October is upon us, and that means a weekly slate of major games that will shake up the race for conference titles and College Football Playoff berths. While the first four weeks have taught us a decent amount about the capabilities of teams this season, we’re about to truly find out which squads are contenders and which have little substance behind their sparking early records.
It begins this weekend, which boasts a multitude of big-time matchups. The majority of the focus in Week 5 will be on the SEC, where there’s a trio of games that will shape the race to Atlanta. But the biggest game as far as the playoff race is concerned is likely the nonconference clash between Notre Dame and Clemson.
Here are the five biggest storylines to watch in Week 5:
1. Can Deshaun Watson lift Clemson to greater heights?
Watson entered 2015 as a potential Heisman candidate after answering the five-star hype that accompanied him to Death Valley. As a true freshman last year, Watson looked like a future star despite battling a broken throwing hand, sprained knee and torn ACL. Entering this season with a clean bill of health, Watson seemed poised to truly fulfill his potential and help the Tigers get over the hump in a very winnable ACC.
The early returns haven’t been bad, but Watson hasn’t been the type of dominant performer a lot of observers expected. In Clemson’s only game against a Power Five opponent this year, a 20–17 victory over then-0–2 Louisville, Watson had an uneven night, throwing two interceptions and an incompletion that ended a key fourth-quarter drive.
Despite the injuries it has sustained, Notre Dame’s stout defense will offer a bigger test Saturday than the Cardinals did. With a shaky offensive line likely to struggle against the Fighting Irish front, Clemson could need Watson to be the type of difference-maker his talent indicates he can be and win the game himself in a critical matchup for both teams’ playoff chances.
2. Alabama finds itself the hunter instead of the hunted
There are plenty of stats that point to just how dominant Alabama has been in recent years, but perhaps none illustrate that better than this one: Georgia began the week as the betting favorite against the Crimson Tide, marking the first time Alabama has been an underdog since the 2009 season.
The Tide still boast loads of talent and of course rebounded from an early-season loss to Ole Miss last year to make the playoff anyway. But while it’s too early to bury the program, Alabama does seem more vulnerable than in recent years, especially with its instability under center. Nick Saban played both Jake Coker and Cooper Bateman against the Rebels in what became a five-turnover performance, and Coker wasn’t impressive against Louisiana-Monroe last week, averaging just 5.1 yards per attempt and throwing an interception.
Now Alabama has to travel to play a Georgia team that brings a leading Heisman contender in Nick Chubb and a suddenly ultra-efficient quarterback in Greyson Lambert (just two incompletions in his last two starts). The Tide face the prospect of picking up two losses this early in the season for the first time since 2007. But they also have the opportunity to silence their detractors with a huge win that puts them right back into the playoff race.
3. West Virginia tries to assert itself in Big 12 as it opens brutal stretch
West Virginia was barely even an afterthought in the Big 12 title race before the season, and for good reason—the Mountaineers have gone just 11–16 in Big 12 play since coming over from the Big East in 2012. But this year’s team has looked much more like a contender, thanks to a better-than-expected offense and an impressive defense. The defense took a big leap forward last year under coordinator Tony Gibson, and it’s been even saltier this season, rating ninth nationally in yards allowed per play (4.0) and tops in the country in scoring defense (7.7 points allowed per game).
Now the Mountaineers have to prove their bona fides as they enter perhaps the toughest four-game stretch any team will face this season, beginning with an Oklahoma team that could be vulnerable to an upset. The Sooners looked shaky offensively for most of their win over Tennessee, meaning West Virginia could have a favorable matchup there. Quarterback Skyler Howard and the Mountaineers’ offense will also have to prove they’re no fluke after losing established playmakers like wide receivers Kevin White and Mario Alford and quarterback Clint Trickett this off-season.
After traveling to Oklahoma, West Virginia hosts Oklahoma State and travels to Baylor and TCU. We’re about to find out where Dana Holgorsen’s team stands in the Big 12, and it starts against the Sooners in a very winnable game.
4. Is Ole Miss elite or just one of several SEC contenders?
In picking up perhaps the defining win of the young season over Alabama, Ole Miss took initial control of the SEC West and vaulted into an early playoff favorite. But there are still questions as to whether the Rebels are truly an elite team or if they’re merely a good one that took advantage of an uncharacteristically mistake-prone Alabama team. Those questions were only heightened after Ole Miss’s sloppy win over Vanderbilt last week. Quarterback Chad Kelly has flashed plenty of talent, but consistency has been an issue, and he’s coming off a two-interception performance against the Commodores.
This week’s game should tell a lot. Florida once again has a very good defense, and playing at night in the Swamp is never easy. But the Gators’ offense, though improved from the Will Muschamp era, is still a work in progress.
Quite simply, if Ole Miss is the national contender it purports to be this year, this is a game it has to win. The good news? If the Rebels do so, their remaining schedule works out about as well as it possibly could in the SEC. Games at Auburn and against Arkansas are much less scary than they looked before the season, and the Rebels get LSU and Texas A&M, the other undefeated teams in the SEC West, at home.
5. Mississippi State-Texas A&M likely an early SEC West elimination game
We’re still early enough in the season, particularly in conference play, that a loss for most league contenders likely isn’t crippling blow. But that doesn’t seem to be the case in this SEC West matchup. For one thing, both these teams already face an uphill battle in the division race with Ole Miss in early control, LSU unbeaten and Alabama still looming as a potential threat (particularly if the Tide take down Georgia).
Mississippi State already dropped a conference game to LSU, putting extra pressure on the Bulldogs to avoid falling out of the division race by midseason. Though the Aggies wouldn’t be dead with a home loss Saturday, they’d probably have to win out the rest of the season, which is hard to imagine with them still having to play Alabama, at Ole Miss and at LSU.
Texas A&M has rebounded well so far from last year’s disappointing 8–5 campaign. Quarterback Kyle Allen is off to an impressive start, freshman Christian Kirk has emerged as an electrifying threat and the defense is showing significant improvement behind star end Myles Garrett and new coordinator John Chavis. The Aggies are a definite challenger in the SEC West, but they’ll have to win Saturday to maintain that status.