College football games, Week 5: Clemson, USC on upset alert with tough road tests
Three top-10 teams on the road need to be on alert
Just like that, we're a month into the season. There have been a few changes to the top of the weekly rankings, but there's plenty of time for more shakeups to come.
And there's no time like the present, right? This week, four top-10 teams head out on the road. Three of them made it on our upset alert radar. From a special Friday night edition of #Pac12AfterDark to an ACC showdown in primetime, the potential for chaos is high.
With all of that in mind, we're here to give you the top five upset alert games each week of the 2017 season based on matchups, injuries/suspensions and other factors. As a general rule, we try to avoid games whose lines are well within a touchdown with exceptions being made for cases that warrant them.
No. 5 USC at No. 16 Washington State
When: Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET | Where: Pullman, Washington | Opening Line: USC -5.5
Why it's listed: This is one of those exceptions when it comes to the line. The Trojans opened up at 5.5-point favorites and the line has dropped by a couple of points since. But it's easy to see why this one fits the bill for a potential upset. It's a road game on a short week with a banged-up team in a tough environment. Among those who will not make the trip for USC is left tackle Toa Lobendahn, who has started every game in 2017. USCFootball.com reports that Lobendahn has a staph infection. The Trojans playoff aspirations and so far has made good on those by starting 4-0. Still, it's cut it close a few times against Western Michigan, Texas and Cal. Now a month into the season, will USC turn it on or is this basically who they are? If it's the latter, how long until a team catches them on it?
Washington State wins if: It wins in takeaways and points off takeaways. We don't typically think about Washington State as a ball-control offense, but it's been methodical. The Cougars have run the most plays of any team in the Pac-12 (not surprising), but average just 6.21 yards per play and don't rank particularly high in explosive plays per game. In fact, their 33:08 time of possession average ranks in the top 25 nationally. What all of this means is Wazzu holds on to the ball for a long time, which can lead to more mistakes. The Cougars have a +1 turnover margin average and it's important to keep that up. In turn, Washington State needs to get at least one touchdown, but preferably two, if it gets multiple takeaways.
USC wins if: The running game gets back on track. The leg injury to Ronald Jones hasn't helped, but the Trojans were dreadful running the ball two weeks ago against Texas (1.92 YPC) and not much better against Cal (3.5 YPC). Jones is expected to play on Friday which is a help, but without a respect for the run, USC can't control the line of scrimmage, nor can it push the ball downfield. In the three "closer" games (vs. WMU, Texas, Cal), quarterback Sam Darnold averages a pedestrian 7.6 yards per pass attempt and had a season-low 5.9 yards per attempt in Week 4. For what it's worth, Washington State allows 3.6 yards per rush on 33 attempts per game.
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET | Where: Winston-Salem, North Carolina | Opening Line: Florida State -10
Why it's listed: The numbers speak for themselves. The Seminoles are 0-2 for the first time since 1989. A loss to Wake Forest would mean FSU leaves September without a win for the first time since 1976. (That team also started 0-3 and finished 5-6). Tom Fornelliwhy the Noles are in this position in the Monday After, but let's just say ranking dead last in the ACC in rushing offense with zero turnovers gained and 3.5 sacks allowed per game with a true freshman quarterback isn't a great combination. FSU is talented, but for this season to turn around, Jimbo Fisher will need to orchestrate another great coaching job.
Wake Forest wins if: It can play keep-away. The Deacs have been a great running offense, which has opened up the passing attack just enough to be balanced. Expect Florida State to come out angry and a little desperate, and a desperate team is a dangerous team. Keeping the ball away from the Florida State offense -- especially freshman running back Cam Akers, who is the one working part of that rushing offense -- will be big in pulling off the upset.
Florida State wins if: It can start chipping away at the aforementioned blemishes. Some of these eye-opening stats are bound to change. Akers has a chance to break the running game open if they feed him enough. The defense needs to start creating takeaways, but that feels more like a matter of when, not if. Protecting James Blackman is important since he's already filling in for Deondre Francois, but he's shown a tremendous ability to drop dimes under pressure. The day-to-day status of receiver Auden Tate (shoulder) is concerning, though, since he was a threat down the field.
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET | Where: Knoxville, Tennessee | Opening Line: Georgia -7
Why it's listed: Tennessee is a hard team to figure out. The Vols have been sluggish in three of their first four games and escaped UMass in Week 4. Given how well Georgia has played it shouldn't be on upset alert ... but, man, Tennessee just seems to get up for these types of games. The Bulldogs, in particular, understand the effects of this game. Tennessee won on a Hail Mary in Athens a year ago. In 2015, Tennessee stopped a two-game slide against the Bulldogs. In fact, the last four meetings have been decided by no more than a touchdown, and three of the last four by three points. There's all of this talk about coach Butch Jones being on the hot seat and how Georgia is. It's a gut feeling, and it feels like a trap.
Tennessee wins if: It gets a ton of hidden yards. That means favorable field position. I don't trust the Vols to drive the field on this Georgia defense -- at least not consistently for five-to-seven possessions. That means playing good defense (the over/under is just 47), punting is winning and getting a turnover or two. Oh, and feed running back John Kelly. He has the best elusiveness rating among SEC rushers per PFF and is the Vols' Obi Wan Kenobi (i.e., he's their only hope).
Georgia wins if: It can keep quarterback Jake Fromm comfortable. Fromm has adjusted to the starting role nicely while Jacob Eason recovers from his knee injury. Fromm , and he should be. He has just 17 pass attempts per game, but his 172 passer rating is second-highest in the SEC and he's been an efficient thrower at 9.4 yards per attempt. The thing is, Tennessee's defensive line poses some threats. Georgia's run game needs to keep the pressure off Fromm and prevent third-and-forever situations.
When: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET | Where: Baton Rouge, Louisiana | Opening Line: LSU -19.5
Why it's listed: Before anyone wearing purple and gold gets upset, no, Troy isn't a better team than LSU. The spread is three touchdowns for a reason. However, there are a few things that stick out that make this an interesting possibility for upset alert status. For one, the Tigers are banged up. Running back Derrius Guice is still from the Syracuse game. Nagging injuries have been a part of his season from the start. Additionally, safety Ed Paris is out for the year and the defense as a whole is dinged. Troy also has the Sun Belt's best defense statistically. The competition hasn't been stiff, but it's something to keep in mind. The Trojans aren't a pushover, and with Florida next week, this is one of those "can't let 'em hang around" games.
Troy wins if: Its defense plays out of its mind. The Trojans aren't winning a shootout and will need to do what no one's really been able to do against LSU yet -- create takeaways. Syracuse got one on LSU in Week 4, but that was more of a miscommunication by the offense. Take advantage of the Guice injury, get pressure in the backfield and force mistakes. Even if it doesn't turn into points, stop percentages are going to be key.
LSU wins if: It can weather the storm. The offense needs to respond with Guice nursing an injury, and Darrel Williams may need to come up big. Also, it'll be interesting to see what kind of impact freshman quarterback Myles Brennan has on the offensive balance now that he's getting meaningful reps. Some players who aren't household names yet will need to assert themselves against an inspired opponent.
No. 2 Clemson at No. 12 Virginia Tech
When: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET | Where: Blacksburg, Virginia | Opening Line: Clemson -5.5
Why it's listed: The line is up to -7.5 for the Tigers. With respect to Louisville and quarterback Lamar Jackson, this is shaping up to be the tougher road test for Clemson. Why? Louisville's offensive line was a weakness and Clemson got to Jackson five times. The Hokies have been better at protecting quarterback Josh Jackson and have had the same starting five O-lineman in every game. In addition to matching up well in the trenches, Jackson has the big-play ability to match Clemson and it would be foolish to doubt Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster in a big game.
Virginia Tech wins if: It can protect Jackson. Good defenses travel well and the Clemson's group up front is arguably the best in all of college football. A whopping 16 of Clemson's 17 sacks -- tied for second nationally and one off the pace set by Michigan -- have come from the front seven. Virginia Tech cannot afford to constantly get beat up front. Not against this team. If Jackson has room to make plays, he's special.
Clemson wins if: Quarterback Kelly Bryant stays cool. Amazingly, his best game of the season came on the road against the Cardinals in Week 2 (316 passing yards, 9.9 yards per attempt, 162 passer rating). But this is a different caliber defense he'll be facing, and Lane Stadium is one of the toughest environments anywhere. He has a potent wide receiver group because Ray-Ray McCloud, Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow know how to get separation. Even if that separation doesn't come easy, they're good enough that someone's going to get open eventually. Bryant must trust his wideouts and his protection and make sound decisions.
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