The last weekend of September has arrived, and the playoff picture looks largely the same as it did a month ago, even as the teams at the top have survived injuries, upset bids and a few quarterback changes along the way. Week 5 brings the season’s first true heavyweight bouts since Week 1, when no one knew what to make of Auburn’s win over Washington or Notre Dame’s win over Michigan. It will still be too early to draw sweeping conclusions from what happens in State College and South Bend on Saturday night, but with the year’s first official College Football Playoff rankings roughly a month away, the time is now for separating the true contenders from the solid teams a rung below the elite.
Below, our writers and editors take turns defending their straight-up picks for the biggest games of the weekend.
Scooby Axson: 33–14 (70.2%)
Ross Dellenger: 33–14 (70.2%)
Molly Geary: 31–16 (66%)
Laken Litman: 31–16 (66%)
Andy Staples: 31–16 (66%)
Max Meyer: 30–17 (63.8%)
Joan Niesen: 29–18 (61.7%)
Eric Single: 29–18 (61.7%)
Syracuse at Clemson (Noon ET, ABC)
Laken Litman picks Clemson: Syracuse is 4–0 for the first time since 1991 and headed to Death Valley for a showdown against fellow undefeated ACC Atlantic division rival Clemson. Last year, the Orangemen surprised everyone when they upset the No. 2 Tigers in one of the greatest wins in program history. Can an inspired Dino Babers squad pull an upset repeat? This year might be more difficult: the game is on the road, Clemson has the nation’s fourth-best defense (second in sacks), and Dabo Swinney just named former-five star freshman Trevor Lawrence, who has nine touchdown passes in 60 attempts, his new starting QB (although Kelly Bryant won't be there to relieve him anymore).
West Virginia at Texas Tech (Noon ET, ESPN2)
Scooby Axson picks West Virginia: It’s not just the West Virginia offense that is making noise. The Mountaineers’ defense has been stout this season, allowing only 12.3 points a game (tied for first in the nation). Texas Tech’s offense has been on a roll, leading the nation in total offense and passing yards behind freshman quarterback Alan Bowman. Usually a quick-strike offense, the Red Raiders are fifth in time of possession and will need to use that to their advantage to keep the equally prolific Mountaineer offense off the field. But look for Heisman candidate Will Grier and his favorite target David Sills V to light up the scoreboard early and often against Texas Tech’s 106th-ranked defense.
Florida State at Louisville (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Joan Niesen picks Florida State: Both teams are 2–2 going into Saturday (and both came disastrously close to 1–3), but for as disappointing as the Seminoles have been so far in 2018, Louisville might look even worse in the post-Lamar Jackson era. If Florida State can play even passable defense, it should be able to stop the Cardinals.
Michigan at Northwestern (4:30 p.m. ET, FOX)
Molly Geary picks Michigan: Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson could very well get all of the snaps for the first time since returning from an ACL injury, but he'll be going up against a tough defense that ranks third nationally in passing yards allowed. Northwestern's rushing yards per game has been one of the worst in the country so far, making it unlikely for the Wildcats to generate enough offense to keep this one tight.
Utah at Washington State (6 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Networks)
Max Meyer picks Utah: Always back Kyle Whittingham when he has extra time to prepare. Utah has a 23–3 record under Whittingham in season openers and bowl games, and is 14–7 after a bye week in the regular season (15–6 against the spread for all you fellow bettors). And sure enough, Utah is coming off its only bye week of this season.
On the other side, quarterback Gardner Minshew II shredded USC's defense last week. He won't have such an easy time throwing the ball in Pullman on Saturday. Utah is tied for first nationally in scoring defense (12.3 PPG), and leads in yards allowed per game (204.7) and yards per play allowed (3.16). Utah is also the only team to allow fewer than 100 passing yards per game. Take the road team here.
Florida at Mississippi State (6 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Ross Dellenger picks Mississippi State: The Bulldogs laid an egg last week at Kentucky, but they’ll be ready to go against former coach Dan Mullen. In front of thousands of cowbell-toting fans in what could be the best atmosphere ever in that stadium, Joe Moorhead’s team wins a close game. Emotions are sure to be running high—from players to coaches to fans. This’ll be a fun one.
Virginia Tech at Duke (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Joan Niesen picks Duke: This pick has less to do with Virginia Tech's loss to Old Dominion last weekend than it does with its recent roster losses. Since a week ago, the Hokies are down a starting quarterback and their best pass-rusher, and on the road against a Duke team that's held its own so far in 2018, that might be just enough to tip the scales in the Blue Devils' favor.
Ohio State at Penn State (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
Andy Staples picks Penn State: This feels like a track meet for the second consecutive season. Both offenses are explosive, and both defenses have been susceptible to big plays. This one turns on a turnover or special teams play.
Stanford at Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Laken Litman picks Notre Dame: The Cardinal is riding a three-game winning streak in this series. Last year, all Notre Dame needed to do was beat Stanford and it would make a New Year’s Six Bowl. But alas…it suffered a road loss instead. The Fighting Irish’s luck could be changing this year now that former backup Ian Book has replaced Brandon Wimbush at quarterback. Book gives this offense a much-needed reboot in the passing game and takes pressure off a talented defense.
South Carolina at Kentucky (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Eric Single picks South Carolina: South Carolina has lost four straight against Kentucky, all by 10 points or less, and the extent to which the Gamecocks failed to slow down Georgia's rushing attack in Week 2 doesn't bode well for their chances of containing Benny Snell Jr., the nation's third leading rusher. But Kentucky hasn't played a team yet with an even moderately dangerous passing game—Florida's Feleipe Franks and Mississippi State's Nick Fitzgerald both failed to surpass 50% completion rates against the Wildcats—and South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley has the weapons to put the hosts in an early hole, Deebo Samuel foremost among them. Kentucky may have to move away from Snell and into unchartered territory to play catch-up in this one.
BYU at Washington (8:30 p.m. ET, FOX)
Ross Dellenger picks Washington: The Huskies escaped Salt Lake City with a ho-hum 21–7 victory two weeks ago, beat Arizona State by a touchdown last week and now host one of the surprises of the season so far. The Cougars topped Arizona to start the year and then stunned Wisconsin at Camp Randall, and they’re running what can be a tricky offense built around the fly sweep. Still, Washington is too good to lose at home to a team that was 4–9 last year.
Oregon at Cal (10:30 p.m. ET, FS1)
Max Meyer picks Oregon: To quote the incomparable Jon Rothstein, the Ducks experienced the epitome of brutality after a devastating 38–31 overtime loss to Stanford at Autzen. Admittedly, this is an incredible spot for the Golden Bears due to the letdown factor for the Ducks (it's especially rough playing a road game after such a heartbreaking defeat) and the fact that Cal is coming off a bye week. Yet, I'm going against my intuition because I think Justin Herbert is the best draft-eligible QB, Jim Leavitt is one of the best defensive coordinators and Oregon has the best front seven in the Pac-12. And yes, that was some of the logic I used when taking the Ducks to upset the Cardinal last week. But Cal isn't nearly as talented as Stanford (or Oregon for that matter), and maybe Mario Cristobal has learned to just KNEEL THE BALL WHEN YOU'RE TRYING TO ICE THE GAME.