SEC elite in trouble? Bold predictions for college football’s Week 9

Fall is in full swing. The calendar is about to turn to November. What does that mean for the world of college football? Unexpected results.  

As the season heads toward the final weeks, there’s bound to be surprises and head-scratching outcomes as the pressure of the College Football Playoff race and other factors cause teams to raise their level of play – or stumble close to the finish line.

That’s why we’re here to make sense of things. The USA TODAY Sports college football staff — Scooby Axson, Jace Evans, Paul Myerberg, Erick Smith, Eddie Timanus and Dan Wolken — weigh in with bold predictions for Week 9 of the college football season:

Another disappointing big-boy result for Penn State

The question has been around for years: When is Penn State going to put it together and start competing for championships? The quick answer is not this week. The Nittany Lions can bully the likes of Auburn and Minnesota but when it comes to the big boys of the Big Ten, James Franklin and his teams have routinely come up short. This week comes a visit from Ohio State, which just dropped 54 points on one of the league’s better defenses in Iowa. The Buckeyes have far and away the best offense in the Big Ten, and once again Penn State will end up being labeled as frauds as Ohio State goes into Happy Valley and comes out victorious.  — Scooby Axson

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Texas A&M turns things around against Mississippi

I was skeptical of the idea of Texas A&M being a dark horse playoff contender. I figured the Aggies would lose to Alabama and drop another game or two on the way to a solid-yet-unsatisfying finish. Instead, things are far more bleak. Texas A&M is 3-4, riding a three-game losing streak into a matchup with No. 12 Mississippi. Lose Saturday, and there’s a very real chance this preseason top 10 team doesn’t qualify for a bowl. I don’t think the Aggies will lose, though. For one week, anyways, the conversation around Texas A&M will center on the Aggies finding a way to win at home against a good team – and not Jimbo Fisher’s buyout. — Jace Evans

Tennessee tastes defeat against Kentucky

Kentucky drags Tennessee into a rock fight and pulls off a shocking upset as a double-digit underdog. The Wildcats can counter the Volunteers’ unstoppable offense with quarterback Will Levis and running back Chris Rodriguez, who combined for 434 yards of offense in a recent win against Mississippi State. But the key to the upset will be on defense, where Kentucky ranks second in the SEC in yards given up per game, fourth in yards per play and first in passing touchdowns allowed. As surprising as the upset would be, Kentucky is equipped to win this sort of game by limiting possessions and winning on third down. — Paul Myerberg

Cincinnati falls at Central Florida 

The race for the Group of Five champion’s ticket to the New Year’s Six has had Cincinnati as the presumed leader as the Bearcats have only a loss to Arkansas in the season opener before six consecutive wins. Waiting for them this week, though, is Central Florida, and the Knights are good enough to pull off an upset of the defending American Athletic champions. Cincinnati has looked less-than-spectacular on the road and the Bounce House will be rocking. 

— Erick Smith

Iowa-Northwestern clash is trick and no treat

If you’re looking for one of those house of horrors attractions for Halloween entertainment, you could hardly do better than the frightful football that will be on display at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday when Iowa plays host to Northwestern.

The Hawkeyes’ offensive ineptitude has been well-documented, but here’s one particularly telling statistical example. Through its first seven games, Iowa has a total of 88 first downs and has punted 47 times. In other words, the average Hawkeyes’ offensive drive results in two first downs or fewer before the punt team has to be called upon.

The Wildcats have shown a bit more ability to move the football, but an alarming tendency to give it away. Northwestern is minus-eight in turnover margin with 10 lost fumbles and eight interceptions thrown, a major reason why the Wildcats are winless on U.S. soil this season.

Forcing takeaways is part of the M.O. for the Hawkeyes, whose defense has done its best to compensate for the shortcomings on the other side of the ball. We’ll therefore take Iowa to prevail, but watch at your own risk. — Eddie Timanus

North Carolina set for fall against Pittsburgh

North Carolina is 6-1 but living on borrowed time. The Tar Heels beat Duke by three. They beat Miami by three. Going back to earlier in the season, they were extremely fortunate to beat Appalachian State by two in one of the wildest games you’ll ever see. Now they have to face Pittsburgh, the ACC’s chronic spoiler. This is the kind of game the Panthers have won over the years, and it wouldn’t be the ACC Coastal without some Coastal Chaos. We haven’t really gotten that yet with North Carolina cruising so far at 3-0 in the league. Pitt was pretty bad last week, losing 24-10 to Louisville. If we go by history, that can only mean the Panthers are sitting on a really big effort. — Dan Wolken  

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