Top storylines heading into college football Week 6

Lamar Jackson and the Louisville Cardinals lead off College Football Week 6 against NC State

Well into the second-third of the season heading into college football Week 6, we’re getting a clearer picture about which teams are legit. And which ones are pretenders, too.

The upcoming weekend of action is bursting at the seams with trap games, potential upsets and good, old-fashioned slugfests between top dogs. It starts Thursday night when Lamar Jackson and the Louisville Cardinals travel to face the NC State Wolfpack and concludes with a quartet of meaningful Pac-12 games late Saturday night.

Here’s a look at all the most important stories leading up to the action.

Can NC State keep Lamar Jackson from getting loose?

It’s crazy. There are so many good players right now putting up video-game numbers that Lamar Jackson isn’t getting a ton of publicity for what he’s doing. All last year’s Heisman winner has done so far is average almost 415 yards per game with 18 touchdowns. The Cardinals are also 4-1, their only loss coming to Clemson. Their next test is a road game against NC State, which could be quite intriguing. The Wolfpack have held opposing rushing attacks to just over 85 yards per game this season and haven’t given up more than 25 points since their Week 1 loss to Syracuse.

Keeping Jackson from getting loose is a whole other challenge, however. It’s one you cannot really fully prepare for, especially on a short week. It’s going to be interesting to see if NC State can turn Jackson into a pure passer by keeping him from running wild. He’s been known to make opposing defenses pay, either way. But there is no doubt the young man is much more dangerous when he’s allowed to roam free.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire for the Demon Deacons

Wake Forest gave Florida State quite a scare last weekend, pushing the Seminoles right until the end of the game when James Blackman threw the game-winner with under a minute to spare. It was the first loss of the season for the Demon Deacons, who now find themselves staring a two-game losing streak right in the face. Why, you ask? A trip to Death Valley to face the No. 2 team in the nation is on tap, that’s why. Clemson’s defense is the best the nation has to offer, and quarterback Kelly Bryant has a knack for making big plays when they’re needed most. We predict a massive blowout win for the home team in this one.

Penn State running game needs to be focal point against Northwestern

Wisconsin had a bit of trouble in a tight win over Northwestern last weekend. Alex Hornibrook threw two interceptions, and it wasn’t until running back Jonathan Taylor became more of the focal point in the second half that the Badgers pulled ahead. Why do we bother pointing out what Wisconsin did last weekend? Well, for starters, Penn State head coach James Franklin has a maddening tendency to make Trace McSorley the focal point of his offense, rather than all-world running back Saquon Barkley.

Like Hornibrook, McSorley is prone to making mistakes and gets a bit wild at times. He also has nearly twice as many passing attempts as Barkley has rushing attempts (160 to 86). And Barkley has just 30 more rushing attempts than McSorley, which is even crazier.

What’s even more maddening about this is that Franklin himself recently said he’s never been around a more talented player — at the college or pro level — than Barkley. It’s time to start making this young man the focal point of the offense, not only as a receiver but as a running back, early and often.

Third time’s a charm for Vandy against a tough SEC team?

The past two weeks have been brutal for the Commodores. They were blanked, 59-0, by a ticked-off Alabama squad and then steamrolled by the Florida Gators last weekend. They allowed 714 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground in those two crushing losses, which is the equivalent of featuring a defense made out of wet brown paper bags.

Now Georgia comes into town, fresh off three blowout wins that includes a shutout over Tennessee in Knoxville last Saturday. We’ll be shocked if Vanderbilt stays within three touchdowns in this one. Regardless of who is under center, we expect Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to run wild.

Continued development of Jarrett Stidham in Auburn’s offense

The early portion of this season was rough for the former Baylor quarterback. He struggled to complete half his passes the first two games (including the ugly loss to Clemson) before finally getting into a groove in his third game, minus an interception. The past two weeks, however, Stidham looks to be quite comfortable in Gus Malzahn’s offense. He’s missed a total of seven attempts in these last two games while passing for 482 yards (14.6 yards per attempt) with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Auburn is hosting Ole Miss this Saturday, and this will provide Stidham with a tremendous opportunity to continue improving his game. If he can become a steady leader who doesn’t turn the ball over, then the Tigers will be extremely dangerous down the stretch given their defensive prowess.

Can Will Grier keep pace with TCU’s high-powered offense?

TCU has been one of the most impressive teams in the nation thus far. Not only did the Horned Frogs take down Oklahoma State, but they’re averaging over 29 points per game more than their opponents this year. In addition to the normal high-powered offense you’d expect, TCU’s defense has been very impressive.

So with all that in mind, we cannot help but wonder if Will Grier can possibly keep the Mountaineers in Saturday’s game, on the road in Forth Worth. The former Florida quarterback has done an outstanding job this year for West Virginia, throwing 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions leading one of the more potent offenses in the nation for the one-loss team. He’ll need to be darn-near perfect if the Mountaineers have any shot of pulling out an upset this weekend.

James Blackman needs to grow up quick against Miami

Florida State quarterback James Blackman

Well, it took a few weeks but Miami and Florida State are going to clash Saturday in Tallahassee. And this is quite a pivotal game for both programs, not to mention a heated rivalry. The Hurricanes have done an amazing job so far this year and enter the weekend undefeated. Meanwhile on the other end of the spectrum, it took a last-minute touchdown against Wake Forest for the Seminoles to stave off an 0-3 start.

If the home team is going to win its second game of the season, then freshman quarterback James Blackman needs to step up in a huge way. He’s been okay, but not great, in his first two career starts, completing 33-of-59 passes for 399 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Miami’s defense is a few levels above what Blackman has faced so far, however, so his game must improve by leaps and bounds to give Florida State a shot.

Brandon Wimbush’s continued growth key to another road win for the Irish

For a while at the start of the year, it looked like Notre Dame’s offense would stall in similar fashion to last year. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, a dual-threat passer, struggled mightily through the air, and the Irish lost their second game of the year to Georgia. At the time, nobody really knew that the Bulldogs were going to develop into a behemoth, and Notre Dame’s struggles from the year before were far too fresh in our minds.

It seemed disaster was on the horizon. Instead, the opposite has happened. Notre Dame has rebounded with three blowout wins, and Wimbush has started coming around. When asked about sticking with his quarterback, head coach Brian Kelly had something very salient to share, and it seems to be working wonders. Now the Irish will be on the road in Week 6 for a game against a North Carolina squad that has underachieved but that should not be underestimated. Whether Wimbush can continue improving will have a lot to do with the outcome.

Can LSU rise like a phoenix from the ashes?

Losing to Troy — at home no less, during homecoming weekend, and after paying the Sun Belt team almost $1 million — was about as humiliating as it comes for a program like LSU. It wasn’t the first alarming thing to happen to the Tigers this season, either. They also got blown out of the water by Mississippi State and barely beat Syracuse. Not surprisingly the program has come under fire from the media, which is something one of the team’s starters has not taken well.

Now the Tigers head to The Swamp to face a Florida team that is dealing with its own issues. While the Gators are 3-1, they struggle offensively, lost quarterback Luke Del Rio for the season and wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland for at least a week with a high-ankle sprain.

It’s going to be an ugly, ugly game Saturday we’re betting. Derrius Guice will need to play, and play well if the Tigers have any hope of winning. The team’s defense will need to step up, too, after falling to bits the past few weeks. Honestly, this feels like another loss for LSU, which will only make things more complicated for the decision-makers who fired Les Miles last year and owe Ed Oregeron a lot of money whether he stays or goes.

Do the Terps have another upset in them?

Maryland receiver D.J. Moore

Maryland has already pulled off two upsets this year, beating Texas to open the season and then Minnesota last weekend. We highlighted the Terps as a team that could be a thorn in the side of the conference’s top teams. If they’re going to make us look smart, this is the weekend to make it happen. Ohio State will be hosting Maryland, and the Buckeyes have been on fire against lesser competition since losing to Oklahoma. Not surprisingly, the home team is favored to win by over four touchdowns. Still, given how tough these Terps are, we’ll go ahead and take the underdog to beat the spread.

No rest for the weary, USC must rebound 

There’s no crying in football (okay there actually is, but you get the point). If any team has the right to moan a bit about circumstances, it’s the Trojans. With no bye week to speak of, they have been brutalized by the injury bug (10 starters out) and were thoroughly beaten last Friday night by Washington State. So this is a team limping into the meat and potatoes of the schedule and there’s no rest in sight. Time to suck it up boys.

Thankfully the Trojans have somewhat of a reprieve in the form of an opponent they should be able to handle. Oregon State is allowing over 46 points per game and should be a walk in the park for the USC offense at home Saturday. If the Trojans struggle in any way to dispatch this weak opponent, it might be time to waive the white flag on their season.

Big-time Big 12 battle when Kansas State visits Texas

Neither of these teams enters Week 6 ranked, but this is a huge game for both of them. Texas has seemingly staved off disaster to get back to .500 on the season, and Kansas State only has one loss. Furthermore, both teams are 1-0 in the Big 12. So, whichever team comes out of Saturday’s game victorious will have a big leg up going forward.

It’s going to come down to quarterback play in this one. Shane Buechele and Jesse Ertz couldn’t be more different in terms of their style of play, but they are both gritty leaders who are brilliant some days and prone to mistakes other days. The team that can capitalize on mistakes will win.

Can the 12th man save the Aggies from total annihilation?

Texas A&M receiver Will Gunnell apologized for flipping fans the bird

Texas A&M is one miraculous Josh Rosen fourth quarter away from being undefeated. It’s pretty remarkable when you think about it, because this is a program that many thought should fire Kevin Sumlin after the first two weeks of the season. By no means is he off the hot seat altogether, but Sumlin has certainly done his part to keep his job so far. Things might look a whole lot different on Sunday, because the Aggies are about to host Alabama this Saturday.

The Crimson Tide have won their five games by a combined score of 231-43. They have been treating the SEC like their own personal playground so far this year, and Texas A&M’s defense isn’t exactly well equipped to slow down this freight train. It’s going to take a heck of a lot of crowd support from the famed 12th man and a whole lot of luck for the Aggies to win at home.

John O’Korn’s time to shine as Michigan takes on Michigan State

Michigan’s starting quarterback, Wilton Speight, has been pretty bad this year overall. He is also out at least a few weeks, per Jim Harbaugh. This means it’s time for John O’Korn to either show he’s the answer the Wolverines have been looking for or that they really are out of luck when it comes to the quarterback position this year.

And if you think Michigan State is a gimme for the Wolverines, you haven’t been paying attention lately. Sure Michigan features a tough defense and can run the ball, but the same has been the case the past two years. And the past two years these rivals have split the series, with the finals being a four-point win by the Spartans in 2015 and a 10-point win last year.

With that in mind, O’Korn better be ready to put his A-game on display when the Spartans come to town. He was great last weekend in relief for Speight. Now he gets to prove he’s worthy of being the starter the rest of the way.

Can Tanner Lee rise up, or will he be swallowed up by Wisconsin’s D?

Nebraska has a chance to play spoiler Saturday at home against Wisconsin, the No. 9 team in the land. Wisconsin’s defense will probably make sure that doesn’t happen, but the wild card is quarterback Tanner Lee. The junior has had made some big throws this year and has thrown at least two touchdowns in four of the team’s five games thus far. But Lee has also thrown at least two interceptions in three games and has nine total picks in 2017.

So which Tanner Lee will we see? If he’s mistake-free, then the Cornhuskers could potentially make things very interesting in the Big Ten with an upset of epic proportions.

Potential trap game for recently promoted Cougs?

No team made a bigger leap up the national rankings after Week 5 than Washington State, which vaulted from No. 16 all the way up to No. 11. Beating USC was impressive. Now they’ll need to play some more impressive defense against a high-scoring Oregon offense in Eugene. One of the things working in the favor of the Cougars is that Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert has a broken collarbone and is out for the foreseeable future. This means Royce Freeman will need to become the absolute focal point of the Oregon offense.

Given the Cougars are coming off such an emotional win over USC, and that Oregon is ailing, it would be easy to ease up on the gas pedal a bit. Rest assured, that’s not a smart strategy. Washington State cannot afford to lose any momentum after building so much up heading into the middle of the season. With games against Utah and Washington at the conclusion of the regular season, Mike Leach and Co. will need all of it right up until the end.

Ticked-off Huskies playing late … again

Washington is the best team in the nation most of the nation has yet to see play. The reason for this is the Huskies haven’t played a single game that started before 8 p.m. ET. Their next two games don’t even start until 10:45 ET, and that has head coach Chris Petersen pretty upset.

“I just want to say something to our fans: we apologize for these late games. And I’d also like to reiterate it has nothing to do with us or the administration,” Petersen said Monday, via the AP. “We want to play at 1 p.m. It hurts us tremendously in terms of national exposure. No one wants to watch our game on the East Coast that late, and we all know it. We haven’t had a kickoff before 5 p.m. this season. And so it’s painful for our team, it’s painful for our administration and we know certainly the most important part is for our fans.”

Washington features one of the better defenses in the nation — a unit that has yet to give up more than 16 points in a game — and an underrated offense. It also features the most dangerous punt returner in college football in Dante Pettis, who needs one more touchdown to break the all-time NCAA record. This team is very exciting to watch. But if you’d like to watch it play, you’ll have to wait until very late Saturday night when the Huskies host the Cal Bears.

Bryce Love vs. Rashaad Penny make Pac-12 after dark must-see TV

If you need another reason to stay up super late Saturday night for the purposes of watching college football, look no further than the top two running backs in the nation, Bryce Love and Rashaad Penny.

Stanford’s Love is on pace to smash Barry Sanders’ all-time single-season rushing mark, having totaled 1,088 yards on the ground in his first five games. Penny isn’t far behind him, with 823 yards on the ground, and he missed some of last weekend’s game after having his eyes gouged by a NIU defender.

Utah has a stout run defense and will attempt to keep Love from going off. Penny, on the other hand, should run wild against UNLV. Both games are nationally televised, with Stanford vs. Utah airing on FS1 at 10:15 p.m. ET and San Diego State vs. UNLV airing on ESPN2 at 10:45 p.m. ET.