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Top storylines heading into college football Week 4

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

There isn’t a heck of a lot of intrigue surrounding the games on the schedule in college football Week 4. Even more so than last weekend, there just aren’t many marquee matchups to look forward to.

In fact, just two games feature ranked teams. Most of the top teams around the nation are heavily favored to win their respective games because of it.

So is there any reason to get hyped? You bet there is. Upsets are a regular occurrence in college football, and there are some exciting players to watch every week. We’ll delve into all that now as we examine the top storylines heading into Week 4.

Vandy gets to back up big talk against ‘Bama

Vanderbilt took down Kansas State last weekend, a surprising development to some, to start the season 3-0. After the game, defensive lineman Nifae Lealao threw down the gauntlet challenging the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide.

“We expected to get this,” Lealao told WSMV News 4. “When you come to our house, we show you how to play some SEC ball. It don’t matter where you from. You’re going to know what ball we play. We’re going into next week ranked. That’s fine. Alabama, you’re next.”

Don’t think for a second that didn’t go right up on the bulletin board in ‘Bama’s locker room. The Crimson Tide have pretty much been status quo this year. Meaning, they’ve rolled through their competition like it was nothing, including in Week 1 against then No. 3 Florida State. We don’t expect this trend to be reversed by the Commodores on Saturday, though we cannot wait to find out if the home team can deliver an upset of epic proportions and back up the big talk of Lealao.

Florida State finally back in action

It seems like forever ago that Florida State lost its opener to Alabama. Hurricane Irma happened, and the destruction it caused led to two straight weeks off for the Seminoles, who had to cancel their Week 2 game and postpone their game against Miami until October.

Doak Campbell Stadium will be rocking on Saturday for this early game. FSU is hosting NC State, and we’ll finally get a chance to see if freshman James Blackman can live up to the challenge of replacing Deondre Francois, who was lost for the season with a knee injury. If Derwin James and Co. shut down the Wolfpack’s offense, this should be a walk in the park.

The Rashaad Penny show heads to Colorado

It’s a shame San Diego State isn’t televised nationally, because Rashaad Penny is worth the price of admission. In three games this year, all of which the Aztecs have won, Penny has racked up 657 yards and five touchdowns on just 80 touches, averaging 8.2 per. He’s going up against an Air Force squad in Colorado this Saturday that was a challenging opponent for Michigan to handle last weekend. Both of these teams have been strong on the offensive side of the ball this year, especially on the ground, while featuring better than average defenses against the run. Something’s got to give.

Strength vs. strength when Red Raiders take on Cougars

If you’re not out doing your Saturday chores when Texas Tech takes on Houston, tune in to ABC at noon ET. Sophomore defensive tackle Ed Oliver leads one of the more underrated defenses in the nation, and we can’t wait to see if this unit can slow down the Red Raiders. Texas Tech’s offense has averaged 54 points and over 620 yards per game this year. But it has faced a couple of teams that offered little resistance defensively. This week is a much sterner test.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Cougars are under new leadership. Greg Ward Jr. is out and former Texas A&M quarterback Kyle Allen is the man behind center running Major Applewhite’s offense. Houston is favored to win at home, but we’re expecting the road team to pull off the upset.

Tigers clash in Columbia

Auburn has thus far failed to live up to the hype in 2017. Following as ugly an offensive showing as we’ve seen in a while from a Gus Malzahn-coached team in Week 2 against Clemson, the Tigers struggled against Mercer last weekend. Five turnovers plagued them in a game that should have been theirs in a landslide. Now they’ll head to Columbia for a date with another ailing Tigers squad. Missouri has lost its last two games against South Carolina and Purdue by a combined score of 66-16.

If Auburn can’t make minced meat out of Missouri, even on the road, then it’s time to banish this team from your mind as any kind of threat to the top SEC teams the rest of the way.

Young Spartans face first test as Notre Dame comes to town

Notre Dame is a few awful play calls away from being 3-0. Brian Kelly submarined his team’s chance to beat Georgia a couple weeks back with an ultra-conservative game plan in the final stanza. Michigan State hasn’t lost yet but also hasn’t played anyone of consequence. The Fighting Irish are favored by less than a touchdown to win on the road in East Lansing, Mich. as they attempt to get revenge for last year’s embarrassing loss at home.

This game will hinge on whether Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush can make plays through the air. He’s been wildly inconsistent thus far, completing just over 50 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and two interceptions. If the Spartans can apply pressure and shut down the run, the game will be theirs for the taking.

Colorado looks for revenge against Washington

This Pac-12 battle brings up some bitter memories for the Buffaloes and their fans. Colorado had a chance to claim the conference title last year at Levi’s Stadium but was instead blown out of the water by the Huskies, 41-10. On Saturday night they’ll get a chance for revenge at home.

Washington has been a different team offensively this year without John Ross. However, Dante Pettis’ ability to break the game wide open with punt returns for touchdowns is a great reason to think the Huskies will once again win. He tied the NCAA all-time record recording his eighth career punt return touchdown last weekend, his third in as many games this year. Colorado will have to create some turnovers to pull off an upset at home.

USC looking to find some consistency at Cal

Sam Darnold

The Trojans are 3-0 to open the season. They looked like a title-contending team against Stanford in Week 2. That’s the good.

USC struggled to put away Western Michigan in Week 1 and needed some late-game heroics from Sam Darnold to beat Texas in overtime last weekend. That’s the bad.

This is a wildly inconsistent team that needs to find its footing in Week 4 against a Cal squad that should have no business hanging around. The Bears have a defense that is highly exploitable. If the Trojans can establish the running game with Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr, they should wipe the floor with their Pac-12 rival.

Can Iowa slow down the Penn State offense?

Iowa stunned Michigan last year to shake up the Big Ten standings. Can they pull off another huge upset Saturday at home against Penn State? Defensively, the Hawkeyes have the players to potentially give the Nittany Lions some trouble, like linebacker Josey Jewell and Parker Hesse. Though, given how Iowa State was able to go for 467 yards and nearly pulled off an upset in Week 2 we really have no idea what to make of Iowa heading into this game.

What we do know is that Penn State has been working hard to establish a passing game with Trace McSorley, who has already attempted twice as many passes as running attempts by Heisman candidate Saquon Barkley. It’s going to be interesting to see how James Franklin plays this one. Logic dictates Penn State should look to establish the run on the road, but that hasn’t been his modus operandi this year so far.

Time for LSU to figure some things out

Last weekend was a huge wake-up call for LSU, which was blown out by Mississippi State. The result was a predictable swift kick down the rankings, where the Tigers are now clinging to a No. 25 spot heading into Week 4. Syracuse shouldn’t give them any trouble at all at home, though the team’s up-tempo offense will challenge an LSU defense that was humbled in a big way last week. It certainly wasn’t the welcome back Arden Key was hoping for after he missed the first couple of weeks.

But the real issues facing the Tigers lie on the offensive side of the ball. In a game that required a passing attack to keep up with the Bulldogs, Danny Etling proved incapable of providing a spark. In fact, he was downright putrid, completing just 13-of-29 passes for 137 yards. In the next couple of games, head coach Ed Orgeron plans on getting freshman Myles Brennan more involved. We have to believe the Tigers are potentially looking to make a change if the young kid can perform.

Bulls on Parade: Quinton Flowers starting to heat up

Just in time for conference play to begin, Quinton Flowers and his offense got into a groove last week in the second half against Illinois. It’s been kind of a slow start for this unit, even though it has averaged 40 points per game in 2017. Flowers struggled to find his footing in the run game and had thrown just four touchdowns in his first two games. Then it all came together last Friday night when he totaled 386 yards and five touchdowns.

Temple was a problem for South Florida last year, rushing for 319 yards in an upset win that kept the Bulls from winning a conference championship. Charlie Strong will have his guys focused on ensuring that doesn’t happen again this time around. We predict a blowout win for the Bulls Thursday night.

Can Baylor keep Oklahoma from scoring 70 points?

Baylor is a slow-motion train wreck. The Bears have lost all three games this year so far, and now Baker Mayfield and No. 3 Oklahoma is coming to Waco to increase the misery index by a thousand. Baylor has allowed 463 yards on average per game this year. And it hasn’t faced an offense that comes close to matching the firepower the Sooners bring to the table. This game should be over by halftime, and the biggest question we have is whether the Bears can keep Oklahoma from dropping a 70-burger.

Trip to Stanford could get ugly for Josh Rosen and Co. 

Josh Rosen

UCLA has a problem. It has no defense to speak of. The Bruins have allowed more than 515 yards and 38 points per game. Memphis and Texas A&M both scored at least 44 points against this awful defense, meaning Josh Rosen has had to be perfect in order for UCLA to win. He was practically perfect in the fourth quarter against the Aggies and in the game against Hawaii. Then he tried to play hero ball last weekend to make up for his defense’s lapses against the Tigers and lost the game with two interceptions.

Stanford’s rushing offense, led by Bryce Love, is going to be a huge problem for the Bruins, who’ve allowed over 275 yards on the ground per game. While Stanford’s defense isn’t anything to write home about, either, we expect the Cardinal to triumph at home Saturday night.

SEC West melee at Jerry World should be fun

Texas A&M and Arkansas are meeting up at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas Saturday. ESPN is broadcasting it nationally, and the Razorbacks have a special treat in store to honor Jerry Jones in his own house. Both teams feature head coaches that either are on the hot seat (Kevin Sumlin) or should be on the hot seat (Bret Bielema). Both teams desperately need a win, regardless. The Aggies have been unimpressive the past three weeks, minus last weekend’s second-half surge against the Ragin’ Cajuns. Arkansas was thoroughly embarrassed against TCU in Week 2.

Desperate teams either crumble under the pressure of get pressed into diamonds. It’s going to be fascinating to see how they both respond on the big stage Saturday.

Cowboys get a chance to wrangle top competition

Oklahoma State has been putting opponents away early so far in 2017. Mason Rudolph has worked his way into the Heisman conversation running a lethal offense, while Justin Phillips and the Cowboys’ defense have proved no less dangerous. They’ll be at home this weekend for a ranked-versus-ranked battle against No. 16 TCU. The Horned Frogs have also featured a dynamic blend of potent offense and stifling defense. But they haven’t faced a buzz saw like the one the Cowboys are running these days.

We don’t really expect Kenny Hill to be able to keep up with Rudolph, James Washington and Co. He struggled last year against the Cowboys, throwing two interceptions in a blowout loss at home. Oklahoma State ran down TCU’s throat in that game and could certainly look to do the same in Week 4. No matter how the Cowboys attack, we expect them to win, and win handily.

Who will blink first in battle of Bulldogs?

Georgia and Mississippi State are very evenly matched heading into their Week 4 matchup. Both teams can run the ball and have a number of capable backs to employ as they do it. Both teams feature defenses that have been dominant this year and young quarterbacks capable of making big-time throws.

It’s going to be interesting to see which team comes out tighter in this prime-time matchup, which is being nationally broadcast on ESPN. In a game like this against two undefeated teams, it almost always comes down to which team can capitalize on turnovers. Given Georgia is at home, we’re giving this Bulldogs team a slight edge. But after watching Nick Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams rip LSU’s defense to shreds last weekend we also won’t be shocked to see them lead a road win, either.

Upset brewing when Purdue hosts Michigan?

We’ve been harping on Michigan the past couple of weeks because, quite honestly, the Wolverines don’t look like a dominant team. Last year’s team would have put the clamps down on teams like Cincinnati and Air Force. Yet this year’s squad allowed those two teams to tally 432 yards worth of offense, and if not for some fortuitous events taking place last weekend, Air Force was close to beating the Woverines. In Ann Arbor.

Purdue comes into this game as an underdog at home. Yet quarterback David Blough has been impressive so far in 2017 and Purdue’s rushing attack is capable of breaking off some big plays. Barring a swift turnaround by Wilton Speight or a much better defensive effort by Michigan, we won’t be shocked whatsoever to see the Boilermakers pull off the upset.

Heisman race starting to heat up

Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield in college football Week 2

Some people think Baker Mayfield has the edge. Others say it’s Mason Rudolph. Even in defeat last week, last year’s Heisman winner Lamar Jackson put up 381 yards and three touchdowns against the best defense in the nation. Then there’s Saquon Barkley lurking. He’ll likely become more prominent as his head coach utilizes him more later in the season. Sam Darnold is getting some attention, as is Josh Rosen, and as we touched on, San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny is crazy good, too.

There is a lot of football left to be played before we’ll have a clear picture of who deserves Heisman consideration. But what we’ve seen so far gives us reason to hope this year’s race might be a lot more intriguing going down the home stretch than last year’s, when Jackson was the clear favorite.