Your turn, Big Ten.
After much of the first half of the season was focused on the rest of the country, the conference takes center stage in Week 9.
The big game of the week sees the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy between No. 6 Michigan and No. 7 Michigan State make some history as both teams meet while ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 1964. The Wolverines and Spartans are unbeaten through seven games, making the stakes more than just bragging rights. The outcome also will play a major part in the College Football Playoff race. Recent history sides with Michigan State, which has won nine of the last 13 meetings, though Michigan has won the last two in East Lansing.
There's another significant clash in the East division as No. 5 Ohio State hosts No. 17 Penn State. This was expected to be the game of the weekend before the Nittany Lions were stunned by Illinois last week. They're left with no margin for error in the Big Ten race. For the Buckeyes, this will be their first significant opponent since a loss at home to Oregon. Penn State should provide a good evaluation of how far they have come with an offense that leads the country in scoring and yards per game.
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Lest it be forgotten, the SEC has two offerings worth mentioning. No. 9 Mississippi travels to No. 21 Auburn. The Tigers still control their fate in the West division and the Rebels also are tied for first, so the winner keeps pace with Alabama and keeps alive its hope of winning the conference title. Also, No. 1 Georgia faces rival Florida in what should be the toughest game left for the Bulldogs.
In the crazy world of college football, there are always surprises and unexpected results. Some of our experts offer their forecasts for some unlikely events this weekend.
Penn State has been in a freefall the last few weeks. First, it was the loss to Iowa, which was attributed to quarterback Sean Clifford getting hurt. The Nittany Lions had a week off and with Clifford back in the lineup laid an absolute egg in losing a nine-overtime snorefest to Illinois. James Franklin's crew now travels to Columbus to face Ohio State and the nation's leader in total offense and scoring offense. Don't be surprised if Penn State is down by four touchdowns (or more) by halftime, which would complete the October to forget in Happy Valley. November's schedule is no picnic either with Michigan and Michigan State lurking.
I just can’t quit Texas. In their prior two games the Longhorns have seemingly been on the precipice of statement victories in coach Steve Sarkisian’s first season, first against Oklahoma and then Oklahoma State, only to collapse late to fall to 4-3. But they have to win one of these big games, right? Losses against its next two opponents, both ranked, would drop Texas to 4-5 – a disaster of a start considering it canned Tom Herman after he went 7-3 in 2020. But I think Texas is still too talented to drop both of those contests. The Longhorns will find a way to finally seal the deal and upset No. 18 Baylor in Waco.
North Carolina finally gets a big win by upsetting Notre Dame. It’s been a down year for the Tar Heels, one of the preseason dark horses for the playoff, and for quarterback Sam Howell, who has not played up to Heisman Trophy expectations. Beating the Irish wouldn’t make UNC’s season but it would at least partially overwrite the narrative that this year’s team is one of the biggest disappointments in the country.
This has been a season of exceeding expectations for Kentucky. The Wildcats are 6-1 with a respectable performance at No. 1 Georgia as their only loss. They've beaten Florida and LSU, giving them the possibility of earning the school's first New Year's Six berth in the playoff era. But that requires Kentucky to keep winning in the SEC, especially on the road. This week's challenge comes from Mississippi State. The Bulldogs already have taken down Texas A&M and have the defense to slow the Wildcats. The home crowd should push them over the top to earn the upset, dealing a blow to Kentucky's postseason hopes and helping Mississippi State move closer to earning a bowl berth.
The ranks of the unbeaten will be reduced in Week 9. Well OK, that goes without sayin g, since somebody has to win the Michigan-Michigan State showdown. But someone else will drop a game for the first time. It probably won’t be Oklahoma, though the Sooners have flirted with defeat. And, while admittedly strange things happen in rivalry games, we don’t see Georgia losing to Florida. The most likely candidates are Southern Methodist and San Diego State, facing challenging conference games against Houston and Fresno State, respectively. Given my history of attempting to display my predictive power this is probably good news for Aztecs’ fans, but I’m going with the Bulldogs to hand SDSU its first loss.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football picks: Predictions for Top 25 NCAA games in Week 9