College Football Week 9: Michigan State Has a Heisman Contender

college football week 9 Kenneth Walker III runs the ball
Michigan State's Kenneth Walker IIIAl Goldis/AP / Shutterstock

It’s a common refrain: November defines a college football season. And although the sport is full of lore, this adage is usually true. The last month of the three-month regular season tends to reveal teams as they really are, setting up the postseason calendar in the process. In this year’s college football Week 9, some teams set themselves up for a strong November (and a shot at postseason success) while others floundered.

 

 

Here are a few standouts in both directions from the last slate of games before the calendar flips to the season’s most critical month.

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College Football Week 9 Recap

Winner: Michigan State

The Spartans entered their rivalry game with Michigan unbeaten but with some substantial questions to answer about their seriousness. They narrowly escaped recent challenges from not-great Nebraska and Indiana teams, and they had yet to face a test like the Wolverines this season. They took some of Michigan’s best shots—QB Payton Thorne let Michigan defenders pick him off a couple of times early—and although the MSU passing game was iffy all around, the Spartans executed enough big plays to win anyway.

Their keys to success were a physical offensive line and running back Kenneth Walker III, whose 197 yards and five touchdowns vaulted him into frontrunner status for the Heisman Trophy. MSU’s current magic carpet ride doesn’t feel all that sustainable if the goal is to win the Big Ten, but that doesn’t make this thrilling win any less of an achievement. In fewer than two seasons, coach Mel Tucker has made a moribund program into a real threat.

Loser: Penn State

The Nittany Lions were 17-point underdogs at Ohio State and lost 33–24, so it’s not like they did anything all that disappointing. In fact, they played well. But the manner in which they lost to the Buckeyes (for the fifth season in a row) will sting a bit more than usual. Penn State entered the game coming off two previous losses, including an embarrassing nine-overtime home defeat to Illinois. They led early in Columbus but made a parade of offensive mistakes to ensure their titanic defensive effort went to waste. Three Penn State turnovers, highlighted by a fumble returned 57 yards for a touchdown by Ohio State defensive tackle Jerron Cage, proved to be too much. Penn State’s once-promising season is now more or less in tatters; on top of that, the program also has to deal with the increasingly likely prospect of coach James Franklin taking another job in 2022.

Winner: Houston

Saturday night blessed us with the game of the year: Houston’s 44–37 win over SMU, a victory that ended SMU’s unbeaten season and gave the Cougars the inside track to an AAC Championship berth against No. 2 Cincinnati. Houston had a lousy first two years under Dana Holgorsen, whom they hired in 2019 with the richest contract in the history of the Group of Five conferences. It’s paying off now, as UH is 7–1 and playing inspired ball in all aspects of the sport.

Houston’s offense has been dominant all year, and the defensive front has been nasty. Both of those contributed on Saturday, but special teams was crucial. After SMU hit a game-tying field goal with 30 seconds left, UH’s Marcus Jones returned the ensuing kick 100 yards to regain the lead. Houston almost blew it by letting SMU return a squib kick deep into Cougar territory, but a Tanner Mordecai Hail Mary at the buzzer fell harmlessly to the ground to seal the Houston win.

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Loser: Florida

The balance of power in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party has shifted to rival Georgia, which thumped the Gators 34–7 in Jacksonville and nearly handed UF its first shutout since 1988. It was just about inevitable that Georgia would treat Florida this way, partially because the No. 1 Dawgs treat everyone this way and because the Gators have been deficient all year. But this was a particularly gory scene for Florida, which only managed to hang in the game for a short time. The score was 3–0 in UGA’s favor with three minutes left in the second quarter, but a mix of breakdowns and turnovers allowed the Dawgs to surge to a 21–0 lead in the last three minutes of the first half. From there it was a laugher, and the only drama was whether or not the Gators could find a garbage-time touchdown. (They did.)

Winner: Baylor

The Bears moved to 7–1 by coming back from a 21–10 deficit to win 31–24 at home against Texas, which fell to a miserable 4–4. Second-year Baylor coach Dave Aranda, who’d been the defensive coordinator for LSU’s national title team in 2019, needed a rest year in 2020 to get the BU program rolling. Baylor struggled to a 2-7 record last year but seemed like an intriguing upside candidate for 2021. That upside is now being realized. Running back Abram Smith carried 20 times for 113 yards and a game-breaking touchdown, and Baylor kept itself firmly in the Big 12 championship mix.

Loser: Texas State

The Bobcats have been a fascinating college football science project this year. In February, they became the first Football Bowl Subdivision team to not sign a single high school player. Instead, they opted for a group of transfers from other college teams. Coach Jake Spavital’s idea was that the all-transfer strategy would supplement a young roster that went 2–10 last season but had a handful of near-misses that could’ve been wins.

It was a risk, though: The NCAA only lets teams keep 85 scholarship players at once and only lets them bring on 25 new ones in a given year. Loading up on transfers, whose eligibility clocks run out quickly, can harm a program’s depth in exchange for a hoped-for short-term boost. Texas State has not received that boost this year. Over the weekend, the Bobcats fell to 2–6 by taking a 45–0 shutout loss to Louisiana.

College Football Week 9: Michigan State Has a Heisman Contender

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