College football’s best head-to-head matchups for Week 9 include a pivotal battle at the line of scrimmage that’ll determine the winner of the Clemson-Florida State clash.
There are games, and then there are games-within-the-games, those needle-moving head-to-head battles that put a thumb on the scale for the more dominant side.
Who’ll be the big winners and who’ll be heading back to the drawing board at the close of Week 9? With seven undefeated teams taking the road, plenty will hinge on which side prevails in these crucial unit and player clashes. Following are the best and most important head-to-head matchups for Week 9.
10. Baylor WR KD Cannon vs. Texas CBs John Bonney and Kris Boyd
The Longhorn staff has searched high and low for the right defensive backfield combination all season long. Nothing has worked for a team that ranks 126th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Now, the secondary must face the aptly-named Cannon, who’s prone to frequent and loud explosions. The volcanic junior is one of college football’s premier field-stretchers, with the jets to blow through quality pass defenses, let alone the flat-footed ones. Even worse for Texas, Cannon has had two weeks to rest his aching groin injury.
9. USC RB Ronald Jones II vs. Cal LBs Raymond Davison and Devante Downs
Jones has not been the same big-play back he was as a rookie in 2015, when he nearly sprinted for 1,000 yards in a complementary role. But now that Justin Davis is dealing with an ankle injury, Jones has a shot to be this week’s Joe Mixon, the Oklahoma Sooner who went for 263 yards last week as Samaje Perine sat. Jones has an ideal opponent against which to build momentum. Sure, Davison and Downs are amassing tackles, but that’s because too many plays slip past the first level of a Cal D allowing 5.7 yards per carry.
8. Georgia QB Jacob Eason vs. Florida CBs Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson
Eason’s apprenticeship continues this week, with a crash course in tight windows and learning when to eat the ball instead of forcing it into coverage. Tabor and Wilson form arguably the stickiest corner duo in the country, spearheading a secondary that’s tops nationally in pass efficiency defense. Since it’s not much easier to run on the Gators, it’ll be up to Eason to locate the softer areas of the D, possibly by hitting Isaiah McKenzie in the slot or teaming up with fellow rookie TE Isaac Nauta on intermediate routes.
7. Michigan State RBs LJ Scott and Gerald Holmes vs. Jabrill Peppers and the Michigan LBs
It’s a rivalry game in which the home team will be playing with absolutely nothing to lose. That’s potentially dangerous for the second-ranked Wolverines, even though they’re the far superior program. Whatever faint hope the Spartans have of hanging around in East Lansing hinges on the ability of Scott and Holmes to grind out yards, extend drives and score six. Won’t be easy, because Peppers, Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray headline a rock-solid linebacker corps of a D surrendering a nation’s-low 3.7 yards per play.
6. Oklahoma State WRs James Washington and Jalen McCleskey vs. West Virginia CBs Rasul Douglas and Elijah Battle
Coordinator Tony Gibson is doing a remarkable job with a revamped Mountaineer defense, with support coming on the back end from the likes of Battle and especially Douglas. Over the past two weeks, West Virginia limited high-powered Texas Tech and TCU to 27 points combined. This week’s challenge will be to corral Mason Rudolph’s favorite targets, Washington and McCleskey. While Washington is the game-breaker, defenses are paying the price for not giving adequate attention to McCleskey, who’s had three 100-yard games this season.
5. LG Alex Kozan and the Auburn O-line vs. NT D.J. Jones and the Ole Miss D-line
Downhill running games, like the ones from Alabama and LSU, have stampeded the Ole Miss front seven this fall, despite Jones’ presence in the middle of the line. That’s perilous news with Auburn coming to Oxford this week. Last Saturday night, the Rebels yielded 311 yards on just 36 carries to Leonard Fournette & Co. At about the same time, Auburn was trucking Arkansas for 543 yards and seven scores on 57 carries. There’s absolutely no mystery how Gus Malzahn plans to attack Ole Miss this weekend.
4. Northwestern DE Ifeadi Odenigbo vs. Ohio State OTs Jamarco Jones and Isaiah Prince
Chief among the Buckeyes’ issues in last week’s Penn State loss was an inability to protect J.T. Barrett, surprising considering how well the line had played in the first six games. The Wildcats, who’ve won three in a row, are looking to catch Ohio State before it has a chance to kick off another in-season reboot. Odenigbo leads the Big Ten with eight sacks, and he’ll have a little added motivation this weekend, playing close to his hometown in front of throngs of friends and family.
3. Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. vs. Wisconsin OLBs T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel
ILB Jack Cichy is done for the year, and that hurts the Badger D. But Watt and Biegel ought to be healthy enough to apply pressure off the edge, which is necessary for containing Armstrong. A banged-up Husker offensive line has struggled of late, and that was against the middling defenses of Indiana and Purdue. Wisconsin in Madison presents an entirely different challenge, particularly when Watt and Biegel are pinning their ears back. And like most quarterbacks, Armstrong’s effectiveness as a passer plummets when he’s feeling the heat.
2. Utah RB Joe Williams vs. Washington DTs Elijah Qualls and Greg Gaines
Williams is the quintessential Ute, coming out of retirement to rush for 511 yards and five touchdowns over the last two games. He’ll have to be extra special again this week, because Utah QB Troy Williams will not have success against Washington, his former school. The Huskies are solid in all phases and talented from front to back. Qualls and Gaines are powerful, low-leverage tackles who eat up blockers. The Utes have been devastated at the pivot, losing Hiva Lutui in the spring and all-star J.J. Dielman earlier this month. Fingers are crossed that Lo Falemaka can return from his own injury.
1. DE Christian Wilkins and the Clemson D-line vs. LT Roderick Johnson and the Florida State O-line
You want to derail Clemson’s ACC and playoff quests, FSU? Then beat the Tigers at the line of scrimmage, where this game will be won in Tallahassee. The nucleus of Brent Venables’ D is up front, where Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and tackles Carlos Watkins, Dexter Lawrence and Scott Pagano are having their way with opponents. That’s a major worry for the Noles, which rank 13th in the ACC with 21 sacks allowed. If Florida State is unable to spring star RB Dalvin Cook and protect first-year QB Deondre Francois, the team is going down for the third time this season.