Week 4 of college football was one of attrition. With the exceptions of Alabama and Clemson — two teams which have established themselves as clearly above the rest — every team in the top-eight faced some form of mortality. The degrees varied — Washington overcame Colorado easier than Penn State overcame Iowa — but the point remains. There are no more walkovers, no more FCS bye weeks, nothing. College football is in its Hunger Games stage; the weakest among the ranks are weeded out each week until only the strongest remain. Here are your studs and duds for Week 5.
Stud: Friday night
It’s not often we have a slate like this on a Friday, but this week is one heck of an exception. The obvious standout is USC-Washington State, which could be the rare game to start at 10:30 eastern worth staying up to watch in its entirety. However, there’s also a relatively untested Miami team visiting 4-0 Duke. Even Nebraska-Illinois is interesting in a perverse sense. This is the rare occasion where it’s worth carving out time on a Friday night to watch college football.
Outside of beating Stanford in Week 2 — a victory which seems significantly less impressive in hindsight — the 4-0 Trojans have not dominated an opponent this year. They pulled away from Western Michigan and Cal late while beating Texas at the Coliseum took two overtimes. Washington State in Pullman is by far the toughest game on their schedule to date (and may prove to be their toughest all year). Not only is Mike Leach’s Air Raid tough to defend, but the Cougars have quietly put together a strong defense this year. Don’t be surprised if they pull the upset.
It feels as though the Badgers, ranked tenth in the country, should be getting a bit more attention. Despite not playing anybody particularly good, they’ve blown out all three of their opponents and currently rank fifth in S&P+. Northwestern visits Madison and it’s tough to see the Wildcats surviving against such a ferocious defense. A statement win could be coming for Wisconsin.
The Hawkeyes away from Kinnick Stadium already feel like a dicey proposition. Toss in the disappointment factor after Penn State survived against Iowa last week and Kirk Ferentz’s squad could struggle at Michigan State this weekend. Despite a disappointing result against Notre Dame on Saturday, the Spartans look like a decent football team. Brian Lewerke is averaging 7.2 yards per passing attempt and the defense might be a top-30 unit. Don’t sleep on Michigan State.
The Bulldogs may have put up last week’s most convincing victory, a 31-3 shellacking of Mississippi State that vaulted Georgia into the top-10. Not only that, but they’ve put together this 4-0 start behind a true freshman quarterback in Jake Fromm. Sure, they probably aren’t touching Alabama, but it feels safe to assume this start is real. After Tennessee struggled to handle UMass at home last weekend, Neyland Stadium looks much less intimidating. This could turn into another blowout.
Dud: Butch Jones, head coach, Tennessee
Speaking of the Volunteers, it is hard to see Butch Jones keeping his job for much longer after his team struggled so badly against UMass. If Georgia comes into Neyland and overpowers Tennessee in the same way it did Mississippi State, the calls for Jones’ head are going to get a lot louder. With a bye week coming after this game, this is the time for Tennessee to do it if they’re thinking about a mid-season firing.
Stud: Wake Forest
Fine, they won by just one point at Appalachian State on Saturday. But the Demon Deacs are 4-0, with three blowout wins, yet remain outside the top-25. This week is their chance to prove themselves, as Wake Forest has Florida State at home, and they’re going to do it. This is a top-20 defense by S&P+ and the offense is crushing preseason expectations and scoring over 35 points per game. Watch out for this team.
The Gators pulled two wins out of their you-know-what, but that doesn’t change the obvious: this isn’t a good team. Anyone who watches them for a period lasting longer than five minutes can see that. Florida doesn’t have a passing offense with running back Malik Davis being the only consistent source of yardage. And though the Gators have a strong defense, it’s been far from dominant despite playing three flawed-at-best offensive teams. With a feisty Vanderbilt squad visiting the Swamp, Saturday may be a day of reckoning.
Finally — finally! — the Auburn Tigers looked like the team we expected them to be last weekend. Throwing up a 50-burger at Missouri is exactly what a team with this kind of offensive talent should be doing. Once running back Kamryn Pettway returns from a foot injury, the Tigers become a truly exciting team. For now, however, the question is whether they can replicate the performance. Mississippi State, a ranked opponent, is the right team to ask it against. Given preseason expectations, we should feel good about Auburn’s chances of answering it correctly.
It took all of three weeks for LSU’s quarterback problem to prove fatal. Even at home against Syracuse in Week 4, the Tigers failed to put the Orange away. As easy as Troy looks on the schedule, this has all the potential of a trap game. The Tigers have an emotional matchup at Florida coming up next week and may be eager to focus on that. Remember, if they get down by more than a couple scores, Danny Etling isn’t bringing them back.
This scribe harbored doubts about whether Clemson could continue as a dominant force after losing Deshaun Watson. After four weeks, this scribe has been proven wrong. Resoundingly wrong. Don’t expect that to change at Virginia Tech this week. The Tigers can pressure any quarterback at will, Josh Jackson is no exception. Kelly Bryant can play under the bright lights and it has quickly become hard to doubt this team.
Dud: Texas Tech
The Red Raiders survived a close one at Houston on Saturday. They won’t replicate the feat against Oklahoma State this week. Texas Tech’s defense simply isn’t good enough to stop the likes of Mason Rudolph, James Washington and Justice Hill. The Cowboys will romp this week as Texas Tech gets a stinging dose of reality.
Stud: Christian Kirk, wide receiver, Texas A&M
A note on Texas A&M’s upcoming opponent: the South Carolina Gamecocks rank 129th out of 130 FBS teams in special teams S&P+. Given that the Aggies have one of the best returners in the country, Christian Kirk, this feels relevant. South Carolina may be able to win the game, but they will struggle badly in this facet. If A&M wins, it will be largely because of Kirk’s contributions on special teams.
Dud: Ryan Nall, running back, Oregon State
Watching the Oregon State Beavers is a uniquely frustrating experience, if only because Nall is a very talented running back who gets next to no help from his teammates. Despite that, the junior is still averaging 6.1 yards per carry this season. The Beavers won’t be any less infuriating this week, as they face Washington. In fact, the Huskies may be the first team this year to shut Nall down. With stalwarts like Vita Vea in the middle of their defensive line, Washington may set up a temporary home in Oregon State’s backfield.
Stud: Ohio State
Playing Army, UNLV, and Rutgers in consecutive is a great way to build momentum after swallowing a tough loss to Oklahoma. The Buckeyes, predictably, blew out the first two of those opponents. Now, it’s on to Piscataway. To put it bluntly, Rutgers has no chance this weekend. None at all. Ohio State will win, easily, in blowout fashion. Urban Meyer will be thinking about next week’s opponent by halftime.
Forget about Josh Rosen for a minute and consider UCLA’s defense. The unit ranks 84th in S&P+ and given up over 40 points in three of four games. This week’s opponent, Colorado, isn’t an especially intimidating team, but the Buffs can move the ball behind quarterback Steven Montez and running back Phillip Lindsay. They could very well become the fourth team to put up 40 against UCLA.
The regular season almost feels like clockwork for the Crimson Tide. However, in recent years, that’s come with one exception: Ole Miss. The Runnin’ Rebels were the only team to beat Alabama in 2015 and the only team to give them a game in the regular season last year. That won’t happen again. Ole Miss doesn’t have the same talent or motivation post-Hugh Freeze and ‘Bama is on a mission. Pencil in a blowout.
The Golden Bears have quietly impressed over the first four games, their only loss coming against USC in a game where Cal was competitive most of the way. However, it’s hard to see this start lasting. Cal has yet to receive a test on the road — their Week 1 victory at North Carolina looks less impressive now then it did at the time — and isn’t good enough to win at Autzen Stadium. Even after an upset loss last week, Willie Taggart has Oregon playing well. The Ducks will bounce back this week with a convincing win.
For those among us who are truly addicted to football, these games are a rare treat. A Hawaii home game, starting at midnight on the east coast, only comes around so many times a year. However, a midnight start time with a 9:30 am NFL game on the back end the next morning is a whole new dimension. My friends, we will gorge on football this weekend like the world’s fattest man at a pie-eating competition.
Dud: Thursday night games
An idea for the NCAA: instead of putting a mildly intriguing game on Thursday night (Texas-Iowa State this week), cede the day to the NFL. Move the Thursday game to Friday and make college football truly signal the start of the weekend. Doing so would spread the sport of football out over the week and make the Friday night slates consistently solid. The extra day of rest will also lead to better football. Weeks like this — with great games scheduled for Friday night — will prove to be the best.