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College football storylines, Week 5: Georgia’s gains, playoff pressure for Cincinnati and what’s at stake for Michigan, Ole Miss, Penn State and more

This week features some of the best games college football has to offer, with a few huge ranked matchups and some intriguing upset possibilities. Here’s what to watch, starting with a top-10 showdown in the SEC:

Georgia’s gains

After a 62-0 demolition of Vanderbilt last week, Georgia leapfrogged Alabama for the top spot in ESPN’s SP+ rankings, a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of team efficiency. The No. 2 Bulldogs enter Saturday’s game against No. 8 Arkansas as nearly three-touchdown favorites, solidifying their status as not only the team to beat in SEC East, but a serious playoff contender.

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The Razorbacks are no pushover, having taken down No. 7 Texas A&M last week to move to 4-0, but it’s going to be tough for quarterback KJ Jefferson and wide receiver Treylon Burks to move the ball against a Georgia defense that’s holding opponents to a nation-best 3.1 yards per play.

If the Dawgs are really a threat to win their first national title since 1980, they’ll show it this week. A convincing win over a rising SEC opponent is the next step for a team that has passed every test so far.

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Playoff pressure for Cincinnati

Heading into the season, there was more confidence than ever that a Group of Five team could crack the playoff field. The chaos that has ensued in the polls has only strengthened that belief.

According to ESPN, there have been 25 losses by AP Top 25 teams through Week 4, the most at this point in the season since 1936. No. 7 Cincinnati has a chance to take advantage Saturday with a signature win over No. 9 Notre Dame. Cincinnati is slightly favored according to most sportsbooks, and has been the more efficient team thus far. It all comes down to whether quarterback Desmond Ridder and the Bearcats’ defensive playmakers — including likely NFL draft picks in cornerback Ahmad Gardner and defensive end Myjai Sanders — step up.

The Fighting Irish are vulnerable. The pressure is on Cincinnati to prove it’s one of the elites.

Mississippi quarterback Matt Corral delivers a pass against Tulane.
Mississippi quarterback Matt Corral delivers a pass against Tulane. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

Rebels with a cause

No. 12 Ole Miss at No. 1 Alabama has been circled on the calendar for months, and the Rebels have lived up to their end of the bargain with an explosive 4-0 start. Coach Lane Kiffin’s team leads the nation in scoring with 52.7 points per game and is coming off a 61-21 throttling of Tulane, which took then-No. 2 Oklahoma to the wire in Week 1.

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Will that high-powered offense be enough to take down Heisman Trophy front-runner Bryce Young, Nick Saban and one of the nation’s best defenses? We know Kiffin will give Alabama’s defense fits. The question is whether the Ole Miss defense can slow down Young and Co. just enough for quarterback Matt Corral to win a shootout.

Wake Forest, ACC champs?

Through four weeks, only two ACC teams remain undefeated: No. 24 Wake Forest and Boston College. The teams thought to be at the top entering the season — Clemson, North Carolina and Miami — are a combined 6-6, with Clemson sliding from perennial playoff contender to almost completely out of the Top 25.

Coach Dave Clawson and the Demon Deacons already have two conference wins under their belt, having dispatched Florida State and Virginia. Up next is a surprisingly stout Louisville team that has started 3-1 despite coach Scott Satterfield facing intense scrutiny about his long-term future. Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman has quietly been one of the nation’s most impressive quarterbacks this season, while Louisville’s Malik Cunningham is one of the game’s most electric players.

This game will tell us a lot about the pecking order in the ACC, which is pretty incredible considering the teams involved.

Michigan running back Blake Corum dives for a touchdown against Northern Illinois.
Michigan running back Blake Corum dives for a touchdown against Northern Illinois. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Michigan might have it

A 20-13 win over Rutgers last weekend wasn’t perfect, but No. 14 Michigan should be pleased with the performance of its defense and running game in starting 4-0. Whether that formula will be enough to beat the Big Ten’s elite remains to be seen, but a trip to Camp Randall to face a down-but-not-out Wisconsin team should give plenty of insight into how formidable the Wolverines really are.

Their 41-13 loss to Notre Dame last week was ugly, but the Badgers actually led 13-10 early in the fourth quarter before a kickoff return for a touchdown and two late pick-sixes crushed their chances. For all its faults, particularly the struggles of quarterback Graham Mertz, Wisconsin still ranks fourth in defensive efficiency and should be able to limit Michigan’s rushing attack. Quarterback Cade McNamara is going to need to prove himself to keep the Wolverines undefeated.

Revenge for Penn State

The Nittany Lions’ 2020 season was derailed in a season-opening overtime loss to Indiana, with quarterback Michael Penix Jr. stretching for the pylon for the game-winning 2-point conversion. After losing its first five games of that season, Penn State has won eight straight to reach No. 4 in the Top 25 poll. It’s a lofty perch for a program that has won the Big Ten just once since coach James Franklin took over in 2014.

The Nittany Lions have talent on both sides of the ball, but they’ll only go as far as quarterback Sean Clifford can carry them. He’s looked better this season under offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, but Penn State can’t afford a slip-up from Clifford and the offense against an overmatched Indiana team that’s off to a disappointing 2-2 start.

Big 12 intrigue

After a rough first season under coach Dave Aranda in 2020, No. 21 Baylor is off to a promising 4-0 start, highlighted by a 31-29 win over then-No. 14 Iowa State last weekend. The Bears have risen to 26th in overall efficiency, according to ESPN, thanks to a defense that ranks 11th in the country. Quarterback Gerry Bohanon has been stellar, too, completing 73% of his passes with seven touchdowns, zero interceptions and just two sacks.

Baylor will face an equally stout defense Saturday in Stillwater. In a major reversal for coach Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State is relying on its defense to close out wins this season. But the Cowboys need better play from quarterback Spencer Sanders if they want to be a factor in the Big 12 title race.

Auburn quarterback T.J. Finley celebrates with Aubie after a win over Georgia State.
Auburn quarterback T.J. Finley celebrates with Aubie after a win over Georgia State. (Butch Dill/AP)

Return to his roots

When No. 22 Auburn faces LSU on Saturday night in Baton Rouge, Auburn quarterback T.J. Finley could make his first start against the program he led to a 2-3 record last season. Finley, a Louisiana native who transferred to Auburn this offseason, stepped in for struggling starter Bo Nix last weekend and threw the game-winning touchdown pass against Georgia State. The 6-foot-6 sophomore with a rocket arm should be plenty motivated to beat his old team in his home state.

TCU still steaming

Heading into a showdown against Texas, TCU is still smarting from a 42-34 loss to in-state rival SMU, after which the Mustangs tried to plant their flag in the middle of the Horned Frogs’ field. TCU coach Gary Patterson said assistant coach Jerry Kill was knocked down twice and suffered a concussion in the fracas, and he also criticized SMU for using one of his country songs to mock his team.

Fortunately, this is an in-state rivalry the Horned Frogs have owned of late, having won six of their past seven against the Longhorns. A big win over a Texas team that has scored 128 points in the past two weeks would go a long way toward getting TCU’s season back on track in what could be a wide-open Big 12 race.

Florida feeling it

The No. 10 Gators nearly took down Alabama two weeks ago in The Swamp, and so far that near-upset is their only blemish. But a trip to Kentucky this weekend could be tricky, with the Wildcats showing an improved offense behind Penn State transfer Will Levis at quarterback. Coach Mark Stoops has developed a winning blueprint at Kentucky, which is capable of grinding out ugly wins by playing good defense and running the ball effectively.

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Florida should be happy to oblige that style of play, boasting the best rushing attack of any non-service academy team in the country this season at 322.5 yards per game. The Gators need another effective day on the ground to escape with a win.

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UConn players walk off the field after losing to Wyoming.
UConn players walk off the field after losing to Wyoming. (Jessica Hill / Special to the Courant)

Who’s worse?

When it comes to the worst teams in the Power Five conferences, there’s a clear bottom two: Vanderbilt and Connecticut. According to ESPN’s SP+ rankings, Vandy is 125th out of 130 FBS programs, while UConn is 129th, just ahead of New Mexico State. They’ll face each other Saturday in Nashville, with the Commodores a 14-point favorite. It’s not going to be pretty, but someone is going to emerge with a win. It might be one of the few either team gets all season.

Bounce-back for Bruins

After a 40-37 loss to Fresno State in Week 3, No. 20 UCLA took care of business against Stanford last weekend to remain in the driver’s seat in the Pac-12 South. Arizona State, also 3-1, is fighting for that top spot heading in Saturday night’s game in the Rose Bowl.

The Bruins and Sun Devils are neck-and-neck statistically, too, with Arizona State sitting at No. 9 in ESPN’s SP+ rankings and UCLA right behind them at No. 10. This game carries plenty of weight in the division race and could alter the trajectory of the season for two former NFL coaches — UCLA’s Chip Kelly and Arizona State’s Herm Edwards — who need to prove something this year.

Haener highlights

If you’re planning to stay up late Saturday night, tune in to No. 18 Fresno State at Hawaii. Bulldogs quarterback Jake Haener has been stellar this season, leading a heroic comeback against then-No. 13 UCLA and throwing five touchdown passes in a closer-than-expected win over UNLV last week. The 6-foot-1 senior might be too small for the NFL, but he throws with pinpoint accuracy, as evidenced by his 15 touchdown passes and nation-leading 1,842 yards. This is shaping up to be a fun bounce-back season in “The Valley” for second-year coach Kalen DeBoer.

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