Week 4 of the college football season is upon us and with it comes the start of conference play for most leagues and matchups of unbeaten teams.
There are eight matchups between teams that are 3-0 or better Saturday, the most in a single day since the FBS/FCS split in 1978, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
The most anticipated of those games games: No. 6 Ohio State travels to South Bend to take on No. 9 Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC), and No. 19 Colorado faces a huge test at No. 10 Oregon (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
In Saturday’s other battles of unbeaten teams, Rutgers plays No. 2 Michigan at the Big House (noon ET, Big Ten Network), No. 22 UCLA is at No. 11 Utah (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox), No. 14 Oregon State travels to No. 21 Washington State (7 p.m. ET, Fox), No. 24 Iowa goes to Happy Valley to face No. 7 Penn State (7:30 p.m. ET, CBS), BYU is at Kansas (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) and Memphis visits Missouri (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU).
Our reporters preview Week 4 with a look at which teams have something to prove, defenses to watch and some of the week’s best quotes.
Who has something to prove as conference play ramps up?
Florida State: Seminoles coach Mike Norvell acknowledges his team was missing an edge last week against Boston College and lost focus after building a 21-point lead. The Seminoles were not in sync the way they were in big wins against LSU and Southern Miss. Norvell knows that simply cannot happen Saturday against Clemson, in a game that could go a long way toward determining who makes it to the ACC championship game.
Though the Tigers go into this game unranked in the AP poll, they remain the defending ACC champions and have not lost to Florida State at home since 2013. Norvell said he has addressed the shortcomings in the BC game with his team — starting with what happened once the Seminoles came back to take a 31-10 lead with 11:20 to go in the third quarter. From that point on, Florida State had its only five penalties of the game, and two turnovers, ultimately allowing the Eagles to climb back into it before coming up just short, 31-29.
“There was still a quarter and a half left to go in the game, and that’s the edge I’m talking about,” Norvell said. “I told the team after the game, that’s where the killer instinct has to set up. Like, this is done. I’m going to finish better than what it was, pissed off at the fact that we started off not as good as we needed to. And we didn’t have that.”
Norvell also pointed out three major coverage busts on defensive alignments they have practiced “190-plus times” since fall camp started. The defense could not contain BC quarterback Thomas Castellanos, either, as he threw for 305 yards and ran for another 95.
“That game didn’t need to be what it was, but maybe it was just the thing that we needed to show the importance of every snap and every rep and every opportunity,” Norvell said. “So I think our guys, they got the message, and now we have to go do something about it.” — Andrea Adelson
Alabama: For the first time since the 2015 season, Alabama enters a game ranked outside the AP’s top 10. The Crimson Tide have looked like anything but a College Football Playoff contender the last two weeks with an ugly 17-3 win at South Florida last week preceded by a double-digit loss at home against Texas. Jalen Milroe is back as Alabama’s starting quarterback after not playing a week ago.
His first challenge will be not turning the ball over as Ole Miss and Lane Kiffin visit Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday. But to be fair, the Crimson Tide’s problems run deeper than just their quarterback play after Tyler Buchner and Ty Simpson got their shot last week and were pedestrian at best.
As important as anything this week against Ole Miss will be Alabama’s ability to run the ball and take the pressure off the quarterback. And when Milroe does pass, Alabama has to find a way to protect better. The Tide have allowed 12 sacks in three games. It should help getting starting guard Tyler Booker back in the lineup after he missed the South Florida game with back spasms. And on defense, Alabama has to prove it can slow down an explosive offense after Texas rolled up 454 total yards with Quinn Ewers passing for 349 yards and three touchdowns, and all the while, Alabama was unable to force any turnovers in that game. Ole Miss is ranked fourth nationally in scoring offense (52.7 points per game) and is ranked eighth nationally in yards per play (8.19).
First-year Ole Miss defensive coordinator Pete Golding knows the Alabama program as well as anyone. He was a member of Alabama’s staff from 2018 to 2022, the last four seasons as defensive coordinator. Under Nick Saban, Alabama hasn’t lost two games in September since his first season in 2007. But the last time the Tide lost their first SEC game of the season, 2015 to Ole Miss, they didn’t lose again and captured the national championship. There doesn’t appear to be that kind of talent on this particular team, but Saban’s teams almost always get better as the season progresses. With the Lane Train in town, it’s now or never if the Tide are going to make that kind of turnaround this season. — Chris Low
Ohio State and Notre Dame: Ohio State and Notre Dame met in the 2022 season opener, the first regular-season game for former Buckeyes linebacker Marcus Freeman as Fighting Irish coach. Both teams have knocked off the rust entering Saturday’s contest at Notre Dame Stadium, although neither has faced an opponent close to as talented as the other.
Buckeyes coach Ryan Day describes clashes where the talent gap is negligible as “matchup games,” and plenty should be revealed about both squads.
“I’m glad that we went through those three games to get to this point, with some of the new faces that we had,” Day said. “We did work out some of the issues, and so [I’m] excited to get on the field and go play this one. We have a pretty good idea of who our team is and where we’re at, so now it’s time to go play.”
Ohio State heads to South Bend feeling better about its offensive backfield, where quarterback Kyle McCord responded well last week after being named the starter, and running back TreVeyon Henderson is starting to recapture his 2021 form. But the Buckeyes still don’t know how McCord will perform in a difficult road setting, or whether new starting tackles will protect him, or whether a talented defensive line can start making more impact plays.
Notre Dame knows a bit more about itself after four games, including a tricky Week 2 trip to NC State. Quarterback Sam Hartman has been excellent so far — 13 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 71.1 percent completion rate — and the wide receiver group, a weakness for years, is showing promise with Jayden Thomas and Jaden Greathouse.
The Irish regain veteran defenders JD Bertrand and DJ Brown from injury, and have the cornerback talent with Benjamin Morrison and Cam Hart to cover Buckeyes star wideouts Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. Freeman, whose team limited Ohio State’s offense last year but generated only 10 points of its own, is stressing complementary football this week.
“For our defense, what we want to do is make sure that we limit the big plays,” he said. “We want them to have to truly drive down the field. Offensively, we want to have success. We’re not going to throw deep balls every play. We still want to win time-of-possession and those types of things that really factor into your success. But the mindset is different, because you know more about your team this year than you did last year for Game 1.” — Adam Rittenberg
Utah: After winning the Pac-12 the past two seasons and the presumed return of the quarterback of both of those teams, Cameron Rising, Utah had the profile of a preseason top-10 team and listed among the Pac-12 favorites. And for the most part, those things remain true.
However, without Rising in the first three games of the season, the Utes offense hasn’t exactly inspired confidence. The benefit of the doubt earned in claiming conference titles the past two seasons has started to erode. Without Rising, they were still good enough to grind out a win against a Florida team that last week beat then No. 11 Tennessee, but the longer he’s out the worse Utah’s odds of a three-peat become. He continues to practice, but his status for the game against UCLA on Saturday remains in question.
If Rising is back — and playing at his customary high level — Utah should feel good about already weathering the storm without him. If he’s still out or doesn’t look the same, things could go south quickly. — Kyle Bonagura
Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lost eight starters when 18 players went into the transfer portal after last season. On Monday, Gundy talked about Deion Sanders’ jolt at Colorado and how Gundy’s philosophy will likely change moving forward.
“We’re going to have to find ways to supplement it because history is telling us over the last couple of years that there’s a percentage of your team that was going to go somewhere else,” Gundy said. “And if they do, we have to try to find other guys to come in here that are in the same maturity level and age group and then get them in the system and try to get them coached up.”
Defenses to watch in Week 4
ACC: There is one undefeated ACC team that not many people are talking about (yet) that will need to rely on its defense to win Saturday. That would be Syracuse. In three games, the Orange have played exceptionally well, ranking No. 4 in the nation in scoring defense (9 PPG), one of six FBS schools giving up fewer than 10 points a game this season. The 27 total points allowed in its first three games also is the lowest total allowed by the Orange since the 1983 season. Syracuse was tested a week ago against Purdue far more than its first two games, but will face its biggest challenge yet against Army on Saturday. The Black Knights are coming off an impressive win over UTSA last week and are averaging 235.7 yards per game on the ground. Plus, Syracuse cannot afford to look ahead. Clemson is on the schedule next week. — Adelson
Big 12: Baylor and Texas are 2-2 in head-to-head matchups in the past four years, but Baylor has won both games in Waco, while losing both games in Austin. Recent history shows this might not be a pushover for the No. 3 Longhorns. Recent history also shows Baylor got off to a rough start, losing at home to Texas State, which has a dynamic offense, and losing late against Utah despite holding them in check all game. Texas has allowed 44 points, fewest through three games since 2010. So if Baylor, which has struggled to find a rhythm on offense this year, has a chance at another upset, the defense will have to deliver. Longhorns quarterback Quinn Ewers struggled last week against Wyoming, and Texas was able to lean on the running game late and pull away. Baylor currently is No. 105 in rushing defense, allowing 170 yards per game. — Wilson
Big Ten: When training camp began, Ohio State’s defensive linemen talked openly about becoming the nation’s best. “Overall, we’ve fixed all the screws that need to be tightened,” defensive tackle Michael Hall Jr. told ESPN. So far, the defensive front hasn’t delivered “wow” plays — only three sacks from linemen, none from ends JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer — even though the unit ranks second nationally in points allowed (6.7 PPG). It’s time for the “Rushmen” to rise against a gifted Notre Dame offensive front. — Rittenberg
Pac-12: Colorado’s offense has been prolific in three games with coordinator Sean Lewis calling the shots, but the Buffaloes haven’t seen a defense nearly as talented or sophisticated as what they’ll see at Oregon. The Ducks have the speed on the back end to keep up with the CU receivers and will make things difficult up front on a Colorado offensive line that has allowed the second-most sacks in the country (16) and failed to create any space for the running game. — Bonagura
SEC: The only time Texas A&M has been tested on defense this season by a team with comparable talent, the Aggies gave up nearly 50 points in a disappointing 48-33 loss to Miami in Week 2. Granted, Auburn hasn’t been an offensive juggernaut, but this is Texas A&M’s SEC opener. The Tigers will again play two quarterbacks (Payton Thorne and Robby Ashford), and both are markedly different. Texas A&M’s defensive roster is filled with former 4- and 5-star prospects, and the Aggies are too talented to play the way they did against the Hurricanes. They missed tackles and botched assignments. They seemed to clean up some of those miscues last week against UL Monroe. A better gauge of how much they’ve improved will come Saturday. — Low
Billy Napier: The Florida coach has tasted success, but he finally beat a nationally ranked team from the SEC last week when the Gators beat the Tennessee Volunteers 26-16.
“Success is a dirty process, and ultimately it’s rewarding. You have to go through some ups and downs along the way.”
Kyle Whittingham: The Utah coach wouldn’t speculate earlier this week on whether Cam Rising, the Utes’ starting quarterback the past two seasons who has missed the first three weeks because of injury, would return for Saturday’s game against UCLA.
“He practiced today, did a great job, but we will know nothing for 48 hours at the minimum. Then of course we won’t make an announcement. You’ll just find out on game day who the guy is. That’s the best I can tell you right now.”
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