College football Week 8 preview: How will the unbeatens fare this weekend?

ByESPN Staff ESPN logo
Thursday, October 19, 2023

Week 8 is here and the number of undefeated teams keeps dwindling, so which ones will be left standing at the end? Well, nine of 11 unbeaten teams are in action this weekend, including Penn State at Ohio State. One of those squads will suffer its first loss of the season.

Elsewhere, defenses have been impressive from more than just the undefeated group, and our reporters break down everything to know heading into this weekend.

What's on deck for CFB's undefeated teams in Week 8 and beyond?

Georgia(bye) andLiberty(Tuesday win vs.Middle Tennessee) do not play this weekend, so as they regroup, we'll focus on the rest of the Week 8 slate.

Washington 6-0 vs. Arizona State

ESPN's Football Power Index gives the Huskies a 14.2% chance of not just winning out through the regular season, but through the Pac-12 title game. Which is one way to say it probably isn't going to happen.

Of the 11 remaining unbeaten teams, six have better odds. Looking at the schedule, it's easy to see why. The Huskies have three ranked teams left before finishing the regular season against Washington State in the Apple Cup. The good news for the Huskies, though, is that if they end up being measured against other one-loss teams, their strength of schedule at the end of the year will be a benefit.

With Arizona State and Stanford the next two weeks, there is a clear expectation the Huskies will be 8-0. That's when it gets tricky. They go to USC, home against Utah and to Oregon State. That's three very different opponents that will pose significantly different challenges. While the Huskies should be favored in all three, the margin for error will be tight. -- Kyle Bonagura

Penn State 6-0 (atOhio State)

After losing to Ohio State in 2018, Penn State coach James Franklin sounded off on how the program had risen from average to good to great but had yet to reach an elite level. He spoke emotionally about how PSU couldn't be comfortable with where it stood and needed to do "all the little things" to reach the next level.

"We've been knocking at the door long enough," Franklin said then.

Four more Ohio State losses later, Penn State's time to break through has come. The Lions have some talent edges over the Buckeyes, especially on defense, and boast a first-year starting quarterback in Drew Allar, who might have a higher ceiling. Much has been made of Penn State's conservative approach with Allar, who averages just 6.93 yards per attempt, 93rd nationally, and has only 11 completions of 20 yards or longer (tied for 114th nationally).

As good as the Nittany Lions are on defense -- No. 1 nationally in fewest yards allowed, rushing defense, passing defense and sacks per game -- they likely will need to cut it loose more, beginning Saturday at Ohio State. But Franklin is pleased with Allar's patience as a young QB.

"Every quarterback wants to throw the corner route or the go route or the post," Franklin said. "Who is throwing checkdowns in their backyard, right? ... He's doing a really good job of keeping the main thing the main thing, which is protecting the football, trying to create explosive plays when they're there, but not forcing them."

Penn State's season will be shaped by how it performs Saturday and Nov. 11 against Michigan. The Lions are 4-14 against Ohio State and Michigan under Franklin, who is 80-22 against everyone else while at the school. Penn State hasn't beaten both heavyweights since 2008. The Michigan matchup, even more so than Ohio State, has become especially difficult for Franklin's teams.

But the opportunity is there, and Penn State has the pieces in place to take the step Franklin has wanted for years. --Adam Rittenberg

Ohio State 6-0(vs. Penn State)

Ohio State doesn't really look like a team poised to run the table, but its dominant play in the past six quarters suggests a shift is coming. The Buckeyes outclassed Marylandin the second half Oct. 7, and never let Purdueget traction in last week's 41-7 road win.

Obviously, coach Ryan Day's team will need to maintain and elevate its play this week against Penn State, which looks like a better version of the squad that held a fourth-quarter lead over Ohio State last year until JT Tuimoloau was prolific in the closing minutes. Ohio State's offense needs quarterback Kyle McCord to keep progressing -- he has five touchdowns, no interceptions and 596 passing yards in his past two games, but has had some hiccups against pressure -- while also finding greater balance on offense and protecting better. Penn State leads the nation in sacks (4.5 per game) and is tied for seventh nationally in overall team pressures (99).

"This will be our biggest challenge to date," Day said Tuesday. "They're very twitchy, very quick, they get after the quarterback at a high level. Both ends are NFL players for sure. So our tackles, in particular, are going to have to do a great job."

Ohio State's defense could ultimately be the unit that propels the Buckeyes to an undefeated season. The unit doesn't pop in any of the popular categories -- sacks (105th), takeaways (tied for 92nd), tackles for loss (tied for 82nd) -- but has limited big plays and ultimately kept points off the board. Coordinator Jim Knowles' less-is-more approach could pay off this week against a solid but not spectacular Penn State offense, and ultimately against a marauding Michigan team on the road. Knowles on Tuesday said he doesn't like the bend-but-don't-break label, classifying his defense simply as: "One that prevents points."

The Buckeyes' schedule outside of Penn State and Michigan is manageable, especially since Wisconsin just lost starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai to injury. But finding a way to outlast arguably Penn State's best team since 2016 will be a key first step.

"There's a lot riding on every game," Day said. "We know that and so it's my job to bring it every week, every Saturday and push as hard as I can."-- Adam Rittenberg

Michigan7-0 (atMichigan State)

Michigan has started the season undefeated through seven games for the third year in a row. The Wolverines have faced an easier schedule so far, but have dominated opponents week by week.

Michigan is the first team since 1936 to score 30 or more points while allowing 10 or fewer points in each of its first seven games. Easier opponents or not, that is impressive and Michigan has been a balanced team throughout.

The Wolverines have scored 30 or more points in 10 straight games, which is the longest streak in program history. As it stands, the team has a receiver in Roman Wilson, who is tied for most touchdown receptions among all FBS players (9), and a running back in Blake Corum, who is tied for the most rushing touchdowns among all FBS backs (12).

It's not the Michigan of old, when opponents could load up the box and just try to stop the run, as the passing game has been prominently displayed this season.

But November is going to be the tough test for Michigan. The team will face Penn State on the road, Maryland and Ohio State in November. Happy Valley is never an easy place to play and the Nittany Lions are playing outstanding football. Ohio State has lost twice in a row to Michigan and will do anything it can to stop that streak.

Despite the way Michigan is playing, those games will be tough tests, but the Wolverines have described themselves as bullies and the team that wants to bring the adversity to its opponents. How good this team is and how far it can go will depend on the November results.

"There was a real calm, a real understanding that when we get punched in the mouth, we're going to respond," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "That's what's going to happen. Everybody has that kind of faith in the leadership of our team, the character of our team. There's a devotion to the fundamentals of Michigan football and we just go to work at responding.

"That's the best strategy you can do and that's what we lean back on."-- Tom VanHaaren

Oklahoma6-0(vs. UCF)

The Sooners rank second in FPI, just behind Ohio State, but have the highest probability of winning out of any undefeated team at 41.1%. Their remaining schedule ranks 45th in strength as the rest of the league, with the exception of Texas, has had wildly unpredictable results.

But OU'sDillon Gabriel has been unflappable, leading a Sooners offense that is averaging 45.2 points per game (fourth-best nationally), while Danny Stutsman headlines a defense allowing just 14 ppg, seventh best. Now that the annual pressure cooker against Texas is over, with Gabriel delivering a legendary comeback drive with no timeouts, going 75 yards in just over a minute for a 34-30 win, OU can think bigger.

"Our mindset is that we've already put all the pressure on ourselves," Oklahoma defensive end Ethan Downs told reporters on Monday. "We have high expectations, and we have goals. The goals are still the same as they were before the hype and after. We appreciate all the recognition, but our goals exceed far beyond that. What happens in the building and what happens in every practice is what we're focused on. It hasn't changed."

The biggest remaining challengers for the Sooners include a trip to Stillwater on Nov. 4 in front of an emotional Oklahoma State crowd for what will be the last Bedlam rivalry game before the Sooners depart for the SEC, facing a Cowboys program that has surged back to life following a 33-7 loss at home to South Alabama and another at Iowa State.

After UCF, the Sooners will travel to Kansas to face a Jayhawks squad that can score on anyone. They'll finish the season with a home game against TCU, which also appeared to find its footing with a new quarterback last weekend. In between, the Sooners will play a gritty West Virginia team and endure a trip to Provo for BYU's only conference battle with them. All are winnable, but the Big 12 never seems to follow the script. But as it stands now, FPI projects the Sooners have a 70.1% chance to make the College Football Playoff and a 39.9% chance to make the title game, both best in the country. -- Dave Wilson

North Carolina6-0 (vs. Virginia)

North Carolina hasn't found itself ranked in the top 10 often, but when it happens, it doesn't typically go well for the Tar Heels. Since Mack Brown left Chapel Hill the first time in 1998, UNC has played five games as a top-10 team. It's lost four of them.

Well, UNC is 6-0 and ranked 10th. Time for an implosion?

"We've got to handle success," Brown said. "That's something we haven't done very well around here. To be a great team, you've got to play to a standard, and that standard is to win every game."

UNC was last in the top 10 in the 2021 preseason poll, and it quickly lost to Virginia Tech in the opener. He doesn't foresee such a stumble this week, with Virginia on the docket.

For one, the Cavaliers are scuffling at 1-5 -- though they won their last game, vs. William and Mary, and are coming off an open date. More importantly, Brown said, the focus for his team is different this time around.

In last week's win over Miami, the Heels ran for 235 yards, Drake Maye threw four touchdowns and the defense forced four turnovers. And yet, Brown said the team was as critical of itself after Saturday's victory as it has been after any win since he returned to Chapel Hill five years ago.

"We're at a different place with this team and this staff," he said.

The team certainly is in a different place on defense, with last year's overwhelmed unit now playing with confidence.

It's different in the run game, where Omarion Hampton has blossomed as one of the nation's most productive runners.

And it's far different in the passing game, withTez Walkershowing why UNC was so eager to get him on the field after he had three touchdown grabs last week.

But more than anything, North Carolina is different in its expectations.

Two years ago, when Brown announced to his team it was ranked eighth in the preseason polls, the players erupted in cheers. On Sunday, when he let them know they were 10th, no one budged.

"I think they appreciate being where they are," he said, "and they know it's fleeting. So you better win."-- David Hale

Florida State6-0 (vs. Duke)

Of all the undefeated teams listed here, only Oklahoma has a better chance to finish unbeaten than Florida State, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. But that doesn't necessarily mean the Seminoles have a cakewalk on their remaining schedule. Whether Duke has Riley Leonard available or not -- he remains day to day with a high ankle sprain -- the Blue Devils defense will present FSU's biggest challenge since Clemson. Duke ranks No. 4 in the nation in scoring defense, one of four schools in the country giving up less than 10 points per game.

"You look at the standard of good defenses. This is one that you would point to," Florida State coach Mike Norvell said. "All 11 guys on their defense tackle, they can run, cover. They're disruptive in the schemes that they present. Got really good pressure packages that challenge offenses. You can see the confidence in how they play. These are the games you love being a part of. It's going to be some fun X's and O's to see who can try to create any type of advantage."

Indeed, on the flip side, Florida State is one of nine offenses in the country averaging more than 40 points per game. It has finally found a nice balance between its run and passing game, and will have to match the intensity and physicality that Duke plays with -- particularly on defense. If Duke can control the line of scrimmage and force the Seminoles into mistakes, the Blue Devils will give themselves a chance to win.

Beyond Duke, Florida State still has both its in-state rivals left on the schedule --Miamiat home Nov. 11 and at Floridaon Nov. 25 -- and a tricky game at Pitton Nov. 4. The Panthers are 2-4, but they just took down unbeaten Louisville. Doing it again should not be out of the question.-- Andrea Adelson

Air Force6-0 (atNavy)

Granted, things just got trickier with the loss of quarterback Zac Larrier to a knee injury. His timetable is uncertain at the moment; coach Troy Calhoun said only that Larrier would "likely be out for a while" and that he didn't know how long. Still, Air Force has quite a bit going for itin the quest to get to 12-0 or 13-0.

For one thing, backup quarterback Jensen Jones has experience and has posted similar numbers in a smaller sample. Jones will still have a particularly explosive set of backs at his disposal, too, feeding players like John Lee Eldridge III (10.1 yards per carry) and Owen Burk (6.3). His defense should remain awesome as well: Air Force has been awfully stingy in recent years and boasts A-plus playmakers in linebackers Bo Richter, PJ Ramsey and Alec Mock (combined: 18.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks) and safety Trey Taylor. Calhoun has led this team for nearly 20 years, and this is one of his most talented casts.

Plus, the remaining schedule is awfully navigable. Granted, the next four games are all away from home, and they include rivalry contests against both Navy and Army, but these next four opponents have a combined record of 10-15. The Falcons' path to 10-0 is solid, and they might have a chance to get Larrier back before they finish the season against 5-1 UNLV, Boise Stateand whoever they might play in a theoretical MWC championship game.

But that's down the road. This week the focus is on Navy. The Falcons have won three in a row in this series, but they were by diminishing margins -- 40-7 in 2020, 23-3 in 2021, 13-10 in 2022 -- and Navy has won two in a row after a 1-3 start. Taking down an increasingly confident rival with your backup quarterback never qualifies as easy.-- Bill Connelly

James Madison6-0 (atMarshallon Thursday)

The Dukes have only two games remaining against teams that are over .500, beginning Thursday night with Marshall (4-2) and in two weeks (Nov. 4) against Georgia State (5-1). Fresh off its 41-13 dispatching of Georgia Southern last week, James Madison's offense is in high gear -- tallying at least 31 points in five of its six games.

In its second season as an FBS program, Curt Cignetti has led a successful transition to the Sun Belt for a program that enjoyed four seasons of at least 12 wins and three berths in the FCS national championship game since 2016 (including winning the national title in 2016). Ineligible to play in the postseason as its two-year transition to Division I concludes, James Madison has a carrot of an undefeated season in reach. It hasn't finished unbeaten since 1975 (9-0-1).

Whether the program gets there may depend on its offense (34.5 ppg) continuing to put the foot on the gas behind senior quarterback Jordan McCloud (1,432 passing yards with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions) and hope its defense tightens things a bit. -- Blake Baumgartner

Which defenses have impressed so far this season?

North Carolina

The North Carolina defense has been impressive when you consider where this group was a year ago. Headed into the season, many wondered how much improvement we would see from a group that ranked either near or at the bottom in the ACC in nearly every statistical category in 2022. Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik promised the group would play much better in Year 2 in the system, and he has been right. North Carolina is allowing nearly 100 yards and 10 points per game fewer than last year; its run defense is allowing 50 fewer yards per game; it already has reached its interception total for all of last year (9); it has 16 sacks, one away from the total last year; and it already has more tackles for loss (35) than last year. Kaimon Rucker has emerged at the rush end position, the revamped secondary has played better thanks, in part, to key transfer addition Alijah Huzzie, and Cedric Gray has developed into a terrific all-around linebacker. -- Adelson


The last drive against Oklahoma notwithstanding, the Texas defense has been the difference in its turnaround this year. The Longhorns have already faced Alabama, a solid Kansas offense (though Jalon Daniels did not play) and a stellar Oklahoma unit, and rank 15th nationally in points allowed (16.3) and are allowing 323.3 total yards, 26th-best. The Longhorns are allowing rushing first downs 14.3% of plays, first nationally, and are eighth overall in allowing a conversion on 28.4% of third downs. -- Wilson

Penn State

Michigan's defense has been dominant and the numbers that unit is putting up are notable, but Penn State's defense has edged the Wolverines in many top categories. The Nittany Lions are first among all FBS programs in yards allowed per game, giving up 193.7 yards. The team is third overall in rush yards allowed (72.5) and first in pass yards allowed per game (121.2). The team is also second among all FBS programs in sacks with 27, first in opponent completion percentage, first in pass touchdowns allowed, giving up just one all season, and the list goes on with this defense. Penn State will have its work cut out for it in the latter half of the season, with Ohio State, Maryland and Michigan, but the defense has been nearly flawless.-- VanHaaren


How good has the Utah defense been? Consider this: The Utes are 5-1 and are ranked No. 14 in the country despite having the nation's No. 111-ranked scoring offense. That's not possible without an elite defense. The Utes rank No. 5 nationally in scoring (12.2 ppg) and have forced opponents to go three-and-out 46.5% of the time, the third-best mark in the country. -- Bonagura


For a change, it's not Georgia or not Alabama that has grabbed the headlines defensively the first part of the season in the SEC, although both are outstanding. It's Tim Banks' Tennessee defense that has stolen the show and blossomed into one of the most improved units in the country after finishing 91st nationally a year ago in total defense.

The Vols lead the SEC with just 10 touchdowns allowed in six games and are second to Georgia in yards per play allowed (4.41) and second to Texas A&M in sacks per game (4). Sophomore defensive end James Pearce Jr. has emerged as one of the top pass-rushers in the country, and only in their 29-16 loss to Florida have the Vols given up more than two touchdowns in a game. In three of their six contests, they've allowed just one touchdown, and the two touchdowns UTSA scored came in the second half after Tennessee led 31-0 at the half.

The matchup Saturday against Alabama should be especially interesting. Tennessee is one of the best teams in the country at sacking the quarterback (24), while Alabama is one of the worst at giving up sacks (31).-- Chris Low

Quotes of the week

"You can't sit around and eat the poisonous cheese. You can't listen to the talk. You can't pat yourself on the back, because we're human beings. How are we going to play? Are we going to walk around all week and be cool and talk about all these stats and about how many times we've been 6-0?" -- North Carolina coach Mack Brown on getting complacent after an undefeated start.

"We're in the ass-kicking business, and business is booming." -- Linebacker Mike Barrett said after Michigan's win against Indiana.

"I was frustrated and kicked something I shouldn't have kicked and thought I was OK, and then the adrenaline of the game wore off." -- Shane Beamer on how he broke his foot following South Carolina's loss last week.

"Are they in love with this game or are they in like with it?" -- Deion Sanders' comments following Colorado's loss to Stanford.

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