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10 Biggest Questions Facing Top 25 Teams Heading into Week 9

The second full month of the college football season has come and all but officially gone. The home stretch is in sight. Conference games have a little more meaning, and playoff implications get a little stronger. 

However, there are only two games on Saturday between Top 25 teams: Ole Miss at LSU and USC at Utah. That doesn't mean every other Top 25 team is off the hook. Sometimes, the sleepiest slate of games yields the wildest results. 

Keep in mind that three top SEC West teams—Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Alabama—are on the road. 

Which storylines are the most important heading into Week 9? The answers are in the following slides. 

The only criterion here is that one of the teams involved has to rank in either the Associated Press poll or the Amway coaches poll.

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College Football Picks Week 9: B/R's Expert Predictions for Top 5 Games

Week 9 may lack the hype of previous weeks, but as we’ve seen throughout this season, anything can happen on Saturday.

The marquee game will be an under-the-lights showdown in Death Valley between SEC West foes Ole Miss and LSU. Can the young Tigers shock the world and take down the red-hot Rebels?

Sticking in the SEC, Alabama looks to prove it can win soundly on the road when the Tide battle rival Tennessee Saturday night in Knoxville.

Ohio State is quietly climbing back up the ranks, and the Buckeyes have a great opportunity to show the nation they’re a team to fear in their prime-time matchup against Penn State.

West Virginia is coming off a great upset over Baylor, and Oklahoma State hopes to rebound after a struggling performance against TCU to stay afloat in the Big 12 race.

The last big matchup of the night pits a surprise Utah team versus a USC team finding its groove. Which Pac-12 team will gain momentum in the division?

Ben Kercheval still remains our leader after eight weeks, but the others aren’t too far behind. Who will come out on top in Week 9?

Let us know your picks in the comments below!

 

Reminder that our experts are picking the top five Saturday games against the spread.

Odds via opening lines at Odds Shark.

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Tennessee Football: 5 Volunteers Who Will Surprise vs. Alabama

The Tennessee Volunteers face a tough task on Saturday when No. 4 Alabama comes to Knoxville.

The Vols started out as more than two-touchdown underdogs in this contest, but with starting quarterback Justin Worley possibly sidelined due to a shoulder injury and several members of the team battling a flu virus, according to The Tennessean's Matt Slovin, the matchup could become even more lopsided.

That's why the Vols will need help from every member of the team capable of making big plays. 

Alabama is still the most talented college football team in the country, but games against West Virginia, Ole Miss and Arkansas proved the Crimson Tide isn't as invincible as it used to be.

Tennessee will need career games from key members of its defense, mistake-free football from its offense and special teams and a few breaks to bounce its way to upset Alabama.

That said, here are five players who could emerge as the MVPs of the game when the Tide and Lane Kiffin roll into Neyland Stadium on Saturday. 

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What Would DaVaris Daniels' Potential Return Do to the 2015 Notre Dame Irish?

After taking to Instagram to announce he would be returning to Notre Dame in 2015 after a two-semester suspension, cornerback KeiVarae Russell continued his news-breaking ways on the photo-sharing platform. And if Russell is to believed, Irish fans could get some more good news out of an ugly academic situation.

According to Russell, senior wide receiver DaVaris Daniels is prepping for a comeback to Notre Dame in 2015. That flies in the face of initial reports—and a statement from Daniels—that the talented wide receiver would be moving on. 

Here's a portion of Russell's Instagram message, which has since been taken down:

Im sure my followers and the country will be pleased to hear that [DaVaris] is now likely to return to Notre Dame with me next year despite what media says!! Watch how we take this negative and turn it into somethin special and memorable! Both gonna make people wish we didn't have this much time to work!

The Irish's leading returning receiver entering 2014, Daniels was expected to be the team's No. 1 pass-catcher this season but never took the field after a summer school academic incident led to the suspension of Daniels, Russell and teammates Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore and Ishaq Williams. Daniels had already sat out the spring semester after his GPA slipped below a 2.0, so many expected this second run-in with the university to spell the end of his up-and-down ride in South Bend.   

But if Russell's comments are to be believed, instead of preparing for a future in the NFL, where Daniels still hoped to be drafted in the later rounds, the Chicagoland native could add another weapon to an already-stocked wide receiver depth chart. 

Without Daniels, the Irish passing game has still taken a large step forward, with Everett Golson's return and the emergence of Will Fuller and Corey Robinson setting the tone. With no receiver on the depth chart graduating, next year's receiving corps already looked like a strength of the team even without Daniels. 

It's far too early to go down this rabbit hole. Last we heard from Brian Kelly, he had yet to even talk with Daniels, not about his suspension, nor any alleged return. Davaris' father, former Redskin Phillip Daniels, seemed to pump the brakes on any return talk as well. And all of this presupposes that Daniels will be accepted for re-admittance by the university, no sure thing when you consider his academic record. 

But if Daniels does return, the Irish would have a depth chart that'd be the envy of college football. With rising stars like Fuller and Robinson, Daniels would join a two-deep at outside receiver that also includes Chris Brown. After a slow start, Brown has 17 catches over the last four games, tapping into the potential that Kelly raved about this spring. 

Add to that group productive slot receivers Amir Carlisle and C.J. Prosise and promising youngster Torii Hunter Jr. Unless Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock want to go five wide every snap, finding enough footballs to keep everyone happy could be difficult. 

Freshmen Justin Brent and Corey Holmes have yet to see an opportunity to show what they can do. And a trio of recruits—Miles Boykin, Jalen Guyton and C.J. Sanders—all expect to compete for playing time next year, something that looks harder by the day as Kelly continues to stockpile weapons. (Notre Dame's coaches hope blue-chipper Equanimeous St. Brown joins them in this recruiting class.)

Ultimately, Daniels' return could come down to a decision for Kelly and his coaching staff. They've already opened the door to Ishaq Williams' return, a fifth-year candidate who was expected to start at defensive end this year. As the Irish continue to recruit a handful of remaining elite targets, Notre Dame could push up against an 85-man scholarship limit that has rarely been scared, making the choice Daniels for one season or a recruit for at least four. 

The relationship between head coach and player is a critical one in this process. Kelly had Daniels' back during his spring suspension. But struggling to make grades is different than suspected academic dishonesty, and how Kelly views Daniels' role in the current mishap will likely prove important. 

There's never been a question about Daniels' talent. But he's yet to put it all together on the football field. A highly touted player out of high school, Daniels patiently redshirted his freshman year, watching Michael Floyd dominate on his way to being taken in the first round of the NFL draft. That was supposed to be what 2014 was about for Daniels, before another off-field mistake cost him the season.

We'll find out soon enough whether the ship has sailed or if Daniels becomes the latest—and most unlikely—addition to a 2015 roster that could be stacked. 

 

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James Franklin Is the Perfect Big Ten Rival for Urban Meyer

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It started with a Wednesday tour of Urban Meyer's office on ESPN.com. Sitting next to a few of the Ohio State head coach's favorite books was a paper printout, the contents of which would surely set the corner of the Internet that claims the Buckeyes abuzz.

Black jerseys.

Long rumored and often debated, the potential of black-based uniforms has been a polarizing prospect for Ohio State fans dating back to the mid-1990s. And on Wednesday, Meyer confirmed that they may be closer to becoming a reality than some Buckeye traditionalists would prefer.

"Somewhere down the road, maybe," Meyer said, before confirming that he'd be OK with an all-black Ohio State look.

Less than 24 hours later, a different coach at another tradition-rich Big Ten program made a similar statement.

"One of the things I am looking at possibly doing is a throwback uniform," Penn State head coach James Franklin said, via StateCollege.com's Ben Jones. "Although our uniform has pretty much stayed the same, there has been variations over the years. Maybe one game a year you do a throwback of the elements we've had over the years."

The degree of their public advocacy may vary, but the reasoning behind Meyer and Franklin's acceptance—or perhaps preference—of alternate jerseys doesn't differ.

"It's a great way to pay respect to the past, but give the players and recruits a way to see we're doing something a little bit different," Franklin said.

"I love tradition," Meyer said in 2013. "But I love recruiting better."

Meyer and Franklin will officially face off for the first time this Saturday when the Buckeyes head to Happy Valley for a prime-time matchup with the Nittany Lions. But the third-year Ohio State coach has become plenty familiar with the first-year Penn State head man, as the two have already gone head-to-head several times on the recruiting trail.

Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program, as Meyer often says, and since arriving in State College in January, Franklin has offered a transfusion of sorts for the Nittany Lions. With just more than three months to go until national signing day, Penn State's 2015 class ranks 11th in the nation—one spot ahead of Meyer's Buckeyes.

Unsurprisingly, Franklin's success against Meyer has played a key role in his impressive haul thus far. Of the Nittany Lions' 18 current commits, seven were also offered by Ohio State, with PSU beating out the Buckeyes for the likes of 4-star offensive tackle Sterling Jenkins, 4-star offensive guard Steven Gonzalez and 4-star running back Andre Robinson.

Meanwhile, five of Ohio State's 18 current commits possess invitations to play for the Nittany Lions, including the three highest-ranked members of the Buckeyes' 2015 class: 5-star linebacker Justin Hilliard, 4-star athlete Jerome Baker and 4-star defensive end Jashon Cornell.

It's far too early to say that Franklin has surpassed or even matched Meyer on the recruiting trail—after all, Penn State's 2015 class is considered full while Ohio State believes it still has a few spots left—but nobody else in the Big Ten has challenged the Buckeyes' head coach as frequently as Franklin has in his first 10 months on the job.

Sure, Michigan might pull a Jabrill Peppers here and Michigan State has shown the ability to land a Malik McDowell there, but neither Brady Hoke nor Mark Dantonio have shown the consistent success against Meyer on the recruiting trail that Franklin has. It hasn't hurt that Franklin has benefited from a home-state advantage in talent-rich Pennsylvania, which he vowed to take full advantage of at his introductory Penn State press conference.

“We are going to dominate the state. We are going to dominate the region,” Franklin said. “I've worked a lot of different institutions that tried to compete. Recruiting against Penn State University was always an unbelievable challenge because this school has everything that young men are looking for."

That wasn't the case less than three years ago, when hampered by one of the most horrific scandals in sports history, Penn State appeared to have lost its luster. What was the Nittany Lions' loss on the recruiting trail turned out to be the Buckeyes' gain, as Meyer's first class in Columbus was littered with players who would have likely otherwise landed at Penn State.

Noah Spence, Tommy Schutt, Armani Reeves, Camren Williams and Joey O'Connor all had previously committed to the Nittany Lions or were considered heavy Penn State leans before the Jerry Sandusky scandal caused each to reconsider his options. In the span of two months, Meyer managed to land all five, catapulting the Buckeyes to the nation's fifth-ranked class.

Ohio State's advantage over its secondary rival only figured to grow in the summer of 2012, when unprecedented sanctions including a reduction of 20 scholarships and a four-year bowl ban were handed down by the NCAA. Nittany Lions head coach Bill O'Brien made the most of what he had, landing 2013 5-star quarterback Christian Hackenberg and even beating out Meyer for 2014 4-star tight end Mike Gesicki.

Penn State appeared to be on the rise, accumulating a 15-9 record from 2012-13 despite its sanctions. But the Nittany Lions seemed to suffer another blow on New Year's Eve when O'Brien left to take the Houston Texans' head coaching position.

That, however, only proved to be a precursor to a perfect storm.

Looking to land a home run hire to replace O'Brien, the Nittany Lions lured Franklin from Vanderbilt, where he had accumulated a 24-15 record—including two bowl wins—in three seasons in the rugged Southeastern Conference.

As evidenced by his introductory press conference, it was clear that recruiting was as important to Franklin as it was to Meyer from the start. The new Penn State head coach went right to work, landing 4-star offensive tackle Ryan Bates, 4-star athlete Kamonte Carter, 3-star safety Jarvis Miller, 4-star running back Saquon Barkley, 3-star defensive end Ryan Buchholz, 3-star linebacker Jake Cooper and the aforementioned Robinson all in his first month on the job.

But if the recruiting prowess of Franklin wasn't enough, the Nittany Lions received another boost in early September when their postseason ban was dropped and their scholarships total was fully restored for the 2015 season. Two years earlier than expected, Penn State would be back to full strength, with a head coach who appears to be a perfect fit for a new era of Nittany Lions football.

That may seem like bad news for the Buckeyes, but the reality is that given the current state of the Big Ten, the conference could use all of the help that it can get. With Michigan down and likely facing its third coaching change in eight years, it's been up to Ohio State and Michigan State to carry the Big Ten on a national level, with little help from the likes of Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Penn State's not there—at least not yet.

The Nittany Lions are 4-2 on the year, with losses to Northwestern and Michigan, and find themselves as double-digit underdogs at home this Saturday despite the Buckeyes possessing a freshman quarterback. An inefficient offensive line has been a glaring weakness, as this appears to be the year that its previous sanctions have finally caught up to Penn State.

But to steal another Meyer-ism, in college football, momentum is everything, and the Nittany Lions have plenty of it. While it may not show up in their record or on the field this Saturday, Penn State is trending upward, and Meyer has taken notice.

"I heard that Penn State considers Ohio State their rivals—obviously we have one. But I think it’s a little bit like when we played Wisconsin a couple years ago because that’s really a rivalry because there’s some really good teams," Meyer said. "We consider them an elite program."

We may be a year or two from that rivalry being fully restored, but all indications are that, thanks to Meyer and Franklin, it will be sooner rather than later.

It's just a matter of what the two teams' uniforms will look like when it happens.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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Are Florida State's Wins in 2014 More Impressive Than the 2013 Dominance?

Which is more impressive: dominating every team on an easier schedule or showing resolve and winning close games against tougher opponents? The Florida State football team has now done both the past two seasons.

Are FSU's 2014 grind-it-out victories more impressive?

FSU was a powerhouse in 2013 en route to a 12-0 regular-season record and an ACC championship. Yet, the Seminoles were criticized for not being "battle-tested," which led to questioning about how FSU would react when it played Auburn in the BCS championship game. The Seminoles fell behind 21-3 in the second quarter but came back to win 34-31.

This year, FSU is unbeaten but hardly a powerhouse. Minus 10 starters from the 2013 team, the Seminoles are 7-0 but have won their games by a slim margin (just 14.5 points per game vs. Football Bowl Subdivision teams, but it's a lot smaller a margin when factoring in a 43-3 rout of Wake Forest).

While they haven't been dominating, they have shown plenty of mettle in holding off Oklahoma State in the fourth quarter, beating Clemson in overtime, rallying to defeat North Carolina State in a shootout and, on Saturday, using a last-moment fourth-down stop to survive against Notre Dame.

"The Navy SEALs have a saying for it—finding an excuse to win," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "We find excuses to win."

FSU has put together a 23-game winning streak dating back to November 2012. Let's take a look at FSU's 2013 and 2014 seasons:

 

The Dominating 2013 Season

Wins over Top 25 teams: Maryland, Clemson, Miami, Duke and Auburn.

Wins over unranked but quality teams: Pittsburgh, Nevada, Boston College, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, Syracuse and Florida.

Wins over cupcakes: Bethune-Cookman and Idaho.

Analysis: Most of the games were over by halftime. FSU won 12 of 14 games by 30 or more points. Clemson was No. 3 and was steamrolled. And Miami was No. 7, but FSU pulled away in the second half. The Seminoles shut out Maryland 63-0 and trounced Duke, which didn't score until the fourth quarter.

FSU had to rally to overcome a large first-half deficit to beat Boston College. The team was loaded with NFL talent and had seven players drafted (losing 10 starters total to the NFL).

 

The Fight-to-the-Finish 2014 Season

Wins over Top 25 teams: Clemson and Notre Dame.

Wins over unranked but quality teams: Oklahoma State, N.C. State, Wake Forest and Syracuse.

Wins over cupcakes: The Citadel.

Analysis: FSU opened with an unranked Oklahoma State team that was much better than expected. The Cowboys were ranked 15th before losing to TCU last week and dropping out of the Top 25. FSU slipped past Clemson with its No. 2 quarterback, Sean Maguire, throwing for 300 yards.

Against Notre Dame, FSU trailed throughout the game but answered every Fighting Irish score with one of its own. And then FSU held on late by keeping Notre Dame from scoring even though the Fighting Irish had 13 plays on the Seminoles' half of the field in the final three minutes of the game.

 

Dominant vs. Impressive Seasons

The 2013 team was dominant. Put that team in a special category. It's clearly one of the best FSU teams in school history.

Here's a distinction, though: Which team was more impressive—not dominant, impressive?

The argument for the 2014 team begins with what it doesn't have. Take the 2013 team, all 24 starters (including the kicker and punter). Now take away 10 starters who are gone to the NFL.

Down to 14 starters, FSU lost one starting defensive tackle (Nile Lawrence-Stample) in the third game. And its starting center (Austin Barron) was lost in the fifth game with a fractured arm. A potential starter at linebacker, Matthew Thomas, missed six games due to an NCAA-mandated suspension before returning for the Notre Dame game.

Care to name a senior on defense that has made a significant contribution this fall? The answer is Desmond Hollin. He has 18 tackles. But he's also the only senior on the two- or three-deep defensive depth chart. FSU starts true freshman end Lorenzo Featherston and sophomore safeties Jalen Ramsey and Nate Andrews. Another true freshman, linebacker Jacob Pugh, had two interceptions in the win over Notre Dame.

On offense, redshirt freshman Ryan Hoefeld has stepped in for Barron at center. Sophomore Bobo Wilson and true freshman Travis Rudolph have emerged as the team's Nos. 2 and 3 receivers (after Rashad Greene).

The 2013 team was filled with seniors (and leaders), especially on defense. There were players like cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, safety Terrence Brooks and linebackers Telvin Smith and Christian Jones. This year's defense has relied on underclassmen for both production and leadership.

FSU's offense is averaging 37.9 points per game, 20th in the nation. The passing game has been prolific, but try picturing how it would look if receiver Kelvin Benjamin had returned for his redshirt junior season instead of going to the NFL early.

Often, it's a glass-half-empty perspective of FSU. It's a glimpse of an unbeaten team with plenty of problems. And that's fair—FSU has concerns.

Try looking at it from a glass-half-full approach. There are only four FBS unbeaten teams left, and FSU is one of them. Not because of domination but because of fight.

Instead of criticizing the 2014 team for what it isn't, take note of what it has accomplished. And what it has done without so many key pieces of the 2013 team.

 

Bob Ferrante is the Florida State Lead Writer for Bleacher Report, all quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bob on Twitter. All stats are courtesy of seminoles.com.

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Power Ranking SEC Football's Most Impressive Freshmen so Far

Even the freshmen have gotten in on the action in what’s shaping up to be one of the most exciting seasons in SEC history.

One running back has stepped in to replace a Heisman Trophy finalist and has made the transition appear seamless. Another freshman has come into one of the nation’s toughest defenses and has become its best performer. Heck, even a punter is making headlines.

They don’t call the SEC one of the deepest leagues in the country for nothing.

In power ranking these players, we looked at a number of factors. These include initial recruiting grades, season stats, strength of schedule, recent performances and similar issues.

Join B/R as we count down the 10 best freshmen in the SEC thus far.

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Ohio State Football: 3 Keys for Ohio State to Beat Penn State in Happy Valley

No. 12 Ohio State (5-1) is riding high as it heads to Penn State (4-2) on Saturday for an 8 p.m. ET prime-time game in Beaver Stadium.

The Nittany Lions are limping into the game after back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Michigan, but this is a perfect test for the Buckeyes: a road game, at night, in a hostile environment against a team seeking to avenge last season’s 63-14 thumping. Penn State also has a new coach looking for his first significant Big Ten win. This is exactly the type of game the Buckeyes need to help them prepare for their November 8 showdown with Michigan State in East Lansing.

Can they continue their march back into playoff contention and leave Happy Valley with another decisive win? Here are three keys to the game.

 

Offensive Line

Quarterback J.T. Barrett has earned the praise that is being bestowed upon him right now. Who can argue with 1,176 yards passing with 17 touchdowns and 263 yards rushing and three touchdowns over the last four games? His production has him in the discussion as a potential Heisman candidate. Not bad for someone who was supposed to keep the seat warm for Braxton Miller until he returns from injury next season.

While Barrett has been the star, the key to Ohio State’s surge has been the offensive line. Line coach Ed Warinner is clearly demonstrating once again why he is the best in the business. The protection has been substantially better since the loss to Virginia Tech, and you can see the confidence level of this unit rising every week.

The line passed a huge test last week against Rutgers, which came into the game ranked No. 2 in the FBS in sacks with 24. It allowed zero in a dominating performance where the offense racked up 585 yards and 56 points. Continued improvement is needed this week against a stout Penn State defense.

The Nittany Lions may be struggling offensively, but their defense is extraordinary. They rank No. 6 in scoring defense, allowing just 15.2 points per game, and are yielding just 283 yards per game. The stats are inflated a little because the competition has been average, but this unit is fundamentally sound. It will be ready to stop Barrett and his army of weapons.

Penn State’s leader is senior linebacker Mike Hull, who leads the team with 64 tackles. He is a prototypical linebacker; he’ll be wherever the ball is making a tackle or disrupting the play. Hull knows the Buckeyes will provide the biggest test of the season, telling Bob Baptist of The Columbus Dispatch, “We’re going to have to have a great effort. But I think we’re going to be up for the challenge and we’re going to do everything in our power to hold them in check.”

Warinner will have the line ready. It will give Barrett time to work his magic. The Nittany Lions have not faced an offense as diverse as the Buckeyes'. The blocking up front and the speed on the edge will keep Penn State defense guessing all night.

 

Avoiding Turnovers

Protecting the ball is always important, but it is even more critical to success when playing on the road in front of 104,000 rabid fans looking for any reason to yell.

Penn State’s offense does not have the depth or skill players to match the Buckeyes yet. It is ranked No. 108 in scoring offense, averaging just 21.2 points per game. The offense will need help to keep the team in the game, and Penn State coach James Franklin agrees, telling Baptist:

I think our defense has played extremely well, but getting some of those game-changing plays can help. The interception returns for touchdowns, the punt returns for touchdowns, setting up our offense with great field position … you always want more.

The good news is the Buckeyes have largely avoided costly turnovers since the nightmare against the Hokies, and Penn State is not particularly strong at creating them. The Buckeyes don’t need to provide Penn State with any opportunities to swing momentum, so taking care of the ball is a must.

This is Barrett’s first significant game away from the Horseshoe. His poise will set the tone for the night. Expect head coach Urban Meyer to get him into a comfortable rhythm early in the game. When this happens, the Buckeyes’ offense will roll.

 

Attack Christian Hackenberg

Hackenberg has passed for just 1,637 yards with five touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s better than the stats suggest, but he’s lacking both confidence and playmakers right now. If Penn State has any chance to hang with the Buckeyes, Hackenberg must play his best game of the season. To do this, he’ll need the line to step up, which is something it has been unable to do lately.

Undoubtedly the Nittany Lions’ offensive line is suffering the consequences from the sanctions and injuries. The offense ranks No. 116 in the FBS allowing 3.33 sacks per game. Coupled with the inability to run the ball consistently, this unit is mostly one-dimensional and predictable. That’s a recipe for disaster against an Ohio State defense that is getting into championship form.

An interesting subplot to this game is it marks Ohio State line coach Larry Johnson’s return to Happy Valley. After a remarkable 18-year coaching stint with Penn State, Johnson left last January when Franklin was hired. It might be strange for Johnson to be heading back to his old stomping grounds as a visitor, but he’s ready for the challenge, telling John Kampf of The News-Herald:

It will be different. First time (back there). You spend 18 years at one place for a long time, then you walk back in there, different sideline, place you’ve been for 18 years. But I’m looking forward to going back.

The playbook on Saturday night for the defense won’t be any different than it was last year when it battered Hackenberg into his worst collegiate performance. Johnson will put full pressure on Hackenberg to keep him uncomfortable and force him into mistakes. The Buckeyes’ defense will reap the benefits of Penn State’s offensive disarray.

 

Analysis

Meyer’s young team is playing with tremendous confidence heading into the stretch run in conference play. Franklin is trying to hold the ship steady while he recruits more elite-level athletes into the program. His team is a year or two away from being competitive in the Big Ten East Division.

The “White Out” crowd will be energized on a pleasantly warm and dry night in State College. It will inject energy into the team early, but the Buckeyes have too many weapons for Penn State to contain the whole game.

Ohio State has won four out five against Penn State, mostly in convincing fashion. The Buckeyes have also won their last three trips to Happy Valley; they will make it four this Saturday. Ohio State wins 31-10.

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Nebraska Football: Huskers Are Back in Black, but Plenty of Work Left to Do

The Blackshirts are back at Nebraska. After a dominant performance against Northwestern, the Huskers coaching staff decided it was time to put members of the defense in the coveted black jerseys.

Before the October 21 practice, 16 of the traditional Blackshirts were hung in lockers. Those lockers belonged to Randy Gregory, Vincent Valentine, Maliek Collins, Greg McMullen, Kevin Williams, Trevor Roach, Zaire Anderson, David Santos, Corey Cooper, Nate Gerry, Josh Mitchell, Daniel Davie, Jonathan Rose, Byerson Cockrell, Josh Banderas and Joshua Kalu.

Earning the Blackshirts is a huge accomplishment for the Nebraska defense. However, the work isn't done for the Huskers. Instead, it's just beginning.

While Nebraska's 38-17 win over Northwestern was a great step in the right direction, the group still faces some tough opponents in the second half of the season. However, holding the Wildcats to only 28 yards in the second half speaks volumes of what this group is capable of.

As it turns out, that was pretty much what determined the defensive players earning the jerseys.

"We challenged them at halftime to correct what we needed to have corrected and go play a good half and we'd win the game," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, per Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal Star. "That's what they did. I thought based off that it was deserving to hand them out."

Going forward, the defense has a lot to prove to keep the black jerseys. Linebacker Banderas understands that. So much so, the sophomore decided against wearing his new jersey to practice as he feels he's not playing at a high enough level for the honor just yet.

"Definitely I respect him because of that," Collins said, per Christopherson. "It shows that he's not complacent with where he is. He's always looking to reach another level."

The rest of the team needs to follow suit. That doesn't mean they have to forfeit wearing their new jerseys to practice. Instead, it's about playing to the same level they have in recent games against upcoming opponents.

Per Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald, Papuchis claims the Blackshirts only recently hit a turning point, as things started coming together before the Illinois game.

"Things started to click," he said. "We're starting to really hit (our) stride."

Since then, the Nebraska defense really has shown significant growth. Despite the loss to Michigan State, the group was looking like Blackshirts. That included holding MSU quarterback Connor Cook to only 11-of-29 passing.

Considering the quarterback had a 69 percent completion rate heading into the game, that says a lot about the Huskers.

Then there's players like Roach, who recorded 18 total tackles against Michigan State and another 10 against Northwestern. No one can forget about Gregory, either, who Papuchis believes makes big plays that most people don't see.

"His combination of size, strength, speed, athleticism, quickness, toughness," Papuchis said, per Nyatawa. "And the fact that he's a (hard-working) player, in terms of his effort and his compete-level. Most of his best plays, I think, are ones that nobody notices him do it."

Ultimately, what this all adds up to is that the Blackshirts can't settle now. While the coveted jerseys have been handed out, they have to continue being earned. In order to do so, players like Gregory and Roach will have to keep playing at a high level and making big plays.

Earning a Blackshirt is a huge honor. How the players handle it going forward is now what matters most. 

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LSU Football: 3 Keys to Tigers Upsetting Ole Miss

LSU head coach Les Miles has a chance to make a statement against Hugh Freeze's Ole Miss Rebels. 

Miles' Tigers have not been at their sharpest this season. They dropped their first two SEC games of the season against Mississippi State and Auburn, and the team was dominated both times.

LSU has picked it up recently with wins against Florida and Kentucky.

Miles could win his first game against SEC West opposition at home on Saturday. However, possibly pulling off an upset against Freeze is an even bigger personal opportunity. Last season, the undermanned Rebels defeated the Tigers 27-24 in Oxford. Miles now has the chance to return the favor.

It won't be easy for the Tigers, but they have the talent and home crowd to pull off the upset. Here are three keys for the Tigers to be triumphant on Saturday.

 

Win Turnover Battle

The Tigers and Rebels are both playing their best football of the season right now. The one thing both teams have in common is turnover efficiency.

LSU has only committed one turnover in the past two games. Ole Miss has only had one in the past three. The team that plays sounder football will likely win.

LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings has yet to throw an interception in SEC play, but neither has Ole Miss signal-caller Bo Wallace. The difference is in the defenses.

The Rebels have forced an SEC-leading 20 takeaways, 10 of which have come in SEC play. The Landshark defense is full of playmakers, led by ball-hawking safety Cody Prewitt. The LSU defense, albeit improved, does not posses the same playmaking ability.

If LSU cannot run the ball and Jennings is forced to make tough throws, it could lead to trouble. The Tigers must have a strong ground game to help their quarterback.

 

Stop the Run

Ole Miss' running game has not been its strong suit. The Rebels are 11th in the SEC in rushing and have yet to have a player eclipse 100 yards in a game this season.

The Rebels' most dangerous running play has been the zone read with Wallace and running back Jaylen Walton, who leads Ole Miss in rushing. Walton's lone 100-yard game was against the Tigers last season, when he gashed them for 106 yards and two touchdowns.

Wallace and Walton will be a tough challenge, especially considering the Tigers' struggles with defending mobile quarterbacks.

But LSU's defense has shown improvement thanks to a boost in speed from linebacker Kendell Beckwith and safety Jamal Adams. Two weeks ago, the Tigers were last in rushing yards allowed against conference opposition. They have now jumped to 10th.

The weakness of LSU's defense has been the middle, but the Tigers have gotten more out of their defensive tackles in recent weeks.

Also, Ole Miss does not have a power, between-the-tackles bruiser back who can pound the ball up the gut.

Ole Miss will have success throwing the ball. Receivers Laquon Treadwell and Vince Sanders lead a talented cast of characters in the passing game. Wallace has thrown for 656 yards in his past two matchups against LSU. So the Tigers must not get discouraged if the Rebels make some big plays early.

Nevertheless, the Tigers' chances of winning increase if they can stop the run and make the Rebels one-dimensional.

 

Win Special Teams

Close games are normally decided on special teams.

The Rebels found that out the hard way the last time they made the trip to Baton Rouge in 2012. Former LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. returned a punt for a touchdown to tie the game early in the fourth quarter. The Tigers would go on to win the game 41-35.

The Tigers might need the same kind of boost from Tre'Davious White on Saturday. White returned his first punt for a touchdown last week against Kentucky on a beautifully designed return by special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto.

LSU and Ole Miss' special teams have been amongst the best in the SEC. LSU's Jamie Keehn and Ole Miss' Will Gleeson are No. 2 and No. 3 in the conference in punting average.

The Tigers are better in field-goal kicking with Colby Delahoussaye and kickoffs with Trent Domingue. Ole Miss rarely gets touchbacks, which opens the door for returners Leonard Fournette and Terrence Magee to make plays.

The Tigers have a slight edge on special teams in nearly every aspect. They must take advantage of this on Saturday against the favored Rebels.

 

Stats, rankings and additional information provided by cfbstats.com and LSU Sports Information. Recruiting information provided by 247Sports.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow me on Twitter @CarterthePower.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Auburn Football: Early-Drive Improvements Crucial for the Tigers' Future Success

AUBURN, Ala. — For all of the complexities to Gus Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense, it can sometimes be simple.

So when fans and analysts point to Auburn's drop in offensive production from 2013 to 2014, the architect of the attack points to just one area of flawed execution.

"When we get our tempo going at the rhythm, we really feel good about playing fast," Malzahn said during the Tigers' bye week. "But a lot of our problems have been getting started and not getting the initial first down."

Malzahn's offensive game plan is built around stringing together first downs, forcing the defense to play catch-up and putting points on the scoreboard as quickly as possible.

But the Tigers have to get the chains moving before they can hit full speed—and that hasn't necessarily been an easy task this season.

Through the first six games of the 2014 season, Auburn has been either held to a three-and-out or has committed a quick turnover on 16 of their drives. 

By comparison, the Tigers offense only had those unwanted quick drives 11 times through the final six games of the 2013 season.

Auburn's inconsistent performance to start offensive drives this season has gone hand-in-hand with the team's general drop in first-down production.

The first-down numbers are down all across the board for the Tigers, who excelled in those areas in Malzahn's more successful years as Auburn's play-caller.

This season's lowered rushing production on first down has been surprising, as Auburn was at or near the top of every national statistic in that area last season.

"A lot of it is execution," Malzahn said. "Some of it could be strategy, some of it could be scheme, but that is a big factor and difference between this year and last year. It really comes down to the execution part. We were very efficient especially in the second half of the year last year, and we’re hoping that the same thing will happen this year."

Malzahn believes the Tigers will receive a boost with junior Pat Miller's return from injury and true freshman Braden Smith's added responsibilities on the offense.

The two will add some much-needed depth to an Auburn offensive line that has already gone through some shuffling with 2013 starting left guard Alex Kozan missing the entire season and Devonte Danzey's emergence in place of Miller.

"If we can get our linemen in the same spot and stay healthy in the second half and really start working together and get some cohesion, there’s no doubt in my mind we’ll be more effective and more efficient in the run game," Malzahn said.

Another area of first-down execution that needs improvement is in Nick Marshall's passing game. All three of Marshall's interceptions this season have come on first down, including two on the first plays of drives.

Batted balls at the line of scrimmage have been an issue for the 6'1" Marshall, and the Tigers staff said it would be addressed during the recent bye week.

"Those are things we've got to do the best we can to avoid, whether it's the way we set protections, whether it's him finding an alley to throw through, whether the protection's good enough that he's not getting hit as he's throwing," Rhett Lashlee said. "The positive is he hasn't thrown it to guys through progressions. It's had to be tipped or it's had to be hit."

Whether it's a running play that isn't going for as many yards as it did last season or a misfired pass that sets the offense back, a bad early down can ruin an entire drive and set it on the path toward a frustrating three-and-out.

Both players and coaches have stressed the need for improvement in all areas on the first set of downs—and every unit can shoulder some of the blame. 

"We're not even close [to being great]," senior wide receiver Quan Bray said. "We see the potential that we have. It's the little things. With this offense, it's just the little things that, because it takes all 11 on offense, and if one person doesn't do a job, the play won't work. On defense, somebody can mess up and you don't really see that. But it takes all 11 on offense—all 11 to get on the same page and play for one another."

Auburn's first-team offense went back to work on that execution during the recent bye week and got some extra work against the second-team defense, something that is rare during the middle of a tough SEC slate.

Bray believes those extra practices and days of rest have revitalized the entire offense as it heads into Saturday's matchup against South Carolina.

"In the first half of the season, we didn't do a lot of the little things," Bray said. "That's why we really weren't clicking like we were. But now that we've watched a couple of games and seen what we need to get done, I think we've worked on that in the bye week."

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Michigan Football: Comparison of Mark Dantonio vs Brady Hoke

Brady Hoke needs a win in the worst way this weekend versus Michigan State. He is barely holding onto his dream job. Meanwhile, on the opposing sideline, Mark Dantonio is currently competing for a shot at the national championship with Michigan State.

Michigan has struggled under Hoke while the Spartans have become the dominant program in the state under Dantonio. Hoke talks about winning the Big Ten while Dantonio has three Big Ten titles. Hoke talks about tradition at Michigan while Dantonio is creating a new standard of excellence in East Lansing.

It’s a bitter bill for Michigan fans to swallow. It’s one thing to lose to a perceived equal like Ohio State, but to fall behind its instate rival is too much to bear.

And fall behind Michigan has.

Michigan vs Michigan State 2007-14 Team Wins Losses % Michigan State  70 30 .700 Michigan 53 43 .552

A Michigan victory would put it on the path to making a bowl game (and perhaps help Hoke save his job), while a loss would likely all but end his tenure in Ann Arbor.

Here is a comparison of Hoke and Dantonio as their teams prepare to face each other.

 

Begin Slideshow

Top Recruits Who Will Be Impacted by the Result of Michigan-Michigan State

Rivalry weekend is still a month away, but heated rivals Michigan and Michigan State will do battle this weekend in East Lansing. 

The two Big Ten powers seem to be headed in opposite directions, as Mark Dantonio’s Spartans are ranked in the Top 10 while Brady Hoke has been dealing with questions about his future due to the Wolverines' slow start to the season.

Recruits who are considering both schools will likely be paying close attention to how each program fares in this contest.

A win for the Spartans, who have won five of the last six meetings with the Wolverines, would continue their march toward a second consecutive Big Ten title and a chance to claim a coveted berth in the College Football Playoff. 

On the other hand, an upset for the Wolverines would bring some much-needed relief for Hoke and his staff at the expense of one of their most hated rivals.

Which top recruits will be impacted by the result of Saturday’s clash between Michigan and Michigan State?

Begin Slideshow

From Unknown to Top Prospect: West Virginia WR Kevin White's Draft Stock Soaring

When Alabama played West Virginia on the first Saturday of the college football season, it was already widely expected that one of the wide receivers in that game—Crimson Tide junior Amari Cooper—would be in contention to be the top pass-catcher selected in the 2015 NFL draft. It wasn’t yet known that a wideout for the other team, Mountaineers senior Kevin White, could end up being Cooper’s top competition.

Look back at the preseason NFL draft big boards of Mel Kiper Jr. (subscription required), Todd McShay (subscription) or Bleacher Report’s own Matt Miller, and Kevin White is nowhere to be found. With only 35 receptions for 507 yards and five touchdowns in his first season at West Virginia, the Lackawanna College transfer simply didn’t do enough as a junior to legitimize himself as an NFL prospect.

This year, he started making a name for himself right away when he caught nine passes for 143 yards and a touchdown in the season-opening loss to Alabama.

It’s since become increasingly clear by the week that White, who has at least 10 receptions and/or 132 receiving yards in each of his first seven games this year, is one of the top draft-eligible talents in college football.

White leads the Football Bowl Subdivision with 1,020 receiving yards and is second in the nation with 69 receptions, seven-game numbers close to exactly double his 11-game numbers from 2013.

Statistical excellence doesn’t make one a great NFL prospect, but the tools that have enabled White to achieve consistently high production do. While the increases in his numbers are partially tied to the development of WVU quarterback Clint Trickett, his current status as the best receiver in college football has more to do with his own improvement into a near-complete wideout.

 

Size, Strength and Ball Skills Make White a Tough Matchup

Listed at 6’3”, 210 pounds by West Virginia’s official athletics website, White has archetypical size for an outside wide receiver. More importantly, White combines his size with strength and knows how to exploit his physical advantages to win at the catch point against defensive backs.

Perhaps the biggest key to White’s ability to rattle off one outstanding performance after another this season has been his ability to make plays even when he is covered. He consistently attacks the ball in the air, even when he has to work through the contact of defensive backs, and he naturally high-points the football.

White’s first touchdown of the year, a 19-yard score in the Alabama game, exemplified White’s ability to make a play against coverage on the outside.

Alabama cornerback Bradley Sylve had tight coverage on White throughout the play, but that didn’t stop the Mountaineers receiver from adjusting back to the ball, making a leaping grab up above Sylve’s head and securing the ball on his way down for six points.

Another impressive display of White’s ability to make an adjustment to the ball and bring in a reception came on the following play against Maryland—deep down the middle against two defensive backs this time—for a 42-yard gain.

Any issues White had with drops in his junior season have seemingly disappeared in 2014, and his ball skills are evident in the way he is able to pluck passes out of the air away from his body.

The most exemplary display of White’s ball skills yet occurred this past Saturday, in WVU’s upset win over Baylor, when White extended his outside arm out away from Bears cornerback Xavien Howard and needed only one hand to pull in a pass for a 12-yard touchdown.

White’s ability to make tough catches against coverages will be his calling card to success in the NFL. He’s not likely to blow anyone away with his 40-yard dash time in predraft testing, and he could have some issues running free and separating from defensive backs in the NFL.

That said, White appears to have more than enough athleticism for a receiver of his size and skill.

When White is able to get a free release off the line of scrimmage, like he did in beating Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez for a 68-yard touchdown earlier this season, he has enough speed to finish the play after a downfield catch.

A natural strider and fluid open-field runner for a receiver of his size, White’s most impressive of display so far this season came against Maryland, when he turned a tunnel screen into a 44-yard touchdown with his acceleration in space and a well-timed lane change to the outside.

White’s not going to win many one-on-one foot-races against NFL cornerbacks, and he doesn’t frequently make defenders miss in the open field, but he consistently gains extra yardage on plays by fighting through low tackles and falling forward at the end of runs.

The key to covering White as a defender is to keep oneself in front of the receiver, but his ability to play the ball and battle through contact makes him a tough player to stop in any position.

White’s statistics become even more impressive when you consider how often he has drawn defensive pass interference this year, including five times against Baylor alone. And as he showed on the one-handed touchdown grab above and the following 35-yard play against Maryland, he is still sometimes able to come down with a reception even when a defender resorts to illegal coverage practices.

 

Doing the Little Things Well

White has always had the physical potential to be great. In 2012, Lackawanna College coach Mark Duda classified White as “one of the best athletes we’ve ever coached here,” a statement far from hollow as Duda has developed more than 300 Division I football players, including numerous NFL players, according to Allan Taylor of West Virginia MetroNews.

What has enabled White to elevate his game to a new stratosphere this year, and should posit him to continue to succeed in the NFL, is his development in the finer aspects of the game.

One area in which White has clearly improved this year has been his route running. As good as White has looked making plays on the ball on deep fades, he’s also impressed making catches on comebacks, curls and slants in the short and intermediate passing games.

As the players around him become faster at the next level, route-running prowess will be crucial to White’s ability to get open for high-percentage throws. The rapid progression he has displayed in this area is a promising sign that he can continue to develop as he becomes asked to diversify his routes with more frequency in the NFL.

White’s high level of effort in attempting to make catches has been clear to see this season, and his effort away from the ball has also been impressive.

Although he has incurred multiple holding penalties in the process, his impact as a perimeter run-blocker on the WVU offense has been largely positive. He’s been able to use his size to effectively create separation between runners and defenders, like he did on the following play against Maryland to spring Mountaineers running back Rushel Shell to a 22-yard gain.

Any lingering weaknesses that White has will be quickly exposed by NFL defenses, but he’s been able to consistently mask his flaws so far as a senior.

 

Cooper vs. White: Who’s the Better Prospect?

There’s no clear answer to that question, so the matter of which receiver is drafted first, assuming Cooper declares for the draft after his junior season, could come down to the preference of whichever team decides to be the first to pick a pass-catcher.

Cooper, who was headlined as the draft class’ top receiver prospect while White was still in the process of rising to prominence, has so far done exactly what he needed to do in his third season at Alabama to prove himself worthy of a top-10 pick.

A crisp route-runner who glides in the open field, Cooper has been catching the ball consistently this year and making big plays. He ranks fourth nationally with 62 receptions and 908 receiving yards.

Cooper’s lateral quickness gives him the ability White does not have to create dynamic plays in the open field. While White’s route running has improved significantly, he isn’t able to make the sharp breaks to the ball that Cooper can.

While Cooper is listed at the same weight as White—210 pounds—he does not exhibit the strength that White does on the field, and he is also listed two inches shorter than White at 6’1”, according to Alabama’s official athletics website. Cooper should be able to gain separation from defensive backs with more regularity than White in the NFL, but White can create more mismatches and make more contested catches.

It’s not quite a slam dunk that Cooper and White will be the first two receivers selected in the 2015 draft. Louisville senior DeVante Parker, Arizona State junior Jaelen Strong and Michigan junior Devin Funchess (who is also being projected as a tight end) are among the players who can challenge the top two for draft position.

What does appear nearly certain at this point, barring an injury or off-field setback, is that Cooper and White should both be first-round draft choices, likely both within the top 20.

That’s not a future that many would have imagined for White just a couple months ago.

 

All GIFs and screenshots were made using videos from DraftBreakdown.com (GIFs made at gfycat.com). All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.

Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

ESPN College GameDay 2014: Week 9 Schedule, Location, Predictions and More

The Ole Miss Rebels will put their SEC West aspirations to the test once again on the road Saturday, heading to Death Valley for a big-time meeting with the LSU Tigers.

Hugh Freeze's third-ranked Rebels have set the SEC on fire this season with an upset over Alabama, and they have since validated that victory with blowouts over Texas A&M and Tennessee. But LSU is feeling confident as well, coming off victories over Florida and Kentucky.

To make the battle even bigger, ESPN's College GameDay will be on hand:

The Tigers have had a rough go of things in an SEC West that they usually dominate, falling to both Mississippi State and Auburn in distasteful defeats. But while their College Football Playoff hopes might be dashed, they'll be hungry to prove themselves and spoil the Rebels' season.

All the talk in the SEC West is about everyone other than LSU, but Death Valley will be at the center of the college football world Saturday to give the Tigers a chance to thrust themselves back into the conversation.

Here's a breakdown of everything you need to know for College GameDay.

 

ESPN College GameDay Info

When: Saturday, October 25, 2014

Time (ET): 9 a.m. - 12 p.m. (preview show)

Where: Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Watch: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Note: Spread courtesy of Odds Shark, last updated Oct. 23 at 11 p.m. ET

 

Ole Miss Bound for Another Statement Win vs. LSU

The signs were there regarding Ole Miss' impending emergence into the college football elite the last time these Rebels played in Baton Rouge.

It was a team flooded with youngsters that hadn't even finished locking down the No. 1 recruiting class it would later land, but the Rebels still took a 28-20 lead into the fourth quarter. Then, Odell Beckham Jr.'s punt-return touchdown paved the way to late LSU dramatics and a Tiger win.

Every stride Freeze's team has needed to make since then, it has. Young playmakers have developed into senior leaders, and the touted recruits are now sophomores dominating the toughest conference in college football.

“I remember the atmosphere,” Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace told ESPN's Greg Ostendorf of the 2012 game. “We were playing really well. We were young and really didn’t realize what we were doing. To us, it was almost like a moral victory that we went into LSU and we played against those guys the way we did with all of the NFL talent they had on their team.” 

That 2012 loss was nearly the statement victory Ole Miss chased, but after a win over LSU last year followed by beating Alabama in 2014, that jump has already been made.

Now, there's no such thing as a moral victory for Wallace and the Rebels. They have gone from the hunter to the hunted, and LSU is hungry to do some hunting after being knocked from its perch somewhat this season.

Folks should expect to see the Tigers try and continue pounding the rock. In the last two games, LSU has rushed for a combined 498 yards. 

But Saturday might be LSU's toughest test yet in terms of running the ball. As a unit, Ole Miss is magnificent on defense, holding opponents to 4.15 yards per play—third-best in the nation. 

The Rebels' ball-hawking secondary will keep LSU chasing rushing success that won't come. Meanwhile, Ole Miss' less-than-stellar running game should receive a boost going up a Tigers defense that gives up more than 160 rushing yards per contest.

From top to bottom, Ole Miss is a much superior team in 2014, and that will show on the gridiron Saturday night—despite playing in a raucous Death Valley. 

 

Note: All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.

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College Football Picks Week 9: Odds and Spread Predictions for Top 25 Teams

A few straight weeks of Top Five showdowns and enticing upsets have college football viewers spoiled entering Week 9, but there's plenty to watch over the weekend despite a lack of the Top 10 affairs we're used to in October.

Nevertheless, some of the nation's best teams will welcome tough matchups, and there is definitely the potential there to see even more unpredictable outcomes. If Week 9 is on par with what we saw early on in the season, that much wouldn't be surprising.

Here's a quick breakdown of odds and predictions for every Top 25 game.

Note: Odds courtesy of Odds Shark, last updated Oct. 23 at 11 p.m. ET

 

Top Matchups to Watch

No. 3 Ole Miss at No. 24 LSU

The Ole Miss Rebels have already validated their win over Alabama with two impressive victories, but their brutal and unforgiving SEC schedule rears its head once again with a trip to face the LSU Tigers.

It's not a typical year for Les Miles' 24th-ranked squad, however. Usually the SEC West's biggest threat to Alabama year in and year out, the Tigers have already fallen twice to Mississippi State and Auburn.

Many wouldn't think it to be much of a surprise entering the season, but it's the Rebels of these two teams that have impressed the most. After a late comeback win to knock off the Crimson Tide, Ole Miss has throttled both Texas A&M and Tennessee—showing road prowess along with home dominance.

"Coach Freeze is doing a great job building a quality program," Miles told Houston Chronicle's Bryan Lazare. "They are a very talented team on both sides of the ball. Ole Miss has a style of team that deserves being nationally ranked and deserves the best efforts of their opponents."

LSU's run game has been a big part of its resurgence over the last two weeks, holding on at Florida before dominating Kentucky in a game many experts called upset alert on. But it will be easier said than done keeping that up against Ole Miss' vaunted front seven that features Robert Nkemdiche.

The Rebels have shown their teeth on the road already in the brutal SEC West, and they'll do so again to stay unbeaten.

Prediction: Ole Miss 30, LSU 24

 

No. 20 USC at No. 19 Utah

It's a pretty quiet college football weekend as far as ranked matchups go other than the SEC West battle in Death Valley, but a promising matchup between USC and Utah could deliver one of the best Week 9 games.

Two defeats somewhat early in the season had halted the momentum of Steve Sarkisian's team, but the Trojans got it back with an upset of then-No. 10 Arizona and Cody Kessler's seven-touchdown day against Colorado. 

Meanwhile, the Utes are flying high after toppling then-No. 8 UCLA before a two-overtime victory over Oregon State on the road had folks around the Pac-12 turning their heads.

After an incredibly productive offensive day, USC will have its hands full with a Utah defense that leads the country in sacks with more than five per game. Utah defensive end Nate Orchard—10.5 sacks on the year—leads the charge.

“They’re pretty stout up front,” USC freshman guard Viane Talamaivao told ESPN.com's Garry Paskwietz. “They get after the ball and they have good pass rushers. We’re going to have to work really hard to make sure the pocket is clean for Cody.” 

Utah will get after the passer, but it hasn't gone up against an offensive attack that is feeling as confident as USC's currently is. The Trojans won't be throwing seven touchdowns on Saturday, but it won't take seven to pull out a win over a pesky Utah team.

Prediction: USC 29, Utah 24

 

South Carolina at No. 5 Auburn

A few games into the 2014 season, this matchup had the potential of pegging the best of the SEC West against the SEC East's top team. Now, South Carolina just looks like another victim of an Auburn team set on contending for college football's most competitive division.

The Gamecocks looked set on bouncing back from a season-opening drubbing to Texas A&M when they toppled then-No. 6 Georgia, but since then, they have fallen to both Missouri and Kentucky. A South Carolina secondary with questions entering the season has been far from elite, giving up 31.4 points per contest.

Meanwhile, even in Auburn's worst performances, the Tigers have looked like College Football Playoff contenders—including a loss to Mississippi State in which the Tigers gave up chance after chance to get back in it.

South Carolina will have to overcome an Auburn offense that is quite potent at home, as the team's official Twitter recognized:

Nick Marshall has been making opponents pay with his arm more in 2014 than ever before, and that should continue against one of the worst SEC secondaries he'll face this season.

Prediction: Auburn 41, South Carolina 17

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Texas Football: The Longhorns' Blueprint for Pulling the Upset vs. Kansas State

The Longhorns have a tough task ahead of them on Saturday, when they will try to knock off the No. 11 Kansas State Wildcats on the road for the first time since 2002.

The blueprint to pulling off the upset starts with playing smart football and undoubtedly ends with emerging star Tyrone Swoopes.

Just halfway through the season, Bill Snyder's team is the last Big 12 team without an in-conference loss. Were it not for a three-point loss to then-No. 2 Auburn, the Wildcats could easily be sitting as a Top Five program.

For Charlie Strong to pull off a signature win on the road against this team, his Horns will have to play their smartest game of the season and finally figure out how to control a mobile quarterback.

More than anything, he needs his quarterback to continue to play like the star of this team.

Begin Slideshow

10 College Football Players Most Likely to Go Pro Early

As we move into the second half of the 2014 college football season, the games on the field will continue to matter. But the game beyond the game will pick up speed too. As players across America put up standout efforts, fans will begin to wonder, "Will this be the last time I see (insert star here) in our team's stadium?"

And with good reason. Underclassmen are consistently flooding from college football to the NFL ranks, whether they're ready or not. A year ago, 98 underclassmen declared for the NFL draft, and it wouldn't be a surprise if that number is matched (and then some) this spring.

We decided to take a look at 10 players who are most likely to go pro early. This information is based on their likely draft position (as noted by Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller), their overall performance and draft stock and information that is available.

It doesn't include every prominent underclassman likely to declare, nor is it a guarantee that they'll all forgo college football for NFL life. But it does give us a good idea of just which underclassmen to watch for the rest of this season.

Begin Slideshow

Tough Penn State Environment Will Test J.T. Barrett, Young Ohio State Team

J.T. Barrett and No. 13 Ohio State will hit the road this Saturday to face one of the country's stingiest defenses in a matchup against Penn State.

The Nittany Lions—fueled by outstanding linebacker Mike Hull—have a formidable defensive front. Opposing offenses have withered against the unit, as Penn State ranks first nationally in run defense and sixth overall in scoring and total defense.

But the toughest challenge for Urban Meyer's young team might not be on the field, but surrounding it.

According to James Grega of The Lantern, Meyer has the Buckeyes preparing for the toughest and most hostile road environment they'll see all season.

“This is one of those ones that is one of the top 10, really top five in the country places,” Meyer said, via Grega. “It is hard to get ready for this one but we have had some good practices and the one thing about our setup out here (is) we can get some noise pumped in pretty good.”

That noise has been simulated in practice—piped through big speakers to get the team ready for the deafening and unwavering roar that will ring through their helmets for three-and-a-half hours Saturday night.

Penn State and its famed "White Out" have thwarted Ohio State in the past. Back in 2005, the sixth-ranked Buckeyes made the trip to Happy Valley to face off against the Nittany Lions under the lights. Troy Smith and an explosive offense were overwhelmed by the atmosphere in a 17-10 loss.

After the game, Penn State receiver Deon Butler said the atmosphere "was pure pandemonium." Two years later, former Buckeyes players remembered that night—and the crowd—vividly.

That's what awaits the Buckeyes Saturday night, and it has to be one of Meyer's top concerns. With a two-deep roster stocked with first- and second-year players who have never experienced the Penn State atmosphere, it will be key for the young guns—primarily Barrett—to settle in.

Meyer is hoping a week of music-filled practices will help, but he'll also rely on his upperclassmen to lead the way. According to Tim Shoemaker of Eleven Warriors, junior tight end Nick Vannett is confident the Buckeyes will be ready.

We’ve prepared for it. We see that every time we play at home. It’s gonna be different because they’re gonna be pretty loud like they were when we played them in the ‘12 season. We’ve prepared for that during practice and we’ve had crowd noise out there. We’ve gone on silent count on offense and we’ve done really well with that and we’re gonna go in prepared and be ready for it.

To their credit, the young guns are eager to experience what everyone is talking about. 

"I’ve been talking to everybody all year about how Penn State is supposed to be the craziest environment," sophomore defensive end Joey Bosa said, via Shoemaker. "We play in front of 108,000 people every weekend so it kinda sucks when we go away and they don’t have an environment like that so I’m pretty excited.”

Bosa and the rest of the underclassmen only need to wait a bit longer to experience that atmosphere and hear the roar themselves. And if things go the way Meyer and the Buckeyes plan, they'll get to listen as that roar fades into silence.

 

All stats via NCAA.com.  

David Regimbal covers Ohio State football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Miami vs. Virginia Tech: Game Grades, Analysis for Hurricanes and Hokies

Duke Johnson ran for a career-high of 249 yards in leading the Miami Hurricanes to their first road victory of the season with a 30-6 defeat of the Virginia Tech Hokies. 

Freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya completed just seven of 16 passes for 92 yards and a touchdown, but Miami ran for 364 yards and forced three turnovers in completely dismantling the Hokies. 

Miami returns home next week to face North Carolina. The Hokies host Boston College.

Here are the grades and analysis for both teams after Miami's dominating win. 

 

Miami Hurricanes Grade Analysis

Pass Offense: Brad Kaaya attempted just 16 passes, completing only seven of them, but he didn't make a mistake. He missed some deep balls in the first half that cost the Hurricanes some points. 

Run Offense: Johnson was outstanding. He couldn't be stopped. His backup, Gus Edwards, had a big night, too, rushing for 115 yards and two touchdowns. Give Miami's offensive line a lot of credit for this dominant performance. 

Pass Defense: The Hurricanes held the Hokies to just 142 yards passing, many of which came in the last two minutes with the game already decided. Miami's pass rush gave Michael Brewer problems all night. 

Run Defense: Marshawn Williams ran for 100 yards, 41 of which came on one play. The Hurricanes forced three fumbles. One of the forced fumbles came at Miami's 2-yard line, preventing a Tech comeback. 

Special Teams: The 'Canes had an extra point blocked, but punter Justin Vogel did a nice job of pinning the Hokies back on several of his punts. The 'Canes did nothing in the return game. 

Coaching: The Hurricanes came into this game with an outstanding game plan: feed Duke Johnson and be aggressive on defense. The only coaching move that should be questioned is Al Golden keeping Johnson in the game late in the fourth quarter. 

 

Virginia Tech Hokies Grades Analysis

Pass Offense: Michael Brewer was abysmal. The play-calling was conservative. The Hokies need to entertain a permanent quarterback change or their hopes of going to a bowl will end soon. 

Run Offense: Williams returned and ran for 100 yards. However, his fumble near the goal line in the third quarter stopped the Hokies' momentum. It was a crucial turnover for Virginia Tech. 

Pass Defense: The Hokies did a good job with their pass defense. Miami passed for just 92 yards, but Kaaya missed a couple of open receivers who could have scored. Tech's secondary tackled well. 

Run Defense: One of the worst performances in school history. Bud Foster is likely embarrassed and will spend all week trying to fix this. However, it's tough on Foster's defense when other teams are always playing ahead, wearing down VT's smaller defensive line. 

Special Teams: The Hokies blocked an extra point, but the game was already decided. Freshman Greg Stroman and Deon Newsome each flashed in the return game. 

Coaching: Another big loss for head coach Frank Beamer. It didn't appear the Hokies were unprepared; the Hurricanes were just much better. Youth and injuries played a part in Tech's struggles, but it must find a way to stop the bleeding. That begins with the coaching staff. Play-calling remains an issue. 

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