Welcome to October, college football fans. This is the month when conference play heats up, and the matchups become all the more intense. This weekend promises to be among the best in 2021.
The Week 5 slate features five clashes of ranked opponents, three of those in one conference (you can probably guess which one). Saturday’s menu also includes a pivotal non-conference battle of Top-10 playoff hopefuls as well as yet another Big 12 contest with sneaky-good potential.
As always, there almost certainly will be other games capable of producing tight finishes and surprising outcomes, but here are the top five, submitted for your viewing approval.
No. 12 Mississippi at No. 1 Alabama
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Why watch: At the start of the season, we figured upon at least one Top 25 showdown in the SEC on this date. As it turns out, there are three, headlined by this clash of QBs in the midst of the early Heisman picture. We can’t promise another 63-48 track meet like last year’s meeting in Oxford, but there still will be a bright spotlight on the matchup of signal callers. Both teams should be sharp as the Crimson Tide are coming off essentially a tune-up against Southern Mississippi, while the Rebels had the week off. Ole Miss triggerman Matt Corral has eclipsed the 1,000-yard passing mark in just three games and has yet to throw an interception in 2021. His primary weapons are WRs Dontario Drummond and Jonathan Mingo as well as RB Jerrion Ealy. Alabama’s Bryce Young was picked for the first time last week but also has 15 scoring throws. All-purpose threat Jameson Williams provides a constant breakaway threat, but the Tide passing game is also making more use of the TE position this season, with Jahleel Billingsley and Cameron Latu combining for six TD grabs.
Why it could disappoint: During the Nick Saban era in Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s most elite teams have been able to impose their will on the ground. This group wasn’t able to do it in Gainesville a couple of weeks ago and it nearly proved costly as Florida mounted a rally that fell two points short, but it might mange it this week. Mississippi’s defense has improved over last year but still might not be able to get enough stops. The Rebels are more than capable of keeping up, but they can’t afford to fall behind by multiple possessions.
No. 11 Arkansas at No. 2 Georgia
Saturday, noon ET, ESPN
Why watch: Before the potential offensive show in Tuscaloosa, the SEC’s huge day kicks off with this tilt in Athens between two of the nation’s best defenses. Georgia hasn’t been tested since its opening week triumph against Clemson. In the meantime, the Razorbacks earned two high-profile wins against Texas and Texas A&M. Bulldogs’ QB J.T. Daniels has been getting better results from his receivers since Week 1, but the Arkansas defense, keyed by LBs Bumper Pool and Hayden Henry, will pose a much bigger challenge, especially as the Bulldogs try to get RB Zamir White’s ground game established.
Why it could disappoint: The problem for Arkansas is the Georgia defense is even better. Razorbacks’ QB K.J. Jefferson is good to go as is WR Treylon Burks after both were banged up a bit last week, but their big-play opportunities will be limited by LB Channing Tindall and the Bulldogs’ rock-solid front.
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No. 8 Cincinnati at No. 7 Notre Dame
Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC
Why watch: It is not hyperbole to say this could be the biggest game in Cincinnati football history. The Bearcats and their fans have had this one circled since the schedule was released. It’s just as big for the Fighting Irish, who got through September unscathed and remain in the playoff picture despite some close shaves. The special teams and defense saved Notre Dame last week in a 41-13 win against Wisconsin that was much closer than the final score. QB Jack Coan left the game with an apparent ankle injury but is expected to be back to take on a rested Cincinnati squad. Bearcats’ QB Desmond Ridder is difficult to contain, but he must not add to his total of two picks in what is sure to be a raucous road environment.
Why it could disappoint: It seems unlikely that either team will make this a rout, but both defenses are sound enough that a multi-score lead will be difficult to erase either way.
WEEK 5: Bold predictions, picks
OLE MISS-ALABAMA: SEC showdown features meeting of QB Heisman hopefuls
SEPTEMBER SUPERLATIVES: The best, worst on the field in the first quarter
26 UNBEATENS: Who will be left standing at end of season?
No. 9 Florida at No. 23 Kentucky
Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why watch: The Wildcats are off to a solid start in the SEC East. But to compete for the league title, they have to get past the Florida-Georgia duo that has owned the division in recent years. That quest begins with this home opportunity against the Gators, who must avoid a second conference setback prior to their showdown with the afore-mentioned Bulldogs next month. Gators’ QB Emory Jones directs one of the nation’s most effective rushing attacks. But he could have his hands full against LBs DeAndre Square and Jacquez Jones, anchors of the UK defense that is surrendering a mere 2.89 yards per rush attempt.
Why it could disappoint: Wildcats’ QB Will Levis has been picked five times through just four games. The Gators secondary has only snared one interception, but there could be chances for more if Kentucky RB Chris Rodriguez is contained.
No. 24 Baylor at No. 18 Oklahoma State
Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Why watch: With Oklahoma winning but looking mortal throughout September, the Big 12 seems headed for a wide-open year. The Cowboys and Bears square off in the week’s somewhat unexpected pairing of unbeatens with an eye toward challenging the Sooners down the road. Both squads have survived close contests already this season, and another is likely. Baylor is coming off its best win of the season, outlasting Iowa State in Waco thanks to a stop on a potential game-tying two-point conversion. The Cowboys turned in their most impressive performance of the campaign last week against previously unbeaten Kansas State as QB Spencer Sanders got off to a fast start, aided by the return of WR Tay Martin. The Bears feature a balanced offense, directed by QB Gerry Bohanon with the RB tandem of Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner leading the ground game.
Why it could disappoint: The Cowboys’ second-half struggles don’t appear to have gone away despite last week’s outcome, so an uncharacteristically slow start could prove problematic. On the flip side, Baylor used some big plays in the kicking game to stave off the Cyclones last week and will need to control the ball by more conventional means to avoid falling behind on the road.
Follow Eddie Timanus on Twitter @EddieTimanus