The biggest games of college football Week 8 turned out to be duds, although fans of Florida and Kansas State weren’t complaining, as their teams sent loud and clear messages to skeptics (in the case of Florida, those skeptics included this space) about their national championship bona fides. But beyond the Gators and Wildcats, there were some thrilling finishes in games that still stand to impact who wins conference championships. So let’s begin in the Big Ten, where three games went down to the wire…
Last week, TheSportsNotebook looked at what promised to be a big Saturday in the Big Ten’s Legends Division and the games didn’t disappoint. Nebraska rallied from 28-16 down to win a road game at Northwestern 29-28. The difference in the game was at quarterback. Taylor Martinez threw for 342 yards for the Cornhuskers, while Trevor Siemian was wildly erratic for the Wildcats, going 15-for-35 for 116 yards.
The Michigan-Michigan State game was a defensive battle, but the Wolverines ultimately won a last-second field goal 12-10, because Denard Robinson rushed for 96 yards, while Michigan State couldn’t get workhorse running back Le’Veon Bell into the offense. Michigan joined Nebraska as the frontrunners in the division, a status that would not be challenged by Iowa, who was badly outclassed by Penn State.
Penn State is on probation and ineligible for the Leaders Division title on the other side of the conference, as is Ohio State. The Buckeyes barely escaped a home game with Purdue—the same Boilermakers who were blown out by Michigan and Wisconsin at home, went into Columbus and led 22-14 late in the game with OSU quarterback Braxton Miller knocked out. Backup QB Kenny Guiton tossed a three-yard touchdown pass and two-point conversion to close regulation and then helped his team win in overtime 29-22.
So Ohio State remains undefeated and Penn State continues to impress, but Wisconsin is starting to look like a team that could win the Leaders Division by merit and not just through the backdoor of opponents’ probations. The Badgers’ running game was in high gear for the third week in a row, as Monte Ball and James White ran wild in an easy win over Minnesota. Despite Ball’s slow start, the complete lack of Heisman candidates right now, mean he and other slow-starting contenders can get a mulligan as we enter the homestretch.
Here’s a quick look at the rest of the country…
Big 12: The Heisman race is open again because West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith played his worst game of the season at home against Kansas State for a national audience. Smith, who had not been picked off all season, threw two to K-State and only passed for 155 yards.
And if we’re looking for replacements for Smith in the Heisman race, his own league is a place to start. Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein threw for 323 yards in his team’s 55-14 demolition. Texas Tech’s Seth Doege had another big game in leading the Red Raiders to a 56-53 triple-overtime win over TCU. And if we’re talking about preseason contenders getting second chances, Oklahoma’s Landry Jones is coming on strong, as his team rolled Kansas in anticipation of next week’s game with Notre Dame.
Pac-12: No one’s Heisman star shone brighter at the start of the season than USC quarterback Matt Barkley. He’s yet to have a game that makes anyone go “wow”, but he’s yet to really stink the joint out either. Barkley was a cool 19/20 for 298 yards in making easy pickings of Colorado on Saturday and his biggest games—Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon, Notre Dame—are all ahead. Barkley has plenty of time to win this award.
The contenders in the Pac-12 North all held form. Oregon hammered South-leading Arizona State on Thursday night, its 43-21 win keyed by 406 rush yards. Stanford muscled Cal 21-3 because Stephan Taylor ran for 189 yards and Cal’s Isi Sofele went nowhere all day. Oregon State did not play well, failing to get its running game going and living off the turnover, but they beat Utah 21-7. When we’re talking about Oregon State not playing well, but still winning, you know it’s a nice season in Corvallis.
SEC: I’m not sure what team that was wearing South Carolina uniforms on Saturday in Gainesville, but I’m still in shock at the 44-11 beatdown they took at the hands of Florida. The worst part of it is that the Gamecocks defense played well, stopping Mike Gillislee and the Gator ground attack. But turnovers did them in early and with two teams that run the ball and play defense, a 21-3 halftime deficit keyed by points off turnovers is going to get ugly.
Speaking of ugly, LSU and Georgia kept their own division title hopes alive, although neither one left Alabama or Florida quaking in their boots. LSU was slopping at Texas A&M, committing 13 penalties, falling behind 12-0 and eventually needing five turnovers to bail them out 24-19.
Georgia needed a sterling day from Aaron Murray (30/38, 427 yards, four touchdowns) to escape Kentucky 29-24 in a game where the Wildcats controlled the line of scrimmage. Regardless of how it looked though, both teams control their destiny to get to Atlanta.
Oh, and Alabama? The Tide just keeping winning, as A.J. McCarron picked apart Tennessee, the Tide defense didn’t allow any run support for beleaguered Vol quarterback Tyler Bray and it was an easy win for ‘Bama.
ACC: The Atlantic Division held sway and in decisive fashion. Florida State and Clemson easily knocked off Miami and Virginia Tech respectively, both of whom are in the Coastal Division. FSU shot itself in the foot with penalties, but saved themselves by dominating the soft Miami run defense. N.C. State kept pace with both the Seminoles and Tigers with a tough 20-18 win over Clemson.
The losses of Virginia Tech and Miami continue to show how soft the Coastal is and Duke is still a player. The Blue Devils beat North Carolina 33-30 on a last-minute touchdown. More surprising is that Duke found its edge on the ground, with Josh Snead rushing for 99 yards. Duke is now—get ready for this—in first place.
Big East: Each of the league’s top three teams got stiff challenges and only two survived. Quarterback play was notable all three times. Rutgers dug a 10-0 hole against Temple, but pulled away in the second half to win 35-10 because sophomore QB Gary Nova was 17/27 for 252 yards and no mistakes. Louisville’s exciting Teddy Bridgewater threw a last-second TD pass to beat South Florida 27-25.
Cincinnati’s Munchie Legaux had a rough day, going only 15/36 for 227 yards, as the Bearcats fell from the ranks of the unbeaten. Fortunately, it was not a conference game, as their 29-23 defeat came at the hands of Toledo.
The Best Of The Rest: In the preview of last week’s marquee games, I included UL Monroe-Western Kentucky, along with Florida-South Carolina and Kansas State-West Virginia. In light of how things played out, maybe that was insulting to the Sun Belt teams.
Monroe and Western played a true championship battle. UL-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning threw for 308 yards and was also his team’s only running threat, with 69 yards. He tied the game late in regulation, then the Warhawks won it in overtime, 43-42.
We’ve also got front-runners in Conference USA, with Tulsa in the West and East Carolina in the East, both behind the quality work of their running backs. Ja’terian Douglas put up 169 yards in Tulsa’s win over Rice. ECU’s Vintavious Cooper ran for 172 yards s his team routed UAB. There’s a long way to go, especially in an unpredictable league like this one, but the Golden Hurricane and Pirates have been the most consistent in their respective divisions.
Finally, let’s close with some kudos to Bob Davie. The former Notre Dame coach (1997-2001) and ESPN analyst took on the perpetual rebuilding project at New Mexico and has produced a team that is at least hanging tough. They dropped a tough 28-23 decision to Air Force on Saturday, but are still 4-4 on the year and playing competitive football. And they certainly know how to run the ball, with Kasey Carrier rushing for 338 yards by himself on Saturday. Heck, let’s put him in the Heisman race. It’s a discussion that needs names right now.