These three huge Week 5 games will alter the College Football Playoff race

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In my experience, there are two topics college football fans simply can’t get enough of – conference realignment and trainwrecks. The first month of the season provided no shortage of the latter, from LSU to USC to Notre Dame to Oregon.

But as the calendar nears October, our focus should begin shifting to actual College Football Playoff contenders. Especially since this unexpectedly loaded coming weekend brings us three showdowns between Top 10 foes: No. 3 Louisville at No. 5 Clemson, No. 8 Wisconsin at No. 4 Michigan and No. 7 Stanford at No. 10 Washington.

Here’s what we know and what we’re hoping to find out in each of these matchups.

No. 7 Stanford at No. 10 Washington (Friday, 9 p.m. ET)

Two dramatic finishes Saturday night – Stanford’s last-minute touchdown to beat UCLA and Washington’s overtime stand at Arizona – set up the most anticipated Pac-12 game to date. And with Oregon (2-2) in crisis following a stunning home loss to Colorado, the Pac-12 North champion seems increasingly likely to emerge from this game.

Stanford is a proven commodity, and not just because of muscle-flexing promo man Christian McCaffrey. The Cardinal’s stingy defense has allowed three touchdowns in three games, all against Power 5 opponents. And any remaining questions about new QB Ryan Burns surely went out the window with his game-winning touchdown pass to JJ Arcega-Whiteside at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night.

To this point, however, Washington remains a Top 10 team based mostly on faith. Chris Petersen’s team finally got tested late Saturday in the desert. The Huskies have a heck of a running game — Lavon Coleman and Myles Gaskin combined for 266 yards against Arizona — but their defense is still mostly riding the acclaim of last year when it finished No. 1 in the Pac-12.

“[Stanford’s] style is completely different than we’ve seen the last four weeks,” Petersen said Saturday night. “Used to being these spread offenses and running quarterbacks and all those things we hadn’t seen, now it’s two backs and pound you and all kinds of linemen.”

Beating a Stanford program that’s won three of the past four conference championships would put to rest any sentiment that Washington is all hype. Beating the Huskies would put the Cardinal at 3-0 in conference play before a couple of Pac-12 teams have even played their first league game.

No. 8 Wisconsin at No. 4 Michigan (Saturday, 3:30 ET)

Like Washington, Michigan is currently a highly rated team primarily because it started high. Not that there’s been much to nitpick with the Wolverines’ 4-0 start, most recently their 49-10 beatdown of Penn State, but on Saturday we get to see QB Wilton Speight and that rushing attack go against their first formidable defense.

Wisconsin, on the other hand, has risen this high on merit. The Badgers already boast wins over a pair of foes, LSU and Michigan State, both ranked in the Top 10 at the time of the game. Not only that, they’ve allowed one offensive touchdown in either game. And yet, even after dominating the physical Spartans last Saturday, the Badgers remain very much in prove-it mode.

“Absolutely [Michigan] will present different challenges for us,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst told FOX Sports on Sunday. “We don’t feel like we’ve arrived. We know the tests are just going to continue.”

The craziest part: If Wisconsin does manage to beat its third Top 10 opponent in five weeks? Another one, No. 2 Ohio State, awaits the game after that.

No. 3 Louisville at No. 5 Clemson (Saturday, 8 ET)

In less than a month, Louisville went from trendy preseason dark horse to No. 3 team in the country, while Clemson went from popular national championship pick to only a slight favorite over the Cardinals in their own stadium.

The story of this game is unquestionably the duel of preseason Heisman favorite Deshaun Watson against current Heisman frontrunner Lamar Jackson. While Jackson has been busy racking up seven-touchdown games and putting up 63 points on Florida State, Watson has gone curiously quiet. The nation’s 79th-rated passer is still surrounded by a treasure chest of talent at running back and receiver, but Clemson’s offensive line has been a major disappointment. The Tigers are averaging just 4.2 yards per rushing attempt, 87th nationally, which is unquestionably impacting the quarterback.

The good news for Clemson is that coordinator Brent Venables’ reloaded defense is holding foes to a mere 3.4 yards per play, No. 2 nationally. If there’s a weakness to be found, though, rest assured Bobby Petrino will have found it by Saturday. This is surely one of those games he begins planning for the previous winter.

“I feel like it’s a great opportunity for us,” Petrino said after Saturday’s 59-28 win at Marshall. “Our guys have worked extremely hard for it, put a lot of effort and dedication into getting here. So, let’s go play it.”

And now, a few more observations as we put the wraps on Week 4 and reset the landscape for Week 5.

College football just got a little Les fun

As I wrote Sunday, this time, LSU had no choice but to put a bow on the Les Miles era, whether this week or two months from now. You’d hope a national championship coach and ever-lovable personality would get to leave on his own terms, but Miles sowed his own fate with his inability to adapt and evolve. LSU could either cut bait now or endure an unduly prolonged Bobby Bowden or Mack Brown-esque third act.

This marks the second straight year that at least one Power 5 school fired its head coach before the end of September, a trend that’s unlikely to abate with the escalating salaries and accompanying stakes. Which means Tom Herman, Jimbo Fisher and the like get to spend the next two months deflecting silly-season questions while attempting to lead their current team to a championship.

It’s time to stop underestimating Butch Jones

I jumped off the bandwagon after that Appalachian State game to the point where last week I picked a Florida team I saw going 7-5 this season to beat a Tennessee team I’d pegged to go 10-2. Whoops. The Vols’ 2013-15 script Saturday would have been to come all the way back from their initial 21-0 deficit only to find a different heartbreaking way to lose it. Instead, Josh Dobbs just kept throwing touchdowns, and that defense just kept hounding Gators QB Austin Appleby in a liberating 38-28 win.

Tennessee must be on letdown alert Saturday at Georgia, but end of day neither the Dawgs (which lost 45-14 at Ole Miss), the Gators or anyone else in the SEC East is capable of turning around and running the table. Jones’ team is already a step ahead of the pack on its road to Atlanta.

Brian Kelly is running out of scapegoats

After Notre Dame’s inexplicable 38-35 home loss to Duke, which dropped his preseason Top 10 team to 1-3, Kelly rebutted a question about “defensive coaching leadership,” saying, “Coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today.” The problem, he said, was his players’ lack of passion. “There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy.”

Less than 24 hours later he did in fact fire defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, whose unit has allowed the most points through four games (138) of any team in Notre Dame history.

Perhaps a change in scheme will save a sinking ship, but ultimately Kelly bears responsibility for his program’s sudden downturn. Be it recruiting misses, poor development or both, the Irish just don’t have enough talent on defense right now to withstand losing the likes of Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, KeiVarae Russell and Joe Schmidt. They don’t reload like an Alabama, Ohio State or Clemson, which is unfortunate since Irish fans still expect them to compete with those programs.

Baylor is not folding

My takeaway from the 4-0 Bears’ three cupcake tune-up games to start the season was that the post-Art Briles offense lacked the trademark power and explosiveness of years past. My takeaway from Baylor’s 35-24 win over Oklahoma State on Saturday is that it might not matter, because the Bears’ defense is much better than I’d anticipated. Despite having to defend 101 plays, they held the Cowboys to under 500 yards and forced four turnovers.

“When you stay out there as long as we did tonight and still have some juice left at the end of the game, it says a lot about the character of our defense," said interim coach Jim Grobe.

Now if we can just get former school president Ken Starr to stop talking in public forums.

Tommy Armstrong is transformed

Nebraska’s fourth-year quarterback came into the season with a confidence-curbing 36 career interceptions and has made huge strides in Mike Riley’s offense. On Saturday against Northwestern he rushed for a career-high 132 yards while completing 18 of 29 passes for 246 yards in a 24-13 road win. On the season, he’s accounted for 12 touchdowns and just one pick.

Nebraska’s next three games are against Illinois, Indiana and Purdue. Which means there’s a more than decent chance Armstrong will lead 7-0 Nebraska into Camp Randall for a primetime game on Oct. 29.

It’s finally fun to be Colorado and Wake Forest

It was a heck of a lot of fun watching an emotional fourth-year Buffs coach Mike MacIntyre running around hugging various players after his long-suffering program’s landmark win at Oregon on Saturday. At 3-1, CU, which last finished above .500 in 2005, suddenly has a whole new outlook on the season. Would you put it past the Buffs to beat 1-2 Oregon State and 1-3 USC the next two weeks?

Wake Forest has undergone its own painful rebuilding process the past several years, its last winning season coming in 2008. As of today, Dave Clawson’s Demon Deacons are 4-0 following a 33-28 win at Indiana. The next two weeks bring more winnable games against NC State and Syracuse.

Just for fun …

If you haven’t been staying up until 2 a.m. ET, you’ve been missing the greatest fourth-quarter show in the country. Late Saturday/early Sunday, Arizona State exploded for 31 points in the final stanza to run away from Cal 51-41. As the school pointed out, that’s more than 54 FBS teams scored in their entire games Saturday.

But this is hardly a new development for the Sun Devils. In their opener, they led Northern Arizona 20-6 heading into the fourth quarter and wound up winning 44-13. Against Texas Tech, ASU tacked 17 points on the board in the fourth to win 68-55. And last week, it avoided a near-disaster against UTSA, rallying from a 28-15 third-quarter deficit to win 32-28.

With his team now 4-0, ASU coach Todd Graham hardly needs our unsolicited coaching advice, but I do have one suggestion for improvement. Prior to next week’s game at USC, he should write one simple message on the team’s locker room whiteboard: “PLAY ALL FOUR QUARTERS.”