top, and it's been marked on the calendar for both teams.
"We all know what this week is. It's not just another game for us," Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said. "Our players and staff and fans understand that."
Tucker and the Spartans used their bye week to try to get healthy and get some players back. He noted that it's going to take a concerted effort, whether it's called circling the wagons, bunker mentality or "Us against the world," to beat Michigan this weekend.
Tucker hasn't lost to Harbaugh and Michigan over the past two seasons. And Harbaugh said that despite the Spartans having a 3-4 record, Michigan State will give the Wolverines its best.
"Old cliché, throw out the records, is very true," Harbaugh said. "It doesn't matter. Both sides just want it that much." -- Tom VanHaaren
Georgia and Florida are both coming off a bye week, but the Gators arguably needed the time to regroup a little more ahead of Saturday's matchup.
It was one thing to lose at home to LSU on Oct. 15. But it was another thing to give up 45 points and 528 yards of offense in the process.
Florida coach Billy Napier doesn't want to get technical or give away specifics of what's driving his team's defensive struggles. But he said, "I think we understand what the issues are."
Chief among them, Napier explained, is a lack of consistency.
Defensive lineman Tyreak Sapp said the Gators are "just a few plays away." And while that's frustrating to be so close and yet so far away, Sapp acknowledged there's hope in that sentiment, as well.
But digging deeper, you find a defense that desperately needs more from its front seven.
Florida is giving up the most yards per rush in the SEC East (4.47). And it is struggling to affect the quarterback with the conference's lowest number of disrupted dropbacks at 31, a figure that includes sacks, interceptions, batted passes, passes defended and tipped passes.
Then there are the missed tackles. Florida has 67 of them. Georgia, meanwhile, has only 39.
To have any chance of pulling off the upset in Jacksonville, the Gators will need their defense to improve in a hurry, and Florida will need a big-time performance from quarterback Anthony Richardson.
Richardson has flashed first-round talent, but he also has battled consistency issues in the passing game, with six touchdowns and seven interceptions.
But Napier said he sees growth in Richardson's understanding of the offensive system and diagnosing what the defense is doing.
"I think he's still working hard on mastering what that process looks like Sunday to Saturday -- the unwavering commitment to what's required to play and win," Napier said. "So that's where he's at. Seven games in and continues to get better." -- Alex Scarborough
For all of the headlines Deion Sanders has created with his recruiting, he has done just as well on the field itself.
His Tigers will welcome "College GameDay" to town with an unbeaten status and a No. 5 FCS ranking by their name. They have won 14 straight SWAC games, and after rolling to an 11-2 record powered mostly by defense last season, they've been racking up major offensive numbers this time around. Quarterback Shedeur Sanders, the coach's son, has taken his development up a few notches, completing 73% of his passes with a 23-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. And Jackson State is outscoring opponents by an average of 41-10. The Tigers did most of that without blue-chip freshman Travis Hunter too. He was injured in the first game of the season and didn't return to action until last week.
If Southern maintains its recent form, however, this could be an intriguing game. The Jaguars fell to 1-2 after a shutout loss to Texas Southern on Sept. 17, but they have outscored their past four opponents by an average of 44-10. Sophomore dual-threat Besean McCray has completed 74% of his passes in that span and has rushed for over 70 yards four times this season. First-year coach Eric Dooley needed a few weeks, but he has the blue and gold rolling. Will that be enough against a superpowered Jackson State? We'll see. -- Bill Connelly
For a team that lost by 45 points to open the season, it's a long road back to playoff relevance. That the Ducks are now ranked No. 8 in the AP poll -- just past the halfway point of the regular season -- represents a remarkable rise. Under first-year coach Dan Lanning, Oregon is the only team that is undefeated in Pac-12 play and heads to Berkeley, where things have started to fall apart for the Golden Bears under Justin Wilcox. The matchup provides a fascinating what-if storyline considering Oregon first pursued Wilcox before it was rebuffed, leading to Lanning.
It's a strong year for quarterback play in the Pac-12, but Oregon's Bo Nix is right there among the best. He ranks second in the conference in QBR, first in yards per dropback (8.7) and fourth in touchdown passes (17), and he has been sacked just once all season (the fewest among qualifying QBs in the country). Since the Georgia loss, Oregon has scored at least 41 points in each game and hasn't been overly reliant on any of the playmakers around Nix. Despite its struggles, Cal's defense has been good, having allowed no more than 28 points in any of the Bears' four losses.
If Oregon really is going to make a push to be part of the playoff conversation, two key things must happen:
1. Georgia needs to keep rolling. If the Bulldogs are the clear No. 1 team in the country, it's easier to forgive Oregon's loss.
2. Style points. The Ducks can't leave any doubt about how much they've improved, and close games against teams like Cal won't make the necessary impression. They need to be dominant.
On the flip side, Cal's paltry offensive production makes it fair to question how long coordinator Bill Musgrave will be for the job. The Bears have averaged just 14.3 points over the past three games, which just won't get it done. -- Kyle Bonagura