The Week 9 college football schedule features three key American Athletic Conference matchups and a Mountain West game of great interest to every Group of Five program eyeing a New Year’s six bowl game.
There will be no playoff contenders setting sail for rugged road tests, like when Washington travels to Utah or when Nebraska heads north to Wisconsin. And none of these matchups are being labeled the conference game of the year, such as the perennial ACC tilt pitting Clemson against Florida State. Still, the under-the-radar gems below are dripping with juicy storylines and compelling subplots, and they warrant your close attention in Week 9.
6. Cincinnati (3-3) at Temple (3-3)
The Owls are the new AAC East Division leaders, courtesy of back-to-back wins over UCF and South Florida. But Cincinnati has renewed life now that Gunner Kiel is back at the controls of the offense.
Temple raced past USF last Friday behind a career-best 210 rushing yards from Ryquell Armstead. The victory shook up the eastern half of the conference, which appeared to be the domain of the Bulls throughout the first half of the season. Now, Matt Rhule’s kids turn their attention to the Bearcats, which are fresh off their best effort since the Week 2 rout at Purdue. Cincy got a huge spark from Kiel, who went 23-of-40 for 348 yards and four touchdowns, three to Kahlil Lewis, in his first start of 2016.
5. UCF (4-3) at Houston (6-2)
Remember when the Cougars were being discussed as a possible fly in the College Football Playoff ointment? Yeah, they’re not even ranked these days.
Houston and Tom Herman have endured an unexpected fall from grace, losing two of their last three games to Navy and SMU. The defense is no longer nasty, and Greg Ward Jr. hasn’t been able to compensate from his side of the ball. Where will the Cougs’ heads be now that so many preseason goals are off the table? This is a time when Herman will have to really dig deep as a coach.
Motivation won’t be an issue on the other sideline, as UCF is two wins from bowl eligibility a year after going winless. Scott Frost is getting a spark on offense from rookie quarterback McKenzie Milton and defensive pressure from linebackers Mark Rucker and Shaquem Griffin.
4. Maryland (5-2) at Indiana (3-4)
Don’t try to convince D.J. Durkin or Kevin Wilson that college football’s postseason has a weight problem. Bowl games are motivational targets and building blocks for programs like Maryland and Indiana.
At this stage of their development, a bowl game—any bowl game—is a big deal for the Terps and the Hoosiers. Wilson led IU to the Pinstripe Bowl last December, but the school is still looking for its first postseason win since 1991. And with Penn State and Michigan still left on the schedule, the Hoosiers must snap their three-game losing streak immediately.
Meanwhile, Durkin has Maryland, which handled Michigan State last week, a win away from a bonus game. The matchup feature two of the more underrated Big Ten defenses, highlighted by up-and-comers, such as Terp nose guard Kingsley Opara and Hoosier linebacker Tegray Scales.
3. Navy (5-1) at South Florida (6-2)
It’s a battle of AAC division leaders, though South Florida’s loss to Temple on Saturday means margin for error in the East is no longer a luxury.
The Bulls no longer control their own destiny, so this week’s game with Navy is more important than ever. USF must rebound, sans any false starts, behind linebacker Auggie Sanchez and offensive backfield mates Quinton Flowers and Marlon Mack. The Midshipmen, though, are the league’s hottest team, disposing of West Division contenders Houston and Memphis the past two games. Leading the Academy is quarterback Will Worth, a backup before Tago Smith was injured, who spliced the Tigers last week for 201 yards on the ground, three rushing touchdowns and two more scores through the air.
2. Virginia Tech (5-2) at Pittsburgh (5-2)
There are three remaining ACC Coastal programs with one conference loss. Two of them will meet at Heinz Field on Thursday night.
The Hokies and the Panthers are hooking up in what could be a divisional elimination game. Tech bounced back from an ugly loss to Syracuse by downing Miami, 37-16. Pitt hasn’t lost in a month, though defeating Marshall, Georgia Tech and Virginia in succession was expected. Both teams are averaging more than 35 points per game this season, so it’ll be up to the defensive stars, like Pitt sack specialist Ejuan Price and Va Tech linebackers Andrew Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds to make late stops in what should be a tight game for all four quarters.
1. Boise State (7-0) at Wyoming (5-2)
Rebuilding in Laramie has been painful for Craig Bohl. After two seasons of hard work, he and his Cowboys are beginning to reap the dividends. Now, their targets are set on shocking the nation.
Hosting unbeaten and 13th-ranked Boise State represents Wyoming’s biggest game in a generation. Pull the upset and the Cowboys earn instant national notoriety, while seizing control of the Mountain West’s Mountain. The Broncos are unbeaten, but not untouchable, having escaped Colorado State and BYU by only six points combined the past two games. This game will serve as the stage for two of the game’s most productive backs, Wyoming’s 1,000-yard rusher Brian Hill and Boise State Jeremy McNichols, who could reach a grand at War Memorial Stadium this Saturday.