How to Watch Week 5
The sport of college football continues a disappointing trend of firing coaches early in the season. The biggest casualty was Les Miles, out at LSU after averaging ten wins per year since 2005. A two-point loss at Lambeau to a Top 10 Wisconsin team and a last-second reversal of what appeared to be a game-winning TD shouldn’t be enough reason to oust someone with Miles’ long record of success. Sure, the offense disappointed in September, but the Mad Hatter at least deserved a chance to play out the season and see where it took the Tigers. He’s given LSU enough championships that they could’ve given him a full set of games on which to be judged.
In South Bend, embattled DC Brian VanGorder took the fall for Notre Dame’s woes, and HC Ron Turner was also fired at FIU after an 0-4 start.
Enough about that unfortunate business. On to the games.
Thursday, September 29
Houston emerged from challenging early contests against Oklahoma and Cincinnati unscathed; now they’re blowing full sail through the easier portion of their schedule. UCONN at #6 Houston [ESPN 8:00] opens the week as a style-point showcase for the Cougars, who have little chance of feeling threatened by the below-average Huskies (Week 5 power rating of -4.6). This game might hurt Tom Herman’s squad more than help them, as a national audience continues to question whether an undefeated Houston deserves a semifinal berth after playing an American Conference schedule.
Don’t let anyone fool you–the Cougars control their own destiny, despite concerns about schedule strength, because of the quality of their recent wins against Power 5 heavyweights (Oklahoma, bowl win over Florida State) and, most importantly, because of prestigious teams around them continuing to fall from contention.
Our list of teams who control their playoff fate, possessing at least a 1% chance of winning out–sorry Maryland, Minnesota, and Wake Forest–includes lone Group of 5 representative Houston along with 16 Power 5 teams. Within each conference, teams are listed in order of likelihood of going 12-0 in the regular season.
- Big Ten (4): Ohio State (27%), Michigan (19%), Nebraska (19%), Wisconsin (6%)
- Pac-12 (4): Washington (22%), Stanford (12%), Utah (5%), Arizona State (3%)
- ACC (3): Louisville (22%), Clemson (21%), Miami (1%)
- SEC (3): Alabama (32%), Tennessee (27%), Texas A&M (8%)
- Big XII (2): West Virginia (11%), Baylor (6%)
- American (1): Houston (30%)
Note that these are approximate probabilities from a quick-sim engine that only considers wins and losses but not scores, but they give an accurate picture of the general landscape. Assessing all these probabilities, only 2.5 Power 5 teams are expected to finish 12-0. (At least three will fall this weekend.) With conference championship games to play after the regular season, that expectation drops further. Considering there are four semifinal slots and maybe only a couple undefeated P5 teams to fill them, Houston will be included if they win all their games.
The low number of expected unbeatens gives hope to many one-loss teams throughout the country, as well. As more and more teams suffer defeats, other squads who were burned in September will be given new life in the playoff race.
The other Thursday nighter [Kansas at Texas Tech, FS1 8:30] is a bottom-tier Big XII matchup that should see the Red Raiders post 50+ points for the fourth time this season. Tech’s problem, of course, is that they are allowing 57 points per game against FBS competition.
Friday, September 30
Probably the Pac-12 game of the year [★★★ #7 Stanford at #10 Washington, ESPN 9:00] thankfully kicks off Friday night, avoiding a primetime conflict with Saturday night’s titanic clash (more on that later). Playing one of the toughest 3-game opening stretches in the country, the Cardinal survived thanks to a late Ryan Burns-orchestrated drive on the road to topple UCLA, who had clung to a small lead most of the night. A passing attack that had sputtered all evening connected when it counted most, and now Stanford marches into Seattle as a battle-hardened bunch and playoff favorite.
Despite narrowly escaping the desert with an overtime win, Washington is the best team left on Stanford’s schedule, clearer now that Notre Dame’s and Oregon’s troubles continue to mount. The Huskies have the profile of a championship contender, generating positive net points per game in every major area except possession:
- Possession: -3.3
- Rush Offense: 3.8
- Pass Offense: 5.3
- Rush Defense: 2.5
- Pass Defense: 9.2
- Special Teams: 5.0
- Efficiency: 8.8
- Net Scoring: 31.3 (45.8 scored, 14.5 allowed per game)
While not exactly a weakness, one of Washington’s lowest point values is in rush defense, a concern against star RB Christian McCaffery. However, the predictable nature of the Cardinal offense may work to Washington’s advantage: 53% of the offensive plays directly involve McCaffery, by far the highest of any non-QB in the nation (San Diego State RB Donnell Pumphrey, the national rushing leader, is #2 at 42%).
How massive is this game? Consider it almost like a quarterfinal, and pencil the winner into your early playoff bracket. (But don’t use pen.)
If you’re up late, catch the second half of Toledo at BYU [ESPN2 10:15]. Every BYU game is a fun ride, even if the luckless 1-3 Cougars have little to show for it.
Saturday, October 1
★ Oklahoma State hosts #22 Texas [ABC 12:00] after stumbling last week against Baylor, and the Cowboys desperately need to take down the ‘Horns to keep their Big XII Championship hopes alive. An 0-2 start will knock Oklahoma State out of contention, but a big win in the early kickoff could quickly blossom into a 3-1 conference record with games against Iowa State and Kansas coming up next. They have a better-than-even chance (60%) to come away with a win over a Texas team who had an extra week to think about their disappointing defensive night at Cal.
The Longhorns were the toast of college football after their thrilling Week 1 upset over Top 10 Notre Dame, but any gleam from that win has dulled as the Irish have crumbled. Texas is left with a suddenly pedestrian 2-1 record (their other win coming against 1-3 UTEP) that probably doesn’t justify a Top 25 ranking at this point. A victory in Stillwater would reclaim some of that lost momentum ahead of the Red River Rivalry, a game that looks more winnable after Oklahoma’s rocky start than it did in the preseason.
Concurrently, Georgia Tech is in a similar spot as Oklahoma State, needing a conference win over a visiting ranked opponent [★★ #14 Miami at Georgia Tech, ESPN2 12:00] to avoid being knocked out of the ACC Coastal race. Head Coach Mark Richt’s (former Georgia HC) Hurricanes have outperformed scoreline expectations through three weeks, looking particularly impressive in the 45-10 road thrashing of a solid App State team that took Tennessee into overtime in a memorable Week 1 moment. Ahead of the Clemson – Georgia Tech game last week, we wrote about the Tigers leading the nation in tackles for loss the past three years, and that backfield aggression never allowed Tech to get its offense into a rhythm in an uncompetitive 19-point defeat. Miami, with a number of freshmen populating its defense, currently lead the nation with 13.3 negative tackles per game. A similar blitzkrieg that worked so well for Clemson may wipe the Jackets out of the divisional picture and punch Miami’s ticket to an unexpected 4-0 start and fringe Top 10 ranking.
Over in Big Ten country, the second of the weekend’s three Top 10 battles [★★ #8 Wisconsin at #4 Michigan, ABC 3:30] commands all attention in the afternoon slot, a clash of unbending, equally-matched defenses that will appeal to fans of any era. The big advantage in the Big House is Michigan’s offense, which has wildly surpassed expectations by exceeding 40 points in every game, while Wisconsin’s attack still has some question marks. RB Corey Clement is healthy again but is averaging under four YPC, as is the Wisconsin rush game overall, a number that has to be higher to spring the upset trap on the Wolverines, particularly because of the excellence of Michigan’s secondary. The season-ending injury to CB Jeremy Clark is a significant blow that may crack open some passing lanes for Wisconsin QB Alex Hornibrook, a superior passer to previous starter Bart Houston. Regardless of Wisconsin’s energetic D and improving QB play, it will take a significant turnover advantage to swing this game in the Badgers’ favor. Michigan on its home turf, with an ascendant offense, salty defense, and Jabrill Peppers potentially breaking things open in the return game, figures to have a great chance at 5-0 (86%).
Other consequential conference games are taking place in the afternoon slot across the nation. In the SEC East [★ #11 Tennessee at #25 Georgia, CBS 3:30], the Volunteers, riding high after a curse-busting second half for the ages in a comeback victory over Florida, have a chance to deal a knockout blow to their other primary competitor in the weaker SEC division. In the ACC [ North Carolina at #12 Florida State, ESPN 3:30], the Seminoles and their inconsistent defense need to stave off the explosive Tar Heels to stay alive in the Atlantic division. And in the Big XII [Kansas State at West Virginia, ESPNU 3:30], unnoticed QB Skyler Howard and the Mountaineers try to remain one of the conference’s two undefeated teams against dangerous foe Kansas State.
Any of those games is worth queuing up during breaks in the Big Ten feature, but consider instead the first game for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy [★ Navy at Air Force, CBSSN 3:30], as two under-the-radar unbeatens roll out their prolific option attacks (both Top 5 in rushing–fellow service academy Army is #1). This Group of 5 game may not have conference or national stakes on the line, but it’s college football at its purest and will mean everything to the Falcons and Midshipmen in uniform. While we favor home side Air Force by three, watch for excessive Falcon penalties to give Navy a boost–the Midshipmen are averaging 25 penalty yards, characteristically disciplined, but Air Force has been sloppy by academy standards, penalized 56 yards per game. In a close contest defined by execution and sustained, clock-eating drives, Air Force must avoid undercutting themselves if they want to get one hand on the coveted trophy. If you’re looking for players to watch but haven’t seen too much academy football this year, big-play RBs Jacobi Owens (Air Force, 8.8 YPC) and Chris High (Navy, 10.1 YPC) are a good place to start.
After the afternoon games wind down, catch the second half of ★★ Oklahoma at #21 TCU [FOX 5:00]. Their September swoon dropped them from the playoff conversation, but the Sooners have a chance to redefine their season by making a run at the Big XII Championship. It starts in Fort Worth against a TCU team rounding into form after the chaotic Arkansas game resulted in an overtime blemish to their record. The OU defense, shredded by J.T. Barrett and the Ohio State Buckeyes, face one of the conference’s best offensive units, led by QB Kenny Hill and multipurpose back Kyle Hicks (300+ rushing yards, 200+ receiving yards). While TCU has been the better-looking team through three games, we haven’t given up on OU’s potential quite yet and favor them by the slimmest of margins (about half a point) to knock TCU back out of the rankings. Expect a lot of second half points as both teams climb into the 30s in what should be a compelling fourth quarter.
Keep an eye on ★ #18 Utah at California [PAC12 Network 6:00], a treacherous trip for the road favorites against the ever-explosive Bear Raid offense. Cal enters the game only 2-2 but has about a 30% chance of delivering the Utes their first loss of 2016. Also mind the scores of South Florida at Cincinnati [ESPNU 7:00] and ★ Western Michigan at Central Michigan [CBSSN 7:00], two games facing off divisional favorites from the American East and MAC West divisions, respectively. The MAC game is especially interesting, as undefeated Western Michigan faces their last serious obstacle until a regular season finale versus Toledo.
★★★ #3 Louisville at #5 Clemson [ABC 8:00] kicks off during the fourth quarter of OU – TCU, the second weekend game that may prove to be effectively a playoff quarterfinal. Half the Final Four could be determined in Week 5, particularly if Louisville notches a massive road win over the rebounding Tigers and their relentless, attacking defense. With Florida State already dispatched, Houston is the Cardinals’ only serious roadblock–the ACC Champion should come from the Atlantic division for the sixth consecutive season. A home win for the Tigers vaults them back into prime playoff position, as only the road trip to Tallahassee looks threatening enough to cut down Clemson.
Can Deshaun Watson rise to the spotlight occasion and play his best game of the year against a Louisville defense that has stonewalled every opponent to date? To win, the answer must be yes.
Can electric Lamar Jackson escape from the Clemson backfield barrage and turn near-TFLs into big gains and touchdowns? To win, the answer must be yes.
Whichever star quarterback can positively answer his question will be the one who comes out on top, likely leading his team to the semifinals.
After a playoff favorite is determined in Death Valley, head out west, as a trifecta of Pac-12 night games are nicely staggered to allow you to catch the final quarters of all three. First up is Arizona State at USC [FOX 8:30], which should be in the final period and could be a great finish, as undefeated Arizona State has scored 89 of its 195 points in the fourth quarter this season. Next is Oregon at Washington State [PAC12 Network 9:30], a critical game to stay relevant in the North after disappointing Septembers for both teams. Lastly, the winner of Arizona at UCLA [ESPN 10:30] will be propelled back into contention in the South after both teams lost their upset bids (Washington, Stanford respectively) in heartbreaking fashion a week ago.