SDA Week 4: Wolverines, Sooners Hoping to Avoid Upsets
So far, the 2021 college football season has been defined by upsets. FCS teams added two more FBS notches to their belt in Week 3, including their third win over a Power 5 team with Arizona joining Washington and Vanderbilt as victims. Thanks in part to a schedule laden with top-tier matchups, ranked teams have fallen thick and fast, providing top-25 spots for upstarts such as No. 16 Arkansas and No. 22 Fresno State.
But perhaps most notably, no team has risen above the fray. College football always provides turmoil and upheaval, but in recent years, a select few teams have consistently ridden out the chaos to cruise into the College Football Playoff. In each of the last six seasons, three of the CFP spots have been filled by members of this exclusive club: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma. The postseason presence of those schools is practically a foregone conclusion.
That may yet be the case this year, but the path looks far more difficult for each of these four teams than it usually does. Alabama parlayed a crushing win over Miami into the hallowed status of football's only genuinely elite team—for two weeks, whereupon they rolled to an early lead at Florida before very nearly blowing it in uncharacteristic fashion. Despite that close call, however, the Crimson Tide remained firmly first overall, with none of the usual suspects in position to replace them.
Clemson? The Tigers narrowly dropped a defensive slugfest against highly ranked Georgia in their opener with a DJ Uiagalelei pick-six proving the difference. That might be more forgivable if they hadn't also stumbled to an unnecessarily dramatic 14-8 win over Georgia Tech.
Ohio State? The defense has been found wanting this year, surrendering 31 points to Minnesota and 35 to Oregon. Meanwhile, CJ Stroud's offense has been inconsistent, struggling in a rockfight with Tulsa where the Buckeyes didn't take a multi-score lead for good until just over three minutes remained in the game.
Oklahoma? A team that typically takes apart non-conference schedules like nobody else has looked awfully mortal in their two FBS games, withstanding upset bids by Tulane (40-35) and Nebraska (23-16).
In lieu of the typical contenders, the top spots are currently home to teams such as No. 3 Oregon, No. 5 Iowa, No. 6 Penn State, and No. 8 Cincinnati. The playoff projection may yet settle into something like its standard lineup, and it's unlikely that the Tigers, Buckeyes, and Sooners will all fall short, but the chase is as wide open as it has been in years.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Texas Tech at Texas (-8.5)—Saturday, 12 p.m. (ABC)
|When Texas Tech has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Texas has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Tyler Shough is as good as advertised and then some. The vaunted junior from Oregon has stepped into the role of Red Raiders quarterback with aplomb, filling one of Texas Tech's biggest positional needs and leading the offense to some 40 points per game in their non-conference slate. Shough's squad has defied expectations thus far, and while wins over Stephen F. Austin and FIU looked a bit too close for comfort, the Red Raiders also have a 17-point victory over a possibly solid Houston on their résumé.
How likely is it, then, that the ailing Texas Longhorns struggle to a 2-2 record for the second straight season? On paper, not at all. But the theme this week is one of established leaders attempting to deal with would-be upset candidates—and 2021 has been a prolific year for such up-and-comers. Look no further than the Longhorns' Week 2 visit to Arkansas, which resulted in a stunning 40-21 defeat at the hands of Sam Pittman's rising SEC West force. So while you might not forecast a Texas loss this week, it's hard to deny that they're vulnerable.
So what's the blueprint for pulling an upset over the Longhorns? Well, Texas' loss was largely the result of a crushing Arkansas rushing attack. Led by Trelon Smith, A.J. Green, and quarterback K.J. Jefferson, six Razorbacks took six or more carries for 40-plus yards against Texas, totaling 333 yards and four touchdowns on the ground—the most rushing yardage allowed by the Longhorns since 2016. The edges of the defensive line weren't much more effective than the heart; Texas failed to record a sack in the game for the first time since 2020, against none other than Texas Tech. That game, not coincidentally, saw Texas surrender 56 points, the highest-scoring game by the Red Raiders since September of 2018.
What's the takeaway from this cavalcade of extreme results? Together, they paint a picture of how to stun Texas: target the line by rushing frequently and protecting the quarterback. Thanks to a high-scoring effort led by Sam Ehlinger's six total touchdowns, the Longhorns managed to escape with a win when they faced Texas Tech last year, but the defense didn't play much of a part in that outcome. The Red Raiders followed that blueprint to perfection; perhaps unsurprisingly, lead running back SaRodorick Thompson had one of his most prolific games in that 63-56 shootout, rushing for 104 yards and two touchdowns. Win in the trenches against the Longhorns and the rest will follow.
Therein lies the rub: Texas generally has one of the best defensive lines in all of college football. No position translates talent and experience into success more directly, and the Longhorns have both attributes in spades. Between those early-season outliers against Texas Tech (2020) and Arkansas (2021), the average opponent put up just 148 rushing yards against Texas—and that came primarily against a tough Big 12 slate featuring plenty of game-breaking running backs. The line was particularly dominant, allowing just 2.13 yards per carry up front (ninth in FBS), and while ineffective in pass-rushing (115th in sack rate), it nevertheless led a decent defensive effort by the Longhorns. Even in the opener against Louisiana, the run defense remained a strength, holding the Ragin' Cajuns to just 76 yards and 2.6 yards per carry.
Then Texas visited Fayetteville and floundered against the Razorbacks. To make matters worse, the unit scuffled the next week against Rice; even as the team cruised to a 58-0 shutout victory against the Owls, they surrendered 156 yards and 4.9 yards per carry, the most efficient rushing game for Rice since 2019. For a team that can usually throw out boatloads of talent to impose its will on less-physical teams, Texas has shown uncharacteristic weakness on the line, the only position where the Longhorns have no projected draft prospects. Opponents have the opportunity to take this group apart, and the Red Raiders intend to do just that.
Will it work? Well, Tech's offensive line was merely average last year, as was the rushing attack (160 yards per game, 69th overall). The Raiders have been efficient while emphasizing the run much more than in 2020—they rank 69th in rushing play percentage this season, compared to 113th last season. If the key to beating Texas is indeed wearing down a beatable front seven, Texas Tech could be just the team to make it happen.
- Quarterback uncertainty has been the headline story for the Longhorns all year; will Hudson Card (39 passes) or Casey Thompson (31 passes) take the lead this week?
- Who will step up for a Texas receiving corps averaging a pedestrian 12.0 yards per catch—and a dreadful 10.2 aside from Xavier Worthy?
- Will the Tech secondary, which has allowed just 5.4 yards per pass this year, continue to impress against its toughest test yet?
FEI Outright Pick: Texas by 10.1
Notre Dame at Wisconsin (-6.5)—Saturday, 12 p.m. (Fox)
|When Notre Dame has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Wisconsin has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Wisconsin, on paper, should have one of college football's best offenses. They boast an above-average success rate on both standard and passing downs, as well as on both rushing and passing plays. They allow havoc—a tackle for loss, sack, pass breakup, or interception—on just 11.7% of plays. And their drives average a towering 6.5 plays each, giving them a 41:27 time of possession against FBS teams that ranks first in football. From a glance at the Badgers' 438.5 yards per game, 32nd in the nation, you'd naturally expect them to score well enough.
But as anyone who watched Wisconsin in their opener against Penn State can attest, their offense has glaring issues. In that game, the Badgers opened 2021 with two punts, a blocked field goal, a fumble, another punt, the end of the first half, and yet another punt before finally scoring a touchdown. Having broken this pointless streak, they then ... punted twice, kicked a field goal, and tossed two interceptions. Wisconsin gained 359 yards with a balanced attack (185 yards passing, 174 rushing), held the ball for over 40 minutes, and even converted nine of 24 third and fourth downs. But the Badgers' offense consistently sputtered in the red zone, scoring just 10 points on their six scoring opportunities.
Why? Well, much of it comes down to big plays, and Wisconsin's lack thereof. The most common measure of such plays is explosiveness: the average gain in expected points added on successful plays. The average value for this is about 1.25 this season, but the Badgers averaged just 0.79 against Penn State. The more basic statistics back up this dismal figure; Wisconsin didn't gain more than 20 yards on a single play all game. It's difficult to win with a weakness like that.
The good news is that there's reason to believe Wisconsin won't come up short so drastically going forward. Penn State has proven one of the Big Ten's best teams thus far, and the Badgers' offense should find its footing as the season goes on. If they can start to find success in the passing game—which is to say, if Graham Mertz can improve on a dismal first game of 2021—their attack should open up on critical plays and find capitalize on long drives more often.
Enter Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have labored to a 3-0 record with narrow wins over Florida State (which then lost to an FCS team), Toledo (which then lost to Colorado State, which lost to an FCS team), and Purdue. In contrast to the Badgers' attack, Notre Dame has struggled to create consistency, particularly in a shallow rushing room where only two running backs have taken carries all year. The Irish have produced a below-average success rate on both standard and passing downs, as well as on both rushing and passing plays. Sound familiar?
While Wisconsin has had difficulty converting a theoretically imposing offense into successful drives, Notre Dame has wrangled an erratic attack to barely adequate performances again and again. The reason, in both cases, is explosiveness. The Irish are averaging an excellent 1.5 EPA on successful plays, so despite ranking 57th in yards per game, they're 40th in points per game. That's the sort of difference that can be critical when you have one win in overtime and another by two points. The latter game, Notre Dame's 32-29 nailbiter against Toledo, is a prime example of how explosiveness has held up their offensive efforts; Chris Tyree's 55-yard touchdown catch, followed two drives later by a 34-yard Kevin Austin Jr. reception and an 18-yard Michael Mayer touchdown catch, sealed the narrow victory late in the game.
The result is a pair of teams that look similar at first glance but have taken opposite paths to their offensive ups and downs. If Wisconsin is to break out of their short gains and make big plays, they'll need Mertz to step up and lead a more dynamic passing attack. For Notre Dame to keep up the high-octane offense which has led the way so far, they'll need former Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan and superstar running back Kyren Williams to combine for a multifaceted attack and prevent the Badgers from limiting them in either dimension. Something has to give in this critical showdown between the retooling Badgers and Irish.
- Will Coan's hot start to the season (8.4 yards per attempt, 8 TDs, 2 INTs) continue against his former team?
- Can tight end Jake Ferguson (10-plus yards per catch on 30-plus catches in each year from 2018 to 2020) add to the Badgers' passing attack effectively?
- Will Wisconsin's improved front seven find a way to harass a rebuilding Notre Dame offensive line which has allowed 4.7 sacks per game (122nd in FBS)?
FEI Outright Pick: Wisconsin by 5.1
Arkansas vs Texas A&M (-5.5) in Arlington—Saturday, 12 p.m. (CBS)
|When Arkansas has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Texas A&M has the ball||Defense||Offense|
The renewal of the Southwest Classic in the 2010s coincided with a particularly rough run for the Razorbacks, who had six losing seasons in the decade after just 10 in the previous 56 years. Bobby Petrino, John L. Smith, Bret Bielema, and Chad Morris have all had their ups and downs at Arkansas since the Razorbacks' arrival in the SEC, but with the 2020s have come a new leader and, so it's hoped, a new era. Accomplished offensive line coach and master recruiter Sam Pittman has invigorated the Razorbacks, leading a 3-7 record last year after two winless conference slates under Morris, and this season Arkansas is 3-0 with a No. 16 ranking following on the heels of a dominant win over Texas.
The Arkansas of old is responsible for Texas A&M's active nine-game winning streak—but even in that run, the Razorbacks were frequently competitive in the rivalry. The Aggies have escaped by means of shootouts (a 45-33 duel in 2013 with 1,006 total yards), overtime thrillers (in 2014, 2015, and 2017 alike), and heartbreaking finishes (a fourth-and-5 incompletion in the red zone in 2019). This series has been about as close as possible for one in which Texas A&M has conjured up a victory nine years running.
Still, a losing streak is a losing streak, and breaking this one will be key for the Razorbacks to build confidence in their return to SEC contention. K.J. Jefferson is having a breakout season with career highs of 10.0 yards per pass, 632 yards, and four touchdowns. Even better, the sophomore has added the dual-threat ability promised by his recruitment, with 180 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries this year. Quarterback was the biggest concern for Arkansas going into 2020 after Feleipe Franks (8.9 yards per attempt, 17 TDs, 4 INTs) went to the NFL, but Jefferson has filled in admirably and led the offense to 41 points per game. Elite slot receiver Treylon Burks has led the pass-catchers with more than double the receptions of any other wide receiver, and a deep rushing lineup has seen five players (including Jefferson) take at least 14 carries through three games, led by Trelon Smith's 216 yards and three touchdowns. The Razorbacks had most of these pieces in 2020, but they have found additional depth and put together one of the most efficient and talented attacks in the nation.
That unit is set to meet its match in a dominant Texas A&M defense. The Aggies' offense has stumbled out of the gate due to an injury to starter Haynes King and a rushing room lacking any depth beyond Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane. But the defense has stepped up to keep them unbeaten, holding opponents to FBS-best numbers of 5.7 points per game and -0.63 EPA per pass. Texas A&M has done just about everything well defensively, allowing a mere 31.6% success rate, 0.84 EPA on successful plays, and one point per opponent scoring opportunity, all among the best in the nation as well.
Esteemed defensive coordinator Mike Elko has lived up to his reputation by building a methodical unit that forces opponents out of their game plans. The Aggies' defense has been incredible in all phases, from a brilliant pass defense led by nickelback Antonio Johnson (18 tackles, two breakups) and free safety Leon O'Neal Jr. (10 tackles, two breakups, two interceptions) to a physical front seven starring nose tackle DeMarvin Leal (13 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) and weakside linebacker Aaron Hansford (15 tackles, 3 TFL, two breakups). It's little surprise that they have allowed just 3.5 yards per play, edging out Georgia for the top rank in the SEC.
The key to this matchup is discipline. Arkansas has built its high-flying offense on a foundation of blocking; Texas A&M structures its daunting defense on consistent tackling. Both Pittman and Aggies head coach Jimbo Fisher are constantly looking for ways to capitalize on opponents' weak spots and mistakes—and both are just as earnest to ensure they don't leave their own team open to such opportunism. Arlington will play host to a game of inches this Saturday between the Aggies and Razorbacks.
- Backup Zach Calzada (6.4 yards per attempt, 4 TDs, 2 INTs) will get the start as King's timetable remains unclear; can he carry momentum from last week's solid performance?
- Will the dynamic duo of Spiller (250 yards, 6.3 yards per carry) and Achane (203 yards, 6.8 yards per carry) be enough for Texas A&M to beat the Razorbacks on the ground?
- Can Arkansas's dependable third-down defense (allowing just a 28% conversion rate, 17th in FBS) keep it up against a Texas A&M team converting nearly half of their third downs?
FEI Outright Pick: Texas A&M by 5.7
Rutgers at Michigan (-20.5)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
|When Rutgers has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Michigan has the ball||Defense||Offense|
One of the biggest questions going into this year was whether the Big Ten's bizarre, shortened 2020 season was more than a pandemic-aided outlier. Some teams have supported the conclusion that it was—Penn State is rolling, Indiana is fading, and Northwestern is nowhere to be found. But other teams have carried forward some progression (or regression) from last year, such as Maryland and Iowa storming to hot starts or Ohio State continuing to show defensive liabilities.
Most of the teams in question have shown their true colors after the first three weeks of the season, but two are still holding out: Rutgers and Michigan. Both teams lost twice as many games as they won in 2020, and they went to triple overtime in their game against each other, but the state of their programs made 3-6 a miracle year for the Scarlet Knights and 2-4 a horrifying nosedive for the Wolverines. Both teams have started this season strong, cruising to 3-0 records against unimpressive schedules, but they have yet to truly prove whether last year's results apply to the rest of this season in their cases.
Let's start with Rutgers. The Knights' first season under Greg Schiano was a godsend after years of consistently abysmal seasons under Kyle Flood and Chris Ash. The coach who built Rutgers into a Big East leader during the 2000s took over a team that went winless in the Big Ten in both 2018 and 2019 and led a surprising three-win season in 2020. Now he has them off to a perfect start through three games and is looking for a defining upset of an opponent that has established itself as a consistent contender to finish just behind its division's blueblood.
Squint a little and Schiano's Scarlet Knights look rather similar to Pittman's Razorbacks, don't they? But the rebuild at Rutgers has been a very different and more difficult beast to tackle. Attracting recruits to a Big Ten bottom-feeder that has never won an outright conference championship is far from easy, but Schiano has infused the program with talent. Even with his high-quality recruiting classes, however, the Knights are ahead of schedule this season. It's an unbalanced roster that has brought them to this point, but the handful of stars leading the way are a force to contend with.
The biggest surprise is the emergence of quarterback Noah Vedral as, at least to this point, a solid passer. Across his first four seasons at UCF, Nebraska, and Rutgers, Vedral averaged 6.4 yards per attempt and tossed 10 touchdowns to nine interceptions. But on the heels of a rough 2020 in which he averaged 5.7 yards per attempt and had only one game with a passer rating over 130.0, Vedral has taken off—relatively speaking, anyway. The fifth-year senior has completed over 70% of his passes for 7.5 yards per attempt, four touchdowns, and no interceptions, and while that has come against a cushy schedule (Temple, Syracuse, and Delaware), it's impressive nonetheless. If Vedral can assume the role of a dependable-if-unremarkable quarterback, he'll form the backbone of an offense that would be much the same. Isaih Pacheco (165 yards, 3 TDs) adds a rushing threat, and Bo Melton (227 yards, 2 TDs) is a dependable receiver. The lineup beyond those three may be thin, but it's enough to compete, especially if you get to send out linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi (31 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) when your top-10 scoring defense takes the field.
But Michigan is just as hot as their opponent entering this game, if not hotter. The Wolverines have yet to allow more than 14 points in a game, are averaging 47 points on offense, and led off last week with four straight rushing touchdowns, a passing touchdown thrown in for fun, and then four straight rushing touchdowns more. As with Rutgers, though, it's important to note that Michigan's schedule leaves something to be desired; they have faced two middle-of-the-pack MAC teams in Western Michigan and NIU, and their blockbuster non-conference game became a dud after Washington dropped its opener against Montana.
Nevertheless, the Wolverines have good reason to be confident entering this contest. Cade McNamara (10 yards per attempt, 3 TDs, 0 INTs) has laid waste to opposing defenses; three running backs have over 100 yards with multiple touchdowns (including seven-TD star Black Corum); and five receivers have three or more catches. Defensively, linebacker Josh Ross (23 tackles, 1.5 TFL) and lineman Aidan Hutchinson (10 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks) have anchored a talented unit. Nothing is certain just yet, given the paper-thin nature of Michigan's schedule, but it sure seems like last year was a fluke. The same can't necessarily be said for their opponent, however, and if so, this game could be just as much of a thriller as last year's duel deep into the New Jersey night.
- Will a much-improved Michigan offensive line stand up to its first real test in Fatukasi and the rest of a pass rush averaging a top-10 sack rate?
- Can Rutgers limit Corum and the rest of the Wolverines' ferocious rushing attack?
- Will the Scarlet Knights' excellent special teams, led by returner Aron Cruickshank and punter Adam Korsak, make an impact?
FEI Outright Pick: Michigan by 24.3
UCLA (-4.5) at Stanford—Saturday, 6 p.m. (Pac-12 Network)
|When UCLA has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Stanford has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Few teams started the season as impressively as UCLA, which rolled into the Rose Bowl and took care of business against an overconfident LSU in Week 1. Dorian Thompson-Robinson launched one of the season's most impressive quarterback campaigns to date; he's averaging 11.0 yards per pass with seven touchdowns and just one interception. Add the game-changing performance of Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet (242 yards, 10.5 yards per carry, six touchdowns), and you have one of the most potent offenses in the nation.
But even as that group put up its third game of 37 or more points against Fresno State, the Bruins found themselves a few points short of victory. The signs of UCLA's questionable pass defense were there from the beginning, as they allowed a pedestrian 7.3 yards per attempt in 2020. In that otherwise-solid LSU game, they surrendered 330 yards and three touchdowns to quarterback Max Johnson, comparable to the failures of 2020 Ole Miss and 2021 Central Michigan against the Tigers' passer. But Fresno State's Jake Haener, even fighting through evident injury throughout most of the fourth quarter, was able to break the UCLA secondary wide open, going 39-for-53 for 455 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The Bruins' ability to prevent plays through the air is lacking; that much we know. But that alone doesn't get to the heart of why UCLA did a worse job of stopping Haener than UConn had a few weeks prior. The key for Fresno State to open up the passing game was the tried and true method of building a foundation on the ground first. Hawaiʻi managed a dismal 26 yards on 21 carries against the Bruins, and LSU's 49 yards on 25 carries weren't much better. The Bulldogs stand out against those comparisons as they rushed for 114 yards, 3.1 yards per carry, and three touchdowns in their upset of UCLA. The Bruins allowed a team with a great quarterback to create another dimension of attack—not too different from their own game plan.
UCLA is most successful when they can manage the versatility of their own offense and keep that of their opponent's in check. That's true for every team, but the Bruins are markedly better when they can supplement Thompson-Robinson with a rusher like Charbonnet, and their defense is likewise far better when its phenomenal defensive line can take the lead and force their foes into do-or-die passing downs. Those tendencies make Stanford, which loves to surprise with passes on rushing downs and vice versa, an intriguing matchup.
After an achingly slow start against Kansas State in which Stanford didn't score for the first 56:44 of their season, the Cardinal suddenly woke up and transformed into one of football's best offense. From that point onwards, through a 42-28 shellacking of USC that cost Clay Helton his job and a thorough 41-23 dismantling of Vanderbilt, they have averaged about 43.8 points per 60 minutes, which would rank seventh in FBS. quarterback Tanner McKee (8.1 yards per attempt, 5 TDs, 0 INTs) and top receivers Brycen Tremayne (165 yards, 3 TDs), Elijah Higgins (108 yards, 1 TDs), and John Humphreys (119 yards, 17 yards per catch) have led a decent passing performance, with Stanford putting up 452 yards and four touchdowns across their last two games, but the surge has been led by a rushing attack that has opened up both phases of the offensive game.
Against the Wildcats, Stanford's rushing attack looked practically nonexistent. The Cardinal usually lean on the pass, but the dismal ground game—39 yards on 22 carries—left them little choice, and perhaps more importantly allowed Kansas State to focus on preventing Stanford's only real weapon. Those struggles might well have continued and prevented an upset of USC were it not for the emergence of junior Nathaniel Peat, who towered over his teammates' combined 30 yards with a 115-yard showing on just six carries. Peat singlehandedly brought the rushing attack into play for Stanford, and a week later, the rest of the rushing corps followed suit. Peat, Austin Jones, E.J. Smith, and Casey Filkins all contributed at least 35 yards and 5-plus yards per carry against Vanderbilt as the Cardinal put up 204 yards, 7.6 team yards per carry, and three touchdowns en route to an easy win.
Momentum is in Stanford's favor, but is that performance in the running back group really a reliable trend? It's easy to handwave it away as little more than Peat's outsized performance against USC, combined with a meaningless crushing of one of the worst teams in the Power 5. On paper, the Cardinal are a quality offense all around, but they still only have one genuinely impressive rushing game from any player beyond the Vanderbilt contest. Will that potential weakness cost them against a punishing UCLA squad, or can Stanford continue to put forth a dangerous offense through the air and on the ground? The answer will be key to their hopes of a second ranked upset in three weeks.
- Can Stanford's surprising pass defense stand up against Thompson-Robinson's explosive play?
- Will UCLA's penchant for short drives (giving them the 116th-ranked time of possession in FBS) keep the Cardinal a step behind?
- How will Bruins running back Brittain Brown rebound from a rough game in which he put up just 23 yards and 2.6 yards per carry after back-to-back games of at least 75 yards and 5.5 yards per carry?
FEI Outright Pick: UCLA by 1.1
West Virginia at Oklahoma (-17)—Saturday, 7:30 p.m. (ABC)
|When West Virginia has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Oklahoma has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Oklahoma winning a game with its defense is practically unheard of, but that's just what the Sooners did last Saturday. Their 23-16 escape from historic rival Nebraska was their first win with 25 or fewer points in the playoff era, and it raised even more questions about Oklahoma than their 40-35 survival against Tulane did two weeks earlier. In the opener, the Sooners' defense wilted late, allowing the Green Wave to outscore them 21-3 in the second half; yet against Nebraska, the defense made an impressive stand to provide an uncharacteristic low-scoring win.
But let's not jump to conclusions just yet. Oklahoma is a solid team on both sides of the ball, and as bizarre as their early-season struggles have been, they're not reason enough to throw out everything we know about this team. Spencer Rattler, for all the publicity surrounding his lack of Heisman bona fides, has been solid thus far, completing about 75% of his passes for 7.7 yards per attempt, 7 TDs, and 2 INTs while adding 3.9 yards per carry and 2 TDs on the ground. The defense, outside of that shaky second half against Tulane, has been lights-out, with an explosive front seven and a solid secondary. This is a fundamentally sound team, and you'd still expect it to find a way to double-digit wins at a minimum.
That being said, it's also profoundly clear that Oklahoma is unusually vulnerable this season. Most years, the Sooners are one of those teams for which you need a perfect plan and some great luck to take down; this does not seem to be one of those years. Kansas State, Texas, TCU, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State, among others, all have reason to hope they can pull off an upset when they face the Big 12's perennial powerhouse. So too does West Virginia, the first in-conference opponent on Oklahoma's slate, and a team that was expected to be the first genuine test.
The Mountaineers are a sensible, constant presence in the changeable Big 12, though their typical expectation is closer to eight wins than the Sooner's usual 12. West Virginia isn't statistically crushing in any area this year, but they are fairly good across the board. They pass decently (73rd in yards per attempt), run decently (64th in yards per carry), prevent the pass decently (95th in opponent yards per attempt), and prevent the run decently (32nd in opponent yards per carry). That balanced style could make them the ideal upset candidate against Oklahoma, which could show weakness in any number of areas, if their performances to this point are anything to go by.
Were I to hazard a guess, however, I'd look to West Virginia's passing offense for hints of a potential breakout. Jarret Doege has been entrenched as the Mountaineers' quarterback since 2019, mostly for lack of a better option. The Bowling Green transfer averaged 6.8 yards per attempt in his first season in Morgantown and 6.9 yards per attempt in his second, but he has taken a major step forward this year, especially in West Virginia's win over ranked Virginia Tech, in which he went 15-for-26 for 193 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 INT. A truly dominant game from Doege is a rare sight; much like his team, he's reliable but hard to bet on for major overachievement. But both Doege and the Mountaineers are in position to defy that expectation against a beatable Oklahoma squad.
Will the Sooners come away empty-handed in this prime-time duel? Probably not, considering they have one of the most talented rosters in the nation and West Virginia is still unsure whether the pieces of their offense fit together properly. But in a season of upsets, who would have called Arkansas over Texas, Fresno State over UCLA, or any of the other thrilling wins by underdogs in this young season? The next shocker could come this weekend, and no matter who the plucky upstart at the heart of it turns out to be, we'll all be watching.
- Can the Mountaineers, losing 1.5 fumbles per game, take care of the ball against an opportunistic Sooners defense which has taken away 1.5 fumbles per game?
- Will West Virginia's steady second-level defense limit potential for explosiveness from Oklahoma, which has struggled to generate big plays this year?
- Are the Sooners' superstar running backs, Kennedy Brooks (210 yards, 6.2 yards per carry, 3 TDs) and Eric Gray (185 yards, 5.6 yards per carry), capable of carrying the offense to victory again?
FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma by 13.0
FEI Picks: Week 3
|at Texas||-8.5||Texas Tech||Texas||Texas||Texas|
|at Wisconsin||-5.5||Notre Dame||Wisconsin||Notre Dame||Wisconsin|
|Texas A&M||-5.5||Arkansas||Texas A&M||Texas A&M||Texas A&M|
|at Oklahoma||-16.5||West Virginia||Oklahoma||West Virginia||West Virginia|
FEI's picks ATS in Week 3: 4-2
FEI's picks ATS in 2021: 10-8
Preston's picks ATS in Week 3: 4-2
Preston's picks ATS in 2021: 9-9