USA TODAY Sports’ George Schroeder, Paul Myerberg and FOX Sports host Joel Klatt preview three of the weekend’s biggest games. USA TODAY Sports
As September draws to a close, most observers of the college football landscape have a fairly clear picture of which teams are leaders and which are pursuers in the race for the four coveted spots in the playoff. Of course, if history is any guide, the picture could look a lot different by the time the actual selections are made.
Some of the pursuers have opportunities to alter the pecking order this week, and some others are just trying to remain in the chase. Here are the five games with the biggest playoff impact in Week 5.
No. 2 Clemson at No. 12 Virginia Tech
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
It’s a rematch of last year’s ACC final, and it could be the first of two encounters this year. A win for the Tigers would serve as further confirmation that the champs will be back to defend. But the Hokies might just be dreaming of bigger things, and a victory on the big stage in front of their home crowd would provide more than a little justification for those lofty goals.
One shouldn’t read too much into Clemson’s suboptimal performance against Boston College last week. It was a sandwich game between the Tigers’ date at Louisville and this trip to Blacksburg. Even so, QB Kelly Bryant and Co. would like to get the offense moving more quickly. The Hokies have given up no points in 10 of their last 12 quarters, a trend LB Tremaine Edmunds and his friends would like to continue. But Virginia Tech’s bigger challenge might be on the other side of the ball, where promising QB Josh Jackson must run the offense while avoiding DT Dexter Lawrence and the rest of the Tigers’ devastating front line. If Jackson has time to find him, WR Cam Phillips could be a huge help.
No. 5 USC at No. 16 Washington State
Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
This, too, is a cross-divisional contest, so a loss wouldn’t end the Pac-12 title hopes for either team. USC already has faced some stiff challenges and is once again wearing the bull’s-eye. The Cougars need a high-profile win to show they are indeed contenders in the North.
Though it can be said that the Trojans haven’t been consistent, it is also true that they’ve had stronger competition. In addition, QB Sam Darnold has been more effective when RB Ronald Jones has been available. He wasn’t at California last week because of a thigh bruise but is expected back Friday night. The WSU aerial attack has produced lofty stats, even when QB Luke Falk needed help from backup Tyler Hilinski to stage a comeback against Boise State earlier in the month. Falk is at full speed now, but he must still beware of Trojans CB Jack Jones, who has three of his team’s seven picks.
No. 13 Miami (Fla.) at Duke
Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
The ACC Coastal might be viewed as analogous to the SEC East, a division perceived as the easier one in its conference by virtue of not containing the league’s heavy favorite. Nevertheless, the winner of this unexpected clash of unbeaten squads gets a big boost in the division hunt.
Miami’s abbreviated September schedule because of Hurricane Irma makes it difficult to get a reliable read on the team’s potential. QB Malik Rosier has shown good command of the Hurricanes’ offense thus far, but LB Joe Giles-Harris and the Blue Devils’ front figure to give him a bigger test. The most pleasant surprise for Duke fans during the 4-0 start has been the ground game, led by RB Shaun Wilson, that has helped QB Daniel Jones keep his offense on the field for 13:20 longer. LB Shaquille Quarterman and the Hurricanes’ defense must improve on third down, when they’ve allowed conversions 52.5% of the time.
No. 24 Mississippi State at No. 15 Auburn
Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN
Quite simply, this SEC West showdown is an eliminator. The Bulldogs need to avoid a second loss in SEC play, and though the Tigers’ earlier setback came outside the league, they need to keep their conference record unblemished as they’ll face both Georgia and Alabama in November.
Mississippi State never recovered from Georgia’s early barrage last week and must avoid a similar start in another hostile environment. A quick connection for QB Nick Fitzgerald and WR Keith Mixon would help, but Auburn LBs Tre’ Williams and Jeff Holland will do their best to disrupt their timing. Williams (shoulder) missed Auburn’s victory against Missouri last week but is expected to return. The Tigers’ offense could still use a break-out performance, and it might help that both RBs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson should be available at the same time for the first time this season. QB Jarrett Stidham, meanwhile, will try to exploit a Bulldogs’ secondary that has just one INT this season.
No. 14 Oklahoma State at Texas Tech
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, Fox
The Big 12 crown isn’t out of reach for the Cowboys in the wake of last week’s loss to TCU. But it would be with a second consecutive defeat, and the Red Raiders will be just as motivated to show that they, too, can contend.
Aside from one long TD reception by WR James Washington, the Oklahoma State attack was stymied for much of last week’s loss. QB Mason Rudolph should have more success against Texas Tech, which has not been known for its airtight defense in recent years. But the Red Raiders have shown improvement there, thanks in part to the addition of CB Willie Sykes. QB Nic Shimonek has kept the high-powered Tech offense moving with 11 TD throws to just one pick. OSU DT DeQuinton Osborne will try to make his job harder.