10 things to know in college football for Week 4
It’s hard to believe, but three weeks have already come and gone in this college football season. Teams have begun to reveal their true identities, new stars are emerging and countless storylines continue to unfold. From Heisman watch lists to Playoff contenders, the college football landscape already looks far different than it did a few short weeks ago, but it’s that constant change that keeps us coming back each and every weekend.
With Week 4 on the horizon, here are 10 things you need to know about this weekend’s slate of games:
- Tennessee stars are playing well at the right rime
Tennessee was pegged by most as the SEC East favorite entering the season, and despite their 3-0 start their play has largely left a lot to be desired. Things seem to be trending in the right direction though, as several of their star players had impressive performances in last weekend’s win over Ohio. Quarterback Josh Dobbs and running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara all posted their best grades of the season on Saturday. Dobbs showed some nice improvement throwing the ball and had an adjusted completion percentage of 84 percent against Ohio, the 9th best rate in the nation this week. Hurd and Kamara flashed signs of developing into the ground threat we expected to see out of them this year, collectively earning 92 of their 128 total rushing yards after initial contact. Perhaps the biggest storyline of all from Tennessee’s performance this weekend though was the show Derek Barnett put on from his defensive end position. Barnett was also off to a slow start through two games but had a breakout performance on Saturday, collecting a staggering 12 total pressures and grading out as the nation’s best edge defender in Week 3. The Volunteers appear to be coming into their own at the right time as they open conference play this weekend against Florida. The Gators will be without starting QB Luke Del Rio, but still pose a tough matchup with a slew of talented skill position players and one of PFF’s top 10 defenses. If Tennessee’s star players can continue on this trajectory, the Volunteers should be able to handle Florida this weekend and continue on their path to the SEC title game.
- Seth Russell is returning to form
Through seven games last year, Seth Russell had thrown for 29 touchdowns and ranked third in the country with a PFF QB rating of 106.47. Unfortunately, injury cut his season short and we were robbed of witnessing what kind of numbers could have resulted from a full season of play at that pace. After a slow start this year, Russell seems to be regaining his form from a season ago and is currently ranked as our 7th best QB in the country. Much like last season, Russell is grading out well when throwing the ball deep and has also been a threat on the ground, ranking seventh in the country in run grade among QBs. This weekend Baylor plays host to an Oklahoma State team with a talented secondary led by Jordan Sterns and Ramon Richards, both of whom rank near the top of the conference in pass coverage grade. This will be Russell’s toughest test yet and a good indicator of whether he has fully regained his 2015 form.
- Get ready for some points in Arizona State vs Cal
Another week, another probable shootout for quarterback Davis Webb and California. Webb continues to light up the scoreboard each and every weekend, currently leading the nation in both passing yards (1,376) and touchdowns (13). His passing grade ranks fourth nationally among Power-5 QBs and he’s found much of his success when going deep, with 8 of his 13 touchdown passes coming on throws traveling 20 or more yards downfield. This weekend the opponent is Arizona State, a team that is equally prone to high scoring contests with a loaded offense and questionable defense. The Sun Devils currently boast a top 15 QB in Manny Wilkins, college football’s fourth-highest-graded running back in Kalen Ballage and the nation’s third highest graded receiver in N’Keal Harry. In short, this matchup has all the makings of your typical Pac-12 After Dark shootout.
- Strong backfields and shaky QB play mark the LSU/Auburn matchup
If the Pac-12 shootouts are too much for you to handle, this Auburn vs. LSU matchup might be more your pace. In what will be their third home game against a ranked opponent this year, Auburn plays host to LSU and new starting QB Danny Etling. In his first start for the Tigers last week, Etling had a solid performance but didn’t wow in any one area, with 14 of his 19 completions coming on passes traveling less than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. LSU will likely ride running back Leonard Fournette in this one who is fresh off a 28 carry, 148-yard performance last week against Mississippi State. Auburn’s revolving door at quarterback will find them in a similar situation, forcing them to rely on Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, the third- and sixth-highest graded backs in the SEC. LSU’s secondary has been impressive through three games, particularly CB Tre’Davious White who has allowed a QB rating of just 8.3 into his coverage, best of any Power-5 cornerback. With both teams facing uncertainty at QB and loaded with talent at running back, expect this one to be a standard SEC ground and pound kind of game.
- Christian McCaffrey is back
An average outing in Week 1 and a bye in Week 2 made Christian McCaffrey a forgotten man of sorts, but after last week’s performance against USC our memories should be fully jogged. McCaffrey proved he is still one of the most explosive and versatile players in the country, torching the Trojan defense for 231 total yards and two touchdowns. On the ground, McCaffrey gained 100 of his 165 rushing yards after contact and forced five missed tackles on the day. He also ranked second in the nation among running backs in Week 3 with an impressive 3.79 yards per route run as a receiver. This weekend Stanford goes on the road to face a talented UCLA team that is fresh off of a defensive performance that held BYU to just 23 rushing yards on 25 carries. Defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes is the top graded player in the nation at his position and the Bruins have a host of other talented defenders that will be looking to contain McCaffrey, including linebackers Takkarist McKinley and Jayon Brown. Whether on the ground or through the air, expect McCaffrey to find a way to leave his mark on this game.
- Texas A&M versus Arkansas looms large
The annual matchup between Texas A&M and Arkansas has proven to be must-watch television in recent years, with each of the last two games ending in overtime and an eventual win for the Aggies. This year’s version of the Southwest Classic is shaping up to be just as exciting as both teams enter the game with undefeated records and a chance to establish themselves along with Alabama atop the SEC West. The Razorbacks and Aggies play very different styles of football, but Arkansas’ 41-38 double overtime win over TCU in Week 2 proved they can hang with a spread offense like A&M’s when needed. Quarterback Austin Allen is currently the SEC’s highest graded passer and has proven capable of handling the rush with a 105.7 QB rating when under pressure. As good as Allen’s been, Arkansas’s offense is still built around the ground game led by running back Rawleigh Williams and the Razorback offensive line that is the fourth-highest graded run blocking unit in the country. This will be a great test for the ever-improving A&M defense that currently ranks second nationally in pass rush grade but still has room to improve when defending the run. The A&M offense has been inconsistent through the first three weeks but is slowly gaining an identity as new stars emerge and old stars are discovered again. Freshman running back Trayveon Williams has earned more carries with his explosive ability and the ninth-highest breakaway percentage in the nation while wide receiver Josh Reynolds reminded everyone what he’s capable of with his dominant performance against the Auburn secondary last weekend. Look for both teams to try and impose their style early and often in this one. It’s one of the later kickoffs this weekend, but if recent history is any indication this game will be well worth staying up for.
- Michigan State lives up to their ranking
With only an unimpressive win over Furman on their record, the validity of Michigan State’s ranking was in question heading into last weekend’s matchup with Notre Dame.
Consider the Spartans validated.
After jumping out to a 36-7 lead, Michigan State was able to hold off a late push from the Irish to hang on for the victory and got some nice individual performances along the way. Quarterback Tyler O’Connor was solid in his third career start, earning a 93.52 PFF QB rating and a 72.0 adjusted completion percentage. The Spartan offensive line was impressive as well, paving the way for 260 yards on the ground and 3 rushing touchdowns. Defensively, Malik McDowell was a force along the defensive line, collecting five total pressures and five defensive stops against Notre Dame. This weekend will be another opportunity for Michigan State to prove themselves as they welcome the 11th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers to East Lansing in one of the top matchups of the weekend. Wisconsin will be turning to redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook at QB this weekend, who earned the starting job after his performance last week, posting an accuracy rating of 90.9 percent on his 12 dropbacks. The Badgers have enough talent on both sides of the ball to steal a win, but if Michigan State can rattle Hornibrook with pressure early and often, they should pull this one out.
- Penn State will need Saquon Barkley’s best effort against Michigan
Saquon Barkley was everything Penn State hoped he’d be and more as a freshman, grading out as one of the top backs in the nation last season. Barkley averaged an impressive 3.8 yards after contact per rushing attempt and forced 61 missed tackles to earn the highest Elusive Rating among all running backs in 2015. He’s on pace to outdo himself again this season, already racking up 20 missed tackles to lead the nation through three games.
This weekend’s matchup against Michigan could be the most difficult he’s faced in his young career, as the Wolverines defense has been one of the best in the nation this season and currently ranks as PFF’s top-graded run stopping team. Along the defensive line, Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich and Chris Wormley all rank in the top 10 nationally at their position in run defense. Add in Ben Gedeon (fourth-best linebacker against the run) and the nation’s best run stopping safety in Jabril Peppers, and you can see why Saquon Barkley might be losing some sleep this week. The Nittany Lions will need their sophomore running back’s best effort this weekend if they’re to have a chance against this stout Michigan defense.
- Ole Miss looks to salvage its season
Ole Miss had some high hopes entering the season, but now finds itself with two losses after just three weeks of play. Both defeats were close contests against top-five opponents, so all is not yet lost for the Rebels, and a win this weekend against 12th ranked Georgia will go a long way towards putting back together what has been a broken season so far. Any team that takes a 24-3 lead over Alabama as Ole Miss did on Saturday clearly has the talent to compete in the SEC, but there are obviously some issues on both sides of the ball that will need fixing if they want to remain in contention this season. The offensive line ranks near the bottom of the nation in pass blocking efficiency and the secondary collectively has a negative coverage grade through three games, just to name a few examples. Georgia comes into Oxford fresh off of a last second win over Missouri and will be relying on true freshman QB Jacob Eason to have another impressive performance. Eason showed he’s not afraid to push the ball downfield last week, with 19 of his 56 pass attempts traveling 20+ yards through the air. Ole Miss will also have to deal with a healthy Nick Chubb and junior Isaiah McKenzie, who is currently the nation’s top graded receiver. A win on Saturday will breathe some life back into the Rebels, but another loss may be the final blow to what was a promising 2016 season.
- Lamar Jackson is the real deal
Lamar Jackson… It seems like we’re writing something about the Louisville quarterback each and every day around here, but to be honest his ridiculous three game performance probably deserves even more attention than it’s receiving. Any argument about “level of competition” can now be thrown out the window as Jackson just dismantled second-ranked Florida State last weekend, living up to his grade and proving he belongs at the top of any Heisman list out there.
Jackson had a 91.8 rushing grade against the usually stout Seminoles front, averaging 10.3 yards per designed run and finding his way into the endzone four different times on the ground. He’s not limited to beating a team with his legs though. For the season, Lamar Jackson ranks first in PFF QB Rating (108.20), 22nd in adjusted completion percentage (72.8) and has been accurate on 50% of his deep pass attempts which is the fourth-best rate in the nation. Louisville takes on Marshall this Saturday so count on another gaudy stat line from Jackson again this week as he continues to build his Heisman campaign.