College football storylines, Week 8: Big 12 role reversal, Pittsburgh’s late bloomer, Chip Kelly’s revenge and more

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Week 8 of the college football season doesn’t bring many must-see matchups, but in this upset-filled season, there’s sure to be some excitement where you least expect it. Here’s what to watch this week, starting with a surprising Big 12 showdown:

Big 12 role reversal

Coming off one of the best seasons in program history, it was Iowa State, not Oklahoma State, that carried preseason top-10 expectations. After seven weeks, it’s the undefeated Cowboys who have jumped to No. 8 in the Associated Press Top 25, while the Cyclones have fallen from No. 7 to unranked. But don’t let those numbers fool you.

In ESPN’s SP+ rankings, a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency, Iowa State is the superior team, despite its 4-2 record. The Cyclones rank 12th nationally in SP+, while Oklahoma State sits No. 32, thanks in large part to a struggling offense. The market agrees, with Iowa State established as a seven-point favorite entering the weekend.

So what does Oklahoma State need to do to prove it’s a legitimate Big 12 contender? The Cowboys simply need more from quarterback Spencer Sanders, who has completed just 58.6% of his passes and has thrown nearly as many interceptions (five) as touchdown passes (six). Even the running game has struggled, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. Oklahoma State has had no trouble beating superior teams thus far, taking down three straight ranked opponents, but containing a talented Iowa State offense might be asking too much.

Pickett up

In a subpar season for NFL quarterback prospects, there’s a late bloomer making a case for first-round consideration: Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett.

Through six games, Pickett’s numbers have been sensational: 69.8% completion rate, 9.4 yards per attempt, 21 touchdown passes, one interception, 88.4 Total QBR. In fact, as pointed out by ESPN’s David Hale, Pickett’s early season numbers closely resemble those of Joe Burrow’s during his 2019 breakout season, when the record-setting LSU quarterback won the Heisman Trophy and became the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

This week will be Pickett’s toughest test yet. Clemson has fallen out of playoff contention thanks to its 4-2 start, but its defense remains one of the nation’s best. The Tigers are allowing just 12.5 points per game, second only to top-ranked Georgia, and 5.68 yards per pass attempt, which ranks seventh nationally. There’s a similar role reversal happening here, with the Panthers ranked No. 23, boasting a Heisman hopeful at quarterback and carrying the ACC’s hopes for a playoff berth on their shoulders. That was supposed to be Clemson with D.J. Uiagalelei, but this upset-filled season has made most preseason predictions look foolish.

Hello, old friend

Since coach Chip Kelly left Oregon for the Philadelphia Eagles after the 2012 season, it’s been a bumpy ride for one of the sport’s most innovative offensive minds. A roller-coaster three years with the Eagles led to a messy departure, and Kelly lasted just one season as the San Francisco 49ers coach in 2016 before taking over at UCLA. It’s taken three losing seasons, but Kelly finally has the Bruins playing like a Pac-12 title contender.

Of course, Kelly’s former team stands in the way. The No. 10 Ducks no longer look like the playoff threat they once were after beating Ohio State, but they’re still a talented team. Star edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, a potential top pick in the NFL draft, is healthy once again, and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead has been cleared to travel to Saturday’s game after having surgery two weeks ago.

How Kelly and Moorhead prepare their quarterbacks will make the difference in Pasadena. Boston College transfer Anthony Brown has been steady, but not explosive for the Ducks, while Bruins senior Dorian Thompson-Robinson has shown some of the biggest boom-or-bust potential in the country. In a potential Pac-12 championship game preview, expect a lot of points.

Geaux away quietly?

Just 21 months after winning the national championship, LSU decided to part ways with coach Ed Orgeron after this season. It’s a stunning fall for a coach that looked to be well on his way to establishing a long tenure at his beloved school.

While finishing out the season with a lame-duck coach might be awkward for everyone involved, there’s still plenty of talent on this Tigers team, as evidenced by last week’s 49-42 upset win over Florida. Next up is No. 12 Ole Miss and coach Lane Kiffin, who knows a thing or two about awkward departures himself.

It’s almost impossible to predict how Orgeron’s team will react to his forthcoming departure. That makes this matchup all the more enticing, especially with the potential for a shootout thanks to two of the nation’s best offenses.

Also keep an eye on …

— No. 2 Cincinnati at Navy: There’s not much that suggests the Midshipmen are capable of pulling off a huge upset, but nobody thought Navy had much of a chance before it toppled No. 6 Houston, 46-40, in 2016 behind quarterback Will Worth. Could the Mids derail another Group of Five playoff hopeful?

— No. 3 Oklahoma at Kansas: Could Sooners freshman quarterback Caleb Williams really win the Heisman Trophy after sitting for half the season? If he keeps putting up huge numbers, he might have a chance.

— Northwestern at No. 6 Michigan: The Wolverines look like a legitimate Big Ten title contender and get to play their hated in-state rival next week when they travel to East Lansing to face No. 9 Michigan State. But coach Jim Harbaugh can’t afford to overlook Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats.

— Illinois at No. 7 Penn State: All signs point to quarterback Sean Clifford returning Saturday after he suffered an undisclosed injury two weeks ago in the Nittany Lions’ loss to Iowa. How healthy will he be, and if he’s not ready, can backup Ta’Quan Roberson shake off a forgettable performance against the Hawkeyes?

— No. 16 Wake Forest at Army: A Power Five team traveling to Michie Stadium at West Point is always a cause for celebration, and even more so when that team is undefeated. The Black Knights have a chance to pull off a big upset.

— Wisconsin at No. 25 Purdue: The Boilermakers deserve all the credit for knocking off No. 2 Iowa last week, but how will coach Jeff Brohm follow it up? Purdue has made a habit of taking down top teams, but hasn’t always built on those upsets. A win over the Badgers would go a long way toward sustaining success in the Big Ten West.

— Maryland at Minnesota: The Terps return from a well-timed bye week after suffering back-to-back blowout losses against Iowa and Ohio State. Coach Mike Locksley would do well to beat the Golden Gophers on Saturday and Indiana next week to secure bowl eligibility since Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan still loom on the schedule.

— BYU at Washington State: The Cougars will play their first game since firing coach Nick Rolovich for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Now Rolovich is suing the school for illegal termination. It’s anyone’s guess how the players will respond, but Washington State has not been a pushover so far, even with all the uncertainty surrounding its coach.

— Tennessee at No. 4 Alabama: The chances of coach Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide losing a second game this season are slim, especially against the Volunteers. But Tennessee has been showing signs of life lately with Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker at quarterback and could put up a fight early.

— No. 24 UTSA at Louisiana Tech: It’s the Roadrunners’ first game as a ranked team, and it comes just after the news that UTSA will join the American Athletic Conference alongside five other schools. Meep, meep.

— No. 5 Ohio State at Indiana: Since that head-scratching loss to Oregon in Week 2, the Buckeyes have quietly been one of the most dominant teams in the country, with C.J. Stroud rounding into form as one of the nation’s most prolific quarterbacks. That’s bad news for the rest of the Big Ten.

— USC at No. 13 Notre Dame: Jack Coan, Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner have all taken turns at quarterback for the Fighting Irish, with mixed results. It’s been good enough to lift Notre Dame to a 5-1 start, but it probably won’t be enough to keep the Irish in the playoff conversation for much longer. Keeping up with the Trojans’ talented offense will be an interesting test.

— Nevada at Fresno State: If you want to sound like a college football hipster, say this is your favorite game of the weekend. Fresno State’s Jake Haener and Nevada’s Carson Strong are two of the best quarterbacks in the country, and both offenses are bound to light up the scoreboard. These are the underrated games you don’t want to miss.

— No. 22 San Diego State at Air Force: In case you were wondering what former Michigan coach Brady Hoke is up to, he’s leading the Aztecs to an undefeated season. But San Diego State will be underdogs against the Falcons, who have quietly rolled to a 6-1 start punctuated by an upset of Boise State last week on the Broncos’ blue turf.

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