College Football Viewer’s Guide

How to Watch Week 4

Sometime after 2:00 am Eastern time, Cal RB Vic Enwere dropped the ball one yard too early (picked up casually after the whistle by a Longhorn defender), despite gliding untouched into the end zone for what would have been the game winner against #11 Texas. The ‘Horns had life as the review buzzer put the last game of the night on pause, but the decision announced to the Berkeley crowd and those bleary-eyed Easterners still hanging on was Cal ball at the spot of the fumble. The Golden Bears punched it in and knocked out Texas, yet another championship-minded program swept out of the semifinal race on a Saturday that sealed the fates of several preseason playoff favorites.

The stunner of the week wasn’t that Louisville beat Florida State, as the Cardinals entered the game with nearly a 50% chance to win according to our game models…it was the 43-point destruction that sent shockwaves reverberating across the nation. Oklahoma wasn’t decimated quite so thoroughly, but they never seemed truly competitive against the visiting Buckeyes, an unexpectedly lost look for a 1-2 team that began the year with championship pedigree. In South Bend, the extremely talented young Irish led by a veteran quarterback (which sounds a lot like Ohio State), were blasted early and often by a Spartan team that hadn’t shown much offensive life in a testy Week 1 win over FCS side Furman. Also 1-2, Notre Dame, being outside the conference structure, now plays for its New Year’s Six life every week but can’t work its way back into the playoff picture.

Congratulations to Army, still grieving from the death of Brandon Jackson, for their dominant 66-14 win at UTEP. At 3-0, the Black Knights are the biggest overachievers in the nation, 1.6 wins better than expected (compared to preseason win probabilities) through the first three games. And kudos to Oregon for their touching 27-yard line tribute to deceased Nebraska punter Sam Foltz before their showdown at Memorial Stadium.

Thursday, September 22

Perhaps a tune-up against a helpless foe–the 3rd and 4th quarters against SC State were shortened to 12 minutes for mercy–was what Clemson’s sputtering offensive engine needed. ★ #5 Clemson at Georgia Tech [ESPN 7:30] is the lone Thursday nighter, and it looks trickier for the Tigers than it did three weeks ago. The resurgent Yellow Jackets are 3-0, matching last year’s unrepresentative win total, after toppling Boston College on a late TD drive in Dublin (Week 1) and wiping out Vanderbilt by a convincing 31 points (Week 3). The Tech defense has been the highlight, only allowing ten points per game, but that misleading figure has come against below-average offenses. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson and star receiver trio Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, and Ray-Ray McCloud can top that in the first quarter if they overcome inefficiencies that plagued them on third downs and in the red zone during their nervy 2-0 start.

The challenge for Paul Johnson’s team will be churning out methodical rush yards against an assaultive defense that has led the nation in tackles for loss the past three seasons. It’s a system, it’s a style, it’s a mentality, it’s the Brent Venables way: Clemson will make plays in the backfield all game long. Yet, the Tech spread option has been a thorn in Venables’ side, averaging about 280 rush yards per game against Clemson from 2012 through 2014, until the Tigers finally bottled them up in 2015, holding them to 71 yards on the ground. IF Georgia Tech can run it like they did in three of the past four years, sprinkling in a few signature big-hitters in the play-action game, they can win–but that’s a very big IF (37% chance of an upset).

Friday, September 23

Warm up with Wyoming at Eastern Michigan [CBSSN 7:30], the only show in town for 30 minutes, between a pair of 2-1 teams ahead of schedule in their quests for bowl eligibility. Craig Bohl’s Cowboys have the better chance of breaking through to the postseason, beginning the year with a 5-7 expected record and already at +0.9 in win differential, putting them right on the 6-win bowl eligibility cusp.

Switch over for the kickoff of TCU at SMU [ESPN 8:00], a substantial underdog that played Baylor to a first-half draw two weeks ago before running out of gas in the second half, just dangerous enough to scare the Horned Frogs should they sleepwalk over to Dallas. The Mustangs can’t consistently stymie Kenny Hill, so the onus is on the offense to keep pace as long as it can against a TCU defense that has underwhelmed in September (#27 defensive power rating in the preseason, down to #40 heading into Week 4). SMU’s Courtland Sutton is one of the better receivers you’ve never heard of after averaging more yards per catch (17.6) than any other freshman in the country last season, and he’s off to a blazing start this year, averaging 25.9 per grab and hauling in four touchdowns. Sutton getting behind a suspect TCU secondary is the key matchup for SMU’s thin shot at the upset (8% chance).

The game of the night is in Salt Lake City [USC at #24 Utah, FS1 9:00], where the Trojans launch a final salvo for 2016 respectability. Losing to consistent powers Alabama and Stanford isn’t shameful in and of itself, but appearing uncompetitive in both is unbefitting a program flush with the talent and prestige of USC. Besieging the 3-0 Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium for a desperately needed victory is a tough assignment, as Utah typically plays a fundamentally sound game of football: solid running game, excellent defense, and elite special teams have been hallmarks of Kyle Whittingham’s 12-year tenure as head coach. If Utah has an exploitable weakness, it’s inexperience at the offensive skill positions. The Utes began the season with the preseason #73 offense and have since slipped a bit to #81.

Saturday, September 24

Arguably the game of the week [★★★ #11 Wisconsin at #8 Michigan State, BTN 12:00] kicks off in the early slot, a slugfest between two physical behemoths that boast Top 20 defenses (Wisconsin #12, MSU #18). Both Badgers and Spartans exceeded our nonconference expectations by posting signature wins over consensus preseason Top 10 LSU and Notre Dame, respectively, despite each measuring out beforehand at about a 20% chance to win those games. Both have also limped to the finish line against supposedly outclassed opposition in narrow wins against Georgia State and Furman, concerning struggles that cloud the picture of how good these teams can be, particularly on offense, as Big Ten play begins.

This matchup is the beginning of an especially tough slate for Wisconsin: at Michigan State, at Michigan, home vs Ohio State, at Iowa, and home vs Nebraska. Upsetting LSU at Lambeau boosted the Badgers, but a loss here could start a tailspin that quickly turns their 3-0 start into 3-3 before divisional games against the Hawks and ‘Huskers.

A pair of fringe Top 10 teams are in danger elsewhere across the country: ★ #12 Georgia @ #23 Ole Miss [ESPN 12:00] and ★ #13 Florida State at South Florida [ABC 12:00].  Last week’s rollercoaster in Oxford might have ended in disappointment for the Rebels, but only a very good team can take a 21 point lead on #1 Alabama. Despite an 11 spot deficit in the poll, we favor Ole Miss and their #7 offense by 11 points, as this Georgia team is fortunate to be undefeated after beating Nicholls State and Missouri by a combined three points. Though RB Nick Chubb and the QB situation grab the headlines, the Bulldogs’ most important player may be emerging WR Isaiah McKenzie, who is #19 nationally with a dependence rating of 7.7 points (a metric that analyzes how much a team’s offense relies on individual players), highest of any pure wideout in the country in the young season.

Meanwhile, the Seminoles can’t let Louisville beat them twice–don’t let the name or Group of 5 label fool you, South Florida is a very good team that hasn’t scored fewer than 45 points this year. A loss here puts the ‘Noles in a bad spot, as the schedule doesn’t lighten up with the firepower of North Carolina and Miami looming in Weeks 5 and 6.

Another game with potential playoff consequences [★★★ #19 Florida at #14 Tennessee, CBS 3:30] matches up a team without a starting quarterback (Florida’s Luke Del Rio injured) against a team without a pulse through the first three weeks. Tennessee has been possibly the most disappointing 3-0 team in the nation, regularly underperforming expectations and displaying a continued lack of offensive creativity and punch. The only game that looked good on paper was the 45-24 victory over Virginia Tech in the Battle at Bristol, but that score was a mirage fueled by five fumble recoveries, an unsustainable run of luck that won’t save Tennessee in a brutal 4-week stretch that also includes Georgia, Texas A&M, and Alabama. Against Florida’s stifling #5 defense, which has only allowed two scoring plays all season, RBs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara figure to find few holes, which will likely force Josh Dobbs to challenge the Gator secondary, where lurks superstar corner Jalen “Teez” Tabor (18 passes defended in 2015, 2 in 2016). Though questions swirl around both clubs, the victor in this divisional confrontation takes command of the SEC East, with only Georgia remaining as a viable threat to reach Atlanta in December.

Don’t overlook an ACC clash between two preseason favorites [ Pittsburgh at North Carolina, ESPNU 3:30] in the topsy-turvy Coastal to see who gains a significant early advantage in the divisional race. Gutted by multiple injuries to defensive starters, Pitt has morphed into a team trying to outgun their foes in shootouts–successful against Penn State but falling short at Oklahoma State–and few teams in the ACC are as comfortable in high-scoring affairs as the ever-explosive North Carolina Tar Heels. Pitt’s secondary, after yielding nearly 300 receiving yards to Cowboy WR James Washington, is a major liability against efficient Tar Heel QB Mitch Trubisky, who is yet to throw an interception this season.

Check the scores of Boise State at Oregon State [FS1 3:30] and BYU versus West Virginia [ESPN2 3:30, at FedEx Field]. West Virginia is quietly one of the Big XII’s last hopes and needs to get past BYU, who seems to be playing everyone everywhere, to avoid further tarnish to the conference image. If Boise wins in Corvallis, they should cruise into their pivotal October 20th home game against (you guessed it) BYU undefeated at 6-0.

Once the afternoon games wind down, relax for 30 minutes before the next big games start by checking out Georgia Southern at Western Michigan [ESPN3, 7:00] to see how the 3-0 Broncos hold up against a tough G5 opponent who will challenge them with a triple option that has already amassed 1,000 rushing yards.

Head to Waco for the kickoff between ★★ Oklahoma State and #16 Baylor [FOX 7:30], a matchup of two teams with Big XII championship and playoff aspirations. If the Cowboys finish 11-1 (the one loss resulting from referee error), the committee might treat them as a 12-win or 11.5-win team and slot them in a semifinal, depending on the resumes of the other contenders. Baylor, along with aforementioned West Virginia, is one of two league teams still undefeated and in firm control of their playoff destiny. Allowing only 10 points per game, the Bears are surging defensively, up to #29 after starting the season at #67, while maintaining their offensive gusto under the continued direction of OC Kendal Briles.

Alternate between Waco and L.A. for ★★ #7 Stanford at UCLA [ABC 8:00], a potential season-builder for the Bruins after beginning as the Pac-12 South favorite but scuffling some in the first few weeks. The Cardinal offensive line looked back to its old self in the dismantling of imploding USC last week, a welcome sign after grinding out next to nothing on the ground most of the game against Kansas State’s surprisingly strong front. Watching Stanford do-it-all star Christian McCaffery, active in 58% of offensive plays to lead all non-QBs nationally, continues to be worth the price of admission, and this is another opportunity to build on his healthy 2016 Heisman campaign in front of a national audience. (No, it is not a foregone conclusion that Louisville QB Lamar Jackson will win it after only three weeks of football.) UCLA’s defense (#15) is better than either USC’s or K-State’s, though, so the highlight plays might require a bit more effort to produce.

When Stanford–who runs more often–has the ball, again observe the O-line to see if the K-State or the USC game was the norm. When UCLA–who throws more often–has the ball, let your eyes drift to the receivers to see if they find creases in the coverage that Bruin QB Josh Rosen can exploit.

Another big game lands around halftime of Oklahoma State – Baylor: ★★★ #17 Arkansas vs #10 Texas A&M [ESPN 9:00, in Arlington], a battle for the top challenger spot to frontrunner Alabama in the thinning SEC West. With Ole Miss a game and a tiebreaker behind the Tide and LSU underachieving, whichever undefeated squad emerges from this critical divisional clash takes a giant stride forward in the playoff and New Year’s Six race. Aggie Trevor Knight might be a bigger name and is more involved in the QB-centric offense favored by HC Kevin Sumlin, but Arkansas signal-caller Austin Allen has been slightly more efficient after three games, averaging 0.33 net points per play (including passes, runs, and sacks) compared to Knight’s 0.29. He doesn’t have the elusiveness or running ability of Knight, so the pressure is on the ‘Hawgs up front to provide enough protection against star DL Myles Garrett and a pass rush generating four sacks per game.

Close Week 4 with a major playoff contender as #9 Washington faces Arizona [PAC12 Network 10:30, at Arizona]. The Huskies have avoided the limelight thus far by playing one-sided matchups at odd times on the Pac-12 Network, but they have innocuously ascended into the Top 10 despite little early-season attention. The schedule strengthens as Pac-12 play begins in the desert against a Wildcat team that has enough firepower to test the resilience of Washington’s stone wall of a defense, tied with Alabama for the #1 stop unit in the land heading into Week 4. The defense was expected to be great; what’s even more encouraging is the rapid 20-spot climb of the offense to #43 (preseason #63) as the inexperienced youth of 2015 have matured into experienced veterans in 2016.

Washington is a strong favorite (85%) in Tucson six days before a massive Friday night clash with Top 10 Stanford at Husky Stadium, possibly the game of the year in the Pac-12 conference.