SEC contenders can benefit from Week 5 shakeup in Top 25
September has faded. And with that, we get a Week 5 that will serve as the window to the soul of the 2016 college football season.
This is true for a multitude of delicious reasons:
1. There are three top-10 matchups, the ultimate rarity, starting with a Friday night Pac-12 showdown between No. 7 Stanford and No. 10 Washington and ending with a Saturday night ACC collision between No. 3 Louisville and No. 5 Clemson. In between those games, you get No. 8 Wisconsin at No. 4 Michigan in a Saturday afternoon special at The Big House.
2. The all-or-nothing crunch of conference play has arrived as it always does with October, except for a few isolated cases, and now there’s nowhere to hide for the supposed title contenders.
3. And through that Week 5 window, you can look off in the distance and see the first College Football Playoff rankings just a month away, with ESPN’s first Tuesday announcement coming on the first night of November.
One month away. How time flies. One month to get your house in order — in other words, to be as impressive as humanly possible — before the rankings that really matter are announced and the arguments begin. The Tuesday night tension followed by the reactionary fireworks will continue through the chilled month of November before the final numbers come in on the first Sunday of December, when playoff spots are awarded and dreams are crushed.
The SEC title trophy will have been raised in Atlanta the day before that happens, and some SEC team will be heading to the four-team playoff and, who knows, maybe a second one.
But the seeds for all that future madness will be planted this weekend. And even though the SEC headliner of Week 5 barely features two Top 25 teams, with Georgia hanging by a thread at No. 25, those top-10 matchups will likely eliminate three teams from playoff contention, or at least leave the losers of those games with zero margin for error.
SEC fans are deeply passionate and savvy. The fans of teams who still have a legitimate shot to win the conference when the calendar flips to October start doing the math. They look at the schools ranked ahead of them and even the ones right behind, look at their own schedules, see where the others might get knocked off and therefore where their teams can slide up the ladder.
For Tennessee, Week 5 is a possible double whammy of good. The Volunteers have risen to No. 11 in the Associated Press poll after they roared back to beat rival Florida, and now Tennessee can impress the pollsters, their passionate and reinvigorated fans and, yes, the College Football Playoff Selection Committee that waits off in the distance to ultimately determine who will play for the national title.
A road victory for the Vols over a flawed but still-ranked Georgia team and Jacob Eason, which would be Tennessee’s second straight win over a ranked team, should rocket the Volunteers into the top 10 and land them who knows where, since at least three schools ahead of them are guaranteed to lose this weekend.
This is really the weekend when Tennessee can become a true playoff contender, but that depends on Tennessee and its ability to come down emotionally from the Florida win and then rise up and win between the hedges against a Georgia team that’s trying to hang onto its own SEC title dreams.
If the Vols are legit national title contenders, they’ll find a way to win in Athens. And by the end of the night, Michigan or Wisconsin will have been sent spiraling down, one of two dynamic ACC quarterbacks — Clemson’s Deshaun Watson (below) or Louisville’s Lamar Jackson — will have had their perfect seasons dented, and either Washington or Stanford will be called a pretender from the soft Pac-12.
This is when the excitement truly starts. Tennessee can smell big success. It just beat Florida, finally. But now it can elevate itself a few more notches, amid a guaranteed Top 25 shakeup that will begin the month-long shakeout leading into the first CFP rankings.
This is also when the season truly starts. After a month of football, it appears we’re down to Alabama, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia and Arkansas as the SEC schools that can truly see themselves playing for big things in December and January. The Tennessee-Georgia showdown will act as an elimination game when it comes to the national picture.
The SEC’s other four elite teams aren’t in showdown situations, but that hardly means they are just spectators as the Top 25 beats up on itself. Week 5 is when the style points will start to come into focus for those first CFP rankings.
How focused is Alabama in dominating Kentucky? How mature is Texas A&M in handling success as it visits a South Carolina team that has a pretty good defense? Can Florida channel its anger over last week’s debacle and come back with a powerful performance at Vanderbilt? And will Arkansas rebound with an expected rout of Alcorn State?
The goal, of course, during a “shakeup week” like this for Alabama, Texas A&M, Florida and Arkansas is not to be a part of the actual shakeup. It’s their job to do what they’re supposed to, watch the others in harm’s way lose and enjoy the benefits of moving up the poll, or in Alabama’s case strengthening its tight grip atop the poll.
But the potential for shakeup isn’t restricted to those three top-10 showcase games. There’s those aforementioned style points, and plenty of other danger spots.
What if No. 13 Baylor isn’t impressive in winning at Iowa State?
No. 22 Texas could surely fall at Oklahoma State. The Longhorns are actually a slight underdog.
What if No. 14 Miami whiffs against Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack?
What if North Carolina further exploits Florida State’s defense, like South Florida did, and the No. 12 Seminoles go tumbling?
Heck, No. 21 TCU is a slight underdog at home against unranked Oklahoma, which started the season in the top five. And No. 18 Utah is also a slight dog at unranked California.
What if No. 17 Michigan State can’t pick itself off the ground on the road against an improved Indiana team?
If just some of those games go the way of the unranked team, Week 5 will be a lot more than just a shakeup in the Top 25, and the SEC contenders that come prepared and check their own box will really benefit when the new poll is released on Sunday.
College football’s version of “Survivor” is on in earnest, and every ranked team is trying to claw its way up to get the CFP committee to notice it. The losers of these showdowns will be pushed down, maybe for good, and so might a few other schools.
Will Tennessee take advantage of all this impending chaos, or will the not-quite-ready Vols be flushed away, too?
The uncharted territory of the top 10 awaits the Vols if they make the former true. That place where Alabama exists, week in and week out, and the place where No. 9 Texas A&M has risen.
There will surely be other chaotic weeks to come. But this one, with those CFP rankings suddenly looming, will begin to give the answers about who will be playing the biggest games in January. And SEC fans will be watching through that window, praying for their teams to stay on course while as many others crash as possible.