NCAA Football

10 Biggest Questions Facing Top 25 Teams Heading into Week 8

Week 8 of the college football season is, well, something. 

As far as the Associated Press rankings go, there is only one game featuring a pair of Top 25 teams: No. 15 Texas A&M at No. 24 Ole Miss. And both are coming off of losses in Week 7. 

So, no, intrigue isn't at its highest level. But that doesn't mean there aren't important questions to be answered. Besides, the least-interesting slate of games on paper usually result in the weirdest weekends. Brace yourself. That's all we're saying. 

What are the top 10 questions facing AP Top 25 teams heading into Week 8? Here we provide the answers based on last week's results, upcoming matchups and more.

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Meet Michigan State's Hero, Jalen Watts-Jackson

When the Michigan State defense stripped Michigan punter Blake O'Neill and returned the ball 38 yards as time expired to give the Spartans a 27-23 win over the Wolverines on Saturday, it served as one of the most improbable game-winning plays in college football history.

But 40 miles north of Ann Arbor, one man found himself unsurprised with the Spartans' stunning victory.

At least that was the case when he saw who was carrying the ball into the end zone on Michigan State's momentous touchdown. After all, George Porritt had seen Jalen Watts-Jackson make plenty of game-altering plays before.

"That’s the kind of kid he was in high school. He made big plays when the opportunity was there," Porritt, who coached Watts-Jackson in both football and basketball at St. Mary's Preparatory in Orchard Lake, Michigan, told Bleacher Report. "He was a great defensive player for us in basketball. He had a knack for coming up with the ball."

None of those plays, however, were as big as the one Watts-Jackson made on Saturday, which not only resulted in a season-ending injury but forever placed the Dearborn, Michigan, native's name in Spartans lore.

Prior to Saturday, the soft-spoken redshirt freshman defensive back was a relative unknown—even to Spartans fans—a primary special teamer still getting his feet wet in his debut season in East Lansing.

But now, regardless of what he does for the remainder of his college career, Watts-Jackson is a name Michigan State fans will never forget.

"My teammates have been making jokes and stuff, saying, 'Bro, you're about to get a statue made of you,'" Watts-Jackson said during a Wednesday press conference. "You're going to get your name put up in the stadium."

So just who is Michigan State's latest overnight legend?

In many ways, he's a prototypical Spartan.

A 3-star prospect, Watts-Jackson was hardly highly touted coming out of high school. His list of scholarship offers indicated as much, with the 104th-ranked cornerback in the 2014 class initially receiving invites to play for just Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan following his junior season.

"He was an outstanding athlete, a football and basketball player," Porritt recalled of Watts-Jackson's high school career. "He had a tremendous vertical. In football, his senior year, he was a great punt returner and receiver for us, as well as a [defensive back]. He played both sides of the ball."

But with his size—in high school, he was listed at 6'0", 172 pounds—it was unlikely that Watts-Jackson would ever be viewed as an elite prospect. "Jalen wasn’t your 4- or 5-[star] guy. He was your next-level guy," Porritt said. "He was always hard-working."

So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that when Watts-Jackson did receive his first big-name scholarship offer, it came by way of the summer camp circuit.

Having already visited East Lansing as a sophomore, Watts-Jackson attended one of the Spartans' camps in April 2013—and two more again in June—before receiving a scholarship offer to play for Michigan State.

Two days later, he committed to spend his college career in East Lansing.

With a track record that includes having developed former 3-star cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes into first-round picks, Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio has a history when it comes to developing raw talent.

That's exactly what he saw in Watts-Jackson, as he recalled the same apparent athleticism that Porritt spoke of.

"Good ball skills, 37-inch vertical jump. Good long jump. Ran a very solid 40[-yard dash] for a defensive back in the 4.5[-second] range," Dantonio said of Watts-Jackson. "He was very quick-bodied and when we watched him play in person, we saw all the different things, all the potential come into play."

"Coach Dantonio liked him when we came up for seven-on-sevens there," Porritt said. "He made great plays."

But before Watts-Jackson could become the next Dennard or Waynes, he'd have to first earn his stripes, redshirting in 2014 before spending the first seven weeks of 2015 playing special teams and providing depth behind starter Demetrious Cox as a third-string safety.

In seven games, the 5'11", 192-pounder recorded five tackles, two of which came in a Week 2 win over then-No. 7 Oregon.

"A great tackler," Dantonio said. "He was just getting his feet on the ground basically as a defensive player, but he plays on all of our special teams."

Then came the play that would change Watts-Jackson's career forever, in more ways than one.

On the one hand, Watts-Jackson will now forever be a Michigan State "legend," as Dantonio put it, as evidenced by the outpouring support he's received from Spartans fans in the last week. It's been both a blessing and curse for the formerly unknown defensive back—at least as far as his phone battery is concerned.

"I had a few followers on Twitter and Instagram, but after [the play], it got to where my phone would freeze if I even tried to open the apps," Watts-Jackson said. "I've been trying to reach out to as many people with thank-yous and stuff like that as I could, but it's been honestly sometimes overwhelming to where I can't even use my phone to call or text people."

His historic moment, however, came at a cost, as the injury that Watts-Jackson's return resulted in—a fractured hip by way of an unsuccessful tackle by Michigan tight end Jake Butt—has brought a premature end to his freshman season.

Similar injuries have ended football careers before, most notably NFL running back Bo Jackson's.

But after undergoing surgery and spending two nights in the hospital, Watts-Jackson is expected to make a full recovery.

"He’s doing OK," Porritt said, noting that he spoke with his former player on Tuesday. "He’s got a long road to haul here."

Having to stay off his hip for three months—he's currently getting around with a wheelchair and walker—Watts-Jackson will likely miss next year's spring football session, as it will be at least six months before he's able to run again.

After that, he'll undoubtedly regain his starting spots on the Spartans' special teams units and continue to work toward fulfilling the potential that's been apparent to both his former head coach and his current one.

"We have big plans for Jalen," Dantonio said.

What the future holds for Watts-Jackson remains to be seen. But his past, as improbably as the play that put him there, has already been etched into Michigan State history.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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Out of the Spotlight and Back Again: Meet Vad Lee, the Face of the FCS

This is not the college football story we typically write—not with our everlasting thirst for spotlight and fame. And besides that, there just really aren’t many chances to write it, anyway.

When a player rises from the unwatchable depths and is fairly or unfairly hyped as a superstar—the Vernon Adams Effect—he is worshipped and celebrated accordingly.

But what about the player who chooses to do the exact opposite? What about the young man who forgoes the limelight without an ounce of concern of public response in favor of the sheer comfort of his own soul?

These moments in the college football world are uncommon. Players rise and fall all the time, although rarely does this come by choice.

Welcome to the life and journey of James Madison quarterback Vad Lee—who suddenly, after relinquishing his robust stage at Georgia Tech for something more, has been unexpectedly tossed back onto it yet again at James Madison.

“My mind was never focused on the spotlight,” Lee told Bleacher Report. “It wasn’t focused on things like College GameDay. It was more about being at a place where they used my talents and we could work together toward something special.”

Harrisonburg, Virginia, a place unfamiliar to the national stage, will be college football’s epicenter this Saturday. Having spent the last Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, ESPN’s College GameDay will do its live three-hour broadcast from James Madison, an FCS program most casual fans couldn’t pick out of a lineup.

The undefeated Dukes take on 5-1 Richmond in Week 8. The Spiders’ lone loss came against Maryland in the opening weekend. It’s a momentous game for the Colonial Athletic Association conference and one of the most impactful FCS games all season.

For those whose football interests exist at this level, they don’t get much bigger than this.

Led by its do-everything quarterback, James Madison has developed into one of the nation’s most potent offenses. Through seven weeks, JMU is averaging 48.7 points per game, which is second in the FCS. This is in large part due to the work of Vad Lee, who has evolved into much more than an athlete in a diabolical offensive scheme.

Lee’s 1,896 passing yards are currently No. 4 in the FCS. His 690 rushing yards are No. 12 nationally and the most for a quarterback. With 19 passing touchdowns, Lee is No. 3 overall. And his 24 touchdowns are second in the nation, just one touchdown behind Grambling State QB Johnathan Williams.

A mix of raw power and speed, the 6’1”, 225-pound senior has exploded since the day he arrived. At any level, there simply aren’t many quarterbacks this size capable of doing things like this.

It was plays like these that had college coaches drooling over Lee back when he quarterbacked Hillside High School in Durham, North Carolina. Ranked the nation’s No. 11 dual-threat QB according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, demand was high.

Local programs such as Duke, NC State and North Carolina all wanted Lee. James Franklin wanted him at Vanderbilt. West Virginia made a strong push at the very end. Georgia Tech, with a system seemingly built for his running style, made its interest known.

“I didn’t know if they wanted me to be quarterback or a wide receiver,” Lee recalled about his recruiting. “I really didn’t know who to trust.”

Ultimately, Lee decided on the Yellow Jackets and Paul Johnson. He gave up life as a traditional pocket passer to become a system quarterback. And yes, he took quite nicely to it.

In 2012, despite not logging the majority of the snaps, Lee finished with 13 touchdowns. Given the keys to the Porsche the following season, the buzz on Tech’s next great option quarterback began to build.

In fact, back when the glorious game was still being built, I simulated the 2013 college football season using EA Sports’ NCAA Football 14. Lee, known in that game as “QB No. 2” finished third in the Heisman voting and led the Yellow Jackets to a 13-1 finish.

It was only a video game, of course. But the buzz and interest in Lee was real. You could feel it. He baked up the hype with a solid 19-touchdown, seven-win season. In his final regular-season game with the program, Lee scored four touchdowns in a double-overtime loss to Georgia.

His final touchdown pass at Tech in the team's bowl game was perfect.

Not long after this game ended, Lee announced he was leaving the program. No reasons were provided. It was a clean break; no ill will on either side. Having helped run one of the country’s most well-run machines, Lee said farewell to the system and the spotlight without thinking twice.

“I wanted more out of the quarterback position,” Lee said. “It just wasn’t much of a fit for me. I just wanted to learn. I figured that coming to a place like this would allow me to fully develop and be the quarterback that I can be.”

With the helping hand of his high school coach, Antonio King, Lee surveyed his options. He did his research—looking up offensive schemes more suited to his style and offensive lines that he could thrive behind.

He wasn’t the least bit concerned with brand power. Having come from a powerhouse school in Georgia, Lee wanted to settle down. He wanted to get comfortable.

On his first visit to James Madison, Lee and King surveyed the campus. As they weaved around the stadium, they just so happened to turn on Hillside Drive, a name deeply familiar and comforting to both.

The two glanced at each other, smiled and let out simultaneous laughter. In search of a something to signify home, Lee found it before he ever hopped out of the car.

Helping matters further was new James Madison head coach Everett Withers. Although Lee and Withers weren’t exceptionally close before teaming up, their relationship stretched back to high school, when Withers was the defensive coordinator and eventually the head coach at North Carolina.

He recruited Lee to play back then; he was thrilled at the opportunity to coach him again when he took over in 2014.

“When I found out that Coach Withers was coming, that really caught my eye,” Lee said. “I just felt like it was perfect for me schematically on offense.”

By transferring to the FCS, Lee was not required to sit out a season. As a result, he was plugged right in as the JMU centerpiece in 2014.

Playing in a new system that was more pass oriented, Lee responded by breaking the single-game passing record. Twice.

He finished the year with 39 touchdowns overall and finished fourth overall in voting for the Walter Payton Award.

This early success has carried over to 2015. Against SMU on September 26, Lee delivered a stat line typically reserved for high school or a video game. Although he threw three interceptions, Lee also accounted for five touchdowns, threw for 289 yards and ran for 276 yards. James Madison won by three.

“It was a fun game,” Lee said. “There was a lot of offense. My mindset was to keep plays alive, convert third downs and have some big plays. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a game like that. But even then, I just wanted to continue to get better.”

Since then, JMU has delivered convincing wins over its next three opponents. Lee, of course, has continued to become an end-zone regular. He’s still growing accustomed to life in the pocket—a transition that will last through his collegiate career—but he’s also completely at ease in his new digs.

After each touchdown at home, James Madison unleashes the purple and gold streamers—a tradition that Lee cherishes. Every time he crosses the goal line in front of the home crowd, he looks up to the stands and embraces the flying colors that are tossed to the sky.

It may not come with the same celebratory audio that it once did at Georgia Tech. And more than likely, Lee’s latest score won’t be on display to a national audience—not like it once was. But the streamers satisfy the quarterback’s current appetite. Things are mighty different now.

“There was something inside of me telling me that this was the place for me,” Lee said. “I’m a big believer in my faith. I am exactly where I belong. I’m very grateful to be at James Madison. I’m just happy here.”

The spotlight he once had will return on Saturday—even if it’s only lit for three magnificent hours. After that, ESPN will pack up its cameras, stages and talent, and it will take them all to the next campus—most likely a prodigious program familiar with this routine. Things will return to normal.

Lee will be able to settle back in to his quiet new life as the face of the FCS. He will continue to win football games with teammates, many of whom will be lifelong friends. He will continue to post enormous box scores and shred defenses without overpowering national fanfare.

The streamers will continue to fall from the sky, which is more than enough.

 

*Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. 

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SEC Extra Points with Barrett Sallee: Robert Nkemdiche Could Stay on Offense

If Ole Miss wants to get back on track this weekend against Texas A&M, having one of its best players available would certainly help.

Defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche suffered a concussion last week in the loss to Memphis while playing running back on a 4th-and-1 play near the goal line in the first half. The 6'4", 296-pound junior's status for this week is still uncertain, according to head coach Hugh Freeze.

"He's going through his concussion protocol," Freeze said. "Ours began on Monday and usually, if things go well, they usually wind up on either Thursday or Friday. That's what we hope and anticipate."

If he does play, will he play more offense?

"The package is in," Freeze said. "It's just a matter of whether we use it or not. We will wait to see if he's cleared before we make that decision. It was definitely a freak deal, and a concussion can happen on any play, of course. We'll do what's best for him and the team."

The problem for Freeze and for Ole Miss is that what's best for the team is playing Nkemdiche on offense in specific situations.

The Rebels rank eighth in the SEC in rushing offense (167.14 YPG), are averaging just 2.92 yards per rush in conference games and managed just 40 rushing yards on 24 attempts last week against Memphis. It sounds crazy to put your best defensive player on offense and put him at a greater risk for injury, but there's really no other option.

Jalen Walton is more of an edge threat. Jordan Wilkins, Eugene Brazley and Akeem Judd are all talented, but clearly need help from an offensive line that's been less than stellar. Nkemdiche is big and fast enough to mask some of the Rebels' offensive line deficiencies, and he has to stay on offense in those key situations if the Ole Miss offense is going to give off the impression of balance.

 

Blame It On The Rain

The forecast for Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Saturday is calling for a 90 percent chance of rain when the Razorbacks host Auburn at 11 a.m. ET, according to Weather.com.

Advantage: Arkansas?

"One of the things we try to tell our kids is to control the 'control-ables,'" head coach Bret Bielema said. "We try to embrace whatever the situation is. We have played well in rain going back to last year against LSU and Ole Miss, both (games) had a little bit of that. This year, the Tennessee game was supposed to be a monsoon on game day and it did rain a little bit."

Bielema is right. 

Arkansas' massive offensive line—which averages 327.8 pounds—combined with the ability of stud running back Alex Collins to be both a bruiser and a home run hitter has Arkansas set up for success against the visiting Tigers. 

"He is a challenge," Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said in quotes emailed by Auburn. "He can hit it downhill hard, he can make it bounce, he has speed and they do a good job with the way they get him the ball, like the little flip play they do to get him to the outside and other things. He’s a very good back and he’s getting used to getting the football with more carries. He’s impressive."

Will Muschamp's defense is giving up a whopping 197.67 yards per game and 5.07 yards per play on the ground—next-to-last in the SEC in both categories.

Buckle up, Tigers. Because Bielema is going old school this week.

 

Another Brick In The Wall

Tennessee opened things up by necessity in its last outing against Georgia after getting into a 21-point hole, but make no mistake, the identity of the 2015 Vols is decidedly run-first.

They rank second in the SEC with 222 yards per game on the ground, have a bruiser in Jalen Hurd, a dynamic dual-threat quarterback in Joshua Dobbs and a home run hitter in Alvin Kamara.

If Tennessee is going to have a chance against Alabama this week, though, the Vols are going to have to produce their best effort of the year. 

The Crimson Tide are giving up just 70.86 yards per game and 2.44 yards per play on the ground. Head coach Butch Jones knows just how stout Nick Saban's group is.

"The word that comes to mind is 'impressive,'" Jones said. "Impressive in all facets. They lead our conference in rush defense and total defense, and do a great job in pass efficiency defense. They are very, very deep and a very complete defensive football team. They challenge you in preparation, because it's hard to simulate for us in our scout teams, but also they have players with different skill sets which makes it hard to prepare for."

The front seven led by tackle A'Shawn Robinson, end Jonathan Allen and linebacker Reggie Ragland will have to play disciplined football against the Vols because the rushing attack is diverse and dangerous. If the Vols hit a big play or two early, it could transform this game into a shootout and get Alabama out of its comfort zone.

 

Let It Rip

Be honest, when you glance at the schedule, Western Kentucky at LSU doesn't exactly jump off the page, does it?

It should.

The Hilltoppers boast the third-best passing attack in the nation at 407.1 yards per game, are third in the nation with 25 touchdown passes and have the second-best team passing efficiency in the nation at 188.70. Quarterback Brandon Doughty has thrown for 2,709 yards, 24 touchdowns and only tossed two picks this year.

"The key piece to that is to watch film," LSU head coach Les Miles said. "The ball jumps out of his hand. You see that he's extremely accurate. There's five guys who have touched the ball 24 times. There's one (Taywan Taylor) who has 40-plus catches. We recognize that he's a very talented quarterback, and I don't think there's going to be any issues educating our guys when they watch the game film."

On the flip side, LSU's secondary has been surprisingly porous. The Tigers have given up 205 yards per game through the air, 11 passing plays of 30 or more yards (12th in the SEC) and have not lived up to the "DBU" billing.

On paper, this game doesn't do much in terms of interest. 

But it could serve as the final piece of the puzzle to solidify the LSU defense prior to the stretch run in November.

 

What's My Name Again?

Florida head coach Jim McElwain announced this week that kicker Jorge Powell is out for the season with a knee injury suffered on a kickoff last week. With Austin Hardin also dealing with a leg injury, the first-year head coach held open kicker tryouts this week in Gainesville that drew 216 hopeful Gators, with 77 actually kicking in Thursday's tryout.

"As long as he can flip it up there through the uprights, I'm good with it," he said.

That's not new for McElwain.

"We were successful with it at Colorado State, and ended up getting a heck of a kicker out of it," he said. "He was 'Kicker.' That's what I called him. That was 'Kicker.' He did a great job for us and won some big ball games and he was awesome."

"Kicker" really was Jared Roberts, who connected on 42 of 54 field goals over all three of McElwain's seasons in Fort Collins.

Florida is off this week prior to next week's meeting with Georgia in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports. Statistics are courtesy of cfbstats.com

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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College Football Week 8: Top 25 Upset Alert

It's that time of the week when we present our Top 25 upset alert.

Is Michigan State up for another win this week against Indiana? Is LSU up for the challenge that is Brandon Doughty? Is Leonard Fournette going to be unstoppable this week?

Find out in the above video as Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Adam Kramer goes in-depth on this week's upset alert. 

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Ranking the Best ACC Matchups of Week 8

Can you believe we're already at Week 8 of ACC play?

With the season virtually flying by, we've certainly started to get a good grasp at which teams are poised to contend for their respective division titles. 

While there aren't a ton of outstanding matchups this week, it's about maintaining consistency for those teams looking to contend for postseason play. As for lesser squads, this week could signal the difference between a losing season and a bowl appearance. 

Without further ado, here's a look at the Week 8 slate of ACC games. 

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