By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
10 Key Storylines to Watch for Week 5
1. After spending the first three games on the sideline, Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa is ready to return to action. The senior suffered a torn Achilles in last season’s game against Iowa and finally appears to be near 100 percent. The Wildcats managed a 2-1 start in his absence, but this week’s game takes on even more importance, as Northwestern opens up Big Ten play against Illinois. Persa was one of the top quarterbacks in the conference last season and there’s no guarantee he will return to that form in his first game. However, having the senior back in the lineup should help, especially against an Illinois team that is off to a solid 4-0 start.
2. Auburn and South Carolina are a combined 7-1, but neither has to be happy about where it stands entering Week 5. The Gamecocks entered the year with quarterback issues, and those questions haven’t been answered through four games. Stephen Garcia is coming off a dreadful performance against Vanderbilt, throwing four interceptions on 30 attempts. It’s also clear coach Steve Spurrier doesn’t have much confidence in backup Connor Shaw. Auburn needed last-minute plays to beat Utah State and Mississippi State and after losing to Clemson in Week 3, turned in a lackluster effort against FAU. These two teams met last season, with Auburn winning by eight in the regular season and by 39 in the SEC title game. Considering the Tigers rank last in the SEC in rush defense, expect to see a heavy dose of running back Marcus Lattimore for South Carolina. Although Auburn got the best of South Carolina last season, expect a different outcome this time around.
3. Utah lost its Pac-12 road opener to USC, but there’s a lot of excitement over Saturday’s game against Washington. Rice-Eccles Stadium is sold out for the Utes’ first Pac-12 game in Salt Lake City. Despite the departure of quarterback Jake Locker, the Huskies haven’t missed a beat on offense. New quarterback Keith Price has tossed 14 touchdown passes through four games, while running back Chris Polk has three 100-yard performances this season. The Huskies are averaging 34.8 points per game, which figures to be tested by a tough Utah defense. The Utes are allowing only 14.3 points per game and have forced 12 turnovers. While Utah’s defense hasn’t been a problem through the first three games, it’s the offense that is still settling in. Running back John White is one of the nation’s leading rushers, but the team could use more production from quarterback Jordan Wynn. The junior is returning from offseason shoulder surgery, but is completing only 54.5 percent of his throws and ranks last among Pac-12 starting quarterbacks in passing efficiency. With the Huskies this Saturday and Arizona State next week, it’s an important two-game stretch for Utah’s Pac-12 South title hopes.
4. Could Saturday’s Clemson-Virginia Tech matchup be a preview of the ACC title game? The Tigers have been on fire the last two weeks, defeating Auburn 38-24 and knocking off Florida State 35-30 last Saturday. The Hokies have rolled through a favorable non-conference schedule, and the matchup with Clemson should provide a better indication of where they stand in the national picture. The Tigers have scored at least 35 points in every game this year, but face a Virginia Tech defense allowing only 10 points a game. The Hokies probably can’t keep pace if this is a high-scoring affair, so expect junior running back David Wilson to shoulder a heavy workload. If Virginia Tech is able to establish Wilson and control the clock, the Tigers will have a hard time winning in Blacksburg.
5. This week has been all about the SEC in College Station, so it’s appropriate Texas A&M faces Arkansas this Saturday. Both teams are coming off disappointing losses last week. The Aggies blew a 20-3 lead against Oklahoma State, while the Razorbacks never mounted a challenge against Alabama. With both squads reeling just a bit, this week’s matchup will be an important one. With conference play dominating the schedule the rest of the way, both teams would like to establish some momentum. Texas A&M’s secondary ranks 109th nationally against the pass and starters Coryell Judie (CB) and Steven Campbell (SS) are expected to be sidelined due to injuries. With a banged up secondary, the Aggies need to get pressure on Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson and prevent him from finding one of the many weapons the Razorbacks have in the receiving corps.
6. After starting 0-2, Georgia has won two in a row to get to .500. Coach Mark Richt is still on the hot seat, but has a chance to cool the pressure a bit on Saturday. The Bulldogs host Mississippi State in a key conference matchup. Georgia needs a victory to keep pace with South Carolina and Florida in the East, while Mississippi State already has two losses in SEC play. Mississippi State was a longshot to contend for the division title in the preseason, but a loss to Georgia would make it nearly impossible to beat Alabama or LSU for the West title. Mississippi State needs to get quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard on track after two weeks of average production. Georgia’s offense seems to be finding its rhythm, particularly with receivers stepping up for quarterback Aaron Murray and freshman running back Isaiah Crowell rushing for 147 yards against Ole Miss last Saturday. Both teams desperately need a win and the loser is in a big hole in the SEC division title race.
7. Could Saturday’s matchup against Michigan State be the most important game for Ohio State this season? With Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin up next on the schedule, it’s essential for the Buckeyes to get off to a good start in Big Ten play – especially after Ohio State’s lethargic performance against Miami in Week 3. True freshman quarterback Braxton Miller made his first start last week, completing 5 of 13 throws for 83 yards and two scores. With Miller still learning the ropes, the Buckeyes need to establish running backs Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde. The Spartans have also struggled at times on offense, averaging only 3.7 yards per carry behind a banged-up offensive line. Quarterback Kirk Cousins will test a young Ohio State secondary, but the Buckeyes’ defensive line likely won’t give him much time to throw. With both teams still trying to find its rhythm on offense, and two defenses allowing less than 16 points a game, expect a low-scoring matchup on Saturday.
8. The Florida-Alabama matchup has traditionally been one of the best in the SEC. These two teams have met 12 times since 1992, with seven of those games coming in the SEC Championship. However, the Gators had a down year last season and the last two matchups have been won by Alabama with a combined score of 63-19. However, the Gators seem to be a much-improved team this year, led by dynamic running back Chris Rainey and a young, but aggressive defense. Alabama seems to have settled on AJ McCarron as the starting quarterback, but with one of the nation’s best defenses and running back Trent Richardson leading the way on offense, the sophomore passer won’t have to win this one on his own. An added element to this week’s game will be the teacher (Nick Saban) versus the pupil (Will Muschamp). Alabama has not won in Gainesville since 1999 and it wouldn’t be a shock to see these two teams meet again in early December in Atlanta.
9. Nebraska drew an awfully difficult baptism into Big Ten play. The Cornhuskers travel to Madison for their first matchup against Wisconsin since 1974. The Badgers are a big story in their own right this weekend. Russell Wilson has been one of the nation’s top quarterbacks so far, which comes after joining the team during the summer after transferring from NC State. Nebraska’s defense has not played up to its potential yet, but will get a boost with tackle Jared Crick and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard back in the lineup. Wisconsin’s massive offensive line and running backs James White and Montee Ball will present a challenge for the Cornhuskers’ defensive line. However, Nebraska’s offense figures to give the Badgers’ defense all they can handle on Saturday night. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is averaging 267 yards of total offense per game, while Rex Burkhead leads all Big Ten running backs with 420 yards. With the offensive firepower on both sidelines, this one could be a high-scoring affair.
10. Baylor-Kansas State is off the national radar, but is a matchup to keep a close watch on this weekend. Led by Heisman contender Robert Griffin, the Bears are off to their first 3-0 start since 2005. The Wildcats also enter 3-0 and are coming off a surprise 28-24 win over Miami last week. Neither team is expected to win the Big 12, but the winner of this game will be in good position as the heart of conference play approaches. Kansas State coach Bill Snyder always does a good job of getting the most out of his roster and on paper, this should be a Baylor victory. However, with an improved defense and the play of quarterback Collin Klein, the Wildcats could be in for another upset win this Saturday.
Athlon editor Mitch Light predicts the 10 biggest games for Week 5 – here’s my take on how some of the top games will play out.
Wisconsin 31, Nebraska 27
Alabama 27, Florida 20
Texas A&M 34, Arkansas 31
Virginia Tech 27, Clemson 24
South Carolina 34, Auburn 24
Baylor 38, Kansas State 34
Georgia 31, Mississippi State 27
Illinois 30, Northwestern 27
Michigan State 24, Ohio State 20
Washington 30, Utah 24
Texas 28, Iowa State 20
USC 38, Arizona 27
Stanford 40, UCLA 17
Notre Dame 31, Purdue 13
Looking for a few upsets? Keep a close watch on these games.
Air Force at Navy (-3)
First matchup in the battle for the Commander in Chief’s Trophy. Navy has won seven out of the last eight in this series, but the Falcons won 14-6 last year. Led by senior quarterback Tim Jefferson, Air Force has a good chance to make it two in a row over the Midshipmen.
Wake Forest at Boston College (-1)
Running back Montel Harris returned to the Boston College offense last week and is expected to see more touches on Saturday. However, the Eagles have a young secondary, which could struggle to contain Wake Forest's passing attack.
Washington State at Colorado (-3)
The Cougars are still without quarterback Jeff Tuel, but Marshall Lobbestael has played well in his absence. The Buffaloes have struggled to establish running back Rodney Stewart and are trying to find the right combination on the offensive line. Neither team has been particularly impressive on defense, which means fans in Boulder could be treated to a shootout. If Paul Wulff wants to return as Washington State's coach next year, Saturday is a must-win game.
Michigan State at Ohio State (-3)
The Buckeyes are at home, but Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins could be the difference. With Braxton Miller only making his second start under center for Ohio State, the Buckeyes need a big performance from the defense and rushing attack. Points could be at a premium in this one.
Washington at Utah (-7)
The Pac-12 home opener for the Utes should give them a boost right out of the gate. However, the Huskies won't be an easy opponent. New quarterback Keith Price has been solid, and Utah's defense will have its hands full trying to slow down running back Chris Polk. The Utes need quarterback Jordan Wynn to have a good performance and play turnover-free ball.
Around the Web: College Football’s Must Read Articles to Prepare for Week 5
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Colorado's offensive line needs to step it up this weekend.
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West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen and quarterback Geno Smith have an interesting way of communicating.
Arkansas will be without two of its top defensive ends for Saturday's game against Texas A&M.
Illinois and Northwestern aren't particularly fond of each other.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo prefers to remain an independent - but will that change if the Big East offers an invite?
Could Missouri be nearing a move to the SEC? Tuesday could be an interesting day for conference realignment and the Tigers.
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian and Utah coach Kyle Whittingham have an interesting history.