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The learning phase of the college football season is over. It’s not about preseason expectations or finding out what every team is anymore. We’ve seen enough to know who’s who and what’s what.

Starting right around now, the schedule gets harder, the weather gets colder, the games get tougher. Strap in, the roller coaster is about to drop. Here are college football’s studs and duds for Week 4.

Stud: USC

Sam Darnold

The Trojans haven’t lost yet, but they’ve been all too close. Not only did Texas come close to the upset last Saturday, but Western Michigan gave USC a game at the Coliseum in Week 1. Saving for a win against Stanford — which may not be as good as we thought at the time — the fifth-ranked Trojans haven’t been dominant.

That changes this week. Even though they’re going on the road to face a 3-0 team, USC should handle California with ease. The Golden Bears haven’t had the toughest schedule and their defense isn’t good enough to stop Sam Darnold or Ron Jones. After falling out of the top-four this week, USC has to assert themselves as a playoff team. This is the time to do it.

Dud: Michigan

Perhaps no team in the top-10 has been as underwhelming as the Michigan Wolverines. Perhaps no unranked team has been as impressive as the Purdue Boilermakers. With Michigan traveling to West Lafayette on Saturday, something has to give. The Wolverines’ offense is one of the least efficient in the country by success rate and they just lost leading receiver Tarik Black for the season. They struggled to beat Air Force at home last week while Purdue went on the road and thrashed Missouri by the tune of 35-3. The circumstances are ripe for an upset.

Stud: Mason Rudolph, quarterback, Oklahoma State 

Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph and the Cowboys have their first big test in college football Week 4

The senior quarterback is on NBA Jam-esque fire right now. Last week at Pittsburgh, Rudolph threw for 497 yards and five touchdowns, completing 71.9 percent of passes as Oklahoma State romped to a 59-21 victory. The Cowboys’ competition gets tougher this week as Big 12 play begins. But programs like TCU, which Oklahoma State plays this week, aren’t exactly known for defense. The Horned Frogs have struggled to prevent big plays, even this early in the year. With Rudolph, James Washington and Co. back at home, don’t expect that problem to get better.

Dud: Barry Odom, head coach Missouri 

Missouri head coach Barry Odom probably won’t get fired this season, if only because its just his second year on the job. But through three weeks, it’s clear that Odom isn’t exactly safe. His Tigers been outright bad, struggling to put away FCS Missouri State in Week 1 before blowout losses to South Carolina and Purdue at home. Not only that, but they already fired defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross. And the schedule only gets tougher from here. Save for a two-week stretch in late October in which they play Idaho and UConn, Mizzou may not be favored in a single game this year.

Stud: The Big 12

In 2014, Ohio State was picked over Baylor and TCU to make the playoff. Two years later, the Big 12 was left out of the top-four again. But this season, not only are there two playoff contenders out of the conference in Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, but the Big 12 is really fun. TCU, West Virginia, Kansas State and Texas are all good, entertaining teams.

Texas Tech may lose five or six games, but they can score points. Even Iowa State was involved in one of the year’s best games so far, a Week 2 overtime thriller against in-state rivals Iowa. The Big Ten and Pac-12 feature arguably better teams at the top, but the Big 12 is undoubtedly more entertaining from top to bottom.

Dud: The SEC

Alabama running back Damien Harris scores a touchdown against FSU in college football Week 1

We’ll probably all pretend that Mississippi State has a chance against Alabama in the SEC West because there isn’t anything better to do. Auburn, hailed as a potential contender before the year, struggled to handle Mercer last week. LSU fell flat against the aforementioned Bulldogs. Though Georgia is interesting in the SEC East, it’s clear the Crimson Tide are a step above them. Florida’s offense puts you to sleep. This setup isn’t new — it’s been like this for most of the decade. Nobody will knock off Alabama, nobody will come close. This conference is not competitive in the slightest.

Stud: Boise State

South Florida and San Diego State are the current clubhouse leaders in the Group of Five for a New Year’s Day bowl slot, but don’t sleep on the Broncos. Even after blowing what would have been a statement win at Washington State two weeks ago, Boise State leads all G5 teams in S&P+.

If the Broncos can blow out Virginia in a nationally televised game Friday night, they could easily vault into the top-25. San Diego State may have a leg up in the Mountain West right now, but it’s still early and these two teams play each other on October 14. Don’t be surprised if we see Boise State bowling on New Year’s Day.

Dud: Florida

The Hail Mary ending to the Gators’ victory over Tennessee swept Florida’s offensive issues under the rug. That play notwithstanding, the Gators have been utterly anemic on offense. Let’s not forget that in two games, this team has just one touchdown drive other than the Hail Mary. This week’s opponent, Kentucky, is coming off a solid win on the road against South Carolina. With Florida going on the road, this may be an upset in the making.

Stud: Michigan State

The Spartans, coming off an early bye week, have some momentum heading into a primetime showdown against Notre Dame. Though not utterly dominant against two MAC teams in the first two weeks, Mark Dantonio’s squad had easy victories against Bowling Green and Western Michigan. Coupled with the bye week and home-field advantage, the Spartans may have a good shot against the Fighting Irish. Their defense looks legit and while the team still hasn’t adequately replaced Connor Cook, that may be enough to compete.

Dud: Stanford

A couple weeks ago, Stanford looked like a team that could contend for the playoff. They blew out Rice in the opener and came into the L.A. Coliseum with what seemed like a serious chance to wrest control of the Pac-12 from USC. That didn’t happen. Instead, the Cardinal were blown out, 42-24, then followed it up with a loss at San Diego State, a team with undoubtedly inferior talent. Instead of in the playoff mix, Stanford is out of the top-25. With Josh Rosen coming to Palo Alto this week, it may be time for the Cardinal to reset expectations.

Stud: Saquon Barkley

 

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley

It’s hard to think of a better player in college football’s first three weeks than Penn State’s junior running back. Barkley has put up video game numbers: 548 yards from scrimmage with five touchdowns, averaging 8.1 per rush and 21.9 per reception. With the Nittany Lions facing Iowa in primetime this week, Barkley gets a chance to make his Heisman case in front of the whole country. Though the Hawkeyes have been a solid overall defensive team, they’ve struggled to contain the run with just a 40 percent success rate. Against Barkley, the best strategy may be to pray.

Dud: Duke

Though the Blue Devils have beaten two Power Five teams in Northwestern and Baylor, both those programs could struggle this year. This is as deceiving as 3-0 record as you can get. With a rivalry game against North Carolina on the docket, the 1-2 Tar Heels should be favored. North Carolina’s losses came against a solid program in Cal and an ACC contender in Louisville. Don’t be fooled by the top-line number here. UNC is the better team.

Stud: Georgia-Mississippi State

Mississippi State may not have much of a chance against Alabama, but their blowout win against LSU adds some juice to this week’s game at Georgia. The winner of this one could easily vault into the top-10 and become Alabama’s top competition in the SEC. After stopping Derrius Guice last week, slowing down the duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel looks substantially easier. However, freshman quarterback Jake Fromm has impressed for Georgia. This looks like a complete toss-up right now and it could have far-reaching impacts.

Dud: Nebraska-Rutgers

Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee

We all expect Rutgers to be bad, but seeing Nebraska like this is outright gloomy. The Cornhuskers didn’t just lose to Northern Illinois at home last week, they were a play away from dropping the opener to Arkansas State. Conference play hasn’t even started and the Cornhuskers look like they’d be lucky to make a bowl game. For a school that was a perennial contender for so long, that’s sad to see. If there’s any game to avoid on Saturday, it’s this one.

Stud: Florida State

In Week 1, the Seminoles lost their star quarterback, Deondre Francois, for the season in a demoralizing loss to Alabama. They haven’t played since, thanks to Hurricane Irma and a previously scheduled bye week. By the time Saturday rolls around, it will have been three weeks since we’ve seen Florida State.

It’s fair to say there are a number of questions. However, we shouldn’t lose perspective. Losing Francois will probably stop Florida State from contending for the national title, but running back Cam Akers and wide receiver Nyqwan Murray are still studs. The defense still might be one of the best five in the country. This is still a great team. Don’t forget it.

Dud: Texas A&M

Kevin Sumlin Texas A&M

It’s hard to put together two less impressive wins than the Aggies have in beating Nicholls State and Louisiana-Lafayette, with both games looking like potential disasters at halftime. A&M starts conference play this week with a neutral site game against rival Arkansas and without some major improvements, it could be an embarrassing loss. If the team’s collapse against UCLA was the beginning of the end for Kevin Sumlin, this game could be when the plot begins to thicken.

Stud: TaQuon Marshall, quarterback, Georgia Tech 

Through just two games — last week’s contest at UCF was cancelled — Marshall has six rushing touchdowns, tied for first in the ACC and second in the entire FBS. That despite his team, Georgia Tech, playing one less game than nearly everyone else. Against Pittsburgh, whose defense has been hapless two weeks in a row, Marshall is a sure bet to add to that total. The Yellow Jackets could run wild on Saturday.

Dud: Kansas

Two straight blowout losses to MAC teams isn’t exactly unexpected for the Kansas Jayhawks but that doesn’t make it less terrible. If anyone out there thought Kansas might build on its 2-10 2016 campaign after upsetting Texas late in the year, they have already been proven wrong. Saving for the November 4 contest against Baylor, college football’s 2017 Toilet Bowl, Kansas will be lucky to win another game.

Stud: Washington

The Huskies haven’t played anyone yet, but it feels a little weird that we haven’t heard more about the team which ranks seventh in the country and made the playoff last year. That could change after this Saturday’s game at Colorado. If Washington handles the Buffaloes, they could rise in the rankings as people collectively remember how good they are. They should do just that, as Colorado’s defense has no real answer for Dante Pettis or Myles Gaskin.

Dud: Texas Tech

The Red Raiders started the year 2-0 after a late victory against Arizona State last week. Though they don’t start conference play this week, unlike most other Big 12 teams, Texas Tech has a serious challenge in playing Houston on the road. Major Applewhite’s squad is eyeing one of those New Year’s Six bowls and winning this game will give them two Power Five scalps to build their case. The Cougars are at home and advanced metrics give them the edge. Though the Red Raiders are undoubtedly entertaining, they aren’t all that good a football team. Houston will move the ball all too easily and win this one convincingly.

Ethan Sears
Ethan Sears is currently a freshman at the University of Michigan. He is from Rye, New York and started writing at EthanSears.com, a self-published website. He has loved sports from an early age and intends to have a long career in journalism. Ethan has interned at the New York Post for three straight summers. He is a Michigan women's basketball beat writer for the Michigan Daily and a Michigan me's basketball writer for UMHoops.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ethan_sears.