Everything you need to know in college football following Week 4
The ebbs and flows of a college football Saturday: Wisconsin and Ole Miss make a statement at noon; Tennessee takes full control of their destiny while Notre Dame sees theirs slip away in the 3:30 slot, while Oregon and LSU join them only a couple hours later; in primetime, Stanford, Texas A&M, and Baylor survive their big tests to remain undefeated; the Pac-12 takes us home with Arizona State and Washington remaining undefeated with late-game wins over Cal and Arizona respectively.
“From noon to midnight and beyond” holds true for yet another week, let’s dive a little deeper into the top stories.
- The SEC East goes through Knoxville
With Georgia losing to Ole Miss, Tennessee’s game against Florida was a de facto “driver’s seat” game for control over the SEC East. After going down 21-0, the Vols finally showed the team we expected to see after an offseason of immense hype. QB Josh Dobbs overcame pressure to create big plays in the passing game while the defense shut down the Florida offense from the second quarter through the end of the game. Tennessee made a statement and ended their 11-game losing streak to Florida.
However, Tennessee travels to Georgia next week and they’ll be tested as the Florida game was built up to be their Super Bowl, there could be a letdown in Athens. Even if they get through, they have undefeated Texas A&M and No. 1 Alabama looming the following weeks, so while Tennessee now controls their own destiny in the SEC East, it’s still a treacherous road to Atlanta.
- The Big Ten West is better than we thought
After Iowa rolled through the Big Ten West last season, it’s a much more competitive division here in 2016. The Hawkeyes join three undefeated teams – Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Minnesota – and while Iowa’s loss to North Dakota State stings for any long-term playoff aspirations, they’re still right in the middle of the division race as well. They have their usual mix of strong defense and a run-heavy offense that should keep them in every game.
Wisconsin has been one of the biggest surprises of the season and they made a statement with their 30-6 win against Michigan State (more on them in No. 8).
We saw Nebraska as a rising team this season and they’ve lived up to it to this point. The defensive line and defensive backs have been strong across the board with FS Nate Gerry (88.3)grading among the nation’s best safeties. Offensively, QB Tommy Armstrong leads an experienced unit with his efficiency as both a passer and as a runner.
As for Minnesota, QB Mitch Leidner (80.1) is off to a great start after an inconsistent career, and DT Steven Richardson is off to a monster start as the leader of Minnesota’s underrated defense.
While the Big Ten West will beat each other up over the coming weeks and their records will lose some luster, it’s important to highlight just how good they’ve been to this point with a number of impressive wins over both conference and non-conference opponents.
- Big-name schools are in trouble: Notre Dame, USC, LSU, Oregon, Oklahoma
Every year brings new surprises and storylines, but one of the big ones so far in 2016 is the slow start for a number of big-name programs. Only four weeks into the season, and Notre Dame and USC are sitting at 1-3 while LSU, Oregon and Oklahoma have two losses apiece. That’s five teams expected to make a run at the College Football Playoff and five teams currently eliminated and scrambling to make something of what many fans will view as a lost season for a powerhouse program. The college football landscape is as balanced and competitive as ever, so we’re destined to see new names rise to prominence every season, but when five schools with such high expectations are essentially eliminated from playoff contention within four weeks, it’s a big story. Fan bases are quick to overreact, so it will be most interesting to see how much good will has been built up by Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, while USC’s Clay Helton has no head coaching track record and sat right into a hot seat from day one. LSU’s Les Miles’ seat was hot coming into the year and late-game clock management issues will certainly not help his case while Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich has always had the long shadow of Chip Kelly cast over him so a 2-2 start will evoke even more questions about his long-term prospects. The big-name programs may be out of the playoff picture, but the storylines are abundant as the season unfolds.
- Baylor and West Virginia still carrying the Big 12 mantle
We’ve highlighted the Big 12’s woes in recent weeks, but Baylor and West Virginia still remain undefeated and they may be the Big 12’s only hope at getting into the College Football Playoff. Baylor made it through its first difficult conference test in Oklahoma State, and they have the explosive offense behind QB Seth Russell (78.4) and opportunistic defense to make a run through the Big 12. We threw West Virginia in this mix as they’re the only other undefeated team in the conference after they outlasted BYU 35-32 yesterday. They may have just enough firepower on offense and a solid defense to make a run, but the Big 12’s more likely route to the playoff goes through Baylor. They passed their first test on Saturday though we may not know their fate until late October, when they finally hit the meat of their Big 12 schedule for six straight weeks through the end of the year.
- Ole Miss is better than their 2-2 record
Yes a 1-2 record was not a great start for Ole Miss on paper, but after dominating Georgia to even up their record at 2-2, Ole Miss now has a chance to get their record to reflect their on-field play. Losses to Florida State and Alabama are nothing to be ashamed of, though the loss column often dictates public perception no matter where those losses came from. Yesterday was a reminder that Ole Miss is talented, especially with QB Chad Kelly (77.0) at the helm. He has his ups and downs, but he’s still the SEC’s best passing quarterback, and when he’s connecting down the field, Ole Miss is difficult to beat. This looks like a situation where Ole Miss will quietly work its way back into the SEC West discussion and make a move for a New Year’s Six Bowl.
- Washington and Stanford headed for a showdown
Mark the calendars for next Friday night as Washington and Stanford get the nation’s attention in a battle of undefeated Pac-12 North foes. Washington was the lovable up-and-comer at the beginning of the season, full of hype and randomly-high expectations while Stanford was the boring, grind-it-out team with a new quarterback, offensive line, and no-names on defense. Oh, and the best player in the country in Christian McCaffrey, but even with him on the roster, expectations had been lowered in Palo Alto. But here we stand, two teams with no losses and a Friday night showcase game – hopefully this 8 PM start is reasonable enough for the Heisman voters who slept through McCaffrey’s superhuman 2015 season. For Washington, it’s a national stage for underrated QB Jake Browning (76.0) who is grading among the nation’s best as well as a talented defense that includes defensive linemen Greg Gaines (84.3) and Elijah Qualls (82.7) and defensive backs Sidney Jones (84.4) and Budda Baker (79.5). While Washington has a plethora of new names to know, Stanford just continues to find ways to win games and feed the ball to McCaffrey in a number of ways. It’s not always pretty for the Cardinal, but here they still sit undefeated and ready to hold off the charge of upstart Washington. See you Friday night.
- Top teams take care of business
As exciting as a number of the games were on Saturday, it was status quo for a number of the top teams across the nation. Alabama handled Kent State 48-0 as true freshman QB Jalen Hurts (75.7) continues to impress. Michigan’s defense, particularly the defensive line, made their mark once again as they dominated Penn State 49-10. Louisville avoided any trap-game woes with a 59-28 win over Marshall and Houston may need more 64-3 wins as they showed against Texas State in order to stay in national consciousness until they get to their Louisville game on November 17th. The expected wins aren’t always newsworthy, but they’re important, and these top 10 teams took care of business on Saturday.
- Wisconsin continues to impress
After an opening-week win against LSU, Wisconsin took care of both Akron and Georgia State, but LSU’s plummet and some struggles in the Georgia State win brought up a few questions about the Badgers. They answered loud and clear against Michigan State, especially on the defensive side of the ball where they’ve been sound in the running game and able to harass quarterbacks in the pass game. Linebackers T.J. Watt (79.4) and Vince Biegel (79.8) have led the way in both departments, highlighted by Biegel’s 12 total pressures against Michigan State. When you throw Jack Cichy (79.0) and T.J. Edwards (76.7) into the mix, it may be the nation’s top linebacking corps.
Offensively, left tackle Ryan Ramczyk (83.3) is a rising star, grading out as one of the nation’s top run blockers while only allowing one pressure on 129 attempts. TE Troy Fumagalli (79.5) is a Dream Team regular, while redshirt freshman QB Alex Hornibrook has made a number of big throws since taking over. I’m highlighting Wisconsin with full knowledge that they have to go to Michigan next week before hosting Ohio State in two weeks, but for now, the Badgers have put themselves on the national radar.
- Florida State RB Dalvin Cook is back
We figured Cook would be in the Heisman mix this season and perhaps challenging for the title of best running back in the country, and this was the first game that looked like the Cook of old. He forced seven missed tackles 28 carries after forcing only 11 on his previous 50 carries and 175 of his 266 yards came after contact. Florida State has done a good job of getting the ball to Cook in the passing game and that continued with four more receptions for 54 yards. Cook has not looked the same this season, perhaps due to battling injuries, but he looked back to form this week and Florida State needs him if they’re going to bounce back and make a run at an ACC title.
- Lamar Jackson scored seven touchdowns…. yawn
We’re running out of ways to quantify Louisville QB Lamar Jackson’s production (85.9), but here’s one way of putting it: he scored seven touchdowns against Marshall and it’s not the top story of the week. In what has seemingly become commonplace, Jackson threw for five and rushed for two more, upping his touchdown total to 25 on the season… through four games. It’s the same story of his being too difficult to slow as a runner and that ability opening up big plays in the passing game. Louisville is now headed for their next big test as they take on Clemson in primetime next Saturday night.