by Ian Boyd
Week 3 was widely expected to be an underwhelming slate of college football … which as always, is exactly when the madness ensues. From our own list of the week's top six games there were several exciting contests that ended with typical college football shenanigans.
After multiple lightning delays, Iowa-at-Iowa State resolved with the Cyclones watching one of their own special teams blockers running into his teammate while trying to field a punt in order to launch a final drive down by one point with 1:25 left on the clock. Iowa recovered and kneeled out the remaining minute of action. Matt Campbell's Cyclones are now 0-4 against their in-state rival under his watch.
BYU pulled off an overtime upset against USC, whose coaching staff were likely already reeling from the resignation of athletic director Lynn Swann. The Trojans are still 2-1 and have an exciting freshman quarterback in Kedon Slovis, but they'll be facing media narratives all year that this staff may be finished, and those will only intensify if they lose more games.
Week 4 will be loaded with a several key conference games opening up the regular season, while one big non-conference showdown between Notre Dame and Georgia headlines the weekend.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Utah (-4) at USC -- Friday, 9 p.m. (FS1)
|Overall||Utah (3-0)||USC (2-1)|
|When Utah has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||31||68|
|2018 Passing SP+||57||35|
|When USC has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||11||78|
|2018 Passing SP+||40||60|
The pressure is heating up on USC after they went into Provo, Utah, the weekend after the resignation of athletic director Lynn Swann and promptly lost an overtime contest to the BYU Cougars. USC's freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis threw for over 280 yards but also three interceptions as BYU welcomed him as the main force of the Trojans offense by treating him to a day of drop-eight defenses.
The Cougars played their linebackers with a lot of depth and sat back to flood all the preferred Air Raid route combinations USC was running with eight defenders while trusting their defensive line to control the trenches. Cougars nose tackle Khyiris Tonga was a load in the middle and USC couldn't control him well enough for a run-heavy approach down the stretch to efficiently move them into position to score. Meanwhile, Slovis threw three interceptions trying to force passes through the defense, including one in overtime that handed BYU the victory.
That approach by BYU might have come from Utah, who played Washington State's Air Raid offense in that fashion in 2018. The Utes' rise in the Pac-12 South over the last few years has been characterized in part by their ability to build offensive and defensive lines superior to the USC units. If they follow the same drop-eight strategy and encourage the Trojans to beat them by running the ball, it'll be a fascinating test of head coach Clay Helton's commitment to their new Air Raid strategy while under pressure to keep his job.
Everything is on the line here for USC, whose coaching staff likely have no margin for error given the changes in leadership at the university and the previous years of lackluster performance under Helton. Utah is the major contender in the Pac-12 South, and if the Trojans drop this game the program will be enveloped with speculation about the end of Helton's tenure that could distract and demoralize the team. In that environment, if confronted by conservative pass defenses, Helton will have to determine whether to circle back to running the football on a tough front like they did against BYU or else trying to spread the Utes out even more and trusting Slovis to gun them to victory.
On the other side of the ball, Utah has a rebuilt offensive line with four young starters but they've gotten off to a strong start. Running back Zack Moss has 373 rushing yards at 6.5 yards per carry running behind this unit. Quarterback Tyler Huntley is asked to keep defenses from concentrating to stop Moss by executing shotgun option plays and some run/pass options; he's averaging 18 passes per game and about six rushes in that role, but could see his carries tick up to a dozen or more against the Trojans as needed. USC tends to play pretty aggressively against offenses like this, but the Utes will probably be content to pound them with the run and trust their defense and special teams to make the difference in a low-scoring battle.
- How will USC respond to a drop-eight defense by Utah? By trying to run on a deadly Utes defensive line, or doubling down on their Air Raid conversion?
- What will USC's focus and attention to detail be like after a hard week of news about changes to leadership and a road loss to BYU?
- How well can Utah run the ball with quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss against an aggressive and athletic USC defense?
FEI Outright Pick: Utah by 2.4
Michigan at Wisconsin (-3.5) -- Saturday, 12 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||Michigan (2-0)||Wisconsin (2-0)|
|When Michigan has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||38||59|
|2018 Passing SP+||9||58|
|When Wisconsin has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||23||3|
|2018 Passing SP+||21||80|
Michigan made a lot of changes this offseason after losing multiple big games against spread offensive teams in Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Florida. They hired Josh Gattis from Alabama to convert the Wolverine offensive from the pro-style approach of head coach Jim Harbaugh to an RPO spread system such as the one Alabama had used to set records in 2018. On defense they had to replace multiple linemen from an already thin group and have retooled the entire unit around speed.
Backup safety Jordan Glasgow was converted into a linebacker, giving the Wolverines converted safeties at both outside linebacker positions, and the defensive line is anchored by quick but light defenders like Aidan Hutchinson (6-foot-6, 270 pounds) and Carlo Kemp (6-foot-3, 286 pounds). Against Army's triple-option flexbone offense, the Wolverines employed a large number of line stunts and inverted their secondary to play Tampa-2 coverages with the safeties serving as the cornerbacks and tackling on the edge. They ultimately won the day for the team and managed a sack-strip of the Army quarterback in overtime to secure the win.
The Michigan offense has struggled in their new transition. Either due to a lack of respect for Army's defensive front or a lack of comfort within their new system, the Wolverines regularly ran the ball into some tough looks against the Knights. Lead running back Zach Charbonnet managed only 100 yards on 33 carries. The Wisconsin Badgers defense can and does employ some similar schemes as the 3-4 Army squad but they have even more explosive talent at linebacker; bigger, stronger defensive linemen holding the point of attack; and a more skilled secondary in the event that Michigan chooses to pass more.
Contrasting styles and big-picture strategy could make this a very compelling, if possibly low-scoring game. Wisconsin has picked up where they left off from 2018, pounding teams with star running back Jonathan Taylor behind a big, home-grown offensive line. New quarterback Jack Coan has been very effective thus far with 9.5 yards per attempt and five touchdown passes to zero interceptions. If Michigan can't use their speed on defense to disrupt Wisconsin's run game, they may find themselves taking a pounding over the course of the afternoon.
To pull off a road victory, Michigan will need to throw early and often and try to turn this game into a contest of speed and athleticism on both sides of the ball rather than a tough-guy competition against what might be the biggest, strongest team on the schedule.
- Will Michigan press their advantages with a talented collection of wide receivers or hope to force the action inside against the Wisconsin defensive front?
- If Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson continues to struggle with fumbles, does he get the hook in exchange for backup Dylan McCaffrey?
- How will Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan try to punish Michigan's speed and aggressiveness on defense?
FEI Outright Pick: Wisconsin by 7
Auburn at Texas A&M (-3.5) -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)
|Overall||Auburn (3-0)||Texas A&M (2-1)|
|When Auburn has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||76||19|
|2018 Passing SP+||34||68|
|When Texas A&M has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||17||16|
|2018 Passing SP+||15||29|
This is the second of a few major tests for the Aggies on their schedule and perhaps the easiest of the big games. Texas A&M still has Alabama and then road trips at the conclusion of the season against Georgia and LSU, confronting them with challenges (opportunities?) in securing wins that suggest progress in Year 2 for head coach Jimbo Fisher. The Clemson Tigers already shut down the Aggies back in Week 2, but Texas A&M did show effective defense in that contest that will play a major role in their chances in this game.
Auburn has the least offensive firepower of any of the big SEC squads on the A&M schedule. A highly experienced offensive line and the ascendance of powerful Jatarvious Whitlow as the starting running back for Auburn has been essential in helping head coach Gus Malzahn build the sort of power-spread offense he prefers. But they're leaning on true freshman quarterback Bo Nix to make plays in the passing game to prevent opponents from loading the box, and he has shown grit but inconsistent accuracy and command of the offense in that role. When the Tigers want to force the issue on the ground, they'll turn to backup quarterback Joey Gatewood, who at 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds can approximate what Cam Newton did for Malzahn once upon a time in the quarterback power run game.
Texas A&M has played effective run defense since Jimbo Fisher hired Mike Elko to be his coordinator. They have a 4-3 under-inspired scheme that mixes in a lot of five-man pressures. The overall design of the base under defense is to force offenses into chokepoint areas while freeing up the weak-side defensive linemen and linebacker to run in that direction. The pressures serve to put offenses on the defense and try to take away favorite runs or passes by attacking the weak spots in those calls. Attacking the Aggies defense is best accomplished by attacking the secondary down the field, which is within the ability of Nix but certainly a tall order for a freshman on the road in a notoriously loud stadium.
On the flip side, the Auburn defense is a real load this season, as they have been for the last several years since installing Kevin Steele as the coordinator. The defensive line is yet again highlighted by several big players with NFL talent, most notably defensive tackle Derrick Brown. The defensive end tandem of Marlon Davidson and Tyrone Truesdell has 4.5 combined sacks.
Texas A&M has opted to run back an offense similar to their 2018 unit, playing lots of multiple-tight end formations and trying to control games by running the ball and setting up play-action and RPOs for Kellen Mond and the receivers that way. But the blocking hasn't been stellar, and starting running back Jashaun Corbin was lost for the season, although freshman Isaiah Spiller has been sensational, averaging 8.8 yards on 28 carries through three games. Mond has struggled, averaging only 7.7 yards per attempt while throwing an interception in all three of the Aggies' games thus far, and the receivers have had some struggles with drops.
In the offseason, the assumption would have been that if both defenses successfully forced the opponent to beat them with quarterback play, then A&M would have a big edge with Mond, but that battle looks pretty close right now.
- Can the Aggies get their talented passing game rolling in the face of Auburn's supremely talented defensive front?
- How will Auburn quarterback Bo Nix handle the challenge to throw outside on the Aggie corners playing on the notoriously loud Kyle Field?
- Texas A&M's offensive tackles against the Auburn defensive ends -- a lopsided affair here for Auburn could determine the game.
FEI Outright Pick: Auburn by 3.8
Washington (-6.5) at BYU -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC/ESPN2)
|Overall||Washington (2-1)||BYU (2-1)|
|When Washington has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||34||28|
|2018 Passing SP+||27||14|
|When BYU has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||10||41|
|2018 Passing SP+||18||72|
BYU is continuing their tour of the main contenders from the Pac-12. They opened against Utah, hosted USC last weekend, and now host North division favorite Washington. The Huskies' conference slate got off to an inauspicious start when the Cal Bears took them down 20-19 in Week 2. The Bears confused and pressured new starting quarterback Jacob Eason, eliminating the damage otherwise done by the Huskies run game by holding Eason to 5.4 yards per attempt with an interception.
Eason has had considerably more success in games since, but against much weaker competition than he'll find in Provo playing the Cougars at altitude. BYU has remade their defense in the modern era to be less about bringing exotic pressures and more focused on flooding passing lanes with defenders while trusting a big, physical front to control the run game and push the pocket. They ranked No. 1 in the country last year in IsoPPP, meaning they didn't give up explosive plays, and thus far in 2019 they've continued to be stingy.
Eason has a stronger and theoretically dangerous arm for throwing downfield off play-action, but if that doesn't materialize against the Cougars defense then the Huskies will have to pull a victory out with their ability to outscore BYU with their run game. That's possible, but BYU could make things pretty interesting.
The biggest story for the Cougars has been the play of sophomore dual-threat quarterback Zach Wilson. He has been spreading the ball around to multiple receivers without a main target while also mixing in some option runs and scrambles. Lead running back Tyson Williams has 236 rushing yards on the year at 5.5 yards per carry with three touchdowns. He has been a solid contributor, but the main thrust of their offense is Wilson making things happen in the passing game.
Washington has yet another stout defense with multiple defensive backs who are likely to be drafted by the NFL when their time comes. They were vulnerable down the stretch against Cal, though, when the Bears started running the ball from spread sets with option elements mixed in, giving up multiple long scoring drives. If Eason doesn't give Washington an edge in this contest with his arm, then Wilson will accomplish that for BYU with his legs.
- Can Washington's rebuilt defense fit the run against a spread-option rushing attack?
- How will Washington quarterback Jacob Eason handle BYU's "bend don't break" defensive schemes?
- BYU quarterback Zach Wilson, an accurate scrambler who brings a lot excitement and variability to every play.
FEI Outright Pick: Washington by 8.5
Oklahoma State at Texas (-6) -- 7:30 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Oklahoma State (3-0)||Texas (2-1)|
|When Oklahoma State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||27||38|
|2018 Passing SP+||47||45|
|When Texas has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||91||98|
|2018 Passing SP+||59||43|
Mike Gundy's Oklahoma State is the only team in the Big 12 that Tom Herman's Texas has yet to defeat. Herman is 0-2 against Gundy with an overtime loss in 2017 and a three-point loss in Stillwater in 2018. Last year the Cowboys were coming off a bye week and had a smart defensive game plan to zero their safeties in on Texas star receiver Lil'Jordan Humphrey and force the Longhorns to beat them left-handed.
The 2019 Longhorns have been working on that left hand and may be ready to jab a depleted Oklahoma State defense to the mat. After star receivers Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay, Texas' No. 3 and 4 targets Jake Smith and Brennan Eagles have combined for 20 catches, 329 yards, and six touchdowns. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger has become extremely confident and the Longhorns have maintained a focus on 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end) that allows them to go back and forth between pounding opponents with the run and spreading them out without substituting.
The worst-case scenario for the Cowboys in this game would be Texas carefully controlling the game by mixing in the run regularly and leaning on Ehlinger to convert third downs, leading to the Oklahoma State defense being left on the field for long chunks of time in the Texas heat and too exhausted to resist if the game comes down to fourth-quarter possessions.
The 2019 Cowboys also have an explosive offense, another brilliantly evaluated and managed unit by Gundy. Oklahoma State emphasizes a rushing attack that centers around running back Chuba Hubbard (521 rushing yards at 7.9 yards per carry with seven touchdowns) but also utilizes redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Sanders (219 rushing yards at 6.4 yards per carry). They also have a variety of screens and double-move play-action routes to throw to star receiver Tylan Wallace (390 receiving yards, six touchdowns).
There's not much doubt that Texas can score regularly on Oklahoma State's defense, but to finally best Gundy's Cowboys, they'll need to stop or slow down the offense. Normally Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando thrives in settings where he can attack "spread to run" teams by bringing numbers and blitzes from different angles and thwarting the quarterback's ability to get set and make a clean read and throw on play-action. His normal methods could work against this particular Oklahoma State team, but if the Cowboys come out firing with unexpected calm and command from Sanders, Texas has shown great vulnerability to covering up a good spread passing attack.
The over/under numbers on this game anticipate a shootout, with Gundy working out ways to help his young quarterback find opportunities to attack a suspect cornerback group that will be arrayed in burnt orange.
- Texas to try and pound Oklahoma State with a balanced and prodding attack to use the weather to their advantage and control the game.
- How will Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders handle Texas' exotic blitz package and attacking style of defense on the road?
- Oklahoma State star receiver Tylan Wallace lined up against a secondary that was torched two weeks ago by LSU.
FEI Outright Pick: Texas by .7
Notre Dame at Georgia (-14.5) -- 8 p.m. (CBS)
|Overall||Notre Dame (2-0)||Georgia (3-0)|
|When Notre Dame has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||72||53|
|2018 Passing SP+||23||1|
|When Georgia has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2018 Rushing SP+||21||10|
|2018 Passing SP+||8||4|
The Bulldogs journeyed to South Bend in 2017 for the first part of this home-and-home with the Fighting Irish and won a narrow 20-19 victory that propelled them into a season in which they'd finish as SEC champions and the national runner-ups. The key to that victory, and arguably that season, was linebacker Roquan Smith, who could run sideline to sideline and regularly eliminated what looked like solid gains for the Irish spread-option schemes.
In the two years since, the Bulldogs struggled to replace Smith while Notre Dame overhauled their offense by replacing Brandon Wimbush at quarterback with Ian Book and replacing the Bulldogs in the playoffs. Now the two teams square off again in Athens with Book still at the helm and Jake Fromm, once a freshman who was asked to avoid screwing up, well-established at the helm for the Bulldogs.
Georgia's defense was very effective at limiting big plays a year ago thanks to the quality of their cornerbacks and their speed and tackling at safety. This year they're without departed cornerback Deandre Baker but return Tyson Campbell and safeties J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte III. They add new nickel Mark Webb, who currently leads the team in tackles. Returning linebacker Monty Rice is their best bet at a Smith-like presence in the middle. The defense hasn't really been tested yet.
Notre Dame's offense will attack them very differently this time around. Book has thrown 47 passes through two games for 553 yards at 11.8 yards per attempt with six touchdowns and zero interceptions. He's also added a pair of rushing touchdowns. Big Chase Claypool, a 6-foot-4, 229-pounder, is back to lead the receivers, but he's flanked by more speed now and has been moved to Miles Boykin's old spot while Tommy Tremble takes over at tight end. Georgia has a big secondary; Campbell will match Claypool with his own 6-foot-3 frame, but matching Notre Dame's receivers against a veteran Book will be a tougher challenge than tracking Wimbush on the option.
Kirby Smart has been quickly assembling a monstrous roster in Georgia and this year should be their best team yet. The run game keeps reloading and lead running back D'Andre Swift has 292 rushing yards at 9.4 yards per carry so far this year, and his backups have put up numbers as well. Fromm has multiple top targets in the passing game, including a pair of transfers from Tennessee and Miami in tight end Eli Wolf and receiver Lawrence Cager, to go along with Dominick Blaylock and George Pickens. Worst of all for opponents is the fact that the massive Georgia offensive line has been shoving opponents around with ease.
Notre Dame has one of the best defensive lines in the country and a pass-rush package that puts three top ends on the field at the same time with defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa. Their battle with the Georgia offensive line will probably need to go well for the Irish to avoid being overwhelmed by the amount of skill talent that the Bulldogs will put on the field.
- Can Georgia's secondary match the size and experience from Notre Dame's skill players on offense?
- Is there a winner or a draw in the heavyweight battle between Georgia's offensive line and the Notre Dame defensive line?
- Who has the best player in the major focal points of this game? When Georgia is on offense that's in the interior gaps; when Notre Dame has the ball that's on the perimeter.
FEI Outright Pick: Georgia by 13.8
FEI PICKS: WEEK 4
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||FEI Pick||FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Against the Spread
|at Texas A&M||3.5||Auburn||Auburn||Auburn||Auburn|
|at Texas||6||Oklahoma State||Texas||Oklahoma State||Texas|
|at Georgia||14.5||Notre Dame||Georgia||Notre Dame||Georgia|
FEI's Picks against the spread last week: 3-2
FEI's Picks against the spread on the year: 10-7
Ian's Picks against the spread in last week: 1-4
Ian's Picks against the spread on the year: 8-9