While building a college football program undoubtedly starts with recruiting, you eventually have to show progress by notching big wins on the field. The 2014 campaign has already seen a number of traditionally marginal programs, most notably Mississippi State and Ole Miss, ascend to the top of the rankings by knocking off big-time opponents. In week eight, there is plenty of opportunity for progress to made be throughout the country.
There are a bunch of marquee matchups this week. The headliner, of course, is No. 2 Florida State vs. No. 5 Notre Dame. But there's also No. 4 Baylor vs. West Virginia, No. 11 Oklahoma vs. No. 14 Kansas State, No. 7 Alabama vs. No. 21 Texas A&M, No. 12 TCU vs. No. 15 Oklahoma State and No. 17 Arizona State vs. No. 23 Stanford.
We've gone through each game and picked out the 10 teams that have the most to gain this weekend. Here they are, in order.
10.) Washington - at No. 9 Oregon:
For those of you who haven't been paying much attention to the Huskies, the Chris Petersen era has gotten off to a very nice start. Washington sits at 5-1, has scored more than 30 points in four of its six contests, rushes for almost 200 yards per game and boasts the 37th-ranked defense in college football. The one thing the team hasn't accomplished so far? A program-changing victory. UW played Stanford tough a few weeks back, but couldn't come up with the win.
That could all change this weekend when the Huskies take on No. 9 Oregon in Eugene. Sure, the Ducks are no longer undefeated after losing to Arizona, but there's no doubt that a road victory of a top-ranked conference foe would do wonders for recruiting. If Washington is able to establish itself as a real Pac-12 contender in Petersen's first year, it'll open up the doors in Seattle.
How do they get it done? Control the clock, run the ball effectively and win the turnover battle. As we all know, getting into a shootout with the Ducks does not work. If running backs Lavon Coleman and Dwayne Washington can keep Oregon off the field, they'll have a chance.
9.) Texas A&M - at No. 7 Alabama:
Two weeks ago, Texas A&M was considered a national title contender. Now, the Aggies are an afterthought. The only way the program can resurrect its season is by winning the big games left on its schedule. A road game against the Alabama Crimson Tide, which has been struggling a bit too, is a huge opportunity.
A&M opened the season with a blowout win over South Carolina, but in the background, there were questions about the Aggies' defense. Against Arkansas, they were fortunate to escape with a win, as the Razorbacks put up 285 yards on the ground in the loss. It all came unraveled against both Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Texas A&M's aerial attack, led by sophomore Kenny Hill, is still one of the best in the country, but turnovers have started to become a problem. In the team's first four games, Hill threw just one interception. He's thrown six in the past three. That can't happen against Alabama.
How do they get it done? Texas A&M needs to run a more balanced offense to take down Alabama. Kenny Hill can't throw the ball 60 times - the Crimson Tide defense is too disciplined and will create turnovers if you present yourself as one-dimensional. Alabama's offense has some issues of its own, so it's not unthinkable to try to get into a field position battle with the Tide. Arkansas almost pulled it off - there's no reason A&M can't.
8.) Oklahoma State - at No. 12 TCU:
Oklahoma State fans probably thought that the Cowboys would need to knock off Florida State in the team's season opener for there to be any shot at reaching the College Football Playoff. But as-of right now, given the way things have shaken out across the country, there's no reason that OSU can't still be in the discussion at the end of the year. The Cowboys just need to win the Big 12 - and probably do it with an undefeated record. Saturday's game against TCU is an important step in that process.
OSU's 5-1 record is even more amazing considering it lost its starting quarterback, J.W. Walsh, early in its second game of the season. Backup Daxx Garman has done more than a serviceable job, throwing for nearly 1,400 yards, 10 touchdowns and just five interceptions. That being said, the Cowboys haven't played the toughest part of their schedule yet. Going on the road to take on a much-improved Horned Frogs squad is a daunting task.
Oklahoma State has a real shot though. TCU is coming off of an incredibly heartbreaking loss to Baylor. The Horned Frogs have defensive issues. Plus, this is the third ranked team that it has to face in three consecutive weeks. If Garman is patient and makes good decisions with the football, he can have a productive day - remember, Bryce Petty threw for 510 yards and six touchdown against them.
7.) Rutgers - at No. 13 Ohio State:
When Rutgers announced that it would be joining the Big Ten, Scarlet Knights fans salivated at the thought of getting to play Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan every year. Saturday, the team will have a chance to beat two of the three in its first year in the league. It's a long shot, considering how well the Buckeyes are playing right now, but the Big Ten has been anything but predictable this year.
If you still aren't convinced - consider this: two weeks ago, when Rutgers knocked off Michigan, a 2-4 team that has struggled the entire season, fans rushed the field in celebration. Beating the other Big Ten power - in consecutive games, no less - would be absolutely monumental for a program with little history.
How do they get it done? Well, for one, they need the good version of quarterback Gary Nova to show up - the one who has thrown for seven touchdowns and just one interception in the last two games. Nova's been solid so far this year, but his one performance against Penn State, in which he threw five interceptions, still has Scarlet Knights fans upset. But they'll also need to limit Ohio State's possessions as well. J.T Barrett has turned into a star for the Buckeyes, and Rutgers will need to control the ball to keep the game close. It's unlikely, but it would be huge.
6.) Georgia - at Arkansas:
Todd Gurley or no Todd Gurley, Georgia still has national championship aspirations. The only way that happens if if the Bulldogs win out, take the SEC East and then knock off the SEC West champion in the league's title game. Losing to Arkansas - the team currently at the bottom of the standings on that side of the conference - would all but end any shot UGA has. What's worse? The Razorbacks are actually really good.
So why is this a huge opportunity? Well, first, it's another chance to prove that the Bulldogs can win games without Gurley in the backfield. Plus, truth be told, Georgia schedule, from here on out, is not as difficult as some of its conference foes'. A win over Arkansas would mean a 4-1 league record with games against Florida, Kentucky and Auburn remaining. We suspect the Bulldogs would have no problem getting up for a home game against the Tigers if a possible SEC East title was on the line.
This game is going to be a slugfest though. Arkansas, like Georgia, has one of the most potent rushing attacks in the country. The Razorbacks also have to feel a bit snakebit this year, considering they've played competitively against Auburn, Texas A&M and Alabama and lost all three. Is this the game that Hutson Mason finally establishes himself as a threat? We'll find out.
5.) Kansas State - at No. 11 Oklahoma:
Would an 11-1 Kansas State team that lost to Auburn by less than a touchdown be strongly considered for a College Football Playoff berth? They answer has to be yes, right? That's really all you need to know when it comes to how important Saturday's game is for the Wildcats. Sure, KSU still has both TCU and Baylor on its schedule, but in order for those games to matter, the Wildcats probably need to take down conference heavyweight Oklahoma Saturday.
Here's the thing - it's completely doable. The Sooners look vulnerable on both sides of the ball. Trevor Knight, who has thrown just two touchdown passes in the team's last three games, is struggling. They had trouble running the ball against Texas. If it weren't for scores by the special teams and the defense, they'd be looking at two straight losses. Plus, KSU quarterback Jake Waters played his best game of the season last week against Texas Tech, throwing for four touchdowns in a blowout win.
But, Oklahoma is Oklahoma, and the game is in Norman. Kansas State has a tough test, but a real opportunity. We'll see if the Wildcats can pull it off.
4.) Tennessee - at No. 3 Ole Miss:
Before the season began, there were many who thought that Tennessee could be a sleeper program to have a breakout campaign. Instead, it's been two of the league's other perennial doormats - Ole Miss and Mississippi State - who have experienced resurgence. Saturday, the Vols will get a chance to knock one of them - the Rebels - down a peg. It's also a chance for Tennessee to get its first win over a ranked opponent this season.
Make no mistake - the Volunteers are an improved squad from a year ago. They were competitive against both Oklahoma and Georgia. They should have beaten Florida. But in the end, their inexperience caught up with them. In those three contests, they turned the ball over seven times. That can't happen against Ole Miss, a team with arguably the top defense in the entire country.
To beat Ole Miss, you need to control the clock, limit turnovers and find a way to make quarterback Bo Wallace make mistakes. His decision making has been much better in 2014. If Tennessee can figure out a way to fluster him, it'll have a shot.
3.) West Virginia - vs. No. 4 Baylor:
If you're looking for a game that could end with the goal posts coming down, this is the one. West Virginia has the offense to compete with any team in the country, even Baylor's. The Mountaineers, at 4-2, are a much better team that they were a year ago. Their only two losses come at the hands of Alabama and Oklahoma - two programs expected to compete for a national title in 2014.
Baylor, meanwhile, is still undefeated after a miraculous comeback 61-58 win over TCU in Waco last Saturday. The Bears proved, yet again, that they can score at will. But the game also showed the Bears' defense is not elite. There's no reason that West Virginia, which boasts the seventh-best passing attack in the country, can't get into a shootout with Baylor. And in shootouts, anything can happen.
WVU quarterback Clint Trickett has played very well this season, as his Mountaineers have put up over 30 points in five straight contests. But if he wants to lead his team to a win over the high-flying Bears, he'll have to have the game of his life. It should be entertaining to watch.
2.) Florida State - vs. No. 5 Notre Dame:
Some fans may believe that Florida State, the reigning national champion, has nothing to prove, considering its 22-game winning streak. Not so much. Saturday's game against Notre Dame is absolutely huge for the program for a number of reasons. And Jameis Winston's antics have nothing to do with it.
Florida State is 6-0 this season, but most college football analysts across the country don't seem to believe that the Seminoles are as elite this year as they were a season ago. Looking at FSU's remaining schedule, there aren't many contests left to prove otherwise. The ACC is down this year. If the Seminoles can't beat Notre Dame at home, there's a solid chance that a league title may not be enough to notch a College Football Playoff berth.
Winston is going to play, and that's obviously a good thing for Florida State and its fans. If he's able to block out the noise (like only he can do) and turn in a solid performance, Notre Dame is probably in trouble. This is a huge game.
1.) Notre Dame - at No. 2 Florida State:
Hey, nobody said there couldn't be two teams from the same matchup on this list. Yes, this contest is that important. Notre Dame hasn't played in a game with this magnitude since, well, it took on Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game in January of 2013. That game greatly hurt the perception of Notre Dame's program. Saturday, the Irish have a chance to show how far they've come since.
No, as Brian Kelly mentioned Friday, Florida State is not "built" like Alabama was back in 2012. But the Irish also probably haven't seen a quarterback like Jameis Winston in quite some time. Plus, the game is in Tallahassee, and considering the Irish haven't played a "true" road game yet this year, it matters even more. A Notre Dame victory would easily vault them into the College Football Playoff discussion. A loss would probably be enough to keep them out of it for the rest of the year.
Can Notre Dame beat a Florida State team that hasn't lost since 2012? If so, it's going to need Everett Golson, the same signal-caller who started against Alabama two years ago, to play efficient football and limit turnovers. The Irish have looked a bit shaky over the past few weeks - that won't work against FSU. Regardless, Notre Dame, by far, is the college football program with the most to gain this Saturday.