Conference title races are set to get shaken up as we hit Week 5 and the contenders start to separate from the pretenders around the country. As great as some of the college football matchups are this week though, they might not hold a candle to the games within a game — between players on either side of the ball.
Whether you’re a college football fan, a coach or an NFL scout, here are 10 of the best position vs. position battles of the bunch between offensive stars and their defensive counterparts on the other side:
1. Clemson QB Kelly Bryant and WRs Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud vs. Virginia Tech DBs Greg Stroman, Terrell Edmunds and Brandon Facyson
The game of the week is in the ACC and what should be an electric atmosphere up in Blacksburg for a conference championship rematch. While this isn’t Bryant’s first big test behind center, it is the biggest game he’s ever played in on the road and it will be up against a Bud Foster defense full of experienced all-conference defensive backs. Luckily for the Tigers, having burners like Cain and McCloud help tremendously in loosening up the Hokies’ D.
2. Ole Miss OT Greg Little vs. Alabama DL Da’Shawn Hand
Hand was widely viewed as the top recruit in the country back in 2014 when he picked the Crimson Tide. Several services thought Little was the top recruit in 2016 before he became a freshman All-American in Oxford. Now the two former No. 1 players will face off in a huge SEC West game for both sides.
3. Northwestern RB Justin Jackson and SB Garrett Dickerson vs. Wisconsin LB T.J. Edwards and DB D’Cota Dixon
Jackson and Dickerson are two of the top offensive threats in the entire Big Ten and capable of taking it to the house from any spot on the field. As good as they are however, it will be a challenge this week in getting past a tackling machine like Edwards and the rangy Dixon — who is all over the field ready to lay a big hit.
4. Colorado DBs Isaiah Oliver and Afolabi Laguda UCLA QB Josh Rosen and WR Darren Andrews
The Buffaloes impressively reloaded in the secondary this year despite losing several players to the NFL draft but the team is facing the most potent passing attack in the country when they head down to the Rose Bowl. Rosen leads FBS in passing yards and a number of other categories — mostly throwing to Andrews, who already has seven touchdowns this season. If CU wants to stay in the Pac-12 South race, stopping the pass on Saturday will be the key.
5. Wisconsin WR Jazz Peavy and TE Troy Fumagalli vs. Northwestern DB Godwin Igwebuike
He isn’t as well known to fans outside Big Ten country but NFL scouts know all about Igwebuike’s abilities as one of the best safeties in the country and a future early-round draft pick next year. He’ll have a big-time test this weekend in a variety of different forms, whether it’s keeping a lid on the speedy Peavy down the field or watching out for the dangerous Fumagalli underneath.
6. Virginia Tech QB Josh Jackson, RBs Steven Peoples and Travon McMillian vs. Clemson DL Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, LBs Dorian O’Daniel and Kendall Joseph
Cam Phillips receives most of the attention on the Hokies’ offense but if they’re to pull off the upset and extract a little revenge for last year’s ACC title game, establishing a consistent running game and holding onto the ball will be key. As good as their backfield is at the moment though, it’s much easier said than done against the best defensive front seven in the country.
7. Tennessee RB John Kelly vs. Georgia DL Trent Thompson and LB Natrez Patrick
If there’s one bright spot for the Volunteers, it’s been the terrific Kelly carrying the rock between the tackles with hard run after hard run. The tailback leads the SEC in rushing and rushing touchdowns but will need his “A-game” this week if the team is to remain in the division race with an upset of Georgia. The talented spine of the Bulldogs’ defense already shut down a pretty good MSU rush attack last Saturday, can they do so again on the road this week?
8. Stanford DL Harrison Phillips and LB Peter Kalambayi vs. Arizona State RBs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard
There’s no rest for the weary Stanford defense, which faces FBS leading rusher Bryce Love every day in practice and has already played Ronald Jones II and Rashaad Penny this season. All those reps against top-flight competition should pay off when the team hosts the dynamic duo in Arizona State’s backfield, who can burst through on a zone play as easily as they can escape out of the backfield to catch passes.
9. Clemson RBs Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne vs. Virginia Tech LBs Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka
Everybody wondered how the Tigers would replace Deshuan Watson but veteran back Wayne Gallman was a pretty important piece of the team’s title run last year too. While it’s been a few weeks, it’s becoming clear the heirs in the backfield for Clemson are terrific freshman Etienne (113 yds., two TDs last week) and sophomore Feaster. If they can put up good numbers against a pair of top-notch All-ACC linebackers for the Hokies, Dabo Swinney’s offense could be even more dangerous than 2016.
10. Indiana LB Tegray Scales vs. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley
Last week, Barkley put up an incredible 358 all-purpose yards for the Nittany Lions despite having Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell running him down on every snap. This Saturday’s test should be just as interesting considering Scales is one of the most underrated players in the Big Ten and an athletic tackling machine in his own right. If the Hoosiers stand any chance against a top-10 foe, it will be up to their star defender shutting down running lanes and making sure Barkley doesn’t leave the backfield.
Best of the rest:
*Iowa LB Josey Jewell vs. Michigan State RBs LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London
*Iowa State LB Joel Lanning vs. Texas RBs Chris Warren III and Kyle Porter
*Ole Miss QB Shea Patterson and A.J. Brown vs. Alabama DBs Minkah Fitzpatrick and Tony Brown
*Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald vs. Auburn LB Tre Williams and DB Tray Matthews
*South Carolina QB Jake Bentley vs. Texas A&M DB Armani Watts
*Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham and RB Kamryn Pettway vs. Mississippi State DL Jeffery Simmons and LB Leo Lewis
*Oregon State RB Ryan Nall vs. Washington LBs Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria
*Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond and RB Trayveon Williams vs. South Carolina LBs Skai Moore and Bryson Allen-Williams
*UCF LB Shaquem Griffin and DL Jamiyus Pittman vs. Memphis QB Riley Ferguson
*Iowa State WR Allen Lazard vs. Texas DBs DeShon Elliott, Kris Boyd and Holton Hill
*UCLA DL Boss Tagaloa, LB Kenny Young and DB Adarius Pickett vs. Colorado QB Steven Montez, RBs Phillip Lindsay and Michael Adkins II
*Tennessee WR Marquez Callaway vs. Georgia DBs Malkom Parrish and Dominick Sanders
*Texas Tech DB Jah’Shawn Johnson vs. Oklahoma State WR James Washington
*Vanderbilt RB Ralph Webb vs. Florida DL Taven Bryan and LB Vosean Joseph
*Arizona State WR N’Keal Harry vs. Stanford DBs Alijah Holder and Justin Reid
*Washington State DL Hercules Mata’afa and LB Isaac Dotson vs. USC RBs Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr
*Ohio State DBs Denzel Ward, Damon Arnett and Damon Webb vs. Rutgers WR Janarion Grant
*Utah State QB Kent Myers vs. BYU LB Fred Warner and DB Micah Hannemann
*Washington State RB Jamal Morrow and OT Andre Dillard vs. USC LBs Cam Smith and Uchenna Nwosu
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.