Click here for SportsLine's Week 6 college football picks
Week 6 of college football kicks off with an important and potentially entertaining Pac-12 battle between USC (No. 8 in this week?s SportsLine Power Ratings) and overachieving Washington on Thursday night.
Other matchups include a clash of high-powered AAC offenses with Houston-SMU on Thursday.
On Friday, two defensive-oriented ACC clubs in Virginia Tech and North Carolina State both will look to bounce back from losses last week.
Washington at USC
Kickoff: Thursday, 9 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -17, O/U 56
USC returns from a bye following a two-week span in which the Trojans (3-1) showed both their immense talent and alarming inconsistency under coach Steve Sarkisian.
They followed their 41-31 Week 3 home loss to Stanford as a 10-point favorite with a first-quarter knockout at Arizona State the following week, rolling to a 42-14 win over a Sun Devils squad that went on to dominate UCLA last weekend.
The about-face allowed USC to re-enter the playoff picture, though there's little doubt it will have to run the table and look impressive in the process.
The Trojans face a Washington (2-2) team that can present problems if taken lightly. Washington coach Chris Petersen's club was roundly expected to occupy the Pac-12 cellar, as the Huskies lacked depth and experience on both sides of the ball.
But Petersen, who replaced Sarkisian at Washington, has found a way to make the Huskies competitive by building a solid defense and benefitting from the fast development of freshman quarterback Jake Browning.
Washington's two losses came by nine combined points -- it dropped a 16-13 decision to Boise State after missing a tying field goal at the horn, and saw a late comeback fall short in a 30-24 loss to high-powered California.
These are two of the stingiest defensive units in the country, as the Huskies rank 17th in the country in points allowed (15.8 points per game), while USC ranks 22nd (17.5).
Analysis: Petersen has pulled off one of the most impressive coaching performances in the country thus far, providing a shining example of his innate ability to maximize talent.
However, against the Trojans we'll see Washington's talent deficit magnified probably more than against any other Pac-12 opponent.
USC knows it can't afford a letdown, but that doesn't necessarily mean the Trojans won't have one. Even so, expect them to come ready to play off the bye week.
This line opened at 17, and I anticipate we'll see Washington emerge as the sharp side. So if you like the Trojans, it's likely you can lay a shorter number if you wait.
The side here is a difficult call. The Huskies' defense should keep them in the game for a while, but the concern is whether they have enough firepower to match the Trojans on the scoreboard.
I see a close game early, with it getting away from Washington in the second half. I think Washington backers will be hanging on for dear life, while USC supporters might feel a similar sensation.
Given the defensive prowess of both clubs, I think both will get enough stops for this game to slip Under the posted total.
Pick: Under 56
Predicted final score: USC 34, Washington 13
Click here for SportsLine's projection and pick for Washington-USC
SMU at Houston
Kickoff: Thursday, 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Houston -25.5, O/U 74.5
The scoreboard operator likely will be busy, as both teams are led by first-year coaches who served as offensive coordinators at higher-profile programs.
Houston already resembles the dominant, varied offensive force that coach Tom Herman oversaw last year while on Ohio State's staff. The Cougars (4-0) are averaging 604 yards (No. 3 nationally) and 45.8 points (No. 7).
They are led by a standout dual-threat quarterback in junior Greg Ward, who threw for 273 yards and ran for 182 more and three scores in last week's 38-24 road win over Tulsa.
Meanwhile, former Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris was hired to revive the moribund SMU program.
Morris has made a difference for the Mustangs (1-4) on offense, as they are averaging 31.4 points, up from 11.1 last season.
But defense remains a problem, as the Mustangs are near the bottom of the FBS in most statistical categories, including scoring defense at 44.4 points per game (No. 124 nationally).
Analysis: This is the start of a light stretch for Houston, which could easily get to 7-0 before some tough games down the stretch. Thursday's game is followed by road trips to Tulane and Central Florida.
The Cougars have a three-game home stretch starting Oct. 31 that includes dates with Vanderbilt, Cincinnati and Memphis. Those contests should provide an accurate barometer for this team's ceiling.
In the meantime, Houston should be able to take care of SMU even if this spot doesn't bode well for maximum motivation.
Covering this gigantic number is another matter. This game opened in the 21-point range and quickly was pushed to the current mark.
The Mustangs provide just enough value at the adjusted number to consider a look. So long as they can at least make Houston work a little bit for its points, they have enough firepower of their own to stay inside this ultra-tempting fistful of points.
Pick: SMU +25.5
Predicted final score: Houston 49, SMU 31
Click here for SportsLine's projection and pick for SMU-Houston
NC State at Virginia Tech
Kickoff: Friday, 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Pick 'Em, O/U 49.5
This is a pivotal game for both clubs. The Hokies (2-3) are in dire need of a win in what might become a difficult quest to become bowl eligible, while the Wolfpack (4-1) will be looking to get back on track after taking their first loss of the season to Louisville last week.
Both programs have fallen into familiar patterns. The Hokies have continued what has been a trend toward mediocrity this decade. After playing a strong first half against Ohio State in their season opener, the game and their season turned when senior quarterback Michael Brewer was lost to a season-ending injury.
Wins over Furman and Purdue were followed by a 35-28 road loss to East Carolina and last week's 17-13 home loss to Pittsburgh.
Conversely, the Wolfpack, under coach Dave Doeren, have made a habit of feasting on meager competition in the early going, then faltering when ACC play starts.
Last year, NC State started 4-0 against a soft schedule before losing its next five in the ACC.
This season has started in familiar form. The Wolfpack rolled past Troy, Eastern Kentucky, Old Dominion and South Alabama by a combined score of 185-48.
Upon returning to its ACC weight class, NC State was unable to muster much offense against resurgent Louisville and took a 20-13 home loss.
Analysis: It's difficult to trust either team in this spot. The Hokies have been an unreliable play in these spots recently, and there's concern whether the Wolfpack's start was fool's gold.
I believe the latter to have more relevance. Although Virginia Tech's struggles have been far from a surprise, this is one of the more winnable games left on a schedule that includes trips to Miami and Georgia Tech.
In other words, the Hokies basically have to get this one if they stand any chance of finishing .500 or better and reaching the postseason.
NC State has a great dual-threat quarterback in Jacoby Brissett, but he has struggled against top-tier defensive clubs. Last week, the Wolfpack were held to 45 rushing yards against Louisville, and Brissett managed just 183 passing yards.
Pick: Virginia Tech (Pick 'Em)
Predicted final score: Virginia Tech 24, NC State 20
Click here for SportsLine's projection and pick for NC State-Virginia Tech
Last week: 3-0
Cincinnati (+6.5) vs. Miami -- (Cincinnati 38, Miami 23)
Memphis-South Florida (Under 62) -- (Memphis 24, South Florida 17)
Connecticut-BYU (Under 45.5) -- (BYU 30, Connecticut 13)
Season to date in weeknight preview feature: 12-4
Josh Nagel is a Reno-based handicapper and radio host who has worked in the Nevada sports gaming industry for 15 years. His work has been featured in USA Today, Poker News and on Covers.com. He looks for psychological edges, motivational spots and situational advantages.