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Critical matchups that will decide biggest games in Week 8

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 10/20/2017 Erick Smith, USA TODAY Sports

a football player running on a baseball field: Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger rolls out to pass against Kansas State. © Erich Schlegel, USA TODAY Sports Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger rolls out to pass against Kansas State. When two teams are evenly matched, there's a small margin for error between winning and losing. The implications can be significant, however. Position in the race for the College Football Playoff or conference honors can hinge on the outcome.

     

Here's a look at five of this week's biggest showdowns and what will be the decisive factor in determining a winner (all times Eastern):

Notre Dame offensive line vs. Southern California defensive line

TIME/TV: Saturday, NBC, 7:30 p.m.

There's been a major change for the Irish offense under first-year coordinator Chip Long. The running game has been the focal point, and the ability of quarterback Brandon Wimbush to be part of the ground attack has made it more difficult for defenses to stop. That's where it will do its damage against the Trojans. Early in the season, both Western Michigan and Stanford found success running the ball against USC. And Utah's Zack Moss had 141 yards last week. That's music to the ears of Notre Dame running back Josh Adams, who is averaging 9 yards per carry behind one of the best offensive lines in the country. The Trojans have to be able slow him down and force Wimbush to be a passer. Otherwise, we won't see much of Sam Darnold on the field unless he is trying lead a comeback.

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Michigan quarterback John O'Korn vs. Penn State defense

TIME/TV: Saturday, ABC, 7:30 p.m.

The Penn State defense is good. The Penn State offense is really good. The Michigan defense is great. The Michigan offense is ... not so good. And that's what this game really boils down to in the end. The Wolverines must find a way to move the football. While their defense is elite, it cannot be expected to hold down Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley and the rest of the Nittany Lions without some help. O'Korn managed just 58 yards passing at Indiana, and Michigan eked out a win in overtime. That won't cut it against Penn State. He has to make plays. It doesn't matter if it comes with his feet or with his arm. Move the chains, keep the ball and put points on the board. That's what will be required, especially with the Nittany Lions motivated to get some revenge after last year's big loss in Ann Arbor.

Okahoma State front seven vs. Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger

TIME/TV: Saturday, ABC, noon

Oklahoma State's defense allowed TCU's offense to control the game in its lone loss this season. The Longhorns offensive line, however, won't be able to establish the running game as the Horned Frogs did that day. That leaves stopping Ehlinger as the biggest challenge for the Cowboys. The scrappy freshman showed last week against Oklahoma his biggest talent is extending plays with his mobility or simply scrambling for yards when the play breaks down. The defensive line and linebackers of the Cowboys must be disciplined to force Ehlinger to stay in the pocket, where he is much less dangerous as simply a thrower. It's hard to see Texas possessing the ball otherwise. If OSU's defense can get off the field, that means more opportunities for Mason Rudolph and James Washington to connect and take control of the game.

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Navy defensive line vs. Central Florida offensive line

TIME/TV: Saturday, CBSSN, 3:30 p.m.

Every team that faces Midshipmen knows it has a challenge to slow down their option attack that leads the nation in rushing. It's more about limiting how much Navy will score and control the clock. Where opponents typically take advantage of the Mids is by exploiting their undersized defense. And that's where the Knights have a big advantage. They are the No. 1 scoring team in the country at 50.6 points per game. So how does Navy slow them down? When you are smaller, you have to use your other physical characteristics and sometimes gamble. Shoot gaps to create negative plays or force penalties. Pressure the quarterback into mistakes. Sometimes it's just fighting to a stalemate so another player can make the tackle. It's going to require a big effort, especially early in the game because the Midshipmen are not set up to come from behind.

Kentucky wide receivers vs.  Mississippi State secondary

TIME/TV: Saturday, SEC, 4 p.m.

Playing close game has become the norm for the Wildcats. And thus far it hasn't burned them on the way to a 5-1 record at the halfway mark of the season. But now comes the challenging part of their schedule, starting with the Bulldogs and their outstanding defense. Expecting Kentucky to have much success running the football on the road would be optimistic. So it will have to fall on the passing game. Quarterback Stephen Johnson has been solid leading the Wildcats offense and thrown just two interceptions on the season. He needs his receivers, led by Garrett Johnson and C.J. Conrad, to get separation against a Mississippi State secondary that is allowing 155 yards per game. Otherwise, the Kentucky defense can only do so much to keep this game as close as the others.

Related slideshow: College football season (provided by photo services)

California Golden Bears cornerback Camryn Bynum (24) gets a hand in front of the ball intended for Stanford Cardinal wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside (19) during the regular season game between the California Golden Bears and Stanford Cardinals on Saturday, November 18, 2017 at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, CA 2017 college football season


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