College football Week 8 primer: Heisman Watch, upset picks, predictions and more

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The start of Big Ten play highlights Week 8 of the college football season.  

Five ranked Big Ten teams, including No. 5 Ohio State, No. 8 Penn State, No. 14 Wisconsin, No. 18 Michigan and No. 21 Minnesota, will open their seasons. The Wolverines and Gophers are the highlight of that opening slate with a prime-time matchup (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC).  

That’s one of four matchups between ranked teams in Week 8. No. 23 North Carolina State travels to No. 15 North Carolina at noon, No. 17 Iowa State meets No. 6 Oklahoma State at 3:30 p.m. and No. 9 Cincinnati travels to No. 16 SMU at 9 p.m.   

MORE: Week 8 picks against the spread

Every week, Sporting News surveys the landscape looking for Heisman contenders, coaches on the spot, upset alerts and other trends. With that in mind, get ready for Week 8.     

Heisman Watch     

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is the lone returning Heisman Trophy finalist from last season, but he has a significant amount of catchup work to do against the other leading candidates.  

Alabama’s Mac Jones leads the FBS with a 220.1 passer rating, and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence has piled up 15 touchdowns and one interception. BYU’s Zach Wilson has emerged as another candidate, with 1,641 yards and 12 TDs.  

Fields is coming off a season in which he passed for 3,273 yards with 41 TDs and three interceptions, but he also piled up 484 rushing yards and 10 TDs. Those rushing statistics will offset playing in two games, and that starts with the season-opener against Nebraska. Fields piled up 284 total yards and four TDs in a 48-7 victory against the Huskers last season. 

Expect a strong opening statement in The Shoe.  

MORE: All about the Big Ten’s return

Coach on the spot     

Who else would it be? Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh enters his sixth season with a tough road opener at Minnesota — the classic battle for the Little Brown Jug.  

Michigan is 47-18 under Harbaugh, but the 0-5 record against Ohio State and 1-4 record in bowl games continues to hang over the program. If you got inside the record, then you might get a clue for what could happen against the Gophers and coach P.J. Fleck, who is coming off an 11-win season. Consider the track records:  

AP RANKING1-1011-25UNRANKED
Harbaugh (since 2015)2-118-337-4
Fleck (since 2017)1-21-321-10

Harbaugh beats unranked teams and has a good track record in these games against teams ranked outside the top 10. If new quarterback Joe Milton is as advertised, then the Wolverines should be fine, at least for a week.  

Upset alert     

Notre Dame is ranked No. 3, but the Irish are coming off an uninspiring 12-7 victory against Louisville. Notre Dame faces Pitt this week at Heinz Field, and seven of the past eight meetings have been decided by seven points or fewer.  

If there was ever an ACC rivalry that should be a Big Ten rivalry, this is it. The Panthers could hang around in this game, but that is dependent on whether Kenny Pickett returns from a left ankle injury. 

With Pitt coming off three consecutive losses, expect an anything-goes philosophy from Pat Narduzzi. It should be an entertaining game.  

Over/under     

The Mountain West Conference also opens play this week, and Air Force (1-0) is the only team that has seen action this season. The Mid-American Conference begins play Nov. 4.  

Those schools will have to catch up to the Group of 5 schools that remain unbeaten to this point. That list includes No. 9 Cincinnati (3-0), No. 19 SMU (5-0), No. 22 Marshall (4-0), No. 25 Coastal Carolina (4-0) and Florida Atlantic (1-0). No. 12 BYU (5-0) and Liberty (5-0) are the unbeaten independents.  

How many of those schools have a legitimate chance of going undefeated? That is the standard just to get into the New Year’s Day Six conversation and even have a voice in what will be the most interesting College Football Playoff debate given the season being played amid the COVID-19 backdrop.  

We’ll lose at least two teams off that list this week. The Bearcats and Mustangs play in an underrated game this weekend, and the Thundering Herd meet the Owls in Conference-USA action.  

Think about it …     

Alabama coach Nick Saban improved to 21-0 against former Crimson Tide assistants last week in a 41-24 victory against Georgia and coach Kirby Smart. Saban can make it 22-0 with a victory against Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt this week, but that’s not even the most impressive stat.  

Consider Alabama’s dominance in the Third Saturday in October since Saban took over.  

Alabama is 13-0 against the Volunteers. The average margin of victory in those games is 25.3 points, and only two of the 13 games were decided by fewer than 14 points. Both of those games were at Bryant-Denny Stadium.  

The Crimson Tide roll into Neyland Stadium this weekend, where they have won the past six meetings by an average of 28.7 points. The past two victories were by scores of 49-10 in 2016 and 58-21 in 2018.  

It’s on Tennessee to make this a rivalry again, and that won’t be any easier on Saturday.