The top contenders for the College Football Playoff have continued to separate themselves into a neat and tidy top four featuring regulars Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson. Before all other fan bases yawn, though, remember there are still 11 undefeated Power 5 teams.
The overarching question is: Who has staying power?
The Week 6 games will bring us one step closer to answering that and several other questions the 13-member selection committee likely will consider to eventually determine its first ranking of the season on Oct. 30.
Can the Sooners earn a statement win?
Oklahoma entered the season as the Big 12's best hope for a playoff semifinalist, and it continues to shoulder those expectations, with a 33 percent chance to make the playoff according to ESPN Playoff Predictor. No. 7 Oklahoma has yet to wow anyone with a resounding performance on the national stage, though.
The Red River Showdown against Texas would be a good time.
"Regardless, at the end of the season, your win-loss record, how you finish the season, this is always a big game," said Sooners co-offensive coordinator Cale Gundy, who filled in for head coach Lincoln Riley at his Monday news conference this week because Riley wasn't feeling well. "It's big when it comes to the recruiting world, and it's obviously important for the direction of your program, how you want to finish the season and put yourself in good position to possibly achieve some goals later on in the season."
No. 19 Texas will be OU's first ranked opponent of the season, and doubts already crept in after the Sooners needed overtime to beat Army. The defense, which was questioned by the committee last year, ranks No. 79 in scoring defense this season, allowing 23.2 points per game. Although quarterback Kyler Murray has been outstanding and is second on ESPN's Heisman Watch, OU's running game hasn't been the same since Rodney Anderson was injured in the first quarter against UCLA in Week 2.
ESPN's Football Power Index gives OU a 73.3 percent chance to beat Texas, but if the Sooners lose, their playoff chances sink to 14.5 percent -- and this isn't even OU's most difficult remaining game. According to FPI, Oklahoma is favored to win each of its remaining games but is given only a 56.1 percent chance to win the regular-season finale at West Virginia. It's not that Oklahoma can't afford to lose, but a loss would eliminate its margin for error with six weeks remaining.
OU fans (if they can stomach it) should be cheering for No. 25 Oklahoma State (vs. Iowa State) and No. 9 West Virginia (vs. Kansas) to win this weekend. The more the Big 12's ranked teams continue to win, the stronger the league -- and its eventual champion -- will appear in the eyes of the committee. It will also make for one heckuva race in November.
Can the SEC get two teams in again?
Some fans across the country will shudder at the thought. Again?! It's a real possibility, as four of those 11 undefeated Power 5 teams are SEC teams Alabama, Georgia, LSU and (gasp) Kentucky. The SEC has a 39 percent chance to send multiple teams to the playoff, nearly identical to the Big 12's chance to send a single team, but the SEC has at least one ranked team that might be eliminated this weekend.
LSU already has exceeded expectations, and it's as if everyone is watching to see when the Tigers' bubble will burst. Is this it? Beginning with No. 22 Florida this weekend, No. 5 LSU is entering a stretch of four straight games against FPI top-20 opponents, the third-toughest four-game stretch in FBS this season. There's an 86 percent chance the Tigers will drop at least one of their next four games, at No. 22 Florida then at home against No. 2 Georgia, Mississippi State and No. 1 Alabama. But if they emerge from the Alabama game with a 9-0 record, their chance to reach the playoff would jump from 6 percent currently to 55 percent. FPI gives LSU a 41.6 percent chance to beat Florida on Saturday.
It will be interesting to see whether LSU can handle Florida -- like Kentucky did. Wait, what? No. 13 Kentucky has already knocked off the Gators and Mississippi State, but FPI gives Kentucky only a 31.6 percent chance to win at Texas A&M on Saturday. The rise of Kentucky has helped the perception of the SEC East, and it would obviously improve Georgia's résumé if it can beat a top-15 Kentucky team when the two meet Nov. 3. Kentucky-Texas A&M could also affect Clemson's strength of schedule in the eyes of the committee, since Clemson's Week 2 win at Texas A&M is its top highlight. As long as the Aggies finish above .500, the Week 2 win will still be helpful for Clemson, but if there is a complete unraveling (A&M still has to play at Mississippi State, at Auburn and vs. LSU) the game's value would diminish.
No. 8 Auburn has already lost to LSU, which means a second loss to an SEC West opponent, like Mississippi State this weekend, would essentially eliminate the Tigers from playoff contention. It's a different scenario from last season, when two-loss Auburn (which also lost to LSU) remained a contender because one of its losses was to Clemson. Auburn still had a chance last year because it could have finished as a two-loss conference champion with wins over Alabama and Georgia. If the Tigers lose this Saturday, they also likely will lose their shot at the SEC title game, and it's highly doubtful the committee would put a two-loss team that didn't win its division in the top four.
Can Notre Dame avoid the trap?
No. 6 Notre Dame has earned its two biggest victories of the season at home (against then-No. 14 Michigan and then-No. 7 Stanford). Now the Irish have a chance to show the selection committee they can win a road game in one of the ACC's most unforgiving atmospheres at No. 24 Virginia Tech. The Fighting Irish are 3-10 in road games against AP-ranked opponents under coach Brian Kelly.
"If we can't handle the environment, we can't prepare the right way this week because we're distracted because everybody's telling us how great we are, then we'll be in big trouble," Kelly said Tuesday. "But this team's shown an ability to prepare the right way, a maturity to stay away from the distractions. We've been preparing for this kind of environment for quite some time. So I'm confident we'll be able to handle the moment when it comes."
If it can't, Notre Dame's playoff chances will drop to 22.8 percent, according to Playoff Predictor.
Blacksburg's Lane Stadium is a notoriously difficult place to win as a visitor, and it's unclear which version of the Hokies will show up -- the one that just earned an impressive road win against Duke or the one that suffered the biggest upset of the season at Old Dominion. Because of Virginia Tech's inconsistencies, it's difficult to tell at this point how valuable a win over the Hokies will ultimately be in the eyes of the committee.
Is Clemson's depth at QB enough?
No. 4 Clemson learned all too quickly what its depth chart looks like at quarterback without Kelly Bryant, when freshman starter Trevor Lawrence left the Syracuse game last week in the second quarter with a head/neck injury. Lawrence went through concussion protocol, participated in Monday's practice and is expected to start Saturday at Wake Forest. If he can stay healthy, he is certainly talented enough to lead Clemson back to the ACC title game.
There are still questions surrounding the position, though, and answering them is critical to Clemson making another playoff run. It starts with how healthy Lawrence looks Saturday and how aggressive he is outside the pocket going forward.
Backup QB Chase Brice answered the call against Syracuse, and receiver Hunter Renfrow has spent the past two weeks in quarterbacks meetings and taking reps behind center alongside freshman Ben Batson.
Clemson has four options at quarterback. The question is how many it'll need.
Can Stanford rebound from its devastating loss?
Many (including ESPN's Playoff Predictor) have essentially eliminated No. 14 Stanford from the discussion, but remember one-loss conference champions, not undefeated teams, are the norm in the semifinals. If Stanford wins out, starting with a visit from 2-2 Utah this weekend and ending with an eventual conference title, Playoff Predictor has the Cardinal at No. 3, along with Ohio State, Alabama and Clemson. Surprise!
The season isn't over yet ... but Stanford's playoff hopes will be if they lose at home to Utah.
Can the Big Ten bubble teams keep winning?
Ohio State has been at the center of the conversation, and deservedly so after its win at Penn State, but the East race is only beginning. No. 15 Michigan and No. 20 Michigan State are both undefeated in league play. Even No. 11 Penn State isn't out of it entirely, as the Nittany Lions currently have FPI's best chance of any one-loss team to make the playoff (16 percent). If Michigan and Michigan State can keep winning, too, nothing is a guarantee for the Buckeyes. At the very least, it would benefit the entire Big Ten if the state of Michigan avoided any upsets this Saturday.
The Wolverines have won four straight since their season-opening loss to Notre Dame, albeit against unranked and unheralded opponents. If Michigan can take care of Maryland (FPI gives the Wolverines an 88.9 percent chance to win), it will enter a season-defining, three-game stretch vs. Wisconsin, at Michigan State and vs. Penn State with playoff hopes still intact.
Michigan State has rebounded from the Week 2 loss at Arizona State with back-to-back wins, but the Spartans will face a gritty Northwestern team that just gave Michigan fits. According to FPI, Michigan State is projected to lose its three biggest games of the season, at Penn State and at home against Michigan and Ohio State. How the Spartans look Saturday against Northwestern will be another clue as to whether they might be able to defy the odds and win at Penn State on Oct. 13.