It has been a wild college football season thus far (and, not so coincidentally, demand is higher than it has been since 2016), but things calmed down Week 8, at least by 2021 standards.
Only five ranked teams lost over the weekend, and of those, only two (Penn State and Oklahoma State) were in the top 10 and neither was ranked higher than No. 7.
BYU returned to its winning ways and is now bowl eligible, Utah State kept winning and is a victory away from bowl eligibility and Utah lost a back-and-forth contest against surging Oregon State.
Here are six takeaways from the latest weekend in college football.
Utah State has the inside track to the Mountain West title game
The Utah State Aggies could not only make it to a bowl game this year, but they can win their division and contend for the Mountain West Conference title.
As wild as their win over Colorado State was Friday, and as close as so many of the Aggies victories have been this season — Utah State is 4-0 this year in games decided by four points or less — that is where things stand after Week 8.
Utah State is in sole possession of first place in the Mountain division and holds the tiebreaker over both Air Force and Colorado State. With Boise State’s two losses in conference play and New Mexico and Wyoming reeling, the Aggies are in prime position to win their division and make it to the conference championship game.
Utah State’s schedule the rest of the year has its challenges, namely Hawaii and San Jose State — plus the Aggies seem determined to make every game they play as thrilling as possible — but at this point in the season, Utah State should probably be considered the favorite to represent the Mountain against whomever comes out of the West division (more on that later).
After the win over Colorado State, Utah State wide receiver Derek Wright pretty much summed up why the Aggies should be considered one of the best stories in college football right now.
“Last season didn’t go as planned, so to come out and have the year so far that we have had — obviously two tough losses to two good teams — but at the end of the day, being 5-2, I don’t think a lot of people outside of this family expected that this season,” Wright said. “We’ve just got to keep going out there every week and proving people wrong, and we’ll have a shot.”
What should be considered a successful season for BYU?
Before the season began, expectations for BYU were high, but few expected the Cougars to boast an undefeated record against the Pac-12, with wins over Arizona, ASU, Utah and Washington State, with a final game remaining against USC.
That is what has happened of course, as the Cougars are 6-2 on the year and 4-0 against Pac-12 competition.
What should be the expectation going forward? What would be considered a successful season? Those are the questions that now face BYU with games remaining against Virginia, Georgia Southern, Idaho State and USC.
On paper, an 8-4 record is the worst BYU can do. Idaho State is a mediocre Big Sky team at best, and Georgia Southern has been a mess this year and is currently holding down last place in the Sun Belt’s East Division.
Given USC’s turmoil, even though BYU has to travel to Los Angeles, it seems at least possible that the Cougars can defeat the Trojans and improve to at least 9-3 overall (this is assuming BYU loses to Virginia this week. The Cavaliers are 6-2 and boast one of the most prolific passing attacks in the country).
A 9-win campaign, with the possibility of a 10th win in the Independence Bowl, would have to be considered a major success. BYU would have gone 5-2 against Power Five opponents with wins over five Pac-12 teams, including the rival Utes.
No, BYU would not be in contention for a New Year’s Six bowl, but realistically, the Cougars were always going to have to wait until they begin Big 12 play for that to be a possibility (this is an instance where independence hurts BYU).
The shine has certainly worn off the Cougars this year thanks to their now-ended two-game losing streak, but a great campaign is still in the offing with four games to go.
What to make of Utah?
The Utes have proven extremely difficult to get a read on this season. One week, the sky is falling thanks to losses to BYU or San Diego State. In another week, Utah is the favorite to win not only the Pac-12 South Division but also the entire conference.
After Week 8, Utah (4-3 overall, 3-1 in the Pac-12) might finally be settling into what it is, though, a solid team with exploitable flaws.
In the Utes’ loss to Oregon State, it was run defense and a few poor coaching decisions that did them in, though the Beavers deserve credit for their play (probably more than they are getting with just seven votes in the AP poll).
Cam Rising is a good quarterback and the Utes’ offense has its moments (not always in the red zone, which is another flaw). Defense has always been Utah’s calling card and there is work to be done there, especially with UCLA coming to town, but with a win over the Bruins, Utah is right back in the driver’s seat for the Pac-12 South Division title.
At this point, the Utes could finish 9-3, but 8-4 or even 7-5 as just as likely, with games left against UCLA, Oregon and Stanford (along with near gimme wins against Colorado and Arizona).
Predicting the results of those games is insanity at this point, but Utah has proven itself to be a solid Pac-12 team this year. Given the tragedies in the program, plus the overall youth of the team, not much more should have been expected of Utah.
And who knows, given the way Pac-12 competition has gone this season, the Utes could still somehow find themselves playing in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.
The division races are starting to clear up in the Pac-12
Speaking of the Pac-12, the races for the North and South divisions are starting to become more clear, with teams being eliminated from competition.
In the North, Oregon (6-1, 3-1) and Oregon State (5-2, 3-1) appear headed for a major showdown. Washington State and Washington both have only two losses in conference, but WSU just lost its head coach and almost half of its coaching staff, while Washington barely survived an Arizona team that is one of only two FBS teams without a win this season (UNLV is the other).
Stanford and Cal, meanwhile, already have three conference losses. They are done. The race is over for them. All that remains is the role of spoiler.
In the South, ASU and Utah are tied atop the standings (Utah has the head-to-head tiebreaker) at 3-1 in Pac-12 play. Utah gets UCLA next — ASU already defeated the Bruins — and with only two conference losses, UCLA could throw things into chaos with a win over the Utes.
After those three teams, though, it is a bunch of spoilers, or rather one spoiler (USC) and two teams that might not win a game the rest of the season (Arizona and Colorado).
From a national perspective, the best case scenario for the Pac-12 is that Oregon and ASU win out and meet in the conference title game, but anyone who has followed the conference over the years will not expect that to happen.
Such is life in the Pac-12.
Does the Mountain West belong to San Diego State?
Only one team in the Mountain West hasn’t lost a game this year. That would be the San Diego State Aztecs.
At 7-0, the Aztecs have beaten a pair of Pac-12 teams (Arizona and Utah), the defending MW champion (San Jose State) and the always tough Air Force Falcons.
Ranked No. 21 in the latest AP poll, San Diego State would appear to be the team to beat in the conference, but SDSU is not nearly a shoe-in to even win its own division, let alone the conference.
While USU has the inside track in the Mountain Division, San Diego State has a brutal upcoming slate in the West. The Aztecs still play Fresno State (No. 2 in the West right now), Hawaii, Nevada and Boise State this season (with a game against winless UNLV, too).
The good news is San Diego State hosts Fresno State, Nevada and Boise State, but must travel to Hawaii the week after Fresno and the week before Nevada.
The West Division has always looked like the harder division in the MW this season, but that is especially pronounced now. The West Division title will run through SDSU, but at this point it is a legitimate three-team race (and Boise will have a chance to play a major spoiler role).
Upsets, upsets and more upsets
Despite Week 8 being pretty mellow compared to previous weeks, there were still some major upsets of teams that were battling for possible playoff berths or a New Year’s Six bowl.
Then No. 14 Coastal Carolina — perceived to be the clear favorite in the Sun Belt — lost to Appalachian State in a thriller on Wednesday, and the Chanticleers are now playing from behind in their own division, when it seemed likely for much of the year that they’d contend for a pretty significant bowl.
Then No. 7 Penn State lost to Illinois in nine overtimes (you read that right), and with that, the Nittany Lions have been knocked out of any sort of contention in the Big Ten.
Formerly No. 8 Oklahoma State lost to Iowa State, setting up a three-way battle between the Cowboys, Cyclones and Baylor Bears for who will have the chance to battle Oklahoma in the Big 12 Conference championship game.
NC State rose to as high as No. 18 in the AP poll, but a loss to Miami coupled with Wake Forest’s undefeated season thus far puts the Wolfpack’s quest for an ACC Atlantic Division title in serious jeopardy.
And then Wisconsin beat then No. 25 Purdue, proving that the Big Ten West has arguably as much parity as any division in the country.
With basically six weeks remaining in the season, everything is still up for grabs in almost every conference and every division (except the SEC East).
That is college football at its finest.