News & Analysis

College Football Week 9 Preview: Players to watch and expert predictions

Oct 19, 2019; Starkville, MS, USA; Louisiana State Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow (9) passes against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the second quarter at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

PFF provides every fan with the right information to best prepare for Week 9 of the 2019 NCAA season. We offer advanced stats and grades on key players to watch and expert predictions for a handful of noteworthy NCAA games on the schedule for this week.

Thursday, October 24th

SMU Mustangs @ Houston Cougars

Players to watch:
The Mustangs will look to stay healthy and stay unbeaten when they go to Houston to take on head coach Dana Holgorsen's much-maligned Cougars team. Shane Buechele is tied for the AAC lead with 18 touchdown passes, as he's the conference's highest-graded quarterback this year. He's been lights out and should continue to find his star-studded cast of receivers in Reggie Roberson and James Proche against a Houston team who is currently the 128th-ranked coverage team in the nation. Roberson and Proche should have big days for the Mustangs.

Extra Info Nugget:
When targeted passes outside the numbers Shane Buechele is 92-of-134 for 1,279 yards, 11 TDs, 3 INT while Houston's defense currently has allowed 71-of-128 passes to be completed for 865 yards, 6 TDs and just 1 INT on such throws. 

Expert Prediction:
The coverage lapses weigh heavily in this one, and the Mustangs prove on the national stage that they're the best Group of 5 team in the country. Buechele and the Mustangs put up points in bunches, but be wary of the backdoor cover with the spread sitting at -14.5.

Friday, October 25th

USC Trojans @ Colorado Buffaloes

Players to watch:
USC's trio of receivers is as talented a trio that there is in college football, and the Trojans have the horses to run through the secondary in Boulder. Colorado's coverage unit ranks just 124th in the country and has broken down, time and time again this year. USC wins this one comfortably as QB Kedon Slovis is currently the seventh-ranked passer in terms of adjusted completion percentage this year, currently sitting at 80.6%. Laviska Shenault is always must-watch television on the other side of the ball, as he's averaging 2.63 yards per route run this year, sixth-best among Pac-12 receivers.

Extra Info Nugget:
Laviska Shenault has lined up at in the following alignments: QB (9), RB (3), TE (1), Slot (31), WR (195) – compared to 2018's alignments: QB (13), RB (10), TE (49), Slot (204), WR (231).

Expert Prediction:
Slovis and the Trojans utilize a strong passing attack to run the show against the Buffaloes. Steven Montez for Colorado is due one of his strong performances after a handful of lackluster ones this year so this one stays interesting and within two touchdowns. Take Colorado plus the points and hope for Good Montez instead of Poor Montez.

Saturday, October 26th

Oklahoma Sooners @ Kansas State Wildcats

Players to watch:
Without a doubt, Jalen Hurts is always the player to watch when he steps on the field for the Sooners — but this matchup with Kansas State represents an intriguing matchup of conflicting styles. The Wildcats have run the ball 230 times this year, led by transfer James Gilbert, but are only averaging 5.4 yards per attempt. The Sooners have run the ball 226 times but average 8.7 yards per attempt. Led by Hurts, the Sooners are also averaging a ridiculous 12.6 yards per pass attempt, as Hurts himself is averaging 13.5 yards per attempt. Kansas State is averaging just 7.4 yards per pass attempt and QB Skylar Thompson, though grading very positively, hasn't thrown for over 1,000 yards while averaging just 7.5 yards per pass attempt this season. He'll have Malik Knowles to get the ball to, as the star wide receiver is one of the nation's top playmakers when he's healthy. He's made multiple big-time catches this year, and 10 of his 13 receptions have either scored a touchdown or converted a first down. He'll be a difference-maker if the Wildcats want to keep this one close.

Extra Info Nugget:
Jalen Hurts when targeted passes in between the numbers has completed 64-of-75 attempts for 1,307 yards, 12 TD and 1 INT while Kansas State's defense has allowed 34-of-65 attempts in the middle of the field for 373 yards, just 1 TD and 3 INTs.

Expert Prediction:
On paper, this one isn't even close, and like seemingly every other Oklahoma game this year, the final score won't even be close. With the consensus line sitting at -23.5 for the Sooners, basically need four scores to cover, the Wildcats defense is able to do enough to keep it interesting and Knowles makes a touchdown catch late to cover. Sooners win. Wildcats cover.

Mississippi State Bulldogs @ Texas A&M Aggies

Players to watch:
The Aggies are certainly the more talented team on offense, as their cast of receivers has had their moments in 2019. Quartney Davis is a big play waiting to happen and has showcased that with a team-leading 120 yards after the catch. Of his 31 receptions, he's hauled in four scores and 19 more first downs while breaking seven tackles in the process. The Mississippi State secondary played well for a half against LSU a week ago and they'll once again have to bring their A-game to College Station. Cameron Dantzler rightfully should receive a lot of the hype, as he's allowed just six receptions into his primary coverage all season long. He's actually made more plays on the ball (2 INT, 5 PD) than he has allowed receptions, and him matching up against Ainias Smith, Jhamon Ausbon or Davis is a must-watch TV moment.

Extra Info Nugget:
Of Quartney Davis' 18 receptions, 10 of them have gone for 15 or more yards and he's gained 48 of his receiving yards after contact. His 15 conversions (first downs + touchdowns) on just 24 receptions is good enough for a top-5 receiving conversion percentage among qualified receivers.

Expert Prediction:
The Bulldogs once again play this one close for a half, but their inexperience on offense and lack of a consistently strong level of play at quarterback does them in the second half. Texas A&M by a touchdown and a field goal.

Wisconsin Badgers @ Ohio State Buckeyes

Players to watch:
The Ohio State Buckeyes are trending in the right direction at the right time. They currently have three players on our Heisman board with QB Justin Fields, RB J.K. Dobbins and DE Chase Young, as their trio of stars has each had their shining moments in 2019. Dobbins himself is second in the conference with 606 yards after contact, averaging 4.52 such yards per attempt. Fields is arguably the country's top dual-threat quarterback as he holds the distinct advantage of being the best downfield passer among those in consideration. And Young is clearly the best player in all of college football, as he's won an astounding 33.3% of his pass-rushing snaps to date, a mark that would shatter the PFF College record. This all goes without talking about Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor, who became the fastest running back in college football history to top the 5,000-yard mark as a runner. He's leading the country with 15 touchdowns while he has 41 more first-down carries. The Buckeyes will have to rely on their defense to stop the nation's top running back for three years running.

Extra Info Nugget:
Of the 100 running backs with at least 80 carries this year, Dobbins ranks fifth by averaging 4.52 yards after contact per carry. That figure is tops among RBs with at least 100 carries.

Expert Prediction:
What once was a potential College Football Playoff Quarterfinal has now been relegated to ‘just another Big Ten game' as the Badgers come in fresh off 2019's biggest upset after losing to Illinois. We're likely to see an inspired Wisconsin team, but the Buckeyes are more complete from top to bottom. OSU makes enough plays on offense and limits the passing attack of Jack Coan and Co. for a big win, 38-13.

Texas Longhorns @ TCU Horned Frogs

Players to watch:
The Texas Longhorns will have their hands full with TCU WR Jalen Reagor, someone they should know all about as he went for eight receptions, 91 yards and a touchdown against them last year. Currently, the Longhorns are the conference's lowest-graded unit in terms of tackling grade, as their suspect efforts have been exploited by LSU, Oklahoma and just as recent as Kansas. Still, Sam Ehlinger at quarterback is among the nation's best at the position and fresh on the heels of leading his team on a game-winning field goal drive, is always a player to watch. He's capable of hitting all levels of the field and is a dominant runner when given space.

Extra Info Nugget:
Sam Ehlinger has taken off on a scramble on 37 dropbacks – the second-most in the country. He's gained 304 yards on such scrambles, the third-most among quarterbacks while TCU's defense has allowed just 67 yards on scrambles by quarterbacks all season long.

Expert Prediction:
Give the advantage to the better quarterback in this one as it's not even close. Max Duggan is the future but he has certainly struggled this year while their once stout defense has also allowed at least 24 points in three of their last four games. Texas needs a statement win to maintain their place as the Big 12's No. 2 team and behind Ehlinger, they get it. Take Texas and watch Ehlinger do his thing.

Penn State Nittany Lions @ Michigan State Spartans

Players to watch:
Penn State QB Sean Clifford had one of his finest performances of his young career against a stout Michigan defense just a week ago, throwing for three scores and running another one in during the Nittany Lions' White Out victory over the Wolverines. Clifford is a big-time throw waiting to happen, while his star receiver KJ Hamler is averaging a ridiculous 17.6 yards per catch. He's taken those receptions at an average depth of 15.3 yards past the line of scrimmage and is averaging 7.5 yards after the catch per reception. Hamler has been dominant and has at least one touchdown in four consecutive games. The leader in the Michigan State secondary will certainly be tested, as CB Josiah Scott has been the most-targeted defensive back for the Spartans this year, seeing 38 targets thrown his way. He's allowed 23 catches but has made two interceptions and three pass breakups while eight of his tackles have been for a defensive stop. He'll be counted on heavily to stop the aerial assault that is Clifford to Hamler.

Extra Info Nugget:
Yetur Gross-Matos has won 21.2% of his pass-rushing snaps this season, the 21st-highest rate, as he's beaten 17 linemen in front of him without a pressure being recorded, the fourth-most among FBS edge defenders.

Expert Prediction:
Penn State clearly showed against Michigan that they're capable of winning the big game on the big stage and should be taken seriously. Their defense has been one of the nation's top-graded units in football and they'll stymie Brian Lewerke and the Spartan offense in this one as they get ready for a big Big Ten matchup against Minnesota in Week 11. Nittany Lions for the win, Nittany Lions for the cover.

Indiana Hoosiers @ Nebraska Cornhuskers

Players to watch:
Michael Penix makes Indiana a different team on offense. But with his injury status unknown, their quarterback situation is a murky one heading into Lincoln. Whop Philyor, Nick Westbrook, Donovan Hale and Peyton Hendershot are all reliable targets over the middle and on the outside for either Penix or Peyton Ramsey to get the ball to. Stevie Scott has totaled 35 combined first down and touchdown runs this year, gaining 347 of his 553 yards after contact. He's consistently a highly-graded back for the Hoosiers and he should be in line for a big day against the Nebraska defense who have the Big Ten's lowest-graded run-defense unit in 2019. Adrian Martinez will need to bring his best game against the Indiana defense, which is receiving great production from true freshman CB Tiawan Mullen. He's been targeted 14 times this year and has allowed just three receptions for all of 13 yards.

Extra Info Nugget:
Penix has fielded an adjusted completion percentage of 80.3% this season, the sixth-highest figure among FBS QBs with at least 100 attempts. He's had 11 passes dropped, five throwaways, two batted at the line and another spike of his 46 incomplete passes.

Expert Prediction:
With the quarterback situation in question, the Hoosiers need Penix to play and play healthy for them to have a chance to win. Playing at Lincoln gives the Huskers an advantage in this one, as this is likely one of the closest matchups in Week 9. Penix plays, Indiana wins. Ramsey plays, Nebraska wins.

Oklahoma State Cowboys @ Iowa State Cyclones

Players to watch:
The quarterbacks of the future in the Big 12 are showcased here when the Cowboys, led by Spencer Sanders, take on the Cyclones and true sophomore sensation Brock Purdy. The former Mr. Texas Football — Sanders — has been solid this season albeit not outstanding. He's averaging 7.8 yards per attempt and has lost multiple fumbles this year. He'll have to be sharp and poised against Iowa State and their stout defense that poses a legitimate threat against the rest of the Big 12 powers. Purdy, the second-highest graded true freshman quarterback in PFF history, has started to get it rolling in recent weeks for the Cyclones. He is an athletically-gifted player with a strong skill set on the ground just as he has through the air. Purdy has connected on 13-of-29 deep passes this year for three scores and no interceptions, leading the Big 12 in passer rating on such throws at 126.0.

Extra Info Nugget:
Iowa State LB Mike Rose averages a tackle in run defense just 1.09 yards past the line of scrimmage, the sixth-best rate in the country among linebackers with at least 100 snaps and 15 total tackle attempts against the run.

Expert Prediction:
Purdy has been the better quarterback of the young duo and the Cyclones are the better overall team. The home Cyclones are the heavy favorite for good reason, as Purdy is the nation's 26th highest-graded passer on deep balls and the Cowboys are the nation's 126th-ranked defense against deep passes. Take Purdy, take the Cyclones, take the points in Ames.

Auburn Tigers @ LSU Tigers

Players to watch:
Everyone knows the LSU offense is a thing to behold for the 2019 season. Everyone knows Joe Burrow, aka Broadway Jeaux, is a Heisman favorite. What everyone doesn't know is just how efficient Joe Burrow has been this season. While there are plenty of interesting matchups to watch in this game, seeing Burrow on the national stage against a stout defense in the Auburn Tigers is a rare sight into strengths vs. strengths. To sum up, Burrow is the nation's highest-graded quarterback on the following: overall (92.7), deep passing (97.7) and without play-action (91.0) while he's top five in seemingly every other category. Every member of the Auburn defense will have to play up to par in order to stop Burrow, as it doesn't seem like any scenario presented fazes him.

Extra Info Nugget:
Terrace Marshall (if he can play) and Justin Jefferson are No. 1 and 2, respectively, in receiving conversion percentage, converting 69.23% and 66.67% of their targets into a first down or touchdown.

Expert Prediction:
Burrow and the Tigers handle Bo Nix and the Auburn Tigers before getting a bye week ahead of Alabama. This is without a doubt the toughest defense LSU has to face so, don't expect 40-plus points for the Bayou Bengals in this one. LSU wins, but take the under.

Duke Blue Devils @ North Carolina Tar Heels

Players to watch:
A week removed from a six-overtime loss at the hands of Virginia Tech, true freshman standout QB Sam Howell is in need of a win for the Tar Heels to stay on the path to a bowl game. He's an exciting player to watch both with his arm and his legs. But perhaps the most interesting storyline is on the UNC defense with former quarterback Chazz Surratt, now turned linebacker. He's a tackling machine and if he can limit the missed tackles, he's becoming an interesting three-down linebacker for North Carolina. Also on defense, Aaron Crawford in the middle is the team's highest-graded player overall, as he's been a force when rushing the passer and a true run-stuffer against the run. For Duke, their rushing attack takes center stage. But when they're on defense, edge defender Chris Rumph has proven to be almost unblockable at times. On just 117 pass-rushing snaps, Rumph has recorded 23 total QB pressures, including two sacks and six QB hits. Opposite Victor Dimukeje, the UNC tackles will have to have their heads on a swivel to keep Howell upright.

Extra Info Nugget:
Against the run, UNC DI Aaron Crawford ranks fourth across the entire country by recording eight tackles for no gain or a loss while his 19 defensive stops against the run rank second.

Expert Prediction:
Duke QB Quentin Harris has been hot and cold but significantly cooled off after his strong performance against Virginia Tech earlier this year. Howell announces he's part of the ACC landscape of the future in a big win for the Heels in this rivalry game. Heels win bigger than the consensus.

UCF Knights @ Temple Owls

Players to watch:
The AAC was long thought to be UCF's to lose. With SMU and Cincinnati undefeated in conference play and UCF needing a win against Temple to stay in second place in the AAC East, this game draws significant intrigue. UCF QB Dillon Gabriel had a stretch of football similar to that of McKenzie Milton but has come back down to Earth as of late. The Temple defense has had their moments this year but they haven't faced the QB-WR combination of Gabriel to Gabriel (Davis). The conference's leader in yards per route run, Davis is a top-20 graded receiver in all of college football and leads the conference in yards, touchdowns, receiving conversions and missed tackles forced. He's a must-stop for any defense that wants to give their team a chance to win.

Extra Info Nugget:
Of the 120 receivers who have been a pass-eligible receiver on at least 200 snaps, no receiver averages a higher yards per route run than Davis and his current mark of 3.59.

Expert Prediction:
If 2019 has told us anything, get ready for another conference to be flipped on its head once again. UCF is the better overall team and despite their inefficiencies on defense, outscore Temple in a duel to get right back into the thick of it in the American. They need some help still with two Cincinnati losses but Gabriel gets back in the consecutive-win column in dramatic fashion. UCF wins but Temple covers +10.5.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish @ Michigan Wolverines

Players to watch:
The Fighting Irish still have an outside chance at the College Football Playoff, albeit a slim one after their lone loss to Georgia continues to lose its luster with Georgia disappointing in recent weeks. The Wolverines are fighting for a spot in the national spotlight still after two losses this year. Michigan looked almost as if they were going to get run out of the building last Saturday night against Penn State but made it a game in the second half. Michigan QB Shea Patterson will have to get better moving forward, against a stout Notre Dame defense. He's currently thrown just one touchdown and one interception while completing just 33.3% of his passes under pressure, something he'll certainly see against the Irish. Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem have been game-wreckers recently and have secured 27 and 24 pressures, respectively, this season. Okwara is trending toward the pass-rush triple-double, as he has four sacks and four hits to go with 19 pressures and an elite pass-rushing grade.

Extra Info Nugget:
Okwara should bring plenty of pressure as he is currently sixth in the entire country with a pass-rush win percentage of 25.3%.

Expert Prediction:
The Wolverines have rumors swirling about an ‘exit strategy' from their head coach Jim Harbaugh and need a win against one of college football's blue-bloods to stop them from heating up even more. Notre Dame may be the better football team, but the Big House itself gives the Wolverines the nod. This one comes down to a Michigan field goal late.

Cal Golden Bears @ Utah Utes

Players to watch:
The Utes have successfully taken the offensive game plan right from underneath their opposing offenses by limiting Isaiah Hodgins two weeks ago and then stuffing Eno Benjamin, Brandon Aiyuk and Jayden Daniels just this past weekend. Utah has five of the top-nine graded players in the Pac-12 on defense. And this one that potentially was a tight matchup after Cal defeated Ole Miss a few weeks ago looks more and more like a dominant Utah win. Tyler Huntley was not as sharp as he has been all year and in order for this to be a dominant win for Utah, he'll have to return to that early-season form. Cal presents a mighty challenge with their strong secondary, as Ashtyn Davis, Camryn Bynum, Elijah Hicks and Jaylinn Hawkins have each had strong grades in coverage this year. If the Bears have a chance, they have to stuff Zack Moss (conference leader in missed tackles) and also capitalize on their strong coverage on the back end.

Extra Info Nugget:
Bradlee Anae has recorded 34 total QB pressures and has 19 more times in which he's beaten the defender in front of him without being able to record pressure, the second-most among all FBS edge defenders. He's won 23.7% of his pass-rushing snaps in the process, the highest mark of all FBS edge defenders who have rushed the passer at least 200 times.

Expert Prediction:
As good as the Cal Bears have been on defense, their offense has been subpar without Chase Garbers at quarterback and this Utah defense is as good as any in the country in stopping the best players on the opposite team. This line has moved all over the place in a short period of time and if you were lucky enough to get Utah at -17.5, count your blessings as the rest of the country has caught up to the Utes on defense. Come for the defenses, stay for the sure-fire Moss breakaway run.

Utah State Aggies @ Air Force Falcons

Players to watch:
The late game to watch isn't a Pac-12 After Dark game in Week 9, as the fight for Mountain West supremacy is up for grabs in this one. With Boise State falling to BYU, even though they still remain undefeated in MWC play, Utah State has arguably the best chance of winning the MW Mountain division if they can get by the Falcons in this pivotal matchup moving forward. Jordan Love has regressed quite a bit in 2019, but he still has some high-level play on his resume this season. He'll have to revert back to that if they want a shot at taking down this Air Force team who has seen plus-play from whoever has been at quarterback this year. After Donald Hammond went down with an injured shoulder a week ago, Mike Schmidt entered in relief and finished with an elite game grade. He attempted just six passes, completing five of them for a whopping 147 yards and a score — but his option runs were a thing of beauty. He averaged 8.7 yards per carry including a highlight-reel 61-yarder.

Extra Info Nugget:
This game features two of the top safeties against the run in the Group of 5 as Utah State S Troy Legeged Jr. averages a depth of tackle against the run just 3.39 yards past the line of scrimmage (9th-best) and Air Force S Jeremy Fejedelem averages just 5.15 yards (24th-best) and they've each received top-end grades against the run.

Expert Prediction:
The Utah State defense has missed 72 tackles this season and that favors the strong rushing attack that is the Air Force offense. As mentioned earlier, we've seen enough conferences flipped on their head this season, and this has all the makings of Air Force doing that if they can continue to get great play from whoever starts the game at quarterback. Either way, the Falcons offense is the best in the conference and they should have enough to run through the Aggies on defense to truly flip the MW Mountain division on its head. Points come in flurries, but the Falcons get the last laugh with a game-winning field goal in the fourth.

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