Can Michigan, Alabama, Clemson Stay Unbeaten?

Alabama Crimson Tide RB Jahmyr Gibbs
Alabama Crimson Tide RB Jahmyr Gibbs
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Week 5 - At this early stage of the college football season, plenty of teams still have playoff aspirations. Some are obvious: we have known Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio State would be squabbling over the top ranking since well before the season started, for example. Others are far more speculative—but just last year, a team went from 2-4 to the College Football Playoff, so anything is possible!

Almost every contender, from the natural to the unlikely, has proven themselves to a certain extent. The Crimson Tide narrowly evaded Texas in Week 2, while the Bulldogs blew out Oregon and the Buckeyes overcame Notre Dame in their openers. Michigan, the current leader of the also-rans hoping to catch up to the top three, escaped a serious upset bid from Maryland last week thanks to Blake Corum's 243-yard day; a few hours later, USC pieced together their finest defensive performance in a long while to eke out a road win over Oregon State.

There remain a few outliers whose schedules so far lack any serious tests: Oklahoma State's big non-conference game against Arizona State fell flat after the Sun Devils lost to Eastern Michigan, while Ole Miss has yet to play a team tougher than Troy or Tulsa (no, Georgia Tech doesn't count). But for the most part, the schools that have made it to Week 5 without suffering a loss have at least some grounds to believe they can put together a playoff run.

As teams enter conference play in earnest, those playoff hopefuls will set about running the gamut of their top opponents and emerging unscathed. In the Pac-12, USC will have only one remaining undefeated to share the lead with after 4-0 Washington takes on 4-0 UCLA this week. In the Big Ten, Michigan will enter a notoriously tough road environment and take on Iowa's stout defensive front in pursuit of their fifth straight win. The Big 12 sees its new leader in the polls—Oklahoma State, after Oklahoma's stunning loss to Kansas State—in a championship game rematch against Baylor. Over in the SEC, Alabama battles the first of three straight ranked conference opponents. The ACC rounds out the action with three of its four unbeatens in critical games this week: Clemson welcomes NC State and College GameDay for a top-10 showdown, while Florida State looks to assert itself against the Wake Forest team that nearly shocked the Tigers last week.

Some of these teams, now 3-0 or 4-0, will flame out and finish 8-4 or 9-3. Others, meanwhile, will use this week as a stepping stone and chase their playoff dreams all the way to November. It's a long season, and winning this week is just the next step towards putting it all together, but in college football's long postseason hunt, every game is key.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Washington (-3) at UCLA—Friday, 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Washington UCLA
2022 F+ 23 30
When Washington has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 32 48
2022 EPA/pass 6 28
2022 EPA/rush 60 20
When UCLA has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 23 13
2022 EPA/pass 81 16
2022 EPA/rush 69 94

There are three games this week between undefeated teams. One is, of course, that GameDay battle between No. 5 Clemson and No. 10 NC State, which is clearly one of the biggest games this week. There's another between No. 7 Kentucky and No. 14 Ole Miss, which hasn't been discussed as much due to the teams combining for one win over any teams receiving votes in the AP Poll this week. But it's easy to miss this unbeaten matchup, a late game on Friday night featuring somewhat-unproven No. 15 Washington and a UCLA team that hasn't yet come close to the top 25.

Of these three games, though, the last might be the most important when all is said and done. The winner in the ACC will still have to outlast a division with two other 4-0 teams, and the winner in the SEC will face a tall task to unseat Georgia or Alabama and make it to Atlanta. But in the Pac-12, where the championship game will match the top two teams without regard to divisions this season, taking one loss could be especially damaging. Despite struggles early in non-conference play, the chase for the conference title is shaping up to be quite crowded: USC, Utah, Oregon, and Washington are all ranked and have yet to lose in conference play, while UCLA and California are also 1-0 in the Pac-12. That's not to mention Oregon State and Washington State, who took hard-fought losses to two of the league's top teams last week and are very much in the hunt.

This matchup won't settle much in that season-long pursuit, but it could give us an early measure of how these teams stack up in a muddled conference. The Huskies are in the top 15 for the first time since 2019, largely on the strength of a marquee win over Michigan State (then No. 11, now unranked). The Spartans' subsequent blowout loss to Minnesota undercut that résumé point to an extent, but it's hard to say Washington doesn't deserve their ranking based on what they have done so far. In Kalen DeBoer's first season, a ramshackle offense led by transfers Michael Penix Jr. (four touchdowns and seven interceptions at Indiana last year) and Wayne Taulapapa (37 career rushing yards per game at Virginia) has exploded for 44 points per game.

Penix, in particular, has been the biggest feel-good story of the season this side of Kansas: having wound his way from Tampa to Bloomington to Seattle, laboring through four straight seasons curtailed by injuries, he has reclaimed the brilliance of his 2019-2020 seasons with the Hoosiers and then some. His 12 passing touchdowns and 9.7 yards per attempt lead the Pac-12, and his 1,388 passing yards lead all of FBS; under his watch, the Huskies' passing offense ranks top-10 in EPA, success rate, and explosiveness. Taulapapa has already posted 307 yards on 6.4 yards per carry, and three receivers have surpassed 250 yards with 16 or more yards per catch apiece. A year after ranking 108th in points per game and failing to surpass 31 points in conference play, Washington's offense has transformed into one of the nation's best.

UCLA should keep pace with the Huskies: they're 16th in EPA per play and 10th in success rate, a standard level of success for a team pursuing its third straight top-20 season in points per game. But close calls against Bowling Green (who led the Bruins for nearly 25 minutes) and South Alabama (whom the Bruins required a walkoff field goal to survive) have both kept UCLA well out of the rankings and prompted concerns about their ability to break a game open.

Both through the air and on the ground, big plays have been the Bruins' biggest weakness. Dorian Thompson-Robinson's passing offense has been solid (21st in EPA per play), but he hasn't created a downfield threat (only seven passes of 20 or more yards all season). The run game is a similar story—Zach Charbonnet has been excellent with 293 yards and 6.8 yards per carry, but his 4.31 yards after contact per carry are the only mark in UCLA's rushing corps over 3.15. The Bruins rank 45th in 10-yard play rate when passing and 34th when rushing, forcing their offense to lean heavily on short plays and long drives. Will that cost them against Washington, whose defense specializes in shutting down short gains (17th in success rate allowed)? If so, it's not hard to see the Huskies making it to 5-0 and keeping up their unexpected charge at the Pac-12 championship.

Watch for:

  • Washington and UCLA rank sixth and eighth in front-seven havoc allowed; can either team get to the opposing quarterback and disrupt their offense?
  • Can the Bruins test the depth of Washington's rushing corps beyond Taulapapa, where only Cameron Davis has more than 75 yards on the ground?
  • How much of a threat will UCLA's Laiatu Latu (10 tackles, five sacks) and Grayson Murphy (11 tackles, three sacks) post to the Huskies' offensive line?

FEI Outright Pick: Washington by 5.3.

Michigan (-10.5) at Iowa—Saturday, 12 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Michigan Iowa
2022 F+ 4 26
When Michigan has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 6 1
2022 EPA/pass 20 8
2022 EPA/rush 17 33
When Iowa has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 7 95
2022 EPA/pass 11 117
2022 EPA/rush 11 109

The highest point total scored in a game by the Iowa Hawkeyes during the month of September was 32—by their baseball team. The football team, meanwhile, put seven on South Dakota State and Iowa State, then 27 on Nevada and Rutgers. The Hawkeyes have still reached 3-1 on account of a staggeringly good defense, but so far, they're making last season's team look downright balanced. We'd be here all day if we listed every metric the offense and defense are among the top and bottom 10 in, respectively, but to sum it up: they're second in defensive EPA per play and third-to-last in offensive EPA per play. By that measure, the defense is better than those of Alabama, Georgia, and Clemson ... and the offense is worse than those of Hawai'i, UMass, and FIU.

Judging the quality of a team that seems less like a football program and more like a science experiment is difficult, but the Hawkeyes always seem to present a threat when high-flying visitors come to Kinnick Stadium. In their last five home games against top-five teams (all visitors from the Big Ten East), they're 4-1 with a +64 point differential. Michigan may have boatraced them in Indianapolis last year and throttled them in Ann Arbor back in 2019, but it's hard not to forget what happened when they last travelled to Iowa City. The team that did that was the 2016 Wolverines, then 9-0 and coming off a four-game stretch in which they outscored their opponents 210-34; Michigan lost that game 14-13 on a game-winning field goal and finished 10-3.

The Hawkeyes don't have that kind of opportunity to shatter their foes' hopes this week, however. Despite Michigan's high ranking, we know very little about how good they actually are; they're No. 4 mostly due to last season's strong finish and a confounding lack of other contenders for the spot. The Wolverines have put up some pretty numbers, but they have only played one team that isn't looking at a best-case scenario of 3-9, and that was a back-and-forth affair with Maryland last week in which they needed Blake Corum to put the run game on his back. (His 243 yards set a career high by 72, while the rest of the rushing corps combined for all of 2 yards.)

On paper, Michigan is a strong favorite, though you would be unwise to count the Hawkeyes out, obviously. But it's hard to feel we know enough about either of these teams to have a clear outlook. This matchup is as much an opportunity to get answers about Iowa and Michigan as it is a pivotal game in its own right: which teams wins, and how they win, will give us critical insight into both division races in the Big Ten. If the Hawkeyes' offense can come alive and play a key role in a win or a close loss, it would go a long way towards solidifying them as a major player in the West. And if the Wolverines can put together a complete offensive performance and overpower an extremely difficult defense, it would alleviate some of the concerns over how reliant they are on Corum and J.J. McCarthy.

McCarthy has been fantastic for Michigan—averaging 11.6 yards per attempt and leading them to 0.55 EPA per pass—but their biggest offensive weakness might come down to his late-down performance. The Wolverines are 99th in EPA per play on passing downs, though they have largely avoided those situations since they're second in EPA per play and first in success rate on standard downs. Part of that comes down to a lack of big plays through the air, where Michigan ranks 36th in explosiveness compared to fifth on the ground.

McCarthy has a solid deep ball (he has thrown it on 20% of passes for 16.3 yards per attempt), but his receivers haven't created many more of those plays, with top targets Ronnie Bell and tight end Luke Schoonmaker averaging only 6.6 and 4.8 yards after catch per reception. The Hawkeyes' defense is good against pretty much everything, and they have limited opposing passers to an absurd 15.5% explosive play rate, second in FBS. Michigan will need to show that they can beat teams through the air to earn their top-five ranking, and how well they do so against Iowa should give us a clearer picture of what their 2022 season will look like.

Watch for:

  • Can Iowa (fourth in EPA allowed per run) lock down a strong, but one-dimensional, rushing attack led by Corum's 478 yards and nine touchdowns?
  • Is the Hawkeyes' offense capable of improving on late downs enough to hold onto the ball for longer stretches of the game?
  • Will Roman Wilson (24.5 yards per catch) take on an increased role as the most efficient receiver in Michigan's lineup?

FEI Outright Pick: Michigan by 10.0.

Oklahoma State at Baylor (-2.5)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Oklahoma State Baylor
2022 F+ 14 15
When Oklahoma State has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 18 16
2022 EPA/pass 26 75
2022 EPA/rush 81 12
When Baylor has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 26 35
2022 EPA/pass 124 40
2022 EPA/rush 18 46

Week 5 is full of narratively-charged rematches: Michigan-Iowa, Alabama-Arkansas, and NC State-Clemson were all critical meetings last season, and each features one or zero combined losses in this year's encore. But the biggest 2021 game whose participants face off this week was the Big 12 Championship Game, in which Baylor clinched its third league title and Oklahoma State missed out on its second (and a possible CFP spot) by a matter of inches. It's hard to say at this point what the picture for this year's title game looks like, what with the conference's most impressive résumé belong to Kansas, but it's a reasonably safe bet that the Cowboys and Bears will both be somewhere in the picture again.

Oklahoma State might have been a play away from the playoff in 2021, but the fifth-worst defensive returning production in FBS and the loss of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to Ohio State necessitated a shift in focus. The Cowboys have dipped to 75th in EPA allowed per play this season, but their offense has thrown it back to the high-scoring, pass-first days of the early 2010s. Oklahoma State ranks top-10 in EPA and success rate per pass, and the offense's 51.7 points per game leads all of college football. Dominant wins over Central Michigan, Arizona State, and Arkansas-Pine Bluff aren't particularly noteworthy, but the way the Cowboys have gotten them looks nothing like what was expected of this team.

Oklahoma State's run game hasn't done a lot to sustain this power surge—aside from Dominic Richardson, no running back has reached 75 yards or 10 carries—and the one-dimensional nature of the Cowboys' offense is a clear weak point for opposing defenses to take advantage of. But the attack has hummed along without many interruptions thanks to a blistering start from Spencer Sanders, who's averaging 9.6 yards per pass with 10 touchdowns and only one interception. Outside of a fairly sluggish win over Arizona State, in which Richardson stepped up to lead the way with 175 total yards, Sanders has been as effective as ever through the air, and his 110 rushing yards have made him a strong force on the ground as well.

Much like Oklahoma State, Baylor has retooled significantly following major turnover in the offseason. The Bears have been fairly balanced between offense and defense this season, but where a brilliant secondary led the defense in 2021 (and picked off Sanders four times in the title game), they have been strongest against the run this year. Baylor has allowed a minuscule four runs for 10 or more yards—the second-lowest total in FBS, and the lowest among teams that have played all four weeks of the season. That's a major step up from last season, when they surrendered 57 such plays in 14 games, tied for 47th overall. Last week, they held an Iowa State rushing corps averaging 156 yards per game to 66; two weeks before that, they took on a BYU team that had just put 312 rushing yards on USF and held them to just 83.

The Cowboys are evidently going to need to lean on Sanders for offense, which proved a liability when they did it against Baylor last season. When the Bears take the ball, though, things are far less clear. Blake Shapen has been serviceable at quarterback, averaging 7.7 yards per attempt with seven touchdowns and one interception, but Baylor's passing offense has been below average in EPA with him at the helm. The run game looks far different this year than it did in 2021, when Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner led the group, but the trio of Richard Reese, Craig Williams, and Qualan Jones have pieced together a standout performance that defines the Bears' offense.

Averaging 0.32 EPA per carry—more than the passing attack and 20th in FBS—Baylor's rushing corps has been a strength overall, but it wilted against BYU and Iowa State, averaging 2.9 yards per carry in each game. Shapen was unable to carry the offense to victory against the Cougars, with just 137 yards on 28 passes, but he put in an impressive 238-yard showing on 26 passes to dispatch the Cyclones last week. If the Cowboys—19th in EPA allowed per carry, but 108th in EPA allowed per pass—can limit the run, this game seems likely to rest on the outcome of a good old-fashioned quarterback duel in the Big 12.

Watch for:

  • Can the Cowboys' strong defensive line, on which four players have recorded two sacks apiece, get into Baylor's backfield and put pressure on Shapen?
  • Will the Bears be able to limit Sanders' downfield passing and take away the key to Oklahoma State's offensive explosiveness?
  • In a matchup of two offenses that rank among the top three nationally in points per scoring opportunity, which can capitalize most effectively?

FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma State by 0.9.

Alabama (-17.5) at Arkansas—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Alabama Arkansas
2022 F+ 2 29
When Alabama has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 4 44
2022 EPA/pass 35 65
2022 EPA/rush 43 104
When Arkansas has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 3 17
2022 EPA/pass 3 36
2022 EPA/rush 17 26

In the 2021 regular season, Alabama played five games in which they lost or won by a single possession—Texas A&M dealt them a stunning defeat, while Florida, LSU, Arkansas, and Auburn all played them down to the wire. The Tide haven't had that many close calls in a season since 2007, Nick Saban's first season in Tuscaloosa; while trying to find chinks in their armor has been a fool's gambit for the last decade and a half, it's true that they look more vulnerable last season than they had in a long time. And with Alabama surviving a strong upset bid by Texas in Week 2, they don't seem likely to return to routine dominance just yet.

The Crimson Tide are still a fantastically good team, of course, and they still look like the class of the SEC West. It speaks to how consistent they are, and to how good they have been in spite of all those close games, that their worst extended stretch of play since Saban arrived has still never seen them drop from the top five in the AP Poll. But if you're looking for one of those rare Alabama upset losses, it's clear that now is an opportune time for a team to take advantage and beat the Tide. They have looked uncharacteristically undisciplined—committing 33 penalties this season, including 15 against Texas alone—and the offense faces a severe lack of depth at several positions. They'll face off with ranked Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Tennessee teams in the next three weeks, and it remains to be seen how much they have tidied things up since the drama in Austin three weeks ago.

The best players on this offense are, of course, the spectacular Bryce Young and Jahmyr Gibbs. After a shaky start in which he passed for just 213 yards on 39 attempts against the Longhorns, Young has reasserted himself as a top contender in the Heisman race, totaling 621 yards on 54 passes in the last two weeks with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Gibbs, who transferred from Georgia Tech in the offseason, has been excellent, one of only two players to reach over 170 yards on the ground and through the air this season. But for an Alabama team that needed to replace Brian Robinson Jr., Jameson Williams, and John Metchie—three players who combined for over 4,300 yards last season—Gibbs alone hasn't solved all their offensive concerns.

The receiving corps is solid, but lacks depth, as only three players with multiple receptions are averaging more than 11 yards per catch. The run game has been excellent, with Gibbs averaging 6.9 yards per carry and Jase McClellan averaging 8.4, but they have leaned on a best-in-FBS 3.00 yards per carry in the open field, with glaringly poor rushing up front (67th in line yards per carry despite having played Utah State, ULM, and Vanderbilt). And it's hard to ignore the weak point that nearly undid them several times last season: the offensive line, which surrendered the most pressures in the Power 5 last year. It has been better this season, and Young has scrambled and thrown on the run better than he did in 2021, but it could easily turn back into a liability as the Tide hit the brunt of their SEC schedule.

That's a lot of negativity for a team that is, ultimately, still 4-0 and among the top three in practically every ranking and metric out there. Alabama may look beatable by their standards, but they're still one of the best teams in the nation, and much of the credit for that fact goes to the defense. The Tide rank third overall in EPA allowed per play, and no unit makes better use of its opportunities: their -0.20 EPA allowed per play on passing downs leads FBS, and their 19.0% success rate allowed is eighth. Much like Young, the defense's expected leader has provided a reminder of how good he is lately: Will Anderson Jr. made 2.5 sacks against Vanderbilt, which only one other Power 5 player managed in Week 4. In addition to the powerful pass rush, Alabama also has a mighty run defense, ranking top-12 in yards allowed per carry at the line, at the second level, and in the open field.

Arkansas' offense should be able to put up decent numbers on the Tide—they scored 21 in a loss to Texas A&M last week, five points shy of the total the Aggies had allowed in their first three games—though their defense is going to need to capitalize on every flaw the Tide have shown on the other side of the ball. KJ Jefferson (9.7 yards per pass, 4.3 yards per carry) has sparked the offense, and star linebackers Bumper Pool and Drew Sanders have combined for 68 tackles, five pass breakups, and seven sacks. Turnover luck and a lack of big plays doomed an otherwise strong effort against the Aggies in the Razorbacks' last game; to beat Alabama where so many have come up just short, they'll need to play to their full potential in this matchup.

Watch for:

  • Will Raheim Sanders (508 rushing yards, the only triple-digit total of any Arkansas running back) be enough to break through the Tide's stalwart run defense?
  • Can the Razorbacks' solid defense of big rushing plays (38th in rushing explosiveness allowed) keep McClellan and Gibbs from breaking off long runs?
  • Are the Tide, who pass at the fourth-highest rate in FBS, capable of relying on their rushing attack to bleed clock if they hold a close lead late in the game?

FEI Outright Pick: Alabama by 22.1.

Wake Forest at Florida State (-7)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Wake Forest Florida State
2022 F+ 40 31
When Wake Forest has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 10 34
2022 EPA/pass 21 60
2022 EPA/rush 116 98
When Florida State has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 82 31
2022 EPA/pass 47 8
2022 EPA/rush 51 61

Little was clear about the ACC's quarterback rankings going into 2022, but this much seemed obvious: there was a consensus top five, and then a sizable gap to the rest of the field. Among ACC quarterbacks since 2000, each of the top five stood in an exclusive club: Sam Hartman was one of three with 50 total touchdowns; Devin Leary one of seven with 35 touchdowns and five or fewer interceptions; Tyler Van Dyke one of six with 25 touchdowns as a freshman; Brennan Armstrong one of four with 4,400 passing yards; and Malik Cunningham one of two with 19 touchdowns both passing and rushing. Whomever you selected as the worst of that group would still be a clear contender for the first team in most other FBS conferences.

Things are considerably less clear now. The conference leader in passing yards and touchdowns isn't Hartman, Leary, Van Dyke, Armstrong, or Cunningham; it's Drake Maye, whose emergence at North Carolina has been one of the most impressive under-the-radar stories of the season. In fact, none of those five preseason stars are in the top four of passing yards, a group rounded out by Duke's Riley Leonard, Clemson's DJ Uiagalelei, and Syracuse's Garrett Shrader. Armstrong (6.1 yards per attempt, three touchdowns, four interceptions) and Cunningham (7.3 yards per attempt, two touchdowns, three interceptions) have been underwhelming passers, and Van Dyke was so bad last week (4.3 yards per attempt, one touchdown, two interceptions against Middle Tennessee) that he was actually benched.

Leary and Hartman, at least, have been as good as advertised. With the assistance of strong supporting casts, they have combined for 24 passing touchdowns and just four interceptions, leading their teams to rank 28th and 18th in EPA per pass, respectively. Both feature prominently in quarterback duels this weekend, and both are facing passers who weren't expected to be playing at an equally high level. Leary's opposite number is Uiagalelei, who seems to have come into his own after a rickety first season as Clemson's starter; Hartman's is Jordan Travis, the linchpin of Florida State's recent renaissance.

After losing his job due to a three-interception night against Notre Dame last season, Travis reclaimed it in early October and led the Seminoles on a tear that has continued into 2022. Since he returned to the starting role against Syracuse, Florida State is 9-2, and he's averaging 8.7 yards per attempt with 16 touchdowns and three interceptions. Add the powerful rushing tandem of Treshaun Ward and Oregon transfer Trey Benson, and the Seminoles' offense is 12th in EPA per play, 16th in success rate, and 18th in explosiveness. A year after starting 0-4 with a loss to Jacksonville State, they're 4-0 and have risen in the AP Poll for the first time since 2016.

How real is it? Well ... Florida State beat LSU and Louisville, both 6-7 last season, by a combined five points. A convincing 44-14 win over Boston College last week alleviates some concerns, but there are understandable questions about how good the Seminoles actually are. For all the winning they have done since Travis took over, they're still yet to beat a ranked team—though with this visit from Wake Forest, No. 22 after nearly beating Clemson last week, that could change this weekend.

The defense needs to improve if Florida State is going to keep this up; they're average against the pass (70th in EPA per play) and downright terrible against the run, especially up front (121st in line yards per carry allowed). Outside of breakout edge rusher Jared Verse—whose availability for this game is uncertain—the defense hasn't found much of a spark. Wake Forest's offense may not be as tough a challenge as it was last year, thanks to a mediocre run game that ranks 127th in EPA per rush, but Hartman is a dangerous passer, and the Demon Deacons field a deep receiving corps in which A.T. Perry, Jahmal Banks, and Donavon Greene all have over 230 yards and 15 yards per catch. Florida State's defense limits the deep ball well, but can they hold Wake Forest in check and continue one of 2022's most improbable undefeated starts?

Watch for:

  • Can star Seminoles safety Jammie Robinson match up with Perry and lock down the biggest weapon in Wake Forest's receiving corps?
  • Will Wake Forest find an offensive edge with the field position afforded by Florida State's special teams (11th-worst among FBS defenses)?
  • Can Justice Ellison and Christian Turner (361 combined yards, 3.9 yards per carry) muster a stronger rushing attack against the Seminoles' poor run defense?

FEI Outright Pick: Florida State by 1.7.

NC State at Clemson (-7)—Saturday, 7:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall NC State Clemson
2022 F+ 27 13
When NC State has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 61 14
2022 EPA/pass 60 92
2022 EPA/rush 75 4
When Clemson has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 10 27
2022 EPA/pass 36 47
2022 EPA/rush 27 31

Returning production has typically been a strong indicator of how teams' fortunes shift from one year to the next, and that has proven true so far in 2022. Among the top five teams from the Power 5 in that metric, four—TCU, Kansas, NC State, and Syracuse—are undefeated. Plenty of other teams that ranked highly, such as Old Dominion, Florida State, and Tennessee, have surged as well. Recruited talent is always going to be the strongest predictor of which teams can hold legitimate championship aspirations, but knowing how the roster breaks down has been a great indicator, too.

Among the teams that brought back the most, though, only one really had clear success in 2021. NC State went 9-3 last season, losing only two conference games by a combined four points, and beat Clemson for the first time in a decade to put the nail in the coffin of their playoff chances. Put together a top-20 team, a fairly beatable power conference, and elite returning production, and the result is a team with serious CFP potential. At least, that's how the logic went, though a narrow escape from East Carolina in Week 1 put a damper on the early optimism. The Wolfpack have restored some faith by starting 4-0, however, and they definitively shut down a Texas Tech team that immediately turned around and beat Texas. They have climbed to 10th in the AP Poll, just in time for one of the biggest games in program history against that same old Clemson team.

Amid the explosive offenses at Pitt, Wake Forest, and North Carolina last season, NC State and Clemson both stood out in the ACC by leaning heavily on defense. The Wolfpack held their own when they had the ball, averaging 33.1 points per game behind Devin Leary (who tossed 35 touchdowns and just five interceptions), but what led the way was a consistently excellent defense. Drake Thomas headlined the group with 99 tackles, six sacks, and three interceptions, while two other players made five or more sacks and three others picked off multiple passes. NC State finished 14th nationally with just 19.7 points allowed per game, holding every opponent but Wake Forest to fewer points than their offensive average.

It's little surprise that the defense has been exceptional again this year, though not in all the same ways as it was in 2021. Thomas is once again leading the team in tackles with 24, but the Wolfpack haven't mustered much of a pass rush—averaging only two sacks per game (tied for 61st in FBS) and a 10.9% havoc rate in the front seven (66th). Instead, most of the defensive excellence has come in shutting down short gains: the Wolfpack are ninth nationally in success rate allowed against both the pass and the run, with a 31.7% third-down conversion rate allowed, 26th nationally. Their -0.18 EPA per play allowed on passing downs is the best mark in the Power 5.

It was to be expected that NC State and Clemson would both bring strong defenses into this game, and the Tigers do have a solid unit to match against Leary and breakout rusher Demie Sumo-Karngbaye (252 yards, 6.5 yards per carry). Clemson's defense trailed only Georgia in many stats last season, and it dragged a floundering offense that averaged 6.0 yards per pass and 4.6 yards per carry to a 9-3 record. With few changes to the group, including holdovers at quarterback (DJ Uiagalelei) and running back (Will Shipley), more of the same was expected—but the Tigers' offense has stepped up in a way nobody saw coming. Following one of the worst passing seasons in FBS last year, Uiagalelei has reemerged as the strong passer first glimpsed in 2020: he has already thrown more touchdowns this year than in all of last year, and he's averaging a respectable 8.0 yards per pass. With Shipley chipping in some 6.8 yards per carry and a conference-leading seven touchdowns, Clemson has scored 35 or more points in every game and enters this matchup fresh off a shootout 51-45 win over Wake Forest.

The Wolfpack will provide a much stronger defense than any of Georgia Tech, Furman, Louisiana Tech, and Wake Forest, of course. Clemson has been good at almost everything, but consistency through the air is still a question (they rank 74th in passing success rate), and the offense has a lack of big-play potential that both the Yellow Jackets and the Bulldogs exploited to hold the Tigers close for long stretches of their games. If they can keep rolling against the Wolfpack, they should be able to remain unbeaten and affirm their status as a playoff contender. But if NC State can slow down the Tigers' surprising offense, they have every chance of emerging from Death Valley as the ACC's top candidate for the CFP.

Watch for:

  • Can Clemson (eighth in yards per carry allowed in the open field) shut down long runs by NC State (102nd in yards per carry in the open field)?
  • How will the Wolfpack's strong pass defense (17th in EPA per play, 21st in havoc rate) handle Uiagalelei's impressive deep ball (16-for-32 for 477 yards on passes of 20-plus yards)?
  • Can the Tigers contain NC State's lead receiver, Thayer Thomas (217 yards on 15 catches), and force the Wolfpack to use other targets?

FEI Outright Pick: Clemson by 6.4.

FEI Picks: Week 5

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI
Pick ATS
Preston's
Pick ATS
Washington -3 at UCLA Washington Washington Washington
Michigan -10.5 at Iowa Michigan Iowa Michigan
at Baylor -2.5 Oklahoma State Oklahoma State Oklahoma State Oklahoma State
Alabama -17.5 at Arkansas Alabama Alabama Arkansas
at Florida State -7 Wake Forest Florida State Wake Forest Wake Forest
at Clemson -7 NC State Clemson NC State NC State

FEI's picks ATS last week: 1-4-1.

FEI's picks ATS in 2022: 5-16-1.

Preston's picks ATS last week: 3-2-1.

Preston's picks ATS in 2022: 10-13-1.

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