The Week 8 schedule ahead is the perfect time to check in on two Power 5 conferences that haven’t gotten a lot of love this season.
The Big 12 and Pac-12 have been rocked by realignment plans the past two offseasons, but the conferences currently have two of the most intriguing championship races in the country.
Following a double-overtime win against Oklahoma State, TCU has taken the reins of the Big 12. It doesn’t get any easier for the Horned Frogs, however, as they welcome a ranked Kansas State team to Fort Worth on Saturday.
UCLA announced its plans to leave the Pac-12 this offseason, but it appears the Bruins have their eyes on a conference crown before jumping ship. Standing in their way is a top-10 Oregon team that has bounced back from an opening week blowout loss to Georgia. The top-10 matchup in Eugene will go a long way in deciding which of these teams will be making a Pac-12 championship game appearance — if not both.
Of course, the SEC and ACC also have ranked matchups this week that will define the teams’ seasons. Clemson meets upstart Syracuse, while both Mississippi State and Alabama are looking to bounce back after losses. Oh, and Ole Miss travels to LSU in an age-old rivalry.
Plenty to keep track of this week; here are the top storylines from the best games.
No. 9 UCLA Bruins at No. 10 Oregon Ducks (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, Fox)
The script that’s been written for this matchup has all the makings of a good one before the first snap is even taken: two top-10 teams each coming off bye weeks. UCLA coach Chip Kelly returning to Oregon, where he was head coach for four seasons. UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Bo Nix going head-to-head. GameDay on site. The winner gaining the inside track to the Pac-12 championship.
“We know it’s going to be electric here, and that’s something we can count on to our advantage,” Oregon safety Bennett Williams said.
“We live for games like this,” Thompson-Robinson said.
While Kelly has gone above and beyond to eliminate the emotion from this matchup, it’s safe to say every Oregon coach since Kelly left for the NFL has had to work in the shadow of what Kelly did in green. Dan Lanning is the latest, and he knows he’s going up against an offense that is starting to show shades of those Ducks teams under Kelly, especially when it comes to the quarterback.
“We really haven’t played anybody quite like him, in my opinion,” Lanning said this week. “He’s a dynamic player. Any time he touches the ball, it can turn into an explosive play. So that’s showing up for them.”
Lanning said he’s seen similarities between DTR and the Ducks’ Nix in terms of how they’re executing each offense’s vision from game to game. The stats bear out some similarities as well. Both have thrown for over 1,500 yards so far this season; Thompson-Robinson has 15 touchdowns and two interceptions to Nix’s 12 touchdowns and three interceptions, while Nix has run the ball for 330 yards and eight touchdowns and Thompson-Robinson has 231 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
The quarterback duel is, of course, only part of the fun. Both teams lead the conference in rushing defense and are going to be facing tough matchups in UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet and Oregon’s Bucky Irving (who transferred from Minnesota) — both lead the top two rushing attacks in the conference, too.
Between Charbonnet, Thompson-Robinson and players like offensive lineman Jon Gaines II, among others, Kelly finds himself with a veteran team that’s finally turning his process into results. It’s allowed the Bruins to be in this position as the surprise team in the conference. But after beating Washington and Utah in consecutive weeks and announcing themselves as a legitimate contender, they won’t be surprising anyone anymore — especially the Ducks. — Paolo Uggetti
No. 14 Syracuse Orange at No. 5 Clemson Tigers (Saturday, noon ET, ABC/ESPN app)
After Clemson’s season-opening win against Georgia Tech, DJ Uiagalelei was mad. He’d actually played well, a sneak peek at what would be a remarkable turnaround in 2022, but there was one area of his game that hadn’t measured up. Clemson dialed up 10 designed runs for Uiagalelei and he mustered just 38 yards. It could’ve been so much more.
“If I’d just gotten my knees up, I could’ve gotten a lot more yards,” he said.
Call it prophetic. In the six games since, those yards have come.
Uiagalelei’s ability to run was one of Clemson’s big talking points this offseason as the QB shed more than 30 pounds in a quest to be more athletic on the field. He’s also gotten healthy, after dealing with a bum knee for most of last season.
The results speak for themselves.
Through seven games, Uiagalelei already has more yards (319) on designed runs in 2022 than he had in 13 games last season (312). Discounting sacks, Uiagalelei has rushed for 60 yards or more in four of his past five games, something he hadn’t managed in any of his prior 17 starts. He’s had at least eight designed runs against every FBS team he’s played this season. He hit that mark just four times last year.
“I love running the ball,” Uiagalelei said. “For me, it’s fun. It’s another dimension the defense has to play. The quarterback run is another thing they have to worry about, and it opens up the running lanes for the running backs as well.”
And yes, the weight loss has helped considerably. Last season, Uiagalelei was responsible for just 12 missed tackles all year, according to Pro Football Focus. This year, he’s already made 25 defenders look silly.
“I don’t believe in sliding,” Uiagalelei joked this week.
No one will mistake Uiagalelei for an elite runner — like this week’s opposing QB, Garrett Shrader — but the mere threat is enough to force defenses to reconsider how they want to attack the Tigers. That’s been a boon for the entire offense in 2022.
“Any time you have that extra hat to run the ball, it creates tougher situations for the defense,” offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter said. “Whether it influences one way and you go the other or you just load up and gain an extra blocker. There’s a lot of ways to manipulate the defense when you have a guy that’s willing to run and healthy enough to run. And that’s what DJ has been able to do this year.” — David M. Hale
No. 24 Mississippi State Bulldogs at No. 6 Alabama Crimson Tide (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN app)
Expect the penalty flags to fly Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama’s 66 accepted penalties are the most of any team in the FBS this season, while Mississippi State is tied for 26th most with 48.
And while we’re on the subject of driving coaches wild, look for plenty of drops, too. Alabama is tied for the most dropped passes in the FBS with 21, while Mississippi State is 30th with 14.
So whoever shoots themselves in the foot least wins, right?
It’s obviously more complicated than that.
The outcome could be decided in large part by which defense is most effective getting to the quarterback. Because Mississippi State’s Will Rogers and Alabama’s Bryce Young are two of the best QBs in the country this season. Rogers has thrown for the third-most passing yards in the FBS (2,324). Young, meanwhile, ranks eighth nationally in QBR (86.1).
Both defenses have shown they have the ability to get into the backfield. With star edge rushers Will Anderson Jr. and Dallas Turner, Alabama has the highest rate of sacks per pass attempt in the SEC at 8.2%.
Mississippi State, on the other hand, is in the top five of the SEC in pressure percentage, affecting 28.1% of dropbacks.
“Their defense is very aggressive, creates a lot of turnovers, do a lot of pressuring the quarterback,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
And the Bulldogs can throw a lot at you. Nathaniel Watson and Tyrus Wheat are both in the top 10 in the SEC in sacks. Randy Charlton, Collin Duncan and Nathan Pickering have two sacks apiece as well. — Alex Scarborough
Paul Finebaum calls out Nick Saban and the Alabama coaches for the team’s struggles.
No. 7 Ole Miss Rebels at LSU Tigers (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, ever the Twitter troll, has been known to poke fun at his old boss Nick Saban at any mention of rat poison, and Kiffin has his own string of Twitter emojis symbolizing rat poison saved for whenever something gets out there on social media that might rise to that level.
Well, here’s an obvious one: With a win Saturday over LSU, Ole Miss can start 8-0 in a season for the first time since the 1962 SEC championship team (national champions by a few non-NCAA recognized outlets) finished 10-0. It remains the only unbeaten and untied team in school history.
Now, nobody is suggesting that Ole Miss is bearing down on its first national championship in six decades, especially with the Rebels about to hit the teeth of their schedule. Three of their last five games are on the road, and the home games are against Alabama and Mississippi State. But it’s an Ole Miss team that does a lot of things it takes to be in title contention.
The Rebels run the ball as well as anybody. They’re third nationally in rushing offense with an average of 271.4 yards per game. Quinshon Judkins (720) and Zach Evans (605) are the only pair of teammates in the country with more than 600 rushing yards each.
The Rebels make big plays on offense and don’t give up many on defense. They’re one of three teams nationally along with Alabama and Florida State with 50 or more plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or longer and 25 or fewer plays allowed of 20 yards or longer.
The Rebels also force turnovers and are tied for 13th nationally with 13 turnovers gained.
Yes, all of this is rat poison.
The Rebels also have a coach in Kiffin who’s not going to be afraid to go for it on fourth down and has a track record of making sure his players play loose and instinctively as the games get bigger.
Kiffin, whose Ole Miss team has won 11 straight regular-season games dating back to last season, said this week that LSU was the “most talented opponent by far” the Rebels have faced this season.
The Tigers (5-2) have flashed that talent at different points, but they’ve also been wildly inconsistent. They were exposed in the offensive line (among other places) in their 40-13 beatdown by Tennessee two weeks ago. They had to rally from a 17-0 deficit at Auburn three weeks ago to win 21-17.
But through some of the hiccups, Brian Kelly has been able to hold it together enough that LSU has won five of its past six games after the season-opening loss to Florida State. The latest was a 45-35 win at Florida last week, the Tigers’ highest-scoring output against an FBS team this season with quarterback Jayden Daniels accounting for six touchdowns and 349 passing yards. LSU is hopeful that running back Armoni Goodwin (hamstring) can return to the lineup this week along with receiver Jack Bech.
Kelly knew it would take time for Daniels to feel completely comfortable in a new system, especially in the passing game. It was Daniels’ assertiveness in the Florida game that jumped out most to Kelly, who’s eager to see if LSU can build on the Florida win after getting embarrassed at home two weeks ago by Tennessee.
“We want to be able to put together good performances back to back, and we haven’t been able to do that yet,” Kelly said. “It’s been kind of grinding out a game.” — Chris Low
No. 17 Kansas State Wildcats at No. 8 TCU Horned Frogs (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, FS1)
TCU and Kansas State are atop the Big 12 because of a redemption season for each of their quarterbacks under new offensive coordinators.
Wildcats QB Adrian Martinez, a four-year starter at Nebraska, threw 45 touchdowns to 30 interceptions for the Huskers before transferring to K-State this offseason, where he has thrown for 900 yards with four TDs and zero interceptions this season. Kansas State coach Chris Klieman said new offensive coordinator Collin Klein deserves a lot of credit for his transformation.
“Part of it is his maturity, the fact that he’s played so much football and I think coach Klein is putting them in some really good situations and calls to be successful and us trying to stay ahead of the chains and not being in a bunch of third-and-eight-plus, where you might typically force the ball, and being in a lot more third and shorts,” Klieman said. “It opens up the playbook a little bit more and he’s making good decisions.”
TCU’s Max Duggan, who threw 41 touchdowns to 20 interceptions in his first three seasons in Fort Worth, has thrown for 1,591 yards with 16 touchdowns and one interception under offensive coordinator Garrett Riley.
“I think it’s a credit to where Duggan is at and how he’s playing because he’s making them go,” Klieman said.
Horned Frogs coach Sonny Dykes said Duggan will have to continue to be efficient because Kansas State controls the time of possession and TCU won’t have that many opportunities. The Wildcats have called designed run plays on 57% of their snaps.
“We still have too many three-and-outs,” Dykes said, despite TCU scoring a touchdown on 46% of its offensive drives, the fifth-highest rate in FBS. “We’re not going to get many opportunities, so we have to be able to take advantage.”
To his point, Kansas State has allowed a TD on just 13% of its opponents drives, eighth best in the FBS.
The winner will be in the driver’s seat down the stretch in the Big 12 race, with one of these two teams suffering its first conference loss Saturday. — Dave Wilson