This week is unique in that two of the best matchups take place on a Friday night, so we should get a few days of treats from the college game. The game features the defending champs battling their third high-profile opponent after their worst showing of the season. Here’s the finest the final weekend of September has to offer:
Clemson at Virginia Tech: The Tigers have come through in impressive fashion against Auburn and Louisville, dominating defensively despite the presence of two of the better offensive minds in the college game in Gus Malzahn and Bobby Petrino. Clemson shut down Lamar Jackson’s chances of winning a Heisman Trophy and snuffed out Jarrett Stidham’s before we even got started despite the late summer surge in hype over Auburn’s new quarterback. The Hokies don’t have a candidate for college football’s top individual honor to focus in on, but do have arguably the best defense that Clemson will face to date.
Blacksburg will be at a fever pitch, so a Virginia Tech team that went 57-10 between a decade span of 2003-12 before going 9-10 from ‘13-’16 will look to try and reclaim that aura of invincibility Lane Stadium once enjoyed. Under new head coach Justin Fuente, the Hokies are 7-1 at home, but unranked Miami has provided their toughest test. This will be a different animal, under the lights on a national stage.
Clemson and Boston College entered the fourth quarter tied at 7 this past weekend before the defending champs put the game away with 27 consecutive points. The Hokies found something in the second half of December’s ACC Championship to cut a large deficit to 42-35 and make the final minutes interesting, so they shouldn’t be lacking for confidence. Neither QB involved in that game, Deshaun Watson and Jerod Evans, will participate here, and their neither of their successors are as accomplished passing the ball. This one should hinge on defense. Here’s hoping it’s as exciting as last week’s top matchup, where Penn State survived Iowa on the final play.
USC at Washington State: The nightcap to an excellent Friday slate brings us the Pac-12’s top matchup in a week where the league has plenty of attractive games. Sam Darnold has thrown more interceptions than anyone expected, but has also put his brilliance on display in leading the Trojans to a perfect start thus far. He saved his best for Stanford, which may be an indication that he’s having issues with focus.
The Western Michigan, Texas and Cal games were all closer than they should’ve been entering the fourth quarter, but USC made plays when necessary to pull them all out. This will be their second straight road game and first outside of California, so it provides a great setting for Darnold to lock in and keep his team from flirting with disaster since that would likely spell serious trouble in Pullman.
Keep in mind that there may be rain and temperatures in the 50s to deal with, so the elements could have an impact. The undefeated Cougs are playing their fifth consecutive home game and have a savvy senior QB leading the way in Luke Falk, so conditions are ripe for an upset. Washington State will have to reverse trends that have seen it lose nine of 10 against USC in addition to a 3-31 against ranked opponents. Head coach Mike Leach beat the Trojans in a weird 10-7 game back in 2013, the lowest-scoring output in a win during his tenure. Leach has yet to beat a ranked team at home since taking over the program in 2011.
Georgia at Tennessee: Kirby Smart has long been known as a defensive genius, enjoying tremendous success at Alabama for nearly a decade while also enjoying jobs at other top schools in addition to an NFL stint in Miami. This is no overnight success. After an 8-5 first season, the verdict was still out on whether he’d be able to get the job done in the head seat, but he’s gotten off to a great first month in Year 2. Most encouraging, his defense has gotten the job done in a tough game at Notre Dame and snuffed out Mississippi State on Saturday in a battle of unbeatens.
The Dawgs are back on the road here, and it’s important for true freshman Jake Fromm to continue gaining confidence. The kid looks poised enough to keep the job ahead of the highly regarded Jacob Eason, who is returning from injury soon but unlikely to be handed his gig back given what’s transpired to date. Butch Jones’ seat is scalding hot after his Vols followed up a loss to Florida on a Hail Mary by barely beating FBS Independent UMass in Knoxville. If Tennessee sputters early against an impressive Georgia defense, we could hear loud, scathing boos far more often than we get a choruses of Rocky Top at Neyland Stadium.
Northwestern at Wisconsin: The undefeated Badgers open conference play coming off the only bye they’ll get this season. Alex Hornibrook has been impressive with his decision-making at QB and comes off a record-setting 18-for-19 showing where he racked up 256 yards and four TDs in a rout of BYU. True freshman Jonathan Taylor has ascended to the top of the depth chart, running behind an offensive line that has thus far been banged up but among nation’s best when healthy.
Wisconsin is to be taken seriously, which makes this matchup compelling since it had lost consecutive games against Northwestern before winning 21-7 last year. Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats also had an additional week to prepare and have big plans for the season despite suffering an early loss at Duke. With a homecoming game against Penn State scheduled for next week, Northwestern should be mentally prepared to play its best to begin what is easily its toughest stretch of the season.
Others: Miami at Duke, Memphis at UCF, Mississippi State at Auburn, Indiana at Penn State, Iowa at Michigan State, Arizona State at Stanford, Oklahoma State at Texas Tech, Ole Miss at Alabama, Cal at Oregon, Florida State at Wake Forest, Colorado at UCLA, South Carolina at Texas A&M, Northern Illinois at San Diego State, Vanderbilt at Florida.