Conference play will be heating up across college football this weekend.
Granted, it's still too early in the 2017 season for big-time rivalry games and (most) grudge matches. But that doesn't mean the Week 5 schedule, with three matchups between Top 25 teams, will be at all weak.
The fun begins on Friday, when No. 5 USC heads up to the Palouse to take on No. 16 Washington State.
Historically speaking, the Trojans have long dominated the Cougars. In 71 previous meetings, Wazzu has just nine wins and four ties.
The last time Southern Cal tripped up to Pullman, the squad, then coached by Steve Sarkisian, avenged the previous season's loss at the L.A. Coliseum by curb-stomping the Cougars, 44-17, behind 400 yards and five touchdowns from quarterback Cody Kessler.
That was back in 2014, before Clay Helton took the reins on the sideline and Sam Darnold became one of the nation's darlings under center. The redshirt sophomore might no longer be quite the apple of everyone's eye after a slow start to the fall. In his first four games of 2017, Darnold has been sacked more times and thrown nearly as many picks as he did during all of last season.
The odds of him righting the ship against Washington State seem slim. Mike Leach's Cougars have thus far played stellar defense against the pass, with top-20 rankings in yards allowed per attempt (18th), yards allowed per game (12th) and total sacks (T-4th).
The Trojans are no slouches in that regard, though they'll have to be better than the nation's 54th-best pass defense to slow down Wazzu's aerial assault. Luke Falk, the Cougars' senior quarterback, has been on fire from the get-go. He's racked up the fifth-most passing yards (1378), the second-most touchdown tosses (14) and highest completion percentage in the country (76.9 percent) while throwing just one pick.
The catch? None of Wazzu's previous opponents can so much as sniff SC's jock in terms of talent on both sides of the ball. This will be the Cougars' first game against a ranked opponent this season. A win over the Trojans would go a long way toward cementing Washington State's legitimacy, both within the Pac-12 and across the college football landscape.
Saturday's Top-25 matchups don't look to be quite as earth-shattering—unless, of course, the underdog comes out ahead.
No. 13 Auburn has a considerable climb ahead to get back into the College Football Playoff picture. The Tigers still have a trip to No. 25 LSU and a home game against No. 7 Georgia on tap, and that's before they host No. 1 Alabama in an Iron Bowl showdown that could once again decide the fate of the SEC West.
Before that, Gus Malzahn's group will have to get by No. 24 Mississippi State at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Dan Mullen's Bulldogs have beaten the Tigers just three times across his eight previous seasons in Starkville. They're not exactly red-hot coming into this one, either, not after getting blasted by UGA between the hedges last weekend, 31-3.
Mississippi State's prospects of turning things around in the Yellowhammer State aren't particularly bright. The Bulldogs lean heavily on a ground game, led by running back Aeris Williams (360 yards, one touchdown) and quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (287 yards, five touchdowns), that's tallied the 10th-most rushing yards in the nation to date.
It just so happens that Auburn's defense has dominated on the ground. The Tigers rank sixth nationally in yards allowed per carry (2.6) and have allowed opponents to trot into the end zone twice in four games—both of which came courtesy of Clemson's Kelly Bryant.
Speaking of which, the defending champions have another high-profile game on their slate, this time at No. 12 Virginia Tech. This will mark the Tigers' third game against a ranked opponent already. And if the team's prior results in marquee matchups are any indication, Dabo Swinney's squad should leave Blacksburg happy.
This contest, too, figures to come down to trench warfare. Clemson has been killing it on the ground, thanks to a deep and shifty backfield. Sophomore running back Tavien Feaster has been the "Steady Eddie" of the bunch, eating up 6.4 yards per carry on his 39 touches. Freshman Travis Etienne has been the speedy spark plug, as his 12.7 yards per carry and four touchdowns would suggest.
The star of the show, though, has been Bryant. The junior signal caller leads the team in ground-bound touchdowns (seven) and ranks second on the squad in rushing yards (268).
All told, the Tigers ranked 13th nationally in yards per attempt (5.9) and rushing yards per game (272), ninth in total yards on the ground (1088) and second in rushing touchdowns (17).
None of that will matter much if Virginia Tech continues to crush opposing terrestrial attacks. Justin Fuente's Hokies have allowed just 108 rushing yards per game and have yet to let any of their foes score on the ground.
Should VA Tech hold steady on that end, the onus will fall on Josh Jackson's arm to finish the job. The freshman quarterback from Ann Arbor has thrown just one interception against 11 touchdowns.
The secret (aside from a cupcake schedule since the season opener against West Virginia)? Expert protection. Jackson has been sacked just four times in his first four collegiate games.
Chances are Clemson's defense, which has piled up 17 sacks (the second-most in college football), will have something to say about that.
Top 25 Point Spreads and Predictions
(All point spreads provided by OddsShark)
No. 14 Miami (FL) (-5.5) at Duke: Miami
No. 5 USC (-5.5) at No. 16 Washington State: Washington State
Northwestern at No. 10 Wisconsin (-14.5): Wisconsin
No. 18 South Florida (-25.5) at East Carolina: South Florida
Vanderbilt at No. 21 Florida (-12): Florida
Indiana at No. 4 Penn State (-18): Penn State
No. 7 Georgia (-3.5) at Tennessee: Georgia
Murray State at No. 17 Louisville (-47.5): Louisville
Miami (OH) at No. 22 Notre Dame (-21.5): Notre Dame
No. 24 Mississippi State at No. 13 Auburn (-9): Auburn
Troy at No. 25 LSU (-22): LSU
No. 11 Ohio State (-27.5) at Rutgers: Ohio State
No. 2 Clemson (-5.5) at No. 12 Virginia Tech: Clemson
No. 16 Washington (-29) at Oregon State: Washington
No. 11 Oklahoma State (-14.5) at Texas Tech: Oklahoma State
Ole Miss at No. 1 Alabama (-28): Alabama
Northern Illinois at No. 19 San Diego State (-13): San Diego State