College Football

Top 25 Storylines to Watch Heading into Week 8

Jonathan McDanalContributor IIIOctober 15, 2013

Top 25 Storylines to Watch Heading into Week 8

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    Fluidity is college football's greatest asset. It's also the sport's greatest liability. Each week teams, coaches and players jockey for position. From the Heisman race to the coach's seat, the stories are what make college football great.

    Watching undefeated teams fall, underdogs pull off massive upsets and true freshmen lighting up scoreboards like they're veterans never gets old. From shifts in conference power to a potential history-making season, here are the 25 top storylines to watch in Week 8.

25. The First of the Last BCS Standings

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    Who will lead the pack when the first BCS standings are released? Through Week 7, Jerry Palm has Alabama and Oregon at the top of the list.

    For now, that sounds reasonable. Alabama is the reigning champ with victories over quality teams Texas A&M and Virginia Tech. Oregon is one of the most statistically dominant teams in the nation, with a solid three-touchdown win over the ranked Washington Huskies.

    However, the Clemson Tigers beat Georgia when it was at full health, and the No. 3 Tigers take on No. 4 Florida State in Week 8. Will the winner of that game jump the Ducks?

    In the computer rankings, probably. However, it will have to be a dominating victory to sway voters away from the Ducks' balance of offense and defense. It's not easy to jump a team that's posting an average win of roughly 57-14.

24. Who's Winning the Heisman Race?

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    The Heisman watch list looks like this, per ESPN:

    1. Marcus Mariota (QB, Oregon)
    2. Tajh Boyd (QB, Clemson)
    3. Johnny Manziel (QB, Texas A&M)
    4. Jameis Winston (QB, Florida State)
    5. Teddy Bridgewater (QB, Louisville)

    The storyline ranks so low because the race has barely even begun. Bridgewater's wins haven't looked very good, but his stats are phenomenal (191.8 efficiency rating so far).

    Winston, Boyd and Mariota each controls his own destiny for the national title game, and Manziel is the reigning Heisman winner. Any of these players could take the hardware home, but nobody is a lock yet.

    Aaron Murray, Lache Seastrunk, Sean Mannion, Bryce Petty, Brett Hundley and Bishop Sankey are all on the radar, and there are plenty of dark-horse candidates like AJ McCarron waiting to take over if anyone falters.

    This storyline will get more important as the season progresses.

23. Will the Old Dominion Monarchs Finally Get an FBS Win?

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    Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

    Old Dominion has the 2012 Walter Payton Award winner, Taylor Heinicke, at quarterback, but he has failed to produce a win over an FBS squad to date. He has three opportunities left: Pittsburgh, Idaho and North Carolina.

    Idaho is probably his best shot, but Pitt has proven to be one of the most inconsistent teams in the country. It can put up almost 60 points on Duke's No. 52 defense but turn around and scrounge just 14 off Virginia's, ranked 71st.

    Old Dominion is engaged in a transitional schedule with lots of FCS opponents, but that first FBS win is still going to be one of the sweetest victories in school history. Week 8 is another chance to make it happen in 2013.

22. USC Trojans' Coaching Situation

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    Is USC's coaching search still on, or can interim head coach Ed Orgeron do well enough to keep it himself? 

    A win over Notre Dame would certainly be a feather in his cap. However, that is an extremely tall order for the 4-2 Trojans, especially in South Bend.

    This whole situation compares well to Auburn over the past few seasons. Gene Chizik won a national title with Gus Malzahn as the offensive coordinator in 2011. Chizik got canned in 2012, and Malzahn was hired away from Arkansas State to replace him.

    If Orgeron continues to win, the coaching search may be called off before the end of the season. Even USC athletic director Pat Haden confirmed this (via Dan Greenspan of NFL.com), though he did pump the brakes when he said, "It's only been a week. We'll all be happy until we aren't happy." 

    This situation is worth watching, at least for the next few weeks.

21. Notre Dame's Confirmation Season

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    Speaking of 4-2, Notre Dame shares that exact record with the USC Trojans. Brian Kelly is still trying to build a solid, annually consistent program with the Irish, and a win over USC would do great things for their image.

    Both teams have struggled this season, but the Irish are still perceived as one of the better teams in the country (Jeff Sagarin ranks them at No. 33). A loss here would really hurt them on the recruiting trail, which is where they need the most help right now.

    Can Notre Dame still confirm itself among the elite?

20. Terry Bowden's Construction of the Akron Zips

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    Will this be the week that the Zips finally close the deal against an FBS squad? Akron has narrowly lost games against Michigan, Louisiana-Lafayette and Northern Illinois this season.

    Terry Bowden has something special brewing in Akron, but the question still remains: When will the Zips get that signature win? The team is no longer a complete pushover, but the players need to see success at least once this season.

    They have a road game against the Miami Redhawks in Week 8, and this could be that win. The Redhawks have the country's 97th-ranked defense and second-worst offense. Note to Akron: The iron is hot.

19. Are the Utah Utes for Real?

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    Utah is coming off a huge win over the Stanford Cardinal. Can the Utes repeat the feat against Arizona? The Wildcats aren't ranked nearly as highly as Stanford, but there's always a chance that the Cardinal were looking past the Utes.

    Arizona isn't good enough to overlook anyone, let alone the team that knocked a Pac-12 favorite out of the Top 5. Utah will try to avoid a "letdown game."

    Was it simply a stellar performance, or was it a true indication of Utah's strength? The Arizona game will answer that question, and it could push the Utes into the AP Top 25.

18. Washington Huskies on the Rebound

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    Can the Huskies put their losses in the rear-view mirror and get their season back on track?

    They are taking on the Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday. Washington is on the rebound after back-to-back losses to Stanford and Oregon, the former Pac-12 favorites. (Now, it's just Oregon followed by everyone else.)

    Both teams are capable of winning this game, but only one will walk away with a story to tell. The loser will fade into relative obscurity, waiting for next year's chapter to begin.

17. Will It Be Upset City in College Station?

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    Auburn already has more wins than it did last season, but can the Tigers upset Texas A&M? Nobody has completely outclassed Auburn this season, and mighty LSU won by just 14 points.

    This isn't the first time I've said this: The Tigers will ruin someone's BCS hopes before the season is over. It could have been Texas A&M, Georgia or Alabama before Week 7, but Georgia is practically out of the picture after injuries erased half its depth chart.

    That leaves A&M and Alabama. Tide fans had better root for the Tigers this week. If not, they're coming for your beloved Crimson and White on Nov. 30.

16. Butch Jones Rebuilding the Tennessee Volunteers

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    Tennessee nearly beat the Georgia Bulldogs on Oct. 5. South Carolina is next on the list of potential upset victims. Word of warning to the Gamecocks: Tennessee has gotten closer to the upset against each ranked team it has played.

    The Vols lost to Oregon by 45 points, Florida by 14 and to Georgia by three (in overtime). If the trend holds, Tennessee should win this one. (Of course, if trends were that reliable, we'd all be rich.)

    The bottom line is that Butch Jones is building something orange and scary. If Steve Spurrier and his players haven't figured out that the Vols are for real, then they will learn it firsthand on Saturday.

    Butch Jones' situation is already drawing comparisons to Hugh Freeze and the Ole Miss Rebels. A win over South Carolina would put him on the pedestal.

15. Ole Miss Rebels and the Elite Recruiting Class: Chapter 8

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    Ole Miss has home-field advantage over the LSU Tigers this season. Last year, the Tigers needed a 21-point fourth quarter to win by a measly six points. Just last week (Oct. 12), the No. 9 Texas A&M Aggies needed a last-second field goal to secure a three-point win.

    Hugh Freeze is building an SEC power right before everyone's eyes, and his team is getting better by the week, not by the season. Freeze's emergence is among the most interesting storylines in the country, and it started with the fifth-ranked recruiting class in 2013, per ESPN.

    The Rebels took a lot of the recruits away from traditional powers, which is why the SEC might be a little down this season. They may take even more if they upset LSU on Saturday. 

14. South Carolina Gamecocks and the Landscape of Opportunity

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    South Carolina is up against the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday, and the Vols are not going to roll over for the Gamecocks. As covered in the Tennessee slide, Butch Jones is waking the orange dragon from within, and it's going to get ugly for everyone else in the division quickly.

    Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks are going to have to fight tooth-and-nail for the division, and the upcoming schedule is brutal. They take on Tennessee, Missouri, Mississippi State and Florida in the next five weeks.

    At least the break is right before Florida, but South Carolina has to make it through the first three before that means anything. This division is a pile of one-loss teams, and any single game could be the deciding factor.

    Tennessee is the antagonist for Week 8, but this story will play as long as the Gamecocks keep winning.

13. LSU Tigers' Championship Hopes

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    If LSU wins out, it will be in the SEC title game. This Saturday's match isn't the toughest game on the schedule, but Ole Miss is a lethal opponent, especially if overlooked.

    Before the Tigers think about their Nov. 9 tilt against Alabama, they need to focus on getting past Hugh Freeze's squad in Oxford. 

    LSU still has to go through the most evil of geniuses, Alabama and Texas A&M, but the season hangs in the balance every week due to the fact the Tigers already have one loss.

12. Louisville Cardinals' Complete Lack of Flair

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    Louisville is running out of time, and that's putting it nicely. The Cardinals have a great shot at the BCS, but the title game depends on one thing from here on out: style points.

    They play their toughest remaining opponent, UCF, on Friday, and this is one of their last chances to play beat a team that is nationally relevant. If Louisville is going to make the championship game, it has to look like a title contender to the computers and, more importantly, the voters.

    In fact, the same thing is true for Teddy Bridgewater's potential Heisman campaign. His stats are stellar (71 percent completion, 1,872 yards, 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions), but the margin of victory is just not there.

    After Week 8, his best shot is against Houston, but the Cougars could become irrelevant by then. Both Louisville and Bridgewater need a regular-season-defining performance on Saturday. 

11. Houston's Complete Lack of Respect

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    Houston is up against a stellar BYU squad in Week 8, and the Cougar Bowl could put a second American Athletic team into the BCS Top 25. (Houston is currently projected at No. 31, so there's a lot of ground to make up.)

    Houston has a perfect opportunity to take down its second-best 2013 opponent (behind Louisville) in Week 8 and completely legitimize itself. So far, it has beaten Temple, Rice, UTSA and Memphis. None of those was a season-defining win.

    BYU, Rutgers, possibly UCF and definitely Louisville will decide the Cougars' fate for the postseason, but they are riding a reputation built on fluff at the moment. A win would lead to much more intrigue surrounding Houston. 

10. The Ohio State Buckeyes and the Quest for the Crystal Football

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    Ohio State has a trap game against Iowa on Saturday. The Buckeyes are coming off a bye week following a grind-it-out game against the Northwestern Wildcats.

    This game is even more dangerous after Week 7's events. The Penn State Nittany Lions took down undefeated Michigan and put themselves in the giant-killer category for the year. Penn State is Ohio State's next opponent after the Hawkeyes.

    This makes the Iowa game even easier to overlook, not to mention extremely dangerous. The Buckeyes are far more prolific on offense than Iowa, but that doesn't mean the Hawkeyes won't show up to play.

    It definitely doesn't mean they can't win. Always remember the 2009 Purdue game. A season is only as strong as your worst performance.

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9. Can Baylor Dominate Iowa State Like No Other Big 12 Team Has This Season?

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    On the surface, Iowa State is a 1-4 team, and Baylor is undefeated. However, the Cyclones are well acquainted with season-ruining upsets.

    This game is over before it starts...on paper, but the Cyclones have not lost a single game this season by more than one possession. They have hung with Iowa, Texas and Texas Tech so far, and Baylor could be their first victim.

    The Bears have a solid plot cooking in Waco, but a single loss can derail the entire scheme. It's an epic tale of a traditional underdog, but that 70-point offense has to return against the Cyclones. Kansas State gave them a scare, and there are three ranked opponents coming back-to-back-to-back in early November.

    Baylor needs to use Iowa State as target practice to gain voters' confidence heading into the meat of its schedule.

8. Will Texas Tech Put West Virginia in Its Place?

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    Texas Tech has to pass through the West Virginia Mountaineers on Saturday to keep its perfect season intact. It sounds simple, especially if you look at the Maryland Terrapins' and Baylor Bears' wins over WVU.

    Here's the catch: Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have vastly different opinions of the Mountaineers than the Terrapins do. West Virginia is dangerously inconsistent.

    Texas Tech played TCU and Iowa State closely, and that should concern the Red Raiders fanbase. There are two Big 12 title contenders on a collision course as of Week 7 (Baylor and Texas Tech), but neither looks like the clear title favorite yet.

    The Red Raiders could claim that spot in Week 8, especially if Baker Mayfield returns to the field. The quarterback was back in pads at practice on Oct. 15, but that's still not a guarantee that he'll take the field.

7. Can Missouri "Texas A&M" the SEC East?

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    Missouri is riding the high of the Georgia upset, and the Tigers host Florida next. This is a blessing and a curse. They know they can win the game, because they just took out the Bulldogs, but there is a major question under center.

    That's Missouri's storyline for Week 8: Can Maty Mauk get it done as the primary signal-caller? He brought home the upset win in Week 7, but he also attempted just three passes. Yes, he was 3-for-3, but he's just 5-of-6 in his career.

    The battle of the backups (Tyler Murphy for Florida) tilts slightly in Florida's favor in terms of quarterback experience, but Missouri knows it can win this game.

    In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks Missouri doesn't have a shot. This game will make or break Missouri's season, especially with James Franklin out for a few weeks.

    First impressions are hard to shake, and this is Mauk's first start. If he loses, it will be tougher for Missouri to reclaim the respect than it was to earn it in the first place.

6. Stanford Cardinal and the Least Likely Rebound of the Year

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    Stanford has to beat ranked teams soundly to regain its reputation. Oklahoma State proved as recently as 2011 that it's incredibly difficult to shake the stigma of a loss to an unranked opponent.

    Luckily for the Cardinal, it's hosting the UCLA Bruins on Saturday, and the loss to Utah was relatively early in the season. They still have a shot at the BCS title game.

    They have to take down the UCLA Bruins first, and it isn't going to get any easier after that. Oregon is still on the docket, and so is Notre Dame.

    The Cardinal are reeling, but they can right the ship immediately. That's a rare opportunity, but it's one that they must capitalize on. If they don't beat UCLA, their hopes for the national championship are toast.

5. UCLA's Bid for State Supremacy

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    UCLA's dream season is on the line with back-to-back games against Stanford and Oregon. If it beats Stanford, the Cardinal are basically eliminated from the Pac-12 title game this season, but that is not the case with Oregon.

    The Bruins are on a 5-0 tear through the early part of the season, and they have already defeated the Utah Utes. That bodes well for the upcoming game against Stanford, but it's a road game against a team seeking revenge.

    This is the toughest stretch of UCLA's season. It's back-to-back road games against two of the nation's best teams. What's worse is that the Bruins will likely have to face one of them again in the conference title game.

    If the Bruins run the table, nobody will deny them their berth in the BCS National Championship Game.

4. Florida State's Shootout at the Dabo Swinney Corral

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    The Seminoles have made it to the toughest game of the season with a perfect record, and they are gunning for more than just an ACC title. Florida State could put itself into the BCS No. 2 spot if it dominates Clemson in Week 8.

    Florida State has taken down its opponents by an average score of 54-12, and Clemson showed weakness against Boston College and NC State. That means that FSU should be able to exploit the Tigers successfully on Saturday.

    Florida State doesn't have a monster win over an SEC opponent yet, but a win here would set the stage for the Florida game on rivalry weekend. There are plenty of games to lose between now and then, but FSU's big three are against Clemson, Miami (FL) and Florida.

    We'll call this the midterm exam, and the Seminoles had better study.

3. Is Clemson Actually Weak, or Has It Been Looking Toward This Game?

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    Clemson is in the same boat as Florida State, but the Tigers have one thing FSU doesn't have: a win over a healthy Georgia Bulldogs squad. (The Dawgs were the SEC East favorite until injuries crippled their depth chart.)

    The Tigers have displayed major weaknesses this season, though, specifically against NC State and Boston College. Both those teams are in the bottom half of the ACC Atlantic Division.

    Florida State is nowhere near the bottom half of anything, which makes this game even more interesting. Clemson is a three-point underdog as of Tuesday (according to sportsbook.ag), which adds to the allure.

    The Tigers have four major games they must win to make the national title game: Georgia (check!), Florida State, South Carolina and the ACC title game. One down, three to go.

2. Alabama's Attempted 3-Peat

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    Alabama's possible three-peat is still on track, but Bret Bielema is still working on the Arkansas Razorbacks. Is Alabama prepared for the war that's coming on the line of scrimmage?

    Bielema is still looking for his first career SEC win, and facing six ranked conference foes (out of eight) doesn't help. The fact that he's getting completely obliterated hurts even more.

    Alabama is ranked No. 1 in the country, and the historic potential of the season makes it worth following. The biggest challenge the Crimson Tide face for Week 8 is the desire to overlook the game entirely.

    Arkansas has lost its last three games (all SEC foes) by a combined 77 points. Alabama has Tennessee in Week 9, and the Vols almost upset Georgia on Oct. 5.

    Alabama could easily look past Arkansas to the rivalry game against Tennessee. Bielema would love nothing more than to catch Nick Saban's team by surprise.

    Does Alabama have the discipline to make it through a third championship season in a row?

1. Southeastern Conference Dominance, Myth Busted?

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    The SEC has looked less dominant this season, and there are two undefeated teams in the conference remaining: Missouri (East) and Alabama (West). Missouri faces a ranked Florida squad in Week 8, and Alabama faces Arkansas. (Both covered in previous slides.)

    Over the past seven weeks, 12 SEC teams have fallen to various opponents. 

    Half of the season and well over half the required conference games are left. As the teams play more conference games, the loss count for the teams will grow more quickly. Alabama still has major contests against Tennessee, LSU and Auburn left on its schedule, and Missouri has Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas A&M remaining.

    Can the SEC even put a team in the national title game, or did the balance of power officially shift when Hugh Freeze landed the No. 5 recruiting class? Freeze kept talent in the conference, but he took it from the elite SEC teams.

    Is the SEC that elite anymore? It hasn't looked like it yet, but Alabama seems to be coming along nicely. Unfortunately, "coming along nicely" doesn't win national titles.

    If Arkansas and Florida can knock off the SEC unbeatens, the conference's reign may unofficially end in Week 8.

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