Athlon previews college football's Week 4 action.
College football's Week 4 slate doesn't feature a ton of huge matchups, but there's plenty of impact games. Florida State-Clemson is a marquee ACC battle between two top-10 teams, while Michigan travels to Notre Dame. As usual, the SEC always has a few intriguing contests that are must-see games. Vanderbilt travels to Georgia, LSU hits the road for a matchup against Auburn and new SEC member Missouri takes on South Carolina.
Top Storylines to Watch in Week 4
1. Who will stake an early claim for the ACC title: Clemson or Florida State?
The ACC hasn’t had many big games on a national scale in recent years, but Saturday night’s matchup between Florida State and Clemson will have BCS title implications. The loser of this game is probably out of the picture when it comes to a national title, while the winner takes a huge step towards winning the ACC title. Clemson has been tested a little more this season, as the Tigers beat Auburn in the season opener, while Florida State played two FCS teams (Murray State and Savannah State) to start the year. The battle in the trenches will be especially important for this game. Clemson and Florida State’s offensive line came into the year with question marks, and both units have yet to emerge as a strength. If the Seminoles’ defensive line controls the line of scrimmage, it will be tough for the Tigers to get quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins on track.
2. Oklahoma looks to take early control of the Big 12
Most of the Big 12 teams have played only non-conference games thus far, so this week’s Oklahoma-Kansas State matchup is an early opportunity to seize control of the conference. The Sooners have dominated the recent series, as Kansas State’s last win in a regular-season meeting came in 1997. For the Wildcats to have any shot at winning on Saturday night, quarterback Collin Klein has to get on track. In last season’s meeting, Klein had just 150 yards of total offense, which won’t get it done this time around. The Sooners will gear up to stop Klein, while looking to get its passing game on track. Kansas State’s secondary has struggled in the first three weeks of the season and will be tested against Landry Jones and his receivers.
3. Is Notre Dame ready to be a national title contender?
After a 20-3 win over Michigan State last week, Notre Dame has positioned itself for a run at a BCS bowl. It’s early, so the Irish still have a lot to prove. However, if the first three games have shown anything, Notre Dame seems to have corrected its turnover program from last season and fixed its quarterback issues. Redshirt freshman Everett Golson still has a lot to learn, but is a clear upgrade over Tommy Rees. This Saturday presents another challenge for the Irish, with Michigan set to visit South Bend. The Wolverines are still trying to find the right pieces on the offensive and defensive lines, but Denard Robinson has torched Notre Dame in the last two meetings. This is a relatively even matchup, so once again, turnovers are crucial. If the Irish don’t turn the ball over and win the battle in the trenches, they should be able to hold Robinson in check and snap a three-game losing streak to Michigan.
4. Does Auburn have any chance to beat LSU?
So far, Auburn has shown nothing to suggest it can beat LSU this week. The offense has struggled to get anything going through the air, while the defense ranks a disappointing 94th in yards allowed. LSU is dealing with a few injuries on the offensive line and in the backfield, but remains one of college football’s top teams. This will be the first big road test for quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who should be a big upgrade under center for LSU over Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee. With a road date against Florida in two weeks, it’s important for the Tigers to get Mettenberger comfortable before the competition increases. Winning on the road in the SEC is never easy, but all signs point to a LSU rout on Saturday night.
5. Oregon… the new Pac-12 favorite?
With USC losing to Stanford, the focus shifts to Oregon as the Pac-12’s best hope at playing for a national title. However, the Ducks have yet to be tested, as Arizona will be their toughest game through the first four weeks of the season. The scoreboard operator should be busy, especially with both teams averaging over 45 points a game. Oregon redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota has been solid through the first three starts of his career, recording 782 overall yards and eight touchdowns. The Wildcats should be able to move the ball, especially with quarterback Matt Scott and running back Ka’Deem Carey combining to average over 450 yards a game. Both teams won’t field a dominant defense in this matchup but getting timely stops is crucial to the outcome. Look for Oregon to make a few more stops than Arizona, which will help the Ducks pull away in the fourth quarter.
Six Intriguing Under-the-Radar Games to Watch
Louisiana Tech at Illinois
The Bulldogs are one of the best non-BCS teams and has won nine of their last 10 games. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is expected to return after missing the last two weeks with an ankle injury. The Fighting Illini owns one of the Big Ten’s best defenses, but they will be tested by a Louisiana Tech offense averaging 56 points a game.
Miami at Georgia Tech
Can the Hurricanes slow down Georgia Tech? Miami’s defense has been invisible against BCS competition, allowing 32 points to Boston College and 52 to Kansas State. The Hurricanes rank 102nd nationally against the run – a bad sign against a Georgia Tech team averaging 374 rushing yards per game.
Fresno State at Tulsa
These teams are quietly two of the best from the non-BCS conferences. The Bulldogs ran wild over Colorado last week, winning 69-14 to move to 2-1 this season. Tulsa lost to Iowa State in the opener, but looks like the favorite to win Conference USA’s West Division. With both teams averaging over 40 points a game, this matchup could be one of the highest-scoring games of Week 4.
Utah at Arizona State
The Sun Devils have experienced some interesting luck this year, as Saturday’s game against Utah will be their third consecutive matchup against a team with a backup quarterback. The Utes are coming off of a huge win against rival BYU last Saturday and should get injured running back John White back in the lineup this week. Arizona State is 2-0 at home this year and with games coming up against California, Oregon and UCLA, this is a must-win game to keep pace with the Bruins in the Pac-12 South.
Rutgers at Arkansas
The Razorbacks aren’t going to win a national title, but there’s plenty for this team to salvage the rest of the way. Arkansas will have its hands full with Rutgers this Saturday, especially if quarterback Tyler Wilson isn’t able to play. The Scarlet Knights own one of the Big East’s top defenses, while their offense is rapidly improving under sophomores Gary Nova (QB) and Jawan Jamison (RB).
Vanderbilt at Georgia
These two teams met for an entertaining 33-28 matchup in Nashville last season, but the real fireworks started after the game. Vanderbilt coach James Franklin and Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham exchanged words after the final whistle, and there’s no love lost between these two teams.
Teams Looking to Bounce Back
North Carolina – With East Carolina visiting Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels should snap a two-game losing streak. However, the bigger concern is the health of running back Giovani Bernard. The sophomore has missed the last two games due to a knee injury, and his status is up in the air for this week’s contest.
Tennessee – There’s no shame in losing to Florida, but the Volunteers’ second-half performance left a lot to be desired. Akron won’t present much of a challenge, which is good news for a Tennessee team looking to build confidence with Georgia and Mississippi State up next.
Virginia Tech – The Hokies’ performance against an 0-2 Pittsburgh team was one of the biggest surprises from Week 3. Both sides of the ball struggled, especially a rushing attack that generated just 59 yards. Virginia Tech should get back into the win column against Bowling Green, but it’s important for this team to find some answers.
USC – If the Trojans want to have any shot at playing for the national title, they have to win out and look impressive in the process. The road to climbing back in the national title picture starts against California – a team USC has won eight consecutive matchups against.
Virginia – The Cavaliers were steamrolled in last week’s 56-20 loss to Georgia Tech, allowing the Yellow Jackets to rush for 461 yards and seven touchdowns. Virginia has struggled to get its rushing game on track, which is bad news for an offense that lacks a dynamic passing attack. With a trip to TCU on tap this Saturday, the Cavaliers will have a tough time getting back into the win coloumn.
Wake Forest – A week after picking up a solid win against North Carolina, the Demon Deacons were demolished 52-0 by Florida State. Wake Forest should beat Army this Saturday, but the Black Knights are never an easy matchup.
Teams Desperate For a Win
Arkansas – After last week’s 52-0 loss to Alabama, the Razorbacks need something positive before SEC play picks back up on Sept. 29 at Texas A&M. Quarterback Tyler Wilson is close to returning, which should help spark the offense against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights’ defense is allowing only 8.3 points a game, so it’s no guarantee Wilson’s return will be enough for Arkansas to win this game.
Auburn – Sure, the Tigers won last week, but it wasn’t exactly the most impressive showing. Auburn needed overtime to beat Louisiana-Monroe, and this team still has plenty of question marks, which loom large against LSU this Saturday. To win in Baton Rouge, Auburn will need a flawless effort from quarterback Kiehl Frazier and for its defense to slow down LSU’s rushing attack. It’s possible, but unlikely considering how much Auburn has struggled through the first three weeks.
California – Jeff Tedford’s seat isn’t getting any cooler, especially as the Golden Bears are off to a 1-2 start. California played tough at Ohio State, but moral victories aren’t going to get it done. The Golden Bears play at USC this Saturday, where they have not won at since 2000. As Stanford showed last week, the Trojans are vulnerable. Can California take advantage of the question marks and pull off a key victory this Saturday?
Quarterbacks Under Pressure
Austyn Carta-Samuels, Vanderbilt – Carta-Samuels transferred to Vanderbilt after starting two years at Wyoming. He was an efficient 13 of 20 for 195 yards and one touchdown in the win over Presbyterian, but the competition (Georgia) will be much tougher this Saturday.
Kiehl Frazier, Auburn – It seems Frazier gets mentioned in this section each week, but his performance against Louisiana-Monroe didn’t do much to ease the concerns about the Tigers' quarterback play. The sophomore completed 10 of 18 passes for 130 yards, one touchdown and one interception, with a chunk of his yardage coming on a 33-yard Hail Mary scoring strike to end the first half.
Andrew Maxwell, Michigan State – Maxwell deserves time to grow into the starting job, but his first three starts have produced mixed results. He threw for 248 yards and three interceptions in the 17-13 win over Boise State and completed 23 of 45 passes for 187 yards in the loss to Notre Dame. Since Eastern Michigan visits East Lansing this Saturday, the Spartans will have an opportunity to work out the kinks in the passing game.
Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech – Thomas is in no danger of losing his starting job, but he needs a good performance to erase last weekend’s awful showing. The junior completed 14 of 31 passes for 265 yards and three interceptions in the loss to Pittsburgh. With Bowling Green up next, all signs point to Thomas putting up a big performance on Saturday.
Michael Rocco, Virginia – With a struggling rushing attack, it’s up to Rocco to take on a bigger role in Virginia’s offense. The junior hasn’t been awful through three weeks, throwing for 712 yards and four touchdowns, but he has tossed three picks and is coming off of a forgettable performance against Georgia Tech. If the Cavaliers want to knock off TCU this Saturday, they need a big game from Rocco.
Joel Stave, Wisconsin – The Badgers are desperately looking for a spark on offense. Danny O’Brien threw for 454 yards and three touchdowns in the first three games but was benched in favor of Stave against Utah State. The redshirt freshman was just 2 of 6 for 15 yards, but the coaching staff will give him a chance to ignite the offense against UTEP this Saturday.
Injuries to watch
Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina – Bernard has missed the last two games due to a knee injury. Larry Fedora doesn’t say much about injuries, so Bernard’s status could be in question until kickoff. Even if Bernard plays this week against East Carolina, the Tar Heels can afford to limit his touches.
Damon Bullock, RB, Iowa – Depth in the Hawkeyes’ backfield took another hit with Bullock’s injury against Northern Iowa last week. Bullock is not expected to play against Central Michigan this Saturday.
Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska – Burkhead left the season opener against Southern Miss with a knee injury and is expected to return to the field for this week’s game against Idaho State.
James Franklin, QB, Missouri – Franklin sat out last week’s game against Arizona State due to a shoulder injury. The junior is expected to play this Saturday, which is a crucial game for Missouri, as it looks to avoid an 0-2 start in the SEC.
MarQueis Gray, QB, Minnesota – Gray suffered a high ankle sprain in last week’s win over Western Michigan. Backup Max Shortell has experience and is a capable replacement. However, the Golden Gophers will miss Gray’s playmaking ability on the ground if he can’t start.
Montel Harris, RB, Temple – Harris has not played since posting 12 yards on five carries against Villanova in the season opener. The senior is dealing with a hamstring injury but could return this Saturday against Penn State.
Khaled Holmes, C, USC – Holmes was clearly missed last week, as USC struggled to block Stanford’s aggressive front seven. The senior may not be able to play this week, which means junior Abe Markowitz will get the call at center.
Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia – Jones missed last week’s game against FAU due to a groin injury. The junior is expected to play this Saturday, especially with a key SEC East game against Vanderbilt on the schedule.
John White, RB, Utah – White missed last week’s rivalry game against BYU due to an ankle injury. The Utes need the senior back in the lineup if they want to win on the road against Arizona State.
Nikita Whitlock, DT, Wake Forest – The Demon Deacons clearly missed Whitlock last week, as Florida State rushed for 385 yards and four touchdowns against Wake Forest. Whitlock is not expected to play this Saturday, which is bad news for the Demon Deacons against one of the nation’s top rushing offenses.
Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas – In order for Arkansas to get back into the win column, Wilson has to play on Saturday against Rutgers. The senior sat out against Alabama due to a concussion and could be a game-time decision on Saturday.
Baylor at Louisiana-Monroe (+7) (Friday)
The Warhawks beat Arkansas in Week 2 and nearly knocked off Auburn last Saturday. Louisiana-Monroe should have no shortage of confidence after its performances against SEC teams, so this will be no easy matchup for Baylor.
Prediction: Baylor 41-31
Kansas (+9) at Northern Illinois
It’s a little strange to see a BCS team as a nine-point underdog, but the Jayhawks lost to Rice in Week 2 and barely beat the Huskies last season. Although Kansas is an underdog, it should hold Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch in check long enough to win.
Prediction: Kansas 31-27
South Florida at Ball State (+10)
The Bulls are reeling after last week’s 23-13 loss to Rutgers, while the Cardinals are riding a wave of momentum thanks to the last-second win over Indiana last week. The battle in the trenches will be crucial, as South Florida’s defensive line could dominate the line of scrimmage and limit Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning and running back Jahwan Edwards.
Prediction: South Florida 34-31
Syracuse (+1) at Minnesota
Considering the line has hovered around one point all week, it’s hard to consider this an upset. However, Minnesota will likely be without quarterback MarQueis Gray, and Syracuse suffered close back-to-back losses against Northwestern and USC to open the year.
Prediction: Syracuse 31-27
Connecticut at Western Michigan (+1)
Just like Syracuse-Minnesota, it’s hard to call a one-point spread much of an upset. However, the Broncos knocked off Connecticut in Storrs last season, and a high-powered offense led by senior quarterback Alex Carder will give the Huskies all they can handle.
Prediction: Connecticut 27-24
Six Games to Avoid this Saturday
Maryland at West Virginia
At first glance, the Terrapins would seem to have a shot against the Mountaineers, especially with a defense that ranks sixth nationally against the pass. However, a deeper look into the numbers reveals Maryland has yet to play an offense with a developed passing attack. The Terrapins’ offense is averaging only 258.3 yards per game – a number West Virginia should equal at halftime.
FAU at Alabama
Talk about a coaching mismatch: Carl Pelini vs. Nick Saban.
Colorado at Washington State
If the Buffaloes continue on their current path, they could finish 2012 with the worst season by a team in a BCS conference since 1998. Colorado’s offense is averaging 19.7 points a game, while the defense is allowing 479.7 yards and 40.3 points a game. Washington State is struggling to find the right mix under new coach Mike Leach, but the Buffaloes are in for a long afternoon against the Cougars’ offense.
Idaho State at Nebraska
The Cornhuskers still have concerns about the defense, but running back Rex Burkhead is back, and Idaho State shouldn’t present much of a challenge for Bo Pelini’s team.
UAB at Ohio State
The only storyline to monitor in this game is Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. The sophomore is averaging 19 rushing attempts per game – a number Urban Meyer and his staff would like to see decrease the rest of the year.
Kentucky at Florida
Even though the Gators are coming off of a huge road win at Tennessee, don’t expect any letdown against Kentucky. Florida has not lost to the Wildcats since 1986 and only five matchups since 1990 have been decided by 10 points or less.
by Steven Lassan
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