College football’s Week 5 is here and with it comes five top-25 matchups, including three games between teams ranked in the top 16.
Off the heels of an emotional double-overtime win against Wake Forest, DJ Uiagalelei and Clemson host NC State in a top-10 ACC showdown. SEC play is in full swing as undefeated Kentucky and unbeaten Ole Miss square off in Oxford, while Arkansas, coming off a tough loss in the Southwest Classic, welcomes Alabama.
Not to be outdone, the Big 12 hosts one of the biggest rivalries the conference has to offer, as Baylor hosts Oklahoma State in a crucial game for the league standings.
Elsewhere, a ranked Washington heads to Los Angeles in a battle of unbeatens, while Michigan will try to survive in Iowa City.
Here are the key storylines from this week’s biggest games.
NC State and Clemson first played in 1899, but there has never been a bigger game in the history of their matchup than the one coming on Saturday, for one historical reason: It marks the first time the schools have faced each other as top-10 teams.
It also will be the first time No. 10 NC State has played in an AP Top 10 matchup.
No. 5 Clemson is used to being in this situation, having played in six of the past seven ACC championship games, along with six College Football Playoff appearances. But this is all new for the Wolfpack, who used a highly successful 2021 campaign as a springboard into outsize expectations for this year. Linebacker Isaiah Moore, one of the many veterans who returned for this season, told ESPN.com that there is a reason so many players came back: to win a championship.
That has been an elusive goal for NC State. Playing in the same division as Florida State and Clemson, the Wolfpack have never played in an ACC championship game. In fact, NC State has not won an ACC title since 1979. In-state rivals North Carolina and Wake Forest have made ACC championship game appearances and won ACC championships more recently than NC State.
“We all came back to put NC State in a place it’s never been before,” Moore said. “We have an opportunity to build on that this week. We have a lot of goals ahead of us that we want to accomplish, but Saturday is definitely a big opportunity for us to continue to build on that.”
Playing at Clemson is never an easy task. The Tigers have won 36 straight games at home, dating to a loss to Pitt on Nov. 12, 2016. NC State has not won at Clemson since 2002. Wolfpack center Grant Gibson said the team practiced this week with crowd noise piped in and that it prepared for wet conditions should the remnants of Hurricane Ian impact the area.
“We’re not trying to blow this game up because there’s already enough hype behind this game as it is,” Gibson said. “I think the thing that we’ll see is a team that’s going to come in poised and ready to play.”
NC State won their matchup a year ago in Raleigh, a 27-21 overtime thriller that featured many of the same players who will be playing in this tilt, including NC State quarterback Devin Leary and Clemson signal-caller DJ Uiagalelei, who appears to have turned a corner following a 371-yard, five-touchdown performance against Wake Forest last weekend.
As everyone at NC State points out, the win over Clemson a year ago helped the program get over one hump, but the Wolfpack still fell short of playing in the ACC championship game.
“We understand who we’re playing,” Moore said. “We understand the magnitude of the game. We’re not going to sit here and try to ignore it. It’s there, but the biggest thing is to not let that affect how we go about every day. We have to continue to go about what we’ve been preaching all year, and we’ll be ready for Saturday.” — Andrea Adelson
Washington and UCLA represent two of the three remaining undefeated teams from the Pac-12 (with Southern California being the other), but their respective paths to 4-0 have been quite different.
For UCLA, it marks the first 4-0 start since 2016. It’s the type of start Bruins fans expected to come regularly when coach Chip Kelly was hired prior to the 2018 season. However, they’ve still been unable to been generate much buzz given the considerable lack of quality competition to this point. Of UCLA’s four games, the best team it has played is South Alabama, and the Bruins needed a last-second field goal to pull that out at home.
Washington will be an entirely different kind of test.
The Huskies have been dominant through four games, and while three of their wins — versus Kent State, Portland State and Stanford — came against overmatched competition, they were just as good against Michigan State. After inheriting a four-win team, coach Kalen DeBoer’s revival has been instantaneous.
It should be one of the best quarterback matchups of the weekend in college football. In his fifth season as UCLA’s starter, Dorian Thompson-Robinson is off to an excellent start (896 passing yards, eight TD passes, one interception), but his counterpart, transfer Michael Penix Jr., has been even better. Penix, who played for DeBoer when he was the offensive coordinator at Indiana, leads the nation in passing yards with 1,388 and has yet to be sacked.
Washington has scored touchdowns on 14 of its 21 first-half possessions and has managed TDs on seven of eight possessions to open a half. (It kicked a field goal to start the second half against Stanford.) — Kyle Bonagura
If you subscribe to the theory that Georgia and Alabama have a firm hold on the No. 1 and No. 2 positions in the SEC this season, then Saturday’s game between No. 7 Kentucky and No. 14 Ole Miss at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium could go a long way toward determining the top contender for that No. 3 spot.
Before we get too ahead of ourselves, it’s worth noting that the calendar is just now flipping to October, but the winner of this game will move to 5-0 with a very manageable schedule over the next two weeks. Ole Miss, which has the tougher overall schedule the rest of the way, plays at Vanderbilt then at home against Auburn. Kentucky has home games against South Carolina and Mississippi State before getting a bye week.
This will be Ole Miss’ first SEC game, and coach Lane Kiffin said it’s obvious that this will be the “best talent that we’ve played on defense.”
Ole Miss’ running game has been lights out, although Zach Evans was limited in the 35-27 win over Tulsa last week with what Kiffin called a “medical thing.” The Rebels slumbered through the second half of that game offensively after leading 35-14 in the second quarter. If Evans is healthy, along with freshman Quinshon Judkins and SMU transfer Ulysses Bentley IV, the Rebels are as talented at running back as any team in the country. They’re ranked fourth nationally in rushing offense (280.7 yards per game), but Kentucky’s defense is allowing just 108.2 rushing yards per game.
While getting a healthy Evans back will be critical for Ole Miss, some of the best news for Kentucky is that senior running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. will make his first appearance of the season after sitting out the first four games because of an NCAA matter. Rodriguez was the SEC’s leading returning rusher after gaining 1,379 yards a year ago, and he is especially adept at getting the tough yards after contact. The Wildcats desperately need a jolt in the running game. They haven’t been able to run it at all this season, ranking 123rd nationally with an average of 81.5 yards per game. They’ve managed just three rushing touchdowns in four games.
Kentucky quarterback Will Levis, ranked by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 2 quarterback prospect in the 2023 NFL draft, will welcome Rodriguez back with open arms. Levis has already been sacked 16 times this season.
“He’s such a great weapon to include in this offense and has been itching to get back out there and has been practicing and preparing mentally and staying sharp,” said Levis, who has passed for more than 300 yards in three of his four games this season. “He’s out there on a mission … and we’re pumped to have him back.”
Ole Miss held its first three opponents to 10 or fewer points. The Rebels missed just four tackles in their 42-0 rout of Georgia Tech, but they didn’t tackle nearly as well last week. Kentucky’s offensive line has had its own issues in run blocking and pass blocking. Ole Miss expects to get back defensive tackle JJ Pegues and outside linebacker Khari Coleman from injury this week. Neither played against Tulsa. So the key matchup to watch in this game probably will be Kentucky’s offensive line versus Ole Miss’ defensive front seven.
The only Power 5 teams with better records than Kentucky and Ole Miss (both 15-3) over the past 18 games are Georgia (17-1) and Alabama, Michigan and Oklahoma State (all 16-2). Ole Miss has won 12 straight home games, and Kiffin earlier this week offered a subtle challenge to the fans, many of whom scattered at halftime last week.
“When you come back [after halftime] and run out the tunnel and it looks like a high school game playing in a college stadium, you can’t let that affect you,” said Kiffin, whose Rebels were shut out in the second half against Tulsa.
Kentucky is 7-11 in true SEC road games going back to the start of the 2018 season, but the Wildcats have already passed one tough road test this season when they beat Florida 26-16 at the Swamp in Week 2. — Chris Low
In 2016, an undefeated Michigan team traveled to Iowa City to play Iowa the week after defeating Maryland at home.
The Wolverines were ranked and picked to win that game, but they ended up losing 14-13. Now, an undefeated Michigan team is traveling to Iowa City to play the Hawkeyes the week after beating Maryland at home — and the Wolverines are not looking to repeat history.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh knows Kinnick Stadium can be a hostile environment and has seen firsthand how difficult it can be to play at Iowa.
“As they say, it’s where top-five teams go to die,” Harbaugh told reporters this week. “I think the biggest thing is just how good the team is. You turn on the offensive tape and yeah, it’s a Kirk Ferentz-coached offense. I mean, everything is detailed, everything’s precise, same fundamentals, and they just get so good at what they’re doing that they beat you with execution.”
Since 2008, Iowa is 5-1 against top-five teams at home, and the team is hoping to continue that streak this week. The Hawkeyes have struggled on offense, though, and Ferentz said it’s going to be a difficult task to come out on top.
The two played last season in the Big Ten championship game, and Michigan won handily 42-3.
“We’re going to have to play really well all three phases. Just a basic answer there — and every play,” Ferentz said. “That’s the biggest thing. Then hopefully, we can get them to slip up or make a mistake or two, but they haven’t made a lot of them this year, so it’s going to be a challenge.”
While Iowa’s offense has had its struggles, the defense has been very good. The Hawkeyes rank No. 6 in rush yards allowed per game, only allowing 73 yards on average. In four games, no team has scored a rushing touchdown against Iowa.
Michigan’s strength has been in the run game, so that’s likely where the two will clash the most. The Wolverines rank No. 11 in rush yards per game, averaging 234.3 yards. Running back Blake Corum just ran for 243 yards and two touchdowns against Maryland, so it’ll be arduous for Iowa to stop Michigan and the run game.
“It’s a scheme that’s flawless, everybody where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there, playing the techniques, they’re supposed to be there. So, the challenge is that it makes you on offense be really tight, tight,” Harbaugh said. “Not the time to lighten up. It’s the time to tighten up in every aspect of our offensive technique and fundamentals, alignments and assignments. So, it’s been 48 hours of looking at that and looking at it every possible way that we can improve ourselves.” — Tom VanHaaren
Expect a battle at the line of scrimmage come Saturday afternoon in Fayetteville.
The Razorbacks’ offensive line is physical and imposing. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said the Arkansas linemen take after the personality of their coach, Sam Pittman, who made a name for himself coaching the position. How their offensive tackles Luke Jones and Dalton Wagner hold up against Alabama standout edge rushers Will Anderson Jr. and Dallas Turner could determine whether quarterback KJ Jefferson has the time needed to make plays in the passing game.
But the same could be said of Alabama’s offensive line and its quarterback, Bryce Young. Three weeks ago, the Tide line faltered at Texas, giving up too many pressures and committing too many penalties. It felt like a continuum of last season’s struggles at the position. And while the past two games have seen a noticeable improvement in both areas, it’s worth noting that the competition wasn’t exactly stiff against Louisiana Monroe and Vanderbilt.
Going against Arkansas’ pass rush might be the toughest test possible. The Hogs currently lead the FBS with 20 sacks. And they’re led by a former Alabama linebacker in Drew Sanders, who is 6-foot-5 and 244 pounds and is tied for the most sacks in the country with 5.5. Arkansas’ Jordan Domineck, Landon Jackson and Zach Williams can turn up the heat as well.
Last season, Arkansas went into Tuscaloosa and nearly beat Alabama, losing by a touchdown. Jefferson said that experience was a signal that, “We can compete with anybody.”
But now the Razorbacks want to close the gap.
Veteran Arkansas linebacker Bumper Pool pointed to one defensive inefficiency in the past: “Getting to the passer.”
Well, that doesn’t appear to be a problem anymore.
At SEC media days, Pool was asked what was the ceiling for this Arkansas team?
“I don’t think there’s a ceiling,” he said. “But there isn’t a floor. It’s the SEC. So anything can happen.” — Alex Scarborough
As Spencer Sanders goes, so goes Oklahoma State. The preseason All-Big 12 quarterback already has thrown for 916 yards with 10 touchdowns and one interception in three games, as the Cowboys are averaging 49.7 points per game, second nationally behind Michigan.
“We let [Sanders] do whatever he wants to do,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said this week. “He goes at it, has fun. He’s a risk-taker. He’ll run more, takes more hits than he should. He’ll throw into coverage some, but it’s kind of the way it is. We have a lot of confidence in him to allow him to go out and make his plays.”
But Baylor, in particular, has bedeviled Sanders. Since Dave Aranda arrived in Waco, Texas, Sanders has played in 21 games, throwing 20 interceptions over that span. Nine of those picks came in three games against Baylor, with seven in two games last season, including four at AT&T Stadium in a 21-16 loss to the Bears in the Big 12 title game.
“I think four of [the seven interceptions against Baylor last year], he was being hit when he let go of the ball. … I’m not really concerned about it based on the number of turnovers that he had,” Gundy said of Sanders. “He was being hit when he threw the ball.”
Baylor coach Dave Aranda cautioned his team not to lean on that history and said he has been impressed with what he has seen from Sanders.
“Offensively, quarterback really stands out,” Aranda said. “Really playing fast. Looks faster, playing confident.”
Gundy said in particular that Siaki Ika, Baylor’s 6-foot-4, 358-pound nose tackle, poses a threat up front when trying to protect Sanders from taking those hits.
“He’s an issue. He’s a problem,” Gundy said of Ika. “He should be playing on Sundays right now. We definitely have to know where he’s at.”
Baylor, meanwhile, is led by QB Blake Shapen, who completed his first 17 passes against the Cowboys in the title game last year and averages 193.3 passing yards per game with seven TDs to one interception.
It’s a stylistic battle of contrasts, with Aranda’s ball-control offense and tough defense going up against Gundy’s high-flying offense. The Bears are tough in Waco, winning nine straight at home. ESPN’s FPI gives Baylor a 65.3% chance to win. — Dave Wilson