Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:02 AM

College Essentials - Week 5

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September is already disappearing into the rear-view. Although conference play is in full swing there are two matchups featuring the nation's top Independents that could impact the national race. College football is definitely a sprint so let’s play along and race right into the week’s top 10 offerings.

Ohio State at Penn State, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC: Urban Meyer and his staff have played to new QB Dwayne Haskins’ strengths, empowering their strong-armed quarterback to look downfield. Expect them to attack a Nittany Lions defense that has had their issues defending the passing game this season despite not facing an attack anywhere near as formidble as what the Buckeyes bring into Happy Valley.

Even if James Franklin watches his defense get carved up, there's no reason the Nittany Lions can't win a shootout. They've seen Miles Sanders emerge as a capable replacement for Saquon Barkley and a number of receivers have stepped up for QB Trace McSorley. Without Ohio State's top pass rusher, Nick Bosa, out until November at the earliest, its defense now has to deal with its stiffest offensive challenge of the season and looked vulnerable against Oregon State and TCU. We should see plenty of points here, which is why the books have set the total up at 70 and rising.

Stanford at Notre Dame, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC: New QB Ian Book had a strong debut as the Fighting Irish crushed Wake Forest, executing so well that they got the Demon Deacons’ defensive coordinator fired. Brian Kelly will continue to play veteran Brandon Wimbush some and might be forced to lean on his experience at some point again here, but it appears he feels his sophomore gives the team the best chance to overcome this hurdle, which is why he chose to get him in there as a starter last week. Suspended RB Dexter Williams has returned and should also be available for a few carries if Kelly wants to add him to the mix next to Tony Jones, Jr. and Jafar Armstrong.

Coming off a miraculous comeback win at Oregon, Stanford has gotten to this point unscathed without getting a truly big game out of top running back Bryce Love. He ran for 147 or more yards in last year’s first seven games but has surpassed the 100-yard mark only once this season, breaking off 136 on USC. Love topped the 180-yard mark four times last season and had a 301-yard game this time last year (Sept. 30) at Oregon State, so he’s due to start making the impact we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. Love didn’t find the end zone but contributed 125 rushing yards and made one heck of a decoy in helping then-unproven QB K.J. Costello the opportunity to throw four touchdown passes in a 38-20 win over Notre Dame in Palo Alto. The winner here enters October looking like a strong candidate for the national semifinals.

West Virginia at Texas Tech, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Oklahoma looked vulnerable in nearly losing at home to Army last week, so both of these teams are undoubtedly fantasizing about a conference title. The Mountaineers haven’t been challenged since a strong defense has emerged to complement QB Will Grier's ability to put the ball wherever he wants. WR David Sills has 23 TD receptions in 15 games but he can't be keyed on due to the presence of Gary Jennings, who had nearly 100 catches last year and is the better pro prospect. Getting out of Lubbock with a win means West Virginia will be favored heavily to reach November unbeaten.

The Red Raiders not only have Patrick Mahomes making the program look good in the pros but are helping their own cause by recovering from a lopsided season-opening loss to Ole Miss. After knocking off Houston and pulling off an upset of Oklahoma State in Stillwater to open Big 12 play, Kliff Kingsbury's group is in good position to make this a special season since the schedule lends an assist with Oklahoma and Texas each coming into Lubbock in November's first two weekends. True freshman QB Alan Bowman has already broken some of Mahomes’ single-game records and has an impressive receiving corps that has improved every week. Things could get real interesting in Lubbock if the Texas Tech defense can pick up where they left off against the Cowboys last week, having pitched a second-half shutout. Tech blew a 35-17 third-quarter lead in Morgantown last season and hasn't won in this annual series since '13.

Florida at Mississippi State, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN: Dan Mullen leaving for another SEC program went over as well as a runaway bride at a wedding would, so now that he's back, they'll have to check Bulldogs fans for torces and pitchforks in addition to the cowbells they carry into the Davis Wade Stadium. Coming off a frustrating loss at Kentucky, first-year coach Joe Moorhead's honeymoon period has officially ended, and if he wants to stop sleeping on the couch, he'll need to keep Mullen from a victorious return. Excuses simply won't be allowed.

The Gators have gotten improved play from QB Feleipe Franks this season and are hoping he can follow up a brilliant outing in Knoxville with another strong effort. With most suspensioins having been served and the majority of key players healthy, the Gators are enjoying a level of depth they haven't had the luxury of putting on display all season. Mississippi State called a players-only meeting after losing in Lexington, keying on handling the emotions of this week's meeting the right way in light of all the penalties that helped trip them up last week. Look for this to be a physical game. Hopefully the stripes will let the teams play and decide this on the field.

Syracuse at Clemson, 12 p.m. ET, ABC: Trevor Lawrence officially replaced Kelly Bryant at quarterback this week since the Tigers offense has been glaringly better with him at the controls. That’s something most predicted before the season opened since it appeared inevitable, but the change is news-worthy in that it lets you know Dabo Swinney is done messing around and views this Orange invasion as a viable threat. Clemson almost lost at Texas A&M in a game where Bryant’s experience came in handy, but that safety net won't be available here with Bryant transferring out.

‘Cuse is hoping to move the ball as effectively as the Aggies did, looking to turn this into a shootout by keeping the Tigers' feared defensive line off balance by moving the pocket, getting it out quickly and mixing in QB draws. With Eric Dungey healthy enough to play, Syracuse has a playmaker who has the mobility and arm talent to make the country’s top defensive front to work for everything it gets. In case you’ve forgotten, Syracuse beat Clemson 27-24 at the Carrier Dome last season. The Orange will have to deal with the elements for the first time since the season opener at Western Michigan since they've played their last three games at the Carrier Dome, but rain in the area isn't scheduled to arrive until later in the day.

Ole Miss at LSU, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: LSU's Tigers stepped out of the spotlight briefly last week after their huge road upset of Auburn, wearing down a pretty good Louisiana Tech squad. Now the Rebels arrive in Death Valley and present a different challenge than they’ve seen thus far given the receivers who will test Greedy Williams and the LSU secondary here. Miami had a few viable threats but top receiver Ahmmon Richards was hurt in the season opener while Auburn was hampered by the lack of a true go-to guy, but Ole Miss brings a different set of strengths to the table.

Senior QB Jordan Ta’amu looks to shake off a shoulder issue and perform more consistently than he has over the past few weeks. A.J. Brown, the leading returning WR from the Rebs’ elite group, is also expected to overcome a hamstring issue to participate. LSU hung 40 on Ole Miss in Oxford last season, so Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow could have a big day and announce his candidacy for mayor of Baton Rouge afterward. Nose tackle Benito Jones and corner Ken Webster, the Rebs' most talented defensive players, have both been upgraded to probable.

BYU at Washington, 8:30 p.m. ET, FOX: The Cougars knocked off McNeese State last week and now look to go back into giant-killer mode as they venture into Seattle. Coming off a win at Wisconsin on its last road trip, BYU can pull off an upset of Washington given how physical they can be on both sides of the ball and will look to frustrate Jake Browning into mistakes. The Huskies will need to ride electric senior RB Myles Gaskin to keep the heat off their quarterback, which could result in a lower-scoring game where the clock is constantly running.

Center Nick Harris returned for the Huskies and graded out well against Arizona State, so the Washington offensive line should be up to the challenge of banging up front with BYU. The U-Dub defense has been bolstered by the continued emergence of standout LB Ben Burr-Kirven, who has back-to-back Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors and is coming off of a 20-tackle game. Look for him to be an x-factor here.

USC at Arizona, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2: After surviving Washington State at the Coliseum, a young Trojans team faces a crossroads game against the Wildcats, who are looking for their own resurgence as they try and turn the corner in Kevin Sumlin’s first season following a road conquest at Oregon State in the Pac-12 opener. There’s still time for Khalil Tate to turn things around, especially since defenses must now key in on sophomore RB J.J. Taylor after his eye-opening 284-yard day against the Beavers. If Sumlin can snap a five-year losing streak to USC, who the 'Cats haven't beaten since Rich Rodriguez's first season, he will have some momentum to work with entering a challenging October.

USC is playing their third road game in four weeks and have largely struggled outside the L.A. Coliseum, coming in 10-12 under Clay Helton. It also works against them that their defensive depth has been compromised by injuries, which is one factor why they've only forced two turnovers through their first four games. USC caught a break that top DE Porter Gustin wasn't ejected for targeting for a second straight game against WSU, so he'll be available here from the onset. WRs Amon-Ra St. Brown (shoulder) and Velus Jones (elbow) will be out there as targets for true freshman QB J.T. Daniels.

South Carolina at Kentucky, 7:30 p.m. ET, SEC: 'Cats RB Benny Snell is a surprise Heisman candidate now, so hopefully you took advantage of my preseason column on longshots and got in on the 300-to-1 preseason odds. The Wildcats are undefeated and nationally-ranked as they welcome in the Gamecocks, a program that’s undoubtedly higher on the football pecking order in the SEC. That perception may lead you to miss the fact that Kentucky has actually beaten South Carolina four straight times. If QB Terry Wilson can limit turnovers, a fifth consecutive win could be in the cards.

Senior LB Josh Allen has also gotten a lot of love after a dominant performance in last Saturday's upset of Mississippi State, so his ability to again be disruptive against Bentley will be as big a key for UK as Snell getting the running game going. South Carolina QB Jake Bentley struggled with turnovers in the blowout loss to Georgia and was intercepted twice despite throwing for 304 yards in the loss to Kentucky in Columbia last season. The Gamecocks are without standout DE D.J. Wonnum and will be looking to win consecutive home games for the first time under Will Muschamp, having not done so since 2013.

Utah at Washington State, 6 p.m. ET, Pac-12: Although both teams lost their Pac-12 opener, they're sound enough to put together a run and get back in contention for a conference title so long as they can pick up a win here. They're in different divisions and only one can prevail, so this one should be riveting given all the preseason aspirations on the line. The Utes come off a bye and have excelled under Kyle Whittingham with extra time to work, entering this game 20-6 in those situations. Meanwhile, Mike Leach has won three straight in the series and is looking for a 10th consecutive win in Pullman.

Temperatures could dip into the 40s and there may be some wind to deal with, so we'll get our first taste of true October football weather here. Washington State QB Gardner Minshew has thrived in taking over for record-setting passer Luke Falk, but this will be the best defense he's seen so far, superior to even last week's USC group. The Cougs will have to deal with a true dual threat in Tyler Huntley for the first time all season but catch a break in talented Utes DE Leki Fotu being unable to play until the second half after being tossed for targeting two weeks ago against Washington.

Others to watch: Oregon at Cal, Iowa State at TCU, Virginia Tech at Duke, Purdue at Nebraska, Texas at Kansas State, Michigan at Northwestern, Baylor at Oklahoma, Virginia at N.C. State, Florida Atlantic at Middle Tennessee, Pittsburgh at UCF, Florida State at Louisville, Toledo at Fresno State, Temple at Boston College.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA or e-mail him at [email protected]

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