College Football Week 8 Preview: Storylines, matchups and predictions for the five biggest games

2T26K1H Penn State cornerback Kalen King (4) drops into coverage during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Massachusetts, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

• No. 7 Penn State-No. 3 Ohio State: In one of the biggest games of the year, the Nittany Lions will try to emerge from the Buckeyes’ shadow.

• No. 16 Duke-No. 4 Florida State: The Blue Devils anxiously await the return of star quarterback Riley Leonard as they try to upset the Seminoles.

• No. 17 Tennessee-No. 11 Alabama: The Crimson Tide look to avenge last year’s loss to the Volunteers in what should be a much more defensive contest.

Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: This week’s college football slate is loaded. For the fifth straight weekend, there are four games between ranked teams. That hasn’t happened since the 2012 season.

Here are the storylines to know, matchups to watch and predictions for the five biggest games of Week 8.

No. 7 Penn State Nittany Lions at No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes (12 P.M. EST on FOX)

Storyline to know: Can Penn State finally get over the hump?

Penn State stands in the shadow of Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten, desperate for its turn in the spotlight. Either the Buckeyes or the Wolverines has won the conference in each of the past six seasons.

The Nittany Lions have, as of late, been incredibly successful outside of playing Ohio State and Michigan. They finished 11-2 last year with a Rose Bowl victory, the only two losses being to the Buckeyes and Wolverines. Ohio State has taken down Penn State in a record six straight games, a streak the Nittany Lions must snap if they want to go from a New Year’s Six team to a College Football Playoff contender.

Matchup to watch: Just how legit is Penn State’s defense?

On paper, Penn State’s defense is college football's best. The Nittany Lions lead the nation in expected points allowed per play and rank second with only 8.2 points per game allowed. However, it’s important to contextualize those statistics with the struggles of the offenses they’ve played this season.

Penn State Opponents’ Ranks in Offensive EPA Per Play | Among 133 FBS Teams
Opponent Offensive EPA Per Play Rank
West Virginia 62nd
Delaware N/A (FCS)
Illinois 105th
Iowa 133rd
Northwestern 101st
UMass 110th

Ohio State places 13th in that same metric.

Penn State's best chance to upset the Buckeyes stems from getting pressure on quarterback Kyle McCord. The redshirt sophomore has just a 33.8 grade under pressure this season, the seventh-worst mark among Power Five quarterbacks. Meanwhile, Penn State’s defense leads the country in both pass-rush win rate (60%) and pressure rate (50.2%) this season.

Prediction: Penn State 24, Ohio State 21

In what could be a defensive slugfest, Penn State emerges from Ohio State’s shadow and establishes itself as a legitimate College Football Playoff contender.

No. 17 Tennessee Volunteers at No. 11 Alabama Crimson Tide (3:30 P.M. EST on CBS)

Storyline to know: Can Alabama exact revenge?

In an instant classic last year, sixth-ranked Tennessee toppled No. 3 Alabama 52-49 to hand the Crimson Tide their first loss of the season and Nick Saban’s first defeat to the Volunteers in his 16 years as the team's head coach.

The Crimson Tide need to avenge that loss in Week 8 to keep their playoff hopes alive. If they don’t, Tennessee will become the biggest threat to top-ranked Georgia in the SEC.

Matchup to watch: Two elite defenses against two struggling passing games

If you’re hoping for a shootout like last year, prepare to be disappointed. Bryce Young and Hendon Hooker are no longer quarterbacking these programs. While Jalen Milroe has filled the No. 1 pick’s shoes admirably, his 79.2 passing grade still pales in comparison to Young's 92.9 mark across his two seasons as Alabama’s starter. Even so, Milroe is much closer to Young’s level than Joe Milton III is to Hooker right now. Milton stands just 106th among FBS quarterbacks with a 62.2 passing grade this season and has as many turnover-worthy plays (seven) as big-time throws.

Tennessee's and Alabama's defenses are playing at an elite level right now, too. Their defensive grades on passing plays rank first and second in the country. There are five defensive backs in this game who have earned 80.0-plus grades so far this season: Tennessee cornerback Kamal Hadden and safety Wesley Walker, Alabama safety Caleb Downs and cornerbacks Terrion Arnold and Kool-Aid McKinstry.

Both teams also feature an edge defender highlighted as one of our three midseason finalists for the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy, given to the best defensive player in college football. Alabama’s Dallas Turner is staking his claim as a potential top-10 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, as his 34 pressures this year are tied for the most in the country. Tennessee’s James Pearce Jr. can’t be drafted until 2025 since he’s just a true sophomore, but he’ll enter next season as a projected top-10 pick if he keeps up this level of play. Pearce leads the FBS with a 27.7% pressure rate and ranks third with a 30.2% pass-rush win rate.

Prediction: Alabama 24, Tennessee 17

Alabama’s run game paves the way to victory, and Tennessee struggles to get anything going offensively.

Washington State Cougars at No. 9 Oregon Ducks (3:30 P.M. EST on ABC)

Storyline to know: How do these teams respond to adversity?

Washington State and Oregon are each coming off Week 7 losses. Oregon fell to then-No. 7 Washington 36-33 in the biggest game of the weekend, despite leading with under two minutes left. Washington State’s defeat wasn’t nearly as close, a 44-6 drubbing at the hands of Arizona in a game where the Cougars were favored by eight points. It was Wazzu’s second straight loss after reaching as high as No. 13 in the AP poll with a 4-0 record.

Oregon needs a win to keep its playoff dreams alive, while Washington State needs one to simply right the ship.

Matchup to watch: Can Cameron Ward recapture his early season magic?

Cameron Ward was the driving force behind Washington State’s first 4-0 start in six years. His 88.2 grade during that stretch was a top-20 mark among FBS quarterbacks, and the junior also recorded a 151.2 passer rating on throws 10-plus yards downfield, which ranked second in college football. Ward’s best game was a win over now-No. 12 Oregon State in which he earned a career-high 90.6 grade and threw for 404 yards.

However, he was also at the center of the Cougars’ two losses since. Ward has tossed just one big-time throw compared to eight turnover-worthy plays in the past two weeks, and his 45.9 grade in that stretch was the seventh worst among all quarterbacks in college football. He’ll need to bounce back in a major way if Washington State is to pull off this upset.

Prediction: Oregon 38, Washington State 17

Ward rebounds from his slump, but it’s still not enough to upset a hungry Oregon team.

No. 16 Duke Blue Devils at No. 4 Florida State Seminoles (7:30 P.M. EST on ABC)

Storyline to know: Will Riley Leonard play?

Riley Leonard suffered a high ankle sprain in Duke’s 21-14 loss to then-No. 11 Notre Dame three weeks ago, and head coach Mike Elko said recently that the junior is “day-to-day” with his injury.

Backup Henry Belin IV has performed well in his absence, posting a 75.1 grade in a win over North Carolina State this past weekend. However, whether Leonard returns could ultimately decide if the Blue Devils have a chance of upsetting the Seminoles. He’s currently a first-round prospect on PFF’s 2024 NFL Draft big board.

Matchup to watch: Florida State’s receivers vs. Duke’s secondary

Speaking of first-round prospects, Florida State's Keon Coleman is a top-15 prospect on PFF’s big board and is the No. 3 wide receiver. His running mate, Johnny Wilson, is a second-round prospect on the big board, as well. Jordan Travis’ 84.6 grade is a top-20 mark among FBS quarterbacks, making this one of the most deadly passing attacks in college football.

The Blue Devils are well equipped to give the Seminoles a run for their money, though. Duke’s 93.9 coverage grade this season leads all FBS teams, a unit led by Myles Jones. His 90.7 grade leads all cornerbacks in the country this season. As a team, the Blue Devils have allowed only 4.27 yards per coverage snap, the second-best mark in college football.

Prediction: Florida State 27, Duke 21

If Leonard plays, Duke has a great chance to upset Florida State. Since that remains unknown, we're riding with the Seminoles in what’s currently their final game against a ranked opponent this regular season.

No. 14 Utah Utes at No. 18 USC Trojans (8 P.M. EST on FOX)

Storyline to know: Will this finally be the week Cameron Rising suits up?

Rising has yet to play for Utah in 2023 as he recovers from a torn ACL, MCL, meniscus and MPFL that he suffered in a Rose Bowl loss to Penn State over nine months ago. Now, head coach Kyle Whittingham must decide if he wants to play his star quarterback at all or preserve a medical redshirt for him so he can return for a seventh season.

With Rising, Utah took down USC twice in 2022, including in the Pac-12 championship game. Without him this year, the Utes are 5-1 but have the Power Five’s fourth-worst offensive grade on passing plays (57.1). The opposing quarterback is Caleb Williams, so Utah will need Rising back more than ever this week.

Matchup to watch: Can Utah make Caleb Williams just as uncomfortable as Notre Dame did?

Even if Rising returns, Utah’s defense will need to step up against the projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. Luckily for the Utes, Williams hasn’t looked nearly as dominant as when he won the Heisman Trophy last season. The junior made four turnover-worthy plays in last week's 48-20 loss to No. 21 Notre Dame, the most in his career. The biggest difference in Williams’ game over the past two seasons is his play under duress, as he seems to be forcing throws far too often this season.

Caleb Williams Under Pressure in 2022 Compared to 2023
Season Grade Under Pressure Rank Among FBS QBs
2022 85.5 1st
2023 28.3 135th

Williams has just two big-time throws compared to 13 turnover-worthy plays when under duress this season. In 2022, he had 14 big-time throws and just four turnover-worthy plays when playing under pressure.

Utah’s 41.6% pass-rush win rate this year is a top-20 mark among Power Five schools. Jonah Elliss was a PFF midseason All-American, as his nine sacks lead all Power Five edge defenders and his 24.1% pass-rush win rate ranks sixth.

Prediction: USC 35, Utah 24

The Trojans keep their playoff hopes alive while getting revenge on the team that was solely responsible for their absence in the final four last year.

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