Nine teams entered Week Nine with unblemished records but only four prevailed at the conclusion of the week. No. 23 Western Michigan took care of business on Tuesday night defeating Ball State 53-20 behind an outstanding performance by first round wide receiver candidate Corey Davis. Davis finished the night with 12 receptions for 272 yards and three touchdowns with a couple of circus catches to go along with his outstanding performance.
By: Christian Page
As for the other unbeatens, No. 3 Michigan plays host to Maryland (coached by former Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin), No. 2 Clemson welcomes in a hot Syracuse team, No. 5 Washington travels to Cal and, of course, the top-ranked Tide takes its talent to Baton Rouge for the game of the week.
With a rundown of the top college football games this weekend, here are some matchups to highlight with an emphasis on draft-eligible players.
Pittsburgh at Miami // 12:30 p.m. EST // ACC ESPN
Pittsburgh has only dropped three games this season by a total of 11 points with most recently a missed opportunity versus the Coastal division leader Virginia Tech. Pitt has continued to find success on the ground having a total of 23 rushing touchdowns this season which ranks 11th in the nation. Running back James Conner (#24) has been a load the past couple of weeks versus the Virginia schools with a combined 39 carries for 231 yards and five touchdowns. The decisive physical back continues to punish defenders showing off textbook pad level and power behind his pads. Conner has tallied for five touchdowns in the past two weeks, but the Miami defense has only given up five rushing touchdowns all season.
Miami is on a four-game losing streak and projected first rounder Brad Kaaya (#15) has not shown any of those abilities during that stretch. Kaaya has only had three games this season with an above 62 percent completion rate (Florida A&M, Appalachian State and Georgia Tech) and during the losing streak he is completing just 56.3 percent of his passes with a 5-3 ratio. Kaaya has fallen victim to a poor group of talent around him in Miami not having much time to throw in the pocket making him force throws he shouldn’t. The pressure will most likely not be relieved this weekend with Pittsburgh ranking second in the ACC with 28 sacks and Miami ranking 86 nationally in sacks given up (20).
A big reason for Pittsburgh’s success rushing the passer comes from undersized defensive end prospect Ejuan Price (#5) who leads the nation in sacks with nine but has yet to record a sack in three weeks. Price takes advantage of his opponent with his short area quickness and ability to bend the edge. At times, he will get too wide and lose inside containment losing gap assignments in the run game. With an offensive line that is described by pressure and sacks, look for Price to be a constant threat when Kaaya drops back in the pocket.
No. 1 Alabama at No. 13 LSU // 8 p.m. EST // CBS
With Leonard Fournette (#7) being held to just 1.6 yards per carry in last season’s matchup, LSU hopes to find a rhythm in the run game to open up the passing game that has been relevant since Ed Orgeron has taken over. Fournette and this LSU front needs to have a big game for the TIgers to just at least be in this game entering the fourth quarter. The outside the tackles running game will be important as the success rate versus Alabama when running right at them is extremely low. Ethan Pocic (#77) versus a strong Alabama defensive front headlined by Jonathan Allen (#93) is the main matchup to watch this weekend. Pocic has been exceptional this season dominating opponents at the point of attack and being effective at the second level. Containing Allen in the run game is a huge task but Pocic is the best player he has faced all season which makes for a NFL-worthy matchup. Pocic is known for his quick and strong hands so keep an eye on that element of his game and see how that transfers to his success versus Allen.
Not letting Fournette reach the second level is what Alabama’s game plan will be entering Tiger Stadium and that will reside on of course the front three but also the linebacking corps with Reuben Foster (#10). Foster has incredible instincts and ability to consistently make clean tackles on on one in open space. Facing a bigger and smarter back like Fournette, Foster will only solidify his top five talent with a big game here. To keep drilling the topic of how the run game must be successful for LSU to at least be in contention, right guard Josh Boutte (#76) is a player that is gaining some buzz. Not so much an athletic lineman but Boutte bowls over defenders with tremendous upper body strength and exerting power from all areas of his body. As Boutte may see some initial contact from Allen at the 4-tech, look to see if he can be controlled by possibly the top player in this draft class.
Cam Robinson (#74) is viewed as the top ranked tackle in this class by a large margin (assuming Mike McGlinchey stays true to his word and stays in school), but his projection is still left up in the air. His stock varies on which teams you talk to but all organizations can agree that he needed to be more polished in pass protection. Whether it’s catching up to speed, engagement or timing or all the above, Robinson needs to show more consistency though he is the best run blocking lineman in this whole class. Most likely a top five prospect entering the 2017 season, Arden Key (#49) will test Robinson’s ability to engage with quickness. Key has an incredible first step that will literally cause opposing tackle to get their feet tied up and then be on skates. Robinson played average games versus Tennessee’s Derek Barnett and Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and a good game versus Key’s quickness and flexibility should answer the questions that rise when talking about Robinson’s ability to protect the blind side.
No. 10 Nebraska at No. 6 Ohio State // 8 p.m. EST // ABC
After an expected loss to Wisconsin, Nebraska is still in the hunt to make some noise in the Big Ten but only with a win here. Ohio State is thought of well by the playoff committee with its lone loss to now No. 12 Penn State though the Buckeyes have not played well in recent weeks. Ohio State squeaked by Northwestern last week with an uncharacteristic defensive performance.
As talked about in recent weeks, Buckeye safety Malik Hooker (#24) has received plenty of first round buzz, but I am tapping the brakes here for a moment. Hooker has been fine in coverage showing decent range and instincts, but I have not been impressed with his open field tackling within the past few weeks. Missing one-on-one tackles is not a trait you would like to carry on your resume heading into the draft process and Hooker has some things to clean up in that area finishing the play and taking better angles on the ball carrier. Even with some of the tackling struggles, he did show more promise last week with 14 total tackles in the win.
It is also time to start talking about JT Barrett (#16) being a next-level quarterback. Barrett doesn’t have any elite skills when projecting him to the NFL but his grittiness and finding ways to win should not go unnoticed. Barrett has been efficient from the pocket but has yet to really change the game through the air in recent weeks throwing for just three scores in four weeks. At 6-foot-2 and 224 pounds, Barrett has the physical frame to be that ideal pocket passer in the league and a big game versus a defense that has forced six interceptions in three weeks should say something if he tests the secondary enough.
No. 5 Washington at California // 10:30 p.m. EST // ESPN
Almost being disrespected by the playoff committee, Washington will be playing with something to prove though its remaining schedule will speak for itself if the Huskies run the table. California had an embarrassing loss to USC during the week with a poor performance from quarterback Davis Webb (#7) by his standards. Webb has struggled to force the ball downfield and without his go-to receiver Chad Hansen (#6) the past two weeks he has been lost. For California to be successful they must push the ball downfield. Webb has averaged just 4.7 yards per attempt over the past three games dropping from 8.5 in the first five.
With one of the most talented secondaries in football, Washington has benefitted from not playing many stout passing offenses but will definitely be tested this weekend versus the air raid Cal Bears. Speaking of not being tested, Sidney Jones (#26) rarely sees the ball come his way but with the Bears averaging 52 pass attempts a game, more throws should be thrown into his area and we should be able to see what he really has when playing the ball.
With the defensive tackle duo that I talk about almost every week, Vita Vea (#50) and Elijah Qualls (#11), playing versus a high-octane passing offense, it will be good to note how often they are on the field and how much of an impact they make rushing the passer. Both have the ability to be premier interior pass rushers which is a huge luxury at the next level.
Get to know these potential first round prospects:
Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt (#41)
Many are already familiar with Cunningham and his outstanding play this season for the Commodores and the first round projections are real. Cunningham ranks 12th in the nation with 85 total tackles and enters this weekend versus Auburn’s dynamic run game. His speed to go along with desired size is what will have front offices drooling over his potential and I highly doubt he slips past Pick 32 if his play keeps up.
Jarron Jones, DT, Notre Dame (#94)
Jones has been solid for a poor IRish defense all season long, but his claim to fame came after a spectacular performance versus Miami this past weekend. Jones had six tackles for loss versus Miami controlling the line of scrimmage at the point of attack. Jones brings a lot to the table when rushing the passer as he was a constant threat to Kaaya in the pocket. An interior lineman that can rush the passer will be a coveted player in the draft early.
Carroll Phillips, DE, Illinois (#6)
Teammate Duwuane Smoot has received most of the buzz this season as rightfully so, but Phillips has been exceptional off the edge as he camps out in the backfield every weekend. Phillips averages 1.5 tackles for loss per game and has tallied six sacks this season. Phillips’ motor and quickness off the edge should push for a high ranking in that always-popular edge rankings.
Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State (#2)
If the draft were to start tomorrow I do not think Rudolph would be selected into the first round but based on his recent play and how I viewed him coming into the season, he has actually played a more complete season than Kaaya and Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer. In a weak quarterback class look for Rudolph to rocket up draft boards even though just being a junior. Oklahoma State is a hot team right now that controls its own destiny in the Big 12 with a Baylor loss.