Plot threads to track in Week 8. Competitive football games are going to be few and far between this weekend, so treasure these first four.
• No. 4 Wisconsin @ No. 15 Michigan State: There are so many questions here, and somehow, not knowing doesn’t bother me. This is one of those games I’m just giddy to see unfold, and given the quality of most of the rest of the Week 8 matchups, this game could not possibly arrive at a more opportune moment.
We’re still very much getting a feel for what these two squads are made of; both have been beneficiaries of mostly easygoing early slates. The Badgers’ biggest test was against the overrated Cornhuskers, whom they thumped 48-17. From here on out they get the Spartans, a depleted Ohio State and a ranked Illinois team I still don’t believe is going to stay that way. Many of the same questions can be asked of the Spartans, whose caliber was all but unknown heading into last week’s ferocious game against Michigan. In the middle of their 2011 gauntlet they get this, Nebraska in Week 9 and then a downhill run to Indianapolis in December. The possibility that wrung so many hands when Nebraska joined could easily come to pass in the first year of a partitioned Big Ten: a rematch in the conference championship game.
On paper, it’s almost too perfect. A team allowing less than 10 points per game and scoring more than 50 versus a team allowing slightly more than 10 points per game while scoring almost 30. Looking at those numbers, it’s hard not to give Wisconsin the edge, but so many juicy what-ifs remain. Can the Heisman candidate quarterback slice and dice the country’s top-ranked pass defense? Can the Spartans contain Montee Ball as they did Denard Robinson? We’re not gonna know until we know, and I can’t wait to find out.
For additional reading material, check out Andy Staples’ touching anecdote of Kirk Cousins taking his linemen on a buffet crawl.
Other necessary events
• No. 22 Washington @ No. 7 Stanford: It’s a virtual elimination game for position in the Pac-12 North, with an amped-up unknown factor: The Cardinal and Huskies represent the strongest opponents either team has faced thus far in the 2011 regular season. The Ducks and Trojans still await both teams in the weeks to come; for now, nothing is certain. As an added entertainment bonus, this one could end up being the closest Pac-12 equivalent to a Friday-night WAC game you’ll find this week: Nobody’s saying the Cardinal won’t prevail, of course, but they’re down starting strong safety Delano Howell, who is out with a hand injury and being replaced by a sophomore free safety. Washington’s Keith Price is the nation’s fifth-most efficient passer, just two slots behind some guy named “Andrew Luck.” The Huskies have been downright miserable against the pass themselves, allowing over 300 aerial yards per game, but watching them wing it down after down to keep up, even if they’re not successful, will make for appointment television.
• No. 19 Auburn @ No. 1 LSU: The Tigers (of the Bayou Bengal variety) are welcoming Auburn into Death Valley down three key players and fighting a recent history of losing at least two games per season no matter how good they look in September. The Tigers (of the defending national champion variety) are debuting a brand-new starting quarterback against a top five defense, but have a bizarrely consistent history of winning close games it perhaps looks like they shouldn’t have. What will tip the balance, one way or another? It’s gotta be these Lisa Frank Pro Combat gloves, right?
• USC @ Notre Dame: There are only three games between two ranked teams in Week 8; the attention void that might otherwise be filled with intriguing matchups from lesser-known teams will instead be occupied by the resumption of the Trojans-Irish rivalry, with both teams uncomfortably positioned outside the Top 25. In a rare night game in South Bend, with kickoff scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET, can Notre Dame put together the smallest of rivalry win streaks after eight years of consecutive losses in this series? A late interception saved the game for the Irish to snap the skid in 2010, but ND could have a real edge this season thanks to USC’s recent puzzling defensive letdowns. That Irish secondary hasn’t been a world-beating unit this year, but if the Trojans haven’t managed to fine-tune their own pass defense, Tommy Rees and Michael Floyd could make it a very long night on the road.
Intrigue in the undercards
It’s about that time of the year where the pundit class begins to gnash its collective molars at the thought of five or six of the 10 remaining undefeated teams entering December with no losses, and for each of those 10 to be on guard against trap games. No. 8 Clemson hosts UNC, almost an afterthought since the unexpected onset of the Everett Withers era, and will tempt fate by celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Tigers’ 1981 national championship team at the game. No. 3 Oklahoma will need to shake the mental cobwebs that slowed last week’s game against Kansas (yes, there can be things wrong with a 47-17 victory, especially when playing the Jayhawks) and not sleepwalk early against Texas Tech. And No. 6 Oklahoma State, undefeated but pegged to fall out of the top 10 faster than any other, faces the next in a tricky series of hurdles against Missouri.
Non-AQ not-to-be-missed tilts of the week
If actual compelling football is your poison, tune into SMU at USM — or, as the message boards like to call it, SoMeth at SoMiss — for a possible preview of this year’s Conference USA championship game. In Ypsilanti, Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan will battle for the title of Most Supreme And Feared Directional Michigan Squad. Louisiana Tech at Utah State may feature the year’s most interesting matchup between two two-win teams, and I really do mean interesting. And tune into Marshall-Houston, if you have the time, just to see how badly Case Keenum runs the score up on a pack of defenders who think bragging about knocking starting quarterbacks out of games makes up for losing four games in seven weeks.
Not for human consumption
In the ever-increasing desperation to brand every last weekend in the college football season as something distinctly different, might I suggest “Splatterhouse Saturday” for Week 8? Will Kansas, Ole Miss, New Mexico, Minnesota, Colorado, or Tennessee lose to Kansas State, Arkansas, TCU, Nebraska, Oregon, or Alabama by a margin of less than three touchdowns? If you’re feeling particularly morbid, check out how Kentucky’s doing against the 5-1 Jacksonville State Gamecocks, currently residing atop the FCS’ Ohio Valley Conference leaderboard.
I’d say the post-10 p.m. offerings of Oregon State-Washington State and Hawaii-New Mexico State are of subpar quality, but last night that sentiment earned us all a streaker dressed as a ref and a sideline-clearing brawl. C’mon Beavers; make us believers! (In what, we’re not quite sure.)
SI.com in the field
Stewart Mandel will be manning the Pac-12 this weekend, taking in Washington-Stanford. Andy Staples is in Big Ten country for Wisconsin-Michigan State. I’m bound for Tuscaloosa as soon as I save this draft, to see if Tennessee can pull off two weirdly close losses in a row against wildly superior Alabama teams. (SPOILER ALERT: THE VOLS PROBABLY CANNOT DO THIS.) Y’all be good out there.