The good news about Week 5: 18 ranked teams are in action. By 2020’s standards, that’s pretty fantastic.
The less good news: 13 of them are favored by double-digits, and only four play each other. The No. 4 Georgia vs. No. 7 Auburn game (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) could be dynamite, but only No. 13 Texas A&M (+17 at Alabama), No. 18 Oklahoma (-7 against Iowa State) and No. 25 Memphis (-3 against SMU) appear to be in any trouble. Will there be an upset bid or two? Absolutely. But the overall stakes aren’t incredibly high.
That’s OK, though! This is, indeed, an involved week compared to what we’re used to, and you can always get some questions answered, whether teams are in particularly tight games or not.
Week 5 allows us to figure out which of the season’s surprising debuts or early storylines are real and which ones probably are not. Let’s walk through some of the scenarios.
All times Eastern.
Did we drastically overrate Texas A&M in the preseason (again)?
Week 5 game: at No. 2 Alabama (3:30 p.m., CBS)
It seems A&M is always tantalizing and always fatally flawed, but this being coach Jimbo Fisher’s third season, with a third-year starting quarterback and loaded defense, it was easy to sacrifice recent history and declare A&M a potential contender. The AP ranked the Aggies 13th in the preseason, and they were a dark-horse pick from many to rank even higher.
Then, they started the season by barely beating Vanderbilt.
A lot of the Aggies’ issues in their 17-12 win against the Commodores are not permanent. They aren’t likely to fumble five times per game or average a field-position margin of minus-14 yards per drive moving forward. Against their originally scheduled first four opponents — Abilene Christian, North Texas, Colorado and Arkansas — the Aggies would have had plenty of time to break in a new receiving corps and remember how to hold onto the football while likely remaining unbeaten.
Instead, A&M plays No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Florida over the next two weeks.
The Aggies will probably lose in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, but we still can start to figure out how A&M might fare down the line when playing teams not within the top three.
How many big plays can the A&M offense manage? Efficiency and a slippery football were issues against Vandy, but A&M’s explosive play rate — which looks at the number of 12-yard rushes and 16-yard passes — was 18%, which ranks 17th in the country (four rushes gained at least 24 yards).
To beat or seriously challenge Alabama, teams generally need chunk plays. Who from A&M’s young skill corps can beat corresponding Bama defenders for big gains? Anyone?
Can A&M’s defense do what Missouri’s couldn’t? Bama wasn’t exactly flawless in Saturday’s 38-19 win against Missouri. The Crimson Tide struggled mightily on first downs — their success rate was just 23% to Mizzou’s 36% — and found themselves steadily behind the chains. It didn’t matter because the Tigers couldn’t generate much pass pressure or even pretend to cover Tide receiver Jaylen Waddle (134 receiving yards, two touchdowns). But against a team with more oomph in the pass rush and/or more seasoned corners (an early injury meant Missouri gave 108 snaps to freshmen out wide), Alabama’s offense could have struggled.
A&M has both of those things. If it can replicate Mizzou’s first-down success, it might be more capable of shutting down drives on third down.
Is Georgia‘s offense still broken?
Week 5 game: No. 7 Auburn (7:30 p.m., ESPN)
After jumping to first in defensive SP+ in 2019 and returning most of the reasons for that jump, the Georgia defense might be the single most proven unit in college football. But the Dawgs’ No. 32 ranking in offensive SP+ last year felt generous. They topped 30 points only once after Oct. 5 and scored 27 points combined in two losses. They were 92nd in marginal explosiveness, which, even with the unproven receiving corps they possessed, was inconceivably bad.
One game into 2020, they are … 68th in marginal explosiveness out of the 72 teams to have played so far. When quarterback Stetson Bennett subbed in for the struggling D’Wan Mathis, he was able to generate enough efficiency for the Dawgs to pull away from Arkansas. But there were still minimal chunk plays, and the only easy points came when the defense produced them — UGA’s O started at Arkansas’ 24 and 43 on two scoring drives, and Eric Stokes scored on a 30-yard pick-six.
The easy points will likely be even harder to come by against Auburn. This game is being played far earlier in the schedule than normal, but that’s just fine — we won’t have to wait as long to get certain questions answered.
Brad Edwards crunches the numbers on the last three meetings between the Georgia defense and Auburn ahead of their Week 2 matchup.
How does Georgia fare on third down? Coaches will say the best way to convert on third downs is to avoid them altogether and convert on first or second, but Georgia faced 20 third downs against Arkansas and converted only six. Assuming Auburn isn’t any more generous in the big-play department (it could be a disaster for the Tigers if they are), Georgia’s offensive success will be determined in these situations.
Auburn was strangely generous on third downs against Kentucky, though; the Wildcats also faced 20 of them but converted 12. It was a strange game, really — Kentucky went three-and-out nearly half the time, but if the Wildcats converted that first third down, they were able to drive pretty far into AU territory. It kept them in the game into the fourth quarter, and Georgia could do the same, only with a defense that tamps down Auburn’s point total far better.
Can the Auburn O-line keep Bo Nix upright? SP+ was impressed enough with the Tigers last week to bump them from 11th to sixth. They held a solid efficiency advantage over Kentucky and dominated in both red zones, but the run game didn’t have much to offer, and UK was able to generate quite a bit of pressure without blitzing at all. Through one game, Auburn ranks 64th in pressure rate (38%) and 50th in passing downs sack rate (11%) despite Nix throwing mostly short, quick passes.
Auburn’s rebuilt offensive line didn’t get much of a passing grade, in other words, and now the Tigers have to face the aforementioned top defense in football. If Auburn can’t protect Nix and avoid three-and-outs, it might not matter how Georgia’s offense will do on its own third downs.
So, Oklahoma‘s defense is flawed once again, huh?
Week 5 game: at Iowa State (7:30 p.m., ABC)
Reminder: OU lost against Kansas State last year, too, and rallied to make the CFP all the same. We write off the Sooners, and they charge back, overcoming mediocre defense with nonstop offensive firepower. We’ve seen this movie before.
That said, even by OU’s defensive standards, watching Kansas State repeatedly create the easiest big plays was jarring. Five Wildcats plays, including passes of 77 and 78 yards, gained 261 yards over the last 20 minutes of the game. After averaging 4.7 yards per play in the first half, the Wildcats averaged 10.1 in the second. The OU offense was not without blame, but it’s clear where the biggest issues lie, and it’s where OU’s issues have resided for a while: on D.
Skylar Thompson leads Kansas State with 334 yards passing and four total touchdowns as the Wildcats come from behind to defeat Oklahoma 38-35.
The biggest thing to watch on Saturday, then, is pretty obvious: Count Iowa State’s big plays.
OU ranks last in marginal explosiveness allowed, a measure that looks at the magnitude of opponents’ successful plays and adjusts for field position. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has gone all in on creating chaos and inefficiency, and he has produced in that regard. OU was sixth in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 21st in sack rate last season, and so far the Sooners are 14th and 25th, respectively. In fact, they’re fifth in overall success rate allowed in 2020; that should work out as long as you’re not allowing repeated 70-plus yard bombs. Alas.
OU’s secondary is too experienced to have had the breakdowns it had against Kansas State, and now it faces an Iowa State offense that, after struggling against Louisiana in the season opener, found at least a little bit of pop against TCU last week. If OU can’t find some wallpaper to cover up its secondary cracks, then either Grinch will have to dial back the aggressiveness a bit or ISU will beat the Sooners like K-State did.
Does Spencer Rattler better respond to pressure the second time around? In Rattler’s first competitive start as OU’s starting QB, he was picked off and sacked three times each.
After going 26-for-29 for 339 yards in the first three quarters, Rattler went 4-for-11 for 47 in the fourth. With OU’s running game producing minimal pop and its defense imploding, Rattler had a ridiculous amount of pressure on his shoulders and faltered, as freshmen often do. ISU’s defense is tricky to deal with, even for a veteran; will Rattler maintain his composure?
Was Texas‘ near-loss at Texas Tech a blip or a warning sign?
Week 5 game: TCU (Noon, Fox)
Hey, sometimes you just get sucked into a track meet in Lubbock. It happens to the best of us. Texas somehow remained unbeaten (2-0) after trailing Texas Tech by 15 late in regulation last week, and maybe that’s all that ends up mattering. But damn, did the Longhorns look disheveled for a while.
Tech outgained the Horns by 0.5 yards per play and outplayed them on third downs. Combine that with a jolt of fumbling luck (Tech recovered all four of the game’s fumbles), it was nearly enough to pull an upset.
Are there true cracks in the Texas facade, or was it just a funky game? I lean toward the latter, but here are questions to ponder as the Horns face Texas-killer TCU on Saturday.
What happens when Texas is behind the chains? The Longhorns finished seventh last year in offensive SP+ and are fifth through two 2020 games. They’ve scored 122 points, so there’s little to worry about there. But if there’s a warning sign, it’s in obvious-pass situations.
Texas’ success rate on blitz downs (second-and-super-long, third-and-5 or more) is only 17.7%, which ranks 63rd out of 72 teams. The Horns haven’t faced many blitz downs because they’ve played against defenses ranked 96th (Texas Tech) and 111th (UTEP) in defensive SP+. Yet against a sturdier defense like TCU’s, they could fall behind schedule more frequently. Can Sam Ehlinger dig them out?
Actually, same question, other team: What happens when TCU is behind the chains? Filtering out garbage-time snaps against UTEP, Texas has logged as many sacks as you or I so far this season. New defensive coordinator Chris Ash didn’t feel the need to send the house against the outmanned Miners or Tech — they’re averaging blitzes on just 14% of opponent dropbacks (63rd in the country) and generated minimal pressure rushing only four defenders.
The Horns have been aggressive against the run and should mostly control the TCU ground game, even if blue-chip Horned Frog freshman back Zach Evans is ready to make his debut. But they’ve been extremely passive against the pass; that could make things interesting considering TCU quarterback Max Duggan was dynamite after subbing in midway through the Iowa State game. He completed 16 of 19 passes for 241 yards and three scores, though his comeback bid was foiled by a late interception. Has Ash been keeping his blitz cards close to the vest? Does he just not trust his secondary yet? We’ll find out quickly.
Virginia and rival Virginia Tech had to wait a little while to make their season debuts, but both looked excellent. The Cavaliers outscored Duke 38-0 in the second and fourth quarters, ran the ball better than they did most of last year and might have found a new big-play threat in freshman receiver Lavel Davis Jr. (four catches, 101 yards, two touchdowns). Their 18-point win bumped them from 43rd to 33rd in SP+.
Tech, meanwhile, was one of the most impressive teams in the country in its 45-24 Week 4 win against NC State. Despite missing quite a few players due to the coronavirus, including starting quarterback Hendon Hooker, the Hokies jumped on State, taking a 31-7 lead and averaging 9.6 yards per play to the Wolfpack’s 4.2 in the first half. NC State isn’t very good, and SP+ is designed not to overreact to a single-game performance, but the Hokies were so impressive that they jumped from 34th to 17th all the same. And Hooker could return soon.
These rivals are facing very different competition in Week 5 — Bronco Mendenhall’s Hoos play at Clemson, while the Hokies face the Duke team UVA just stomped — but there are always questions to ask. The race for the ACC’s second title-game slot already is pretty crowded with Notre Dame, Miami and UNC, and we’ll quickly learn if one or two Virginia teams will also be involved in that race.
How many sustained drives can Virginia manage? UVA’s offense was dangerous in spurts Saturday. In both halves, the Cavs started out horribly stagnant, then went on scoring binges. The Cavaliers kept Duke’s pass rush at bay, but quarterback Brennan Armstrong still struggled on passing downs. Inconsistency will likely keep Virginia from seriously challenging Clemson, but is it still staying ahead of the chains with its run game? As Armstrong appears to be looking vertically in his reads, will his deeper shots connect every now and then?
How many sustained drives does Tech allow? Duke’s defense has been decent and should offer more resistance than NC State did. That said, the Blue Devils’ offense has been dreadfully inefficient. They are going three-and-out on 34% of their possessions (59th out of 72) and averaging one point per possession (67th). Tech was aggressive and effective against State and should also control Duke, but whether the Hokies are dominant or merely good might still be telling.
Week 5 playlist
Here are 10 weekend games — at least one from each time slot — you should pay attention to if you want to get the absolute most out of the weekend, from both information and entertainment perspectives.
All times Eastern.
Louisiana Tech at No. 22 BYU (9 p.m., ESPN2): Tech is capable of turning any game into a track meet, but BYU might be legitimately awesome. Few teams overachieve against the spread like the Cougars did in the first two games, and a blowout win here would say a lot.
South Carolina at No. 3 Florida (Noon, ESPN): The Gators’ offense looked ridiculous against Ole Miss, but South Carolina can rush the passer better. The Gamecocks could make things interesting for a while if they can get pressure on Kyle Trask.
TCU at No. 9 Texas (Noon, Fox): Either Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs make it six wins in their past seven against the Longhorns, or Texas becomes the official Big 12 front-runner.
No. 13 Texas A&M at No. 2 Alabama (3:30 p.m., CBS): A&M’s performance against Vandy might have taken a bit of the sizzle out of this one, but the Aggies still might be dangerous. Hey, we’re going to celebrate every top-15 matchup we get this year.
No. 25 Memphis at SMU (3:30 p.m., ESPN2): Memphis was as explosive and capable of generating nightmare matchups as ever in its first game, but the Tigers haven’t played in nearly a month and take on a fun, in-rhythm SMU squad. It will be hard to top last year’s 54-48 shootout between these teams, but I encourage them to try.
Central Arkansas at North Dakota State (3:30 p.m., ESPN+): The Trey Lance Showcase Game! It’s probably your last chance to watch NDSU’s star quarterback in a Bisons uniform. He had a 67% completion rate and a TD-to-INT ratio of infinity (28-to-0) last year. He’s as good as advertised.
No. 7 Auburn at No. 4 Georgia (7:30 p.m., ESPN): The obvious game of the week. Can Georgia figure out its QB situation? Can Auburn find any efficiency options against this ridiculous Georgia D and keep Nix out of third-and-long?
Navy at Air Force (6 p.m., CBS Sports): Navy has played two games already, while Air Force lost its starting QB to grades and quite a few key defenders to turnbacks. Still, the Falcons have had lots of prep time to get ready for Navy’s already-familiar option attack.
Virginia at No. 1 Clemson (8 p.m., ACC Network): Yes, Clemson is going to win. But keep tabs on this one to figure out exactly what Bronco Mendenhall’s Cavaliers have to offer. Their defense is sturdy, and their offense might have a bit more bite than expected.
No. 18 Oklahoma at Iowa State (7:30 p.m., ABC): SP+ likes the Sooners to bounce back and handle Iowa State, projecting a 35-24 win. But again, last week’s big plays were jarring to watch. OU bears the burden of proof for a while.