by Ian Boyd
LSU was the big surprise of Week 3 in college football, although the S&P+ system predicted they would be much more competitive on the road against Auburn than Vegas anticipated with the spread of Auburn -10. The Bayou Bengals won on a last-minute field goal, aided by their typically great defense, a long touchdown pass, and a few pass interference penalties that set up scores.
Another eye-opening event was Alabama lighting up Ole Miss 62-7. The Rebels have had a terrible defense for the last few years, but an Alabama team that can put up 62 points while still playing great defense on a spread offense is another level beyond what we've seen from Tuscaloosa in the past.
Finally, what was supposed to be the big moment for the 2018 Boise State Broncos instead became a nightmare for the #MurderSmurfs as Oklahoma State combined a quarterback run game, special teams, and a withering pressure package to inflict seven sacks on Boise and easily win 44-21 at home in Stillwater.
Week 4 takes us into conference play, with most of the tighter and more competitive games taking place between teams that are hopeful contenders for their respective divisions.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Notre Dame (-7.5) at Wake Forest -- 12 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Notre Dame||Wake Forest||F/+||12||50||When Notre Dame has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||67||76||2017 S&P+||24||65||2017 IsoPPP+||9||45||2017 Rushing S&P+||5||31||2017 Passing S&P+||65||86||When Wake Forest has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||5||46||2017 S&P+||27||22||2017 IsoPPP+||5||20||2017 Rushing S&P+||13||91||2017 Passing S&P+||7||2|
Despite having their defensive coordinator poached by these very same Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Wake Forest had a very solid 2017 season with senior quarterback John Wolford executing their spread-option offense. The Demon Deacons have remained effective this season with new quarterback Sam Hartman, but more-so in the run game than in throwing the ball. Wake Forest lit up the Boston College defense last week for 298 rushing yards, but Hartman averaged only 4.8 yards on 45 passes and threw two interceptions.
Their defense has struggled increasingly since defensive coordinator Mike Elko (now at Texas A&M) left two years ago, and will face a tough challenge in trying to keep Notre Dame under wraps. The Irish haven't been particularly explosive on offense this year, largely because quarterback Brandon Wimbush still hasn't been consistent in hitting receivers downfield in the passing game. Vanderbilt managed to play coverage and hold Wimbush to 122 passing yards last week, but the Irish came out with a win while running the ball for 245 yards, much like the Demon Deacons against Boston College.
The big difference in this game is found from the Irish defense, who have yet to yield more than 17 points through any of their first three games and will likely prove a much tougher challenge for the Wake Forest offense than the Demon Deacons have experienced so far this season. Notre Dame has size up front and then a lot of speed that can tackle at both their linebacker and safety positions, highlighted by Drue Tranquill and Troy Pride Jr., who are going to make life hard for Wake Forest trying to pick up real gains on the ground.
- Wake Forest has some clever spread-option plays, often involving the quarterback choosing between a run or pass.
- Notre Dame's defense, the class of the nation?
- Can Brandon Wimbush get the passing game going again? That will set Notre Dame's ceiling this year.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Notre Dame
Texas A&M at Alabama (-26.5) -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)
|Overall||Texas A&M||Alabama||F/+||17||1||When Texas A&M has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||16||9||2017 S&P+||48||1||2017 IsoPPP+||60||3||2017 Rushing S&P+||109||1||2017 Passing S&P+||41||5||When Alabama has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||33||3||2017 S&P+||71||23||2017 IsoPPP+||52||8||2017 Rushing S&P+||41||12||2017 Passing S&P+||35||3|
Texas A&M appears to have come a long way from 2017 under first-year head coach Jimbo Fisher. The Aggies came within a fumble or a two-point conversion of taking Clemson to overtime two weeks ago, and it's clear that their offense is much more potent than it was last season. They've had some struggles in protecting the quarterback, but sophomore Kellen Mond has proven elusive and tough nonetheless. He has found a few different receivers amongst the Aggies' bevy of young talents, perhaps most notably tight end Jace Sternberger, who transferred in from a junior college.
Mike Elko also has the Aggies defense executing at a higher level than that of a year ago, emphasizing sound play from a talented group that hadn't put it all together in previous seasons. Linebacker Otaro Alaka was finally able to leverage some of the promise he once showed as a blue-chip recruit while leading the team in tackles against Clemson and adding 2.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage for the Aggies defense.
Meanwhile, Alabama has been just terrifying, with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa averaging just over 12 yards per passing attempt while running backs Damien and Najee Harris have combined for 381 rushing yards at 7.1 yards per carry. The top two receivers are over 200 receiving yards already, as are the No. 3 receiver and the tight end, and the offense is flooding the field with top-level talent at every position while Tagovailoa puts it all together with his running ability and high level passing acumen. The biggest and most important contest in this game is between the A&M defense and this Tide offense. There's little to no chance of A&M matching Alabama in a game that's played in the 40s; they need to be able to cover up the threats and make stops. The challenge there is in holding the point of attack well enough to allow safeties and linebackers to pause a beat in the passing windows before closing on the run game. The Aggies played the Clemson run game quite well, but Clemson doesn't have the same caliber of run blocking offensive line as Alabama.
If the Aggies can hold up there over the course of the game, then there's a chance that Mond and the offense can cause their own problems against the Alabama defense, particularly in the manner that worked against Clemson. Fisher was able to get receivers open in the middle of the field against a young Clemson backfield while Mond regularly extended plays with his legs in a way that can frustrate any defense. If this game is entertaining, it will feature lots of playmaking by Mond in a back-and-forth game played in the 30s.
- Can Texas A&M hold up against Alabama's offensive line and protect their secondary?
- Will Alabama be able to contain Kellen Mond, or will he run loose and throw the ball down the field on a young Crimson Tide secondary?
- How will Alabama's young defense hold up to Texas A&M's diverse offense and tight end play?
- This could be one of those games that produces highlight reels at the Heisman ceremony for Tua Tagovailoa.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Alabama
TCU (-3) at Texas -- 4:30 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||TCU||Texas||F/+||22||29||When TCU has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||27||39||2017 S&P+||39||21||2017 IsoPPP+||51||9||2017 Rushing S&P+||23||10||2017 Passing S&P+||67||16||When Texas has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||62||41||2017 S&P+||16||99||2017 IsoPPP+||13||124||2017 Rushing S&P+||3||86||2017 Passing S&P+||15||98|
TCU has been THE program of the state of Texas in this decade. Baylor made a run at annual relevance in the league and produced a Heisman winner, but when scandal took their program apart, the Horned Frogs remained and put together another run at the Big 12 championship in 2017. They're coming off a game in which they came within a few self-inflicted wounds from not only covering a big spread against Ohio State but beating the Buckeyes outright.
Texas is hoping to finally retake the throne as THE program of the state and finally has some positive momentum towards that goal after crushing USC in prime time last Saturday in a 37-14 contest. They got back to playing the caliber of defense that defined what success they had in 2017 and took apart the Trojans offense while showing real strides on offense, although not full maturation.
The big contests in this game are between TCU's team speed on offense and Texas' ability to stay sound on defense, and then the Longhorns' size on offense going up against a diminutive TCU front. The Horned Frogs put so much speed on the field on offense -- even at quarterback where sophomore Shawn Robinson is probably a 4.6 runner in the 40-yard dash -- that stopping them often becomes a contest of whether you can play with team leverage on the ball at all times or not. They have some spread-option staples like the zone-read play as the foundation of their offense and also mix in a lot of misdirection plays and screens to try and break their receivers free. Texas has been error-prone on defense through the first three weeks of the season, but seemed to buckle down after a bad start against USC and will be bringing a lot of rangy tacklers into this game to try and keep the Frogs under wraps.
Meanwhile, a big problem for TCU against Ohio State was holding up on the defensive line. Ohio State's run game was regularly picking up solid gains while burying the Horned Frogs nose tackles into the dirt behind down blocks and double-teams. The Texas offensive line is considerably better than it has been in years thanks to the performances of Rice grad transfer Calvin Anderson at left tackle and rising redshirt freshman Sam Cosmi at right tackle. They also regularly mix quarterback Sam Ehlinger (a bruising 6-foot-2, 225-pounder) into the run game where his style emulates Tim Tebow as a downhill, fullback-style runner. They also have a pair of matchup problems in receivers Lil'Jordan Humphrey (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) and Collin Johnson (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) to throw at TCU's smaller secondary.
Texas will need to be sound and speedy on defense for once in this game, but they may have the size and power to finally bully the smaller Horned Frogs rather than being overwhelmed by their speed and aggression as has been the case over the course of the decade.
- Can Texas run over TCU with their improved offensive line and physical backfield?
- Will TCU burn Texas by getting all of their speedy offensive players loose?
- Texas has not even been competitive with TCU for the majority of the decade; can they finally match up to the Frogs?
S&P+ Outright Pick: TCU
Michigan State (-5) at Indiana -- 7:30 p.m. (BTN)
|Overall||Michigan State||Indiana||F/+||14||43||When Michigan State has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||34||16||2017 S&P+||92||26||2017 IsoPPP+||56||30||2017 Rushing S&P+||66||33||2017 Passing S&P+||17||21||When Indiana has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||28||52||2017 S&P+||4||98||2017 IsoPPP+||8||99||2017 Rushing S&P+||4||107||2017 Passing S&P+||28||46|
Under new head coach Tom Allen, the Indiana Hoosiers have quickly evolved as a program to become much more of a defensive team. Allen was hired as defensive coordinator from South Florida and then promoted to head coach in the midst of a scandal that brought down head coach and offensive guru Kevin Wilson after the 2016 season. Allen's team is really starting to come together in this 2018 season, sitting at 3-0 thanks to strong defensive play and improved offense.
Allen brought to the Hoosiers an attacking 4-2-5 style of defense that will bring pressure from different areas of the field and try to use the addition of a third safety to blitz, move numbers around, and force offenses to play in spaces where they're less comfortable. Their opponent is the Michigan State Spartans, who voluntarily play in spaces where they aren't comfortable and somehow manage to ugly their way to victory more often than not. Michigan State is finally becoming famous for their offensive strategy of running clock and scoring just enough by running the ball into the line multiple times and then executing on third down with the passing game.
The Spartans have been their typical selves on defense, dropping the road game to Arizona State but while only giving up 16 points on the day. The Indiana team they'll be facing is quite a bit different from the 2017 team that relied on throwing jump balls to big receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr. on third down. Now the Hoosiers are more of a running team and lead back Stevie Scott has run for 388 yards at 5.3 per carry so far this season. They like to spread teams out by formation but are more of a "run the ball and take shots with play-action" kind of team than a "spread it around and throw it 40-plus times" sort of squad. The spread run game has had success against Michigan State before.
The big stakes of this game are Big 10 East contention for the Spartans, who can't really afford to drop a game against Indiana with Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State all waiting for them to be knocked aside so they can all contend for the division crown.
- Will Indiana's spread approach clear room to run against the vaunted Spartans run defense?
- How will Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke keep the chains moving against an aggressive, nickel defense?
- Can Michigan State contend for the Big 10 East or will this game knock them down a level on the year?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Indiana
Stanford (-1.5) at Oregon -- 8 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Stanford||Oregon||F/+||16||31||When Stanford has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||93||63||2017 S&P+||16||61||2017 IsoPPP+||29||47||2017 Rushing S&P+||46||23||2017 Passing S&P+||34||32||When Oregon has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||4||63||2017 S&P+||59||32||2017 IsoPPP+||51||34||2017 Rushing S&P+||58||33||2017 Passing S&P+||69||51|
After Washington's non-conference defeat against Auburn and USC's successive defeats against both Stanford and Texas, the Cardinal are looking like the Pac-12's best hope to produce a playoff team. The Stanford defense has yet to give up more than 10 points in a game and has propelled the team up the adjusted stats rankings while the offense has been inconsistent. The Cardinal were without star running back Bryce Love a week ago against UC Davis, but may simply have been protecting him from worse injury so that he could be healthier for this contest against Oregon.
The Cardinal passing game has continued to be an effective complement with tight end Kaden Smith offering a chain-moving weapon in the seams while J.J. Arcega-Whiteside has been a big target on the perimeter for quarterback K.J. Costello. Stanford's offensive line is filled with high-level talent virtually every year, but fielding skill players and a quarterback who can get them the ball is a pretty significant development for the program.
Oregon is still rebuilding their defense from years of malaise that started to work in after longtime defensive coach Nick Aliotti retired, but the Ducks offense is in good shape. Quarterback Justin Herbert, an obvious NFL prospect, has thrown for 840 yards at 10.4 yards per attempt with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions while spraying the ball around the field. Oregon doesn't have any clear go-to support players for Herbert yet, but he has been effective working with multiple teammates. This game is likely to prove the big test of the Stanford defense and whether it has really made a leap towards being a nationally top unit. They have some solid defensive backs this year and know how to bring different coverages and blitzes with their linebackers up front to create pressure without committing more than four or five rushers on the blitz.
The Stanford offense should also learn a lot about itself in this game. Costello can't afford to turn the ball over here like he has in other games this season. Oregon will be well-coached by Jim Leavitt on the Stanford offense even if their personnel isn't quite ready to match up against premium talent.
- Is Oregon's defense ready to handle a premier challenge from Bryce Love and the big Stanford receivers?
- Is Stanford's defense really amongst the best in the nation?
- Potential 2019 draft pick Justin Herbert working against NFL style blitzes and coverages by the Stanford defense.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Oregon
Wisconsin (-3) at Iowa -- 8:30 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||Wisconsin||Iowa||F/+||11||24||When Wisconsin has the ball||Offense||Defense||S&P+||21||1||2017 S&P+||41||15||2017 IsoPPP+||16||31||2017 Rushing S&P+||24||52||2017 Passing S&P+||7||38||When Iowa has the ball||Defense||Offense||S&P+||27||110||2017 S&P+||3||106||2017 IsoPPP+||10||40||2017 Rushing S&P+||12||62||2017 Passing S&P+||8||28|
Wisconsin's hopes and dreams of playing in the 2019 playoff more or less evaporated when they lost to BYU last weekend. The big problem was stopping the run, as BYU ran wild handing off to Squally Canada inside and then amusingly on the sorts of jet sweeps that Wisconsin made famous when they'd give them to Melvin Gordon earlier this decade. Wisconsin has a largely rebuilt defense that is still putting it all together this season, while their offense is more or less on schedule but struggled at times to protect quarterback Alex Hornibrook from BYU's pressures.
Iowa has looked really plodding and hopeless on offense at times, although some of their bad numbers are related to their struggles to find headway against a unique defensive scheme that Iowa State brought to town and which Oklahoma then demolished last weekend. Other than that game, the Hawkeyes have otherwise been reasonably effective.
Both teams have really good receiving tight ends -- Noah Fant for Iowa and Jake Ferguson for Wisconsin -- and both teams have built their programs on beefing up local kids into fearsome offensive lines that can pave a way for their lead running backs. Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor is already at 515 rushing yards with five touchdowns on the year, while Iowa's lead back Toren Young is at 234 yards, 5.4 per carry. These teams will try to pound each other in the trenches and throw over the middle to their big tight ends.
If Wisconsin seems to have the edge with a better offense, the Hawkeyes reclaim some of that margin with the play of their defense. Iowa has survived the loss of three starting linebackers surprisingly easily, in large part because their defensive line is stocked with stout tackles and playmaking ends, their safeties tackle well, and naturally their new linebackers are well-coached and ready to go. They've been going out and dominating their competition with base defense thus far and should be ready to make Wisconsin work very, very hard to find any room for Taylor. This game could very well determine the Big 10 West and the opponent for a playoff hopeful from the Big 10 East at the end of the year.
- The big, powerful Wisconsin running game against one of the biggest and best defensive fronts in the nation.
- Can Wisconsin's Jake Ferguson or Iowa's Noah Fant make the key plays at tight end to determine this game?
- This is the kind of game that can often be determined by interceptions; can Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook avoid them? He threw three to the Hawkeyes a year ago.
- Night games in Kinnick Stadium are usually trouble for at least one Big 10 power every year.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Wisconsin
S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 4
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P+ Pick|| S&P+ pick against
| Ian's pick against
|Notre Dame||7.5||Wake Forest||Notre Dame||Notre Dame||Notre Dame|
|Alabama||26.5||Texas A&M||Alabama||Texas A&M||Alabama|
|Michigan State||5||Indiana||Indiana||Indiana||Michigan State|
S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 4-2
S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 12-6
Ian's Picks against the spread last week: 3-3
Ian's Picks against the spread this year: 10-8