By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
10 Key Storylines to Watch for Week 4
1. After struggling the first two weeks of the season, Clemson looked like a different team in Saturday’s win over Auburn. Quarterback Tajh Boyd completed 30 of 42 passes for 386 yards and four scores, while freshman receiver Sammy Watkins caught 10 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns. The Tigers have a chance to take control of the ACC Atlantic with Florida State visiting Death Valley. The Seminoles have lost their last four trips to Clemson, and quarterback EJ Manuel is expected to miss Saturday’s game with a shoulder injury. Redshirt freshman Clint Trickett will start, and he gained valuable experience in last week’s game against Oklahoma. With the offense struggling to establish the rushing attack and a new quarterback under center, Florida State will lean on its defense, which is one of the best in the nation. Clemson’s offense is averaging 38.7 points per game and if it can repeat last week’s success, the Tigers can defeat the Seminoles for the fifth time in a row in Death Valley.
2. USC and Arizona State were the preseason favorites to win the Pac-12 South, but both teams have been up and down through the first three weeks. The Trojans finally put together a complete performance in Saturday’s win over Syracuse, while the Sun Devils lost on the road at Illinois. Both teams are riding the play of its quarterbacks. USC’s Matt Barkley has thrown for 892 yards and nine scores, while Arizona State’s Brock Osweiler is completing 66 percent of his throws with six passing scores. With two high-scoring offenses, whichever defense can step up will be the difference. USC’s defense has shown improvement from last season, allowing 16 points and 317.3 yards per game through three weeks. Arizona State’s defense has dealt with a couple of key injuries this season, including cornerback Omar Bolden, linebacker Brandon Magee and end Junior Onyeali. Considering the key losses for the Sun Devils, stopping Barkley and receiver Robert Woods could be a challenge.
3. Coming off last week’s win against Florida State, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops should be concerned about a letdown against Missouri. Then again, all Stoops needs to do is put on the tape from the Sooners’ loss in Columbia last season, and there should be plenty of motivation for Oklahoma to come out firing on all cylinders. Missouri quarterback James Franklin has made progress through each of his first three starts and will test a Sooners’ secondary allowing 245 yards a game. However, the Tigers have to be concerned about stopping Oklahoma’s offense, after allowing 353 passing yards to Arizona State’s Brock Osweiler. If Missouri can’t find an answer for the Sooners’ passing attack, asking Franklin in his fourth career start to outscore them is probably too much.
4. Much of the talk in Morgantown this week hasn’t been focused on the West Virginia-LSU matchup this Saturday. Conference realignment dominated the headlines in the Big East, but for at least a couple of hours this weekend, the focus shifts back to the field. New West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen has brought some much-needed life to the offense, but will have his hands full against LSU. The Tigers own one of the top defenses in college football, which includes a shutdown secondary and a deep, athletic line. The Mountaineers have started to get more comfortable with Holgorsen’s scheme, but the offensive line remains a concern. If the Mountaineers struggle to protect Smith, the Tigers should be able to exit Morgantown with an easy win. LSU’s offense isn’t built to come from behind, so forcing turnovers and getting quarterback Jarrett Lee in third and long situations are two keys for West Virginia’s defense.
5. Alabama opens up SEC play with Arkansas visiting Tuscaloosa. These two teams hooked up for a memorable 24-20 game last year, with the Crimson Tide rallying from a 20-7 deficit to win. Despite the departure of quarterback Ryan Mallett and a season-ending injury to running back Knile Davis, Arkansas remains one of the SEC’s top offenses. Although the Razorbacks are set at quarterback with Tyler Wilson and a deep group of playmakers at receiver, the offensive line is a concern. Freshman Mitch Smothers will start at tackle and the entire group will be tested by Alabama’s front seven. Linebacker Courtney Upshaw needs to step up his production and against a line that is still trying to jell, he could be a key factor in the outcome. Alabama’s quarterback situation is still uncertain, but sophomore AJ McCarron should see the majority of the snaps. The Crimson Tide is not built to overcome a big margin, which makes it important for the Razorbacks to create a couple of turnovers and jump to an early lead.
6. With Texas A&M headed to the SEC in 2012, who knows when it will play Oklahoma State again. The Aggies have lost their last three matchups against the Cowboys, including an entertaining 38-35 shootout in Stillwater last season. This game boasts a collection of elite offensive players, including Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon and Texas A&M running back Cyrus Gray and receiver Jeff Fuller. Considering the firepower on both sidelines, whichever defense can step up will be the difference. The competition hasn’t been great, but the Aggies have picked up 11 sacks and allowed only 21 points in two games. With last season’s loss to Oklahoma State providing motivation and a raucous home crowd at Kyle Field, the Aggies would seem to have a slight edge on Saturday.
7. The competition hasn’t been the toughest, but Georgia Tech has been very impressive through three games. The Yellow Jackets rank first nationally in rushing, total and scoring offense and are averaging a ridiculous 10.3 yards per play. The competition gets tougher this Saturday, as Georgia Tech hosts North Carolina in a key ACC Coastal game. The Tar Heels own one of the top defensive lines in college football and have allowed only 76.7 rushing yards per game. Georgia Tech was a mystery team entering the season, but a win over North Carolina could vault them into a contender in the Coastal Division.
8. Vanderbilt has been one of the early surprises this season, jumping out to 3-0 record with wins over Elon, Connecticut and Ole Miss. While the schedule hasn’t been overwhelmingly difficult, the Commodores are making progress under first-year coach James Franklin. However, the stakes get higher on Saturday, as Vanderbilt hits the road to take on South Carolina. The Gamecocks were picked as a preseason SEC East favorite by some, but have not played up to that potential so far. Quarterback Stephen Garcia has been inconsistent and the secondary has not played well. With Garcia’s play a concern, South Carolina needs to continue to lean on sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore. Despite their 3-0 start, Vanderbilt is a longshot to win this game. However, a couple of turnovers from the Gamecocks could keep this one close in the fourth quarter.
9. Michigan coach Brady Hoke isn’t crazy about playing his former team, especially when it’s a dangerous San Diego State squad coming to Ann Arbor. One of the nation’s most underrated players will get a chance in the spotlight on Saturday afternoon. San Diego State running back Ronnie Hillman has 497 yards and eight scores through three games and faces a Michigan defense ranked 103rd nationally against the run. Quarterback Ryan Lindley is throwing to a completely revamped group of receivers, but has yet to impact his play, totaling 622 passing yards, seven touchdowns and only one pick. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is still trying to find his rhythm in coordinator Al Borges’ offense, but remains one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in college football. The Brady Hoke Bowl features a lot of intrigue, especially since the Aztecs are a dangerous team capable of pulling the upset.
10. After outplaying its first two opponents and losing, Notre Dame finally broke into the win column with a 31-13 win over Michigan State last Saturday. Can the Irish continue the momentum? Pittsburgh has won two out of the last three against Notre Dame, and coach Todd Graham was at Tulsa in the Golden Hurricane’s upset win in South Bend last year. The Panthers have struggled to achieve Graham’s plan of a high-octane offense so far this season. Quarterback Tino Sunseri has struggled at times and thrown four picks to three scores. Running back Ray Graham has been Pittsburgh’s best weapon, but faces a Notre Dame defense that is allowing only 90 yards a game on the ground. Turnovers have been a big problem for Notre Dame through three weeks, and it cannot afford the same issue to appear once again this Saturday against a Pittsburgh offense that is capable of breaking out.
Athlon editor Mitch Light predicts the 10 biggest games for Week 4 – here’s my take on how some of the top games will play out.
Texas A&M 34, Oklahoma State 31
LSU 27, West Virginia 20
Alabama 30, Arkansas 20
Michigan 34, San Diego State 27
Florida State 24, Clemson 20
Arizona State 34, USC 31
Georgia Tech 27, North Carolina 24
Notre Dame 34, Pittsburgh 24
South Carolina 31, Vanderbilt 17
Washington 34, California 30
Ohio State 34, Colorado 13
Oklahoma 38, Missouri 23
Oregon 45, Arizona 20
Looking for a few upsets? Keep a close watch on these games.
Toledo at Syracuse (-2.5)
The Rockets put a scare into Ohio State and trailed only 20-9 at halftime against Boise State. Syracuse has struggled to stop the pass, which is a concern against Toledo receiver Eric Page.
Ohio at Rutgers (-4)
The competition hasn’t been great, but Ohio has been impressive in its first three games. The Scarlet Knights had a blowout win over North Carolina Central in the opener, but lost a close game to North Carolina in Week 2. If Rutgers struggles to get its offense on track, the Bobcats can pull the upset.
Around the Web: College Football’s Must Read Articles to Prepare for Week 4
Arkansas will be without top defensive end Jake Bequette for Saturday's game against Alabama. Big loss for the Razorbacks.
Ohio State will turn to true freshman Braxton Miller at quarterback.
Virginia Tech receiver Jarrett Boykin will miss Saturday's game against Marshall with a hamstring injury.
Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard should return to the lineup for Saturday's game against Wyoming. However, defensive tackle Jared Crick could be out.
Syracuse's offensive line got off to a slow start this year, but could be turning a corner.
Saturday's matchup between Georgia Tech and North Carolina is a big one in the ACC Coastal race. Possessions will be key for the Yellow Jackets' chances at victory.
Boston College could get some good news on Saturday, as running back Montel Harris could return to action.
New Mexico State quarterback Andrew Manley will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL.
Penn State is still searching for the right answer at quarterback.
Injuries are becoming a major concern on Michigan State's offensive line.
UCLA will turn to Richard Brehaut under center against Oregon State.
Florida coach Will Muschamp thinks running back Chris Rainey should be in the Heisman discussion.
West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith still has some work to do this season.
What's going on with Kansas State running back Bryce Brown?
USC plans on redshirting freshman receiver George Farmer.
Is Barry Brunetti going to get back in the quarterback mix at Ole Miss?
Rutgers is continuing to search for the right mix on the offensive line.
Oregon State running back Malcolm Agnew won't play against UCLA.
Nevada could be making a change at quarterback.
Indiana running back Darius Willis won't play this season due to a knee injury.