CLOSE

SportsPulse: Death, taxes and Ohio State getting trounced by a random Big Ten school has become a fall tradition. As Paul Myerberg prognosticates, the Buckeyes should be on high alert against Nebraska.
USA TODAY

We’ll stipulate up front that most of the primary playoff contenders are in action this week even though their games don’t appear on this list. Yes, the sports world has the capacity to surprise us. That’s why we watch, after all. But the top six teams haven’t been threatened thus far in 2019, and we don’t expect that to change.

The focus instead shall be on contests involving teams hoping to challenge the power-conference favorites, and perhaps improve their own prospects in the process. Here are the Week 5 games that could have the biggest impact on the chase for the College Football Playoff.

Mississippi State at No. 7 Auburn

Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

Auburn might have been fortunate to escape Oregon in the season opener, but the Tigers’ more convincing triumph at Texas A&M last week could indicate they are closer to challenging the heavy hitters in the SEC West than previously believed. All those positive changes in perception will come crashing back to earth, however, if they should stumble against the visitors from Starkville. The Bulldogs bounced back from a home setback against Kansas State to subdue Kentucky in their SEC debut, and now seek a 2-0 league start.

Mississippi State’s most reliable offensive weapon to date has been RB Kylin Hill, averaging 137.8 yards a game and a healthy 6.05 per carry. Mobile freshman QB Garrett Shrader, who went the distance in the win against Kentucky, can help with the ground attack if he starts ahead of injured Tommy Stevens but might have a harder time getting by DT Derrick Brown and the rest of Auburn’s outstanding defensive line. The passing game of the Tigers under freshman QB Bo Nix remains a work in progress, but RB JaTarvious Whitlow has emerged as a productive and dependable workhorse back. He should become well acquainted with Bulldogs’ LB Erroll Thompson and S Jaquarius Landrews.

No. 18 Virginia at No. 10 Notre Dame

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC

Notre Dame’s much-anticipated trip to Georgia last week showed the Fighting Irish could hang with elite-level playoff contenders. Unfortunately, it didn’t show they could actually beat one. Now they look to regroup at home against the upstart Cavaliers. UVa is one of three remaining undefeated clubs left in the ACC, a league that could use all the quality wins it can get.

The most pressing problem for Notre Dame will be finding the energy to play after emptying the tank last week in Athens. A fast start by QB Ian Book and go-to WR Chase Claypool would help, as would any ground support from RB Tony Jones Jr. who was slowed down by the Bulldogs. But the Cavaliers also boast a stiff rushing defense, featuring LBs Jordan Mack and Zane Zandier, that yields just over two yards per attempt. UVa can struggle to score as well, relying on dual-threat QB Bryce Perkins to do most of the heavy lifting. He’ll be monitored by Fighting Irish LBs Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

POWER RANKINGS: ACC | Big Ten | Big 12 | Pac-12 | SEC

STAFF PICKS: Predictions for every Top 25 game in Week 5

No. 22 Kansas State at Oklahoma State

Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN+

You’ll have to stream this one, but it might be worth a look as it could help shape the Big 12 picture. The Cowboys’ loss at Texas was damaging but not fatal to their title hopes. A second setback even before facing odds-on favorite Oklahoma, however, would be an all but insurmountable obstacle to overcome. The Wildcats, viewed as outsiders entering the season amid a coaching change, might just be ahead of schedule in their plan to climb back into the league’s upper echelon. They’ve had a week off since their eye-opening victory at Mississippi State.

Oklahoma State still has plenty of offensive weapons, though one of them, WR Tylan Wallace, was largely held in check by the Longhorns. His opposition this week will likely be Wildcats CB A.J. Parker, who has two of K-State’s three interceptions. Meanwhile, Wildcats LB Da’Quan Patton and Co. must contain Cowboys RB Chuba Hubbard and QB Spencer Sanders. K-State QB Skylar Thompson has four TD throws without a pick to date this season, with WR/KR Malik Knowles providing the big-play threat. LB/S Malcolm Rodriguez has emerged as the leader on the Cowboys’ defense and should be busy once again.

No. 24 Wake Forest at Boston College

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network

Even if Clemson does the expected and runs the table to win the ACC with relative ease, it would be beneficial to the Tigers if at least one viable challenger emerges in their home Atlantic Division. Could the Demon Deacons actually be that team? If they are, they must have this road decision against the Eagles, who’ve already taken a major hit by losing at home to perennial Big 12 cellar dweller Kansas.

On offense, at least, Wake has the numbers to justify its ranking. The Demon Deacons are putting up 38 points a game, second only to Clemson in the conference. QB Jamie Newman has a healthy 71.1 completion percentage with big-play targets like WRs Sage Surratt and Scotty Washington. The usually strong BC defense hasn’t been as airtight this year but still has veterans like LB Max Richardson and S Mike Palmer who must keep the long gainers to a minimum. The Eagles offense, with QB Anthony Brown at the controls, isn’t built to exploit Wake’s susceptible secondary. Instead, expect numerous loud collisions between BC RB AJ Dillon and Deacons LB Justin Strnad in the struggle to control the line of scrimmage.

No. 25 Southern California at No. 17 Washington

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, Fox

The Trojans’ brutal opening schedule continues with this trip to Seattle to face yet another ranked Pac-12 opponent. The Huskies, already playing catchup thanks to their earlier loss to Cal, look to protect their home field better this time and stay in the hotly contested North Division hunt.

The good news for USC is its lone loss at BYU won’t count against it in the conference standings. The bad news is the Trojans are having a hard time keeping quarterbacks healthy. Opening-day starter JT Daniels is already out for the season, and Kedon Slovis sustained a concussion early in last week’s win against Utah and remains doubtful. Matt Fink came through when needed against the Utes, but protection issues must be addressed With Huskies DE Benning Potoa’e sure to be after him. USC has injury concerns on the defensive side as well with S Talanoa Hufanga also in concussion protocol. Washington QB Jacob Eason has been steady hitting on 73.1% of his passes, with WR Aaron Fuller and TE Hunter Bryant serving as his primary targets.