After another upset-filled weekend, opportunity knocks for some new blood to enter the College Football Playoff mix. Here’s what to watch in Week 6, starting with a big matchup in the Big Ten:
Big Ten bragging rights
Might Saturday’s clash between No. 3 Iowa and No. 4 Penn State be an early playoff elimination game? In a conference that usually saves its top-five matchups for Ohio State vs. Michigan or championship weekend, the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes will battle it out to see which team is the real contender for a surprise postseason berth.
This has been an underrated rivalry in recent years, with then-No. 4 Penn State needing a walk-off touchdown to escape Kinnick Stadium in 2017 and two ranked matchups the following years decided by a combined 11 points, both Penn State wins. Of course, the Hawkeyes ended two perfect Nittany Lions seasons at the end of the last decade, including an upset of No. 3 Penn State in 2008.
This year’s matchup is all about defense. Whether it’s points allowed (11.6 per game for Iowa, 12.0 for Penn State), yards per play allowed (4.11 for Iowa, 4.33 for Penn State) or defensive efficiency (Iowa ranks fourth in SP+, while Penn State is fifth), these are two of the best teams in the country at shutting down opposing offenses. That’s going to make every play feel tense, with missed scoring opportunities potentially being the difference in the game.
Don’t discount the talent on offense, though. Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford is playing the best football of his career under new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, while Jahan Dotson is making a strong case to be the first wide receiver taken in the 2022 NFL draft. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras gets stuck with the “game manager” label, but he’s taken a step forward this season and is buoyed by a talented running back in Tyler Goodson.
Both fan bases are sure to recall Iowa’s 6-4 victory at Penn State in 2004, a game that featured two safeties and a pair of 27-yard field goals. Points might not be at such a premium Saturday, but, hey, you never know.
Red River redemption
The annual rivalry game between Texas and Oklahoma has been dominated of late by the Sooners, who have won three straight meetings and five of the past six. That could change this weekend, with No. 6 Oklahoma looking more vulnerable than ever under coach Lincoln Riley.
Spencer Rattler is coming off his best performance of the season in a 37-31 win over Kansas State, but it’s been an up-and-down season for the quarterback many expected to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. The defense hasn’t been exceptional either, ranking 26th in efficiency while allowing nearly 5 yards per play.
The No. 21 Longhorns haven’t been perfect either, but since a 41-21 loss to Arkansas in Week 2, they’ve won three straight by an average of more than 30 points. Quarterback Casey Thompson has taken command of an offense that’s humming both through the air and on the ground, with Heisman Trophy contender Bijan Robinson looking like the best running back in the country.
Is Texas back? If first-year coach Steve Sarkisian wins Saturday, it might be time to consider it.
No. 13 Arkansas vs. No. 17 Ole Miss couldn’t come at a more interesting time on the calendar. Both teams are licking their wounds after humbling losses to the SEC’s powerhouses, Georgia and Alabama, respectively. How will they respond?
It’s unfamiliar territory for the Razorbacks, who haven’t finished a season ranked in the Top 25 since 2011 — Bobby Petrino’s final year as head coach. Meanwhile, Ole Miss is enjoying its first foray in the rankings since 2016.
Things don’t get any easier next week either, with Arkansas hosting No. 18 Auburn and Ole Miss taking on a Tennessee team that just hung 62 points on Missouri. Such is life in the rugged SEC. Sam Pittman and Lane Kiffin are going to have to earn their paychecks these next two weeks to keep their seasons afloat, and it starts with a big game Saturday.
Is Wake Forest for real?
In 2019, the last time the Demon Deacons started 5-0, they lost five of their last eight games and tumbled out of the Top 25. But things might be different this year, with a weak ACC seemingly up for grabs.
A tough road game against Syracuse on Saturday should say plenty about how serious a Wake Forest conference championship run might be. The Orange lost to Rutgers and couldn’t find a way to beat Florida State last week, but they knocked star quarterback Malik Willis and Liberty from the ranks of the unbeaten.
Coach Dave Clawson’s real test comes in the final four games — at North Carolina, vs. NC State, at Clemson, at Boston College — but the Deacs have a real chance to stack some wins ahead of the stretch run.
Don’t overlook Nebraska
Nobody would confuse the 3-3 Nebraska for a Big Ten contender this season, but the Cornhuskers have been quietly competent since an embarrassing season-opening loss at Illinois. After a 56-7 rout of Northwestern last week, they’ve jumped to No. 22 in overall efficiency, led by a defense that has been salty of late.
Since allowing 30 points in that loss to Illinois, the Huskers have allowed just 12.6 points per game, which would rank in the top five nationally.
Michigan looks much improved on offense thanks to a dominant running game and the steady play of quarterback Cade McNamara, but the Wolverines aren’t unstoppable. If Nebraska’s defense can hold its own and the offense generates some big plays behind quarterback Adrian Martinez, coach Scott Frost might pick up a much-needed signature win Saturday night.
Kentucky can play
There’s a lot to like in Lexington right now. Kentucky beat Florida at home for the first time since 1986 last Saturday and is 5-0 for the first time since 2018 and just the fourth time in the past 70 years. At No. 16 in the AP poll, the Wildcats have a chance to deliver their best season since going 10-3 and beating Penn State in the Citrus Bowl in 2018.
Up next is a wounded LSU team that just lost at home to Auburn for the first time since 1999. Led by Penn State transfer Will Levis at quarterback, a punishing ground game and a sturdy defense, Kentucky is capable of dragging anybody into the kind of rock fight it knows it can win. Looming next week is a showdown with No. 2 Georgia, a team that’s more than happy to oblige that style of play. They might not be pretty, but the Wildcats could be the biggest threat to Georgia’s annual dominance of the SEC East.
This really might be a chaotic season after all.