These are heady times for No. 10 NC State. The last time it was ranked in the top 10 was 20 years ago. The last time it won on the road against a top-five opponent was 55 years ago. The only obstacle in the way this week is No. 5 Clemson. You know, the same Clemson that has been in six of the last seven College Football Playoffs. The same Clemson that won 10 games in an "off" year last season.
If you haven't noticed, there isn't much room at the top. Not much has changed since we started with Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State holding onto those top three spots. One-third of the way through the season, it's still reasonable to project there is one spot left to fill in the CFP.
But what looked like another same-old, same-old playoff race has some spice. Suddenly, we need to consider the likes of USC, Kentucky and Tennessee. Oklahoma State, too. Don't forget: The Cowboys were within inches of a playoff spot last season. An opportunity is hanging out there for the Wolfpack. Non-traditional, sure. A basketball school, sure. Non-factor? Well, we'll see.
Coach Dave Doeren has methodically built the program during the last decade finishing as high as second outright in the ACC Atlantic once. He has a quarterback, Devin Leary, who started the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate. (At least I got the hat in the mail that said as much.)
A lot of this potential turning point is on him. A win over Clemson opens up that CFP possibility. After Saturday, there are only three more road games. NC State could dangle one of the nation's most impressive wins in front of the CFP Selection Committee. Don't forget: Half the CFP field was newcomers last year (Michigan, Cincinnati).
Leary led the Wolfpack with four touchdowns in last year's upset of the Tigers in overtime. This season has been kind of blah because the schedule has been kind of blah. Leary (and the rest of the Pack) struggled against East Carolina. Numbers were padded against Charleston Southern and UConn.
Against the only Power Five opponent thus far, Leary relied mostly on short throws against Texas Tech. He has to be a difference maker in this game. A lot of the measurables work in favor of Leary and NC State. Clemson's secondary has been vulnerable, part of the ACC's second-worst pass defense. Meanwhile, NC State's defense leads the ACC in interceptions (seven).
It's not a question of whether Clemson is back; it's whether the Tigers ever really left. D.J. Uiagalelei willed Clemson to that win last week at Wake Forest. Clemson has won 36 in a row at home. The Wolfpack are only the second top-10 opponent for the Tigers during that streak.
The teams started playing in 1899. This might be the biggest Clemson-NC State game ever. Much like Texas A&M beating Alabama, NC State didn't do enough with that breakthrough Clemson win, going 9-3. And it still hasn't won the ACC since 1979, back when Dabo Swinney was all of 10 years old. Maybe it's time for NC State's aspirations to grow up, too.
Week 5 storylines
Best coaching jobs at the one-third point: Earlier this week, we look at Lance Leipold's hot start in Year 2 at Kansas and wondered whether the Jayhawks will be able to hang on to him given the already-churning coaching carousel. But Leipold is not the only coach deserving praise one-third of the way through the season.
- Lincoln Riley, USC: Have we forgotten the Trojans were 4-8 last season? So far, the turnaround in SoCal has been massive. USC is the only program that hasn't turned the ball over yet. Caleb Williams is in the Heisman conversation. Jordan Addison looks like he took his Biletnikoff Award to the West Coast with no problem. Shane Lee looks like an Alabama linebacker -- like a lot of Trojans, obtained through the portal.
- P.J. Fleck, Minnesota: Tanner Morgan is a fifth-year starter with plenty of experience. Mohamed Ibrahim is back from a season-ending injury at No. 2 in FBS rushing. Fleck is no fraud. He is coming off a nine-win season in 2021 and won 11 at Minny in 2019. The Golden Gophers could win the Big Ten West.
- Josh Heupel, Tennessee: When Heupel left in 2018 to become UCF's coach, there was barely a shrug at Missouri. When he left UCF to go to Tennessee amid an NCAA scandal, Heupel hit his sweet spot inheriting Hendon Hooker. The Volunteers are 4-0 for the first time in six years after an impressive win over Florida.
- Sonny Dykes, TCU: The Horned Frogs slumped in later years under Gary Patterson. Dykes has restored them with the nation's top-rated passer, Max Duggan. That was after Dykes resurrected cross-town rival SMU. Beat Oklahoma and TCU will be 4-0 for the first time since 2017.
- Mark Stoops, Kentucky: Stoops lost his top tailback, temporarily. Chris Rodriguez is expected to return this week. He outslugged Florida and surpassed Bear Bryant as UK's winningest coach. He developed quarterback Will Levis into an NFL prospect. Stoops is at a school where he can go 8-4 the rest of his career, and they'll build him a statue.
- Kalen DeBoer, Washington: A junior version of Leipold being a national championship coach at a lower division (Sioux Falls in NAIA). The former Indiana offensive coordinator imported his former quarterback, Michael Penix Jr., via the portal. The Huskies are back in the national conversation.
- Dino Babers, Syracuse: From hot seat to hot coach. In Year 7 of an up-and-down stay with the Orange, Babers has 'Cuse 4-0 for the first time in 2018. We'll find out more in back-to-back weekends against NC State and Clemson next month.
Hog Heaven: No. 2 Alabama at No. 20 Arkansas (3:30 p.m., CBS) would have been so much better if a certain kicker would have made a certain kick against Texas A&M. But here we are with the Razorbacks able to climb right back into the SEC West race. Hogs defensive coordinator Barry Odom will have something for the Crimson Tide. The question: For how long?
Alabama did not play particularly well the only time it hit the road this season. Texas, now 2-2, exposed Bama's weaknesses that day: inexperience at cornerback, a questionable offensive line. Aside from a key 81-yard scoring run by Jace McClellan, the Tide averaged only 3.4 yards per carry. Arkansas led Texas A&M 14-0 at the end of the first quarter. It had the game won when kicker Cam Little lined up for the game-winning field goal. You know what happened next. Arky's New Year's Bowl aspirations may be at stake.
SEC East will not be a walk over for No. 1 Georgia: We know that now because of the starts by No. 7 Kentucky and No. 8 Tennessee, both 4-0. Oh, and don't forget Florida (2-2), which has more wins over ranked teams than 10 other SEC teams. (OK, one, but it was a big one against current No. 12 Utah.) Through four weeks, the Gators have done enough to make the World's Largest Cocktail Party even more interesting.
Georgia gets another scrimmage this week against 28-point underdog Missouri. In Kentucky at No. 14 Ole Miss, the winning coach gets Auburn? OK, maybe it's too soon, but Stoops and Lane Kiffin have done wonderful things. They are at schools that could be considered steppingstones for both. Kentucky has the nation's second-longest winning streak (eight games). Stoops gets Rodriguez back from suspension. Kiffin wants folks to leave The Grove early to be on time for the game. That lands somewhere between sacrilege and guerilla marketing.
Big 12 Rematch: It would be revenge, of sorts, for the No. 9 Oklahoma State to win at No. 16 Baylor this week. The world seems to have forgotten the Cowboys were 2 yards away from a playoff berth in the Big 12 Championship Game. Dave Aranda's defense held and changed the math at several levels. Aranda continues to be a hot name in coaching circles. The question he must answer: Does he believe he chase a CFP berth in Waco, Texas? The answer, for now, is yes.
If the higher-ranked Pokes are going to stay in the playoff race, they must win. Quarterback Spencer Sanders has won 27 career games, one short of coach Mike Gundy's school record. That nugget was outshone this week when Gundy "celebrated" the 15th anniversary of his "I'm a man. I'm 40," rant.
Road trip! Finally! We don't want to say Iowa can't score, but if you give the Hawkeyes a dart from 2 feet away, they'd miss the dartboard. It's that bad for an offense that is offensive (as in … stinks). Meanwhile, who has it better than No. 4 Michigan? Nooooooobody. The Wolverines get to wait until October to play their first road game. They've got their quarterback situation settled (J.J. McCarthy). You've got to like their chances with the No. 2 offense (50 points per game) against the nation's worst offense (5.8 points per game). Another reason to like the Wolverines: Blake Corum has rushed for nine touchdowns (most in FBS). Iowa as a team has rushed for five (T-second fewest in FBS).
Quick Kicks: Will the winning coach in Iowa State at Kansas get the Nebraska job? ... No. 18 Oklahoma visits TCU still trying to figure out what happened to Brent Venables' defense last week. The 41 points scored by Kansas State were the most at home against a Venables defense since 2016 ... Williams' streak without an interception (188) has been accomplished at two schools (Oklahoma, USC), survived a transfer, and so far, four opponents' defenses this season. Arizona State visits USC this week … The Sun Devils are 1-3 (or worse) after four games for the first time since 1994 … Minnesota leads the country outgaining opponents by 355.2 yards per game. Thirty-one teams aren't averaging that many total yards … Arkansas leads the country with 20 sacks, four more than the next closest team (Middle Tennessee, 16) … Heisman contender Brock Bowers -- largely regarded as the nation's best tight end -- has more rushing touchdowns (three) than receiving scores (two).