Four weeks in and while we haven’t gotten a ton of shake up in the Top 5, there’s been plenty of drama. Each of the top five teams (outside of Alabama) have been tested by unranked teams at one point or another. For Clemson, it came early in their game last week against Boston College. For Oklahoma, Matt Rhule’s Baylor squad pushed them until the final whistle. Penn State, despite 305 total yards from Saquon Barkley alone, needed this play to win in the final seconds at Kinnick.
USC was pushed to the brink by both Texas and Cal. Speaking of USC, the Trojans lead off this week’s games to watch with a Friday edition of #Pac12AfterDark that is going to be a tricky one for Clay Helton’s team.
#5 USC @ #16 Washington State, Friday 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)
USC looked dominant against Stanford but has struggled since against Texas and Cal. Sam Darnold is one of the nation’s leaders in interceptions (t-3rd with 7), which is not something that you would expect from a QB whose preseason hype had him listed as one of the leading candidates for the Heisman and #1 draft pick. His counterpart in this game, Luke Falk, has been one of the less talked about guys in the country, yet he’s consistently been excellent for the Cougars. This should be a fun QB battle.
USC has been inconsistent, in part due to Darnold’s performance but also because the running game occasionally has decided to disappear. After rolling up 537 yards rushing on 82 carries (6.5 YPC) in their first two games against Western Michigan and Stanford, the Trojans have rushed for just 204 yards on 75 carries (2.72 YPC) in their games against Texas and Cal. Washington State has been no slouch against the run this year (41st 120 YPG, 3.65 YPC) which could mean another long night for the Trojans run game. The line in this one has USC as just three-point favorites (-3) in Pullman. It’s a late start on Friday night, but you’ll want to check this one out.
#7 Georgia @ Tennessee, Saturday 3:30 p.m. (CBS, CBSSports.com)
Last year in this match-up, Tennessee won with a last-second “Hail Mary” from Josh Dobbs to Jauan Jennings. It’s not likely to be as close this year as the ‘Dawgs look to be the strongest team in the SEC East but, with this rivalry, who knows what will happen.
What’s been particularly impressive to me with Georgia is their ability to still pound people in the running despite people knowing that’s what’s coming. They’re starting a true freshman at QB, but he attempted just 12 passes last week and they still won 31-3. Now, a large part of the credit also goes to the defense which has been one of the nation’s fiercest units. Kirby Smart came over after being the defensive coordinator at Alabama, and his unit is doing work this season limiting opponents to 3.02 yars per rush and 4.91 yards per completion. Per Bill Connelly’s advanced stat profiles, they rank 9th in the country in defensive efficiency.
That poses a tall task for a Vols offense that is just 62nd in offensive efficiency according to those same stat profiles. Butch Jones and company struggled mightily with UMass at home last week, winning by just four. Tennessee enters as seven and a half point home underdogs. The main reason this game is listed as one to watch is for you to get a good look at the Bulldogs in case you didn’t last week.
#24 Mississippi State @ #13 Auburn, Saturday 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)
Mississippi State got whooped last week in Athens. It happens. But, they have to forget that loss quickly with a turnaround to another big road game against Gus Malzahn’s Auburn team looming.
The Tigers have been tested just once this year, against Clemson in Week 2. They followed that up with a closer win than they’d like against Mercer (24-10), before blowing out a Missouri team (51-14) that has looked lost on defense all year. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham has been efficient (70.6%) but hasn’t translated that into touchdowns (3-2 TD-to-INT), while the running game has been missing bruising back Kamryn Pettway for much of the season (suspended, then injured foot). That three-headed monster at running back of Pettway, Kam Martin (ankle), and Kerryon Johnson hasn’t fully broken out yet this season and it will be interesting to see how Todd Grantham’s defense responds after getting bullied last week against Georgia.
On the other side, Nick Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams will be hoping for a bounce back game after last week’s dud in Athens. Auburn has been pretty good defensively (10th in efficiency), and good against the run so far this year (6th in rushing success rate at 28.4%) so that battle will be one to watch. Auburn enters as (-9) point home favorites, but again, underestimate Dan Mullen at your own risk.
#2 Clemson @ #12 Virginia Tech, Saturday 8:00 p.m. (ABC)
Clemson passed its first ACC test when it took apart Lamar Jackson and Louisville a couple weeks back 47-21. Now, it has another one in Justin Fuente’s Hokies squad in what is sure to be another fun Saturday night affair.
By now, you’ve likely seen what Dabo Swinney and Clemson brings to the table. You likely haven’t seen much of Virginia Tech outside of their Week 1 game against West Virginia. That’s because for the last three weeks, they’ve played Delaware (FCS), East Carolina and Old Dominion. So, yeah, unless you’re a die-hard Hokies fan, you’re excused for having not seen much. The defense, as usual under Bud Foster, has been very good ranking 23rd in efficiency, 6th in scoring defense (10.3 PPG) and 27th in rush yards allowed (108 YPG).
The offense, has the truly interesting part as Justin Fuente’s spread, up-tempo style has started to ingrain in the players. Freshman QB Josh Jackson has been impressive, completing 65 percent of his passes for 1,171 yards, running for 165 more and totaling 12 TDs. However, no disrespect meant to West Virginia, the Hokies haven’t faced anywhere near the level of defense they’ll see on Saturday night when the Tigers come to town. Clemson is a (-7.5) favorite on the road, but Blacksburg will be rocking and a fun sight to see that night.
Northern Illinois @ #19 San Diego State, Saturday 10:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
This game isn’t going to get a ton of national attention as it features a pair of Group of 5 teams, but it’s one for the radar. It’s another late night start, the second I’m asking from you in consecutive nights so, grab some coffee and gear up!
The reason this game intrigues me is the battle of strengths. Namely, SDSU’s running game vs. NIU’s run defense. The Aztecs have the nation’s 2nd-leading rusher in Rashaad Penny and are rolling up 227 yards per game on the ground (t-25th). The Huskies have allowed opponents just 97.7 yards per game and rank 10th in Bill Connelly’s Stuff rate metric, which accounts for the number of times a team stops an opponent at or behind the line of scrimmage.
So, which strength wins out? We’ll find out on Saturday night.