Saturday October 1st, 2011

Five Saturday plotlines heading into Week 5:

Win or go home (which is down the street, but would still be sad): Four top 10 teams will defend their rankings against upset-minded current or former conference-mates at home on Saturday. (That number should be six, but I'm going to venture out on a sturdy limb and guess that Oklahoma and Stanford will be able to handle Ball State and UCLA.) Let's get No. 1 taken care of right off, because being No. 1 is the only reason  LSU even bears mention here.

After a resounding win in a hostile road environment in Week 4, there's not a chance LSU comes home to Death Valley and loses to Kentucky, which is miserable this season even by Lexington standards. But as hard as it is to get to No. 1, it's harder still to stay there. To maintain their plum inside-track position in the race to New Orleans, the Bayou Bengals will have to put on a show week in and week out. They're not going to lose; but they do need to worry about slipping in the rankings should voters spot any signs of sleepwalking.

Also under orders to throw a weekly fireworks display: Boise State. The Broncos must display BCS worthiness while playing a Mountain West schedule, and their opponent this weekend is an intriguing one. Nevada was responsible for torpedoing Boise's 2010 title run with that Thanksgiving weekend overtime upset, but it's been inexplicably hit-or-miss on the field in 2011, getting played close in a win over doormattish San Jose State before sustaining a one-point loss to Texas Tech. That weekly game where I tell you to repress all gambling urges? Here you go. Do not bite.

Back to SEC country, where defending national champion Auburn, pegged to win as few as six games in preseason punditry, finished September 3-1 and recorded a win against a ranked Mississippi State team along the way. Four more ranked teams in a row await the Tigers, however, beginning with a South Carolina squad that's already notched two conference wins and is a good bet to repeat as SEC East champion.

I kind of love games where both fanbases wear similar colors, creating one giant mass of humanity. The HD overhead shots of Camp Randall will be of surpassing beauty. And if their play so far this season is any indication, expect Wisconsin and Nebraska, preseason favorites to hoist the inaugural Big Ten championship trophy, to live up to the hype. Voters: If the game is well-fought, be kind and don't ding the loser too much. This is as perfect a matchup as could be asked for on an early fall day in middle America.

You, out of the poll: Season's fortunes of at least one team hang in the balance for each of these four Week 5 games: TCU goes on the road to tackle SMU, the Horned Frogs' toughest competition since that grueling opening-week loss to Baylor. Neither Alabama nor Florida can afford a conference loss, not with undefeated LSU and South Carolina hanging around. Illinois won't hold onto that highly unexpected ranking for long if it can't fend off attacks from a Northwestern team that just got its starting quarterback back. And as usual where polls are concerned, nobody quite knows what to do with the ACC, but sorting out where Clemson and Virginia Tech fall relative to one another should help with that.

Intriguing undercards: Three mid-major matchups to catch in Week 5: The first leg of the  Commander-in-Chief's Trophy race between Air Force and Navy; the battle of Actually Adept MAC teams that is the Toledo-Temple tilt; and the pending pointsplosion that's sure to occur when Hawaii meets Sonny Dykes' small-time Air Raid outfit at Louisiana Tech.

Good clean football to be had: Team on a bye this weekend? Take in the refreshingly uncomplicated wholesomeness of what should be two fairly competitive conference matches: Michigan State-Ohio State in the Big Ten, and future SEC West buddies Texas A&M and Arkansas.

One of these teams will win this game, while another will almost certainly lose: Matchups featuring two undefeated teams in Week 5: Baylor-Kansas State, Clemson-Virginia Tech, Texas-Iowa State, Nebraska-Wisconsin, and Alabama-Florida. Where we'll be: Stewart Mandel will make a long-overdue trip to Madison this weekend for the most anticipated game of Week 5; Andy Staples will be in Gainesville to see whether the Gators can make anything of themselves against real competition; and I'll be in Athens shooting a photo gallery of one of college football's loveliest destinations. Stop by and say howdy.

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