We’ve got six games on deck this weekend as the Big 12 heads into Week 8 of the 2023 college football season.
There are some pivotal games happening this weekend around the conference which might have a direct impact on what the Big 12 race will look like going forward.
We will see a battle between contenders with identical records, plus a rematch of the 2022 Big 12 Championship Game.
Here are the top five storylines that you should be keeping up with heading into the eighth week of the season.
The Game Nobody Is Talking About
Oklahoma State and West Virginia are set to face off in Morgantown on Saturday, with a 2:30 kickoff scheduled on ESPN. The Cowboys and Mountaineers both enter the game at 4-2 overall and 2-1 in Big 12 play. Getting to 3-1 gives one of these teams a distinct advantage in the Big 12 race, helping them keep pace with the likes of Iowa State, and likely Texas, and one game back of Oklahoma, who is 3-0.
With what we’ve seen from Oklahoma State over the past several weeks, this game feels like a litmus test for both programs. The Mountaineers were on a roll before their shocking loss to Houston last Thursday, while OSU has quietly beaten Kansas State and Kansas in back-to-back weeks.
Ollie Gordon is emerging as one of the best running backs in the Big 12, while West Virginia’s style of stranglehold defense and playing keep-away on offense makes this game an intriguing one to watch. With a 5-2 (3-1) record on the line, one of these teams will throw their hat in the ring, while the other falls back in the crowd to play catchup.
John Rhys Plumlee’s Health
At the beginning of the season, UCF’s hopes were high that they would come into the Big 12 and be an immediate contender for a Big 12 Championship. In their first game against Kent State, it appeared they might be just that after they turned in a 56-6 victory. However, Week 2 saw them squeak out an 18-16 win over Boise State, but it also saw star quarterback John Rhys Plumlee suffer a knee injury.
Since losing Plumlee, UCF is 0-3 against FBS teams, with their only win coming against Villanova in Week 3. While Plumlee doesn’t play defense (UCF’s biggest issue), he does bring confidence and leadership to the Knights’ offense. The question is, how healthy is he? Well, apparently he’s good enough to go against Oklahoma on Saturday, according to head coach Gus Malzahn.
The issue is that for JRP to be effective, he needs to be able to move freely. This isn’t your pocket-passing statue that can launch the ball 70 yards downfield with pinpoint accuracy. Plumlee is at his best when he’s rolling out of the pocket and hitting a receiver who comes open downfield after the scramble, or tucking it and running for a 30-yard gain using his 4.4 speed. Against an Oklahoma defense that has the best lateral speed of any team UCF has seen this season, it’s not exactly a breakout spot for the senior despite being named the starter over Timmy McClain this week.
How Does Texas Respond?
Texas suffered its first loss of the season in the Red River Rivalry two weeks ago and had a bye week to think about things. Now, their first time back in the action will be on the road against Houston, who just picked up its first Big 12 victory in dramatic fashion last week.
Quinn Ewers looked strong to finish the game against OU, but a first quarter that included interceptions on back-to-back drives shows that he’s still got some things to work on. Luckily, he’s got some of the best skill talent in the country to work with, and a very good defense to rely on.
The Texas teams of old might come into this game and sleepwalk their way into a dogfight, or perhaps even not show up. However, if this team is truly different, there should be no reason that the Longhorns don’t go into TDECU Stadium and take care of business.
If they do sleepwalk into this matchup, Donovan Smith has been playing well enough to give the Longhorns more than a scare. Over the last three games, Smith has accounted for 883 yards and nine touchdowns with 0 interceptions.
Dillon Gabriel vs. His Former Team
Dillon Gabriel is playing as well as any quarterback in the nation, solidifying himself as a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender with a stellar performance against Texas in Week 6. Through his first six games, Gabriel has completed 72.3% of his passing attempts with 2,086 total yards and 21 total touchdowns. His QBR of 91.2 ranks third nationally and with just two interceptions on the year, he’s taking great care of the football.
This week, he faces his former team, as UCF comes to Norman for their first-ever meeting against the Sooners. Gabriel will hope to dominate his former school and there will be a chance for him to impress in this game. The Knights have given up an average of 43.3 points per game against Big 12 opponents this season, and Oklahoma will be the best offense they’ve faced yet.
On top of Gabriel’s extra motivation, Sooners’ offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby will want to light up the scoreboard too, as many felt that the UCF job was his for the taking after Josh Heupel left for Tennessee. However, they went with Gus Malzahn, and Lebby left for Ole Miss.
I’m not sure how many OU is capable of scoring in a 60-minute time period, but this might be the chance to see just how much damage they can do to the scoreboard.
2022 Big 12 Championship Rematch
TCU and Kansas State will face off for the first time since their matchup in the 2022 Big 12 Championship, which ended in a 31-28 overtime thriller that gave K-State its first outright Big 12 title since 2003, sending them to the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Meanwhile, TCU still managed to make the College Football Playoff at 12-1 and went on to beat Michigan in a classic shootout before getting buried by Georgia in the National Championship game.
While there may have been some substantial hype surrounding this game coming into the season, it’s lost quite a bit of luster after the seasons these two have turned in. TCU sits at 4-3 coming into this contest and is just 2-2 in Big 12 play, its wins coming over newcomers Houston and BYU.
Meanwhile, K-State is 4-2 on the year with losses to Missouri and Oklahoma State but is 2-1 in Big 12 play with wins over UCF and Texas Tech. Last week, freshman quarterback Avery Johnson burst onto the scene with five rushing touchdowns in a 38-21 win in Lubbock and has created a bit of a quarterback controversy for Chris Klieman.
With a 6:00 p.m. CT kickoff (ESPN2) scheduled in Manhattan, this game will have a classic feel to it, and despite it lacking stakes that we saw in this matchup two times a season ago, it will still be one of the best games of the evening slate on Saturday.