Last week was the first of the 2017 college football season to produce one of those classic weekends; the kind of weekend the ardent followers of the sport know is inevitable, yet remain surprised when on finally arrives.
A slate that underwhelms on paper delivers with some of the most intense, exciting action of the fall, reminding us all again why we devote our autumn Saturdays to teenagers and early-20-somethings playing a game. Week 4 has similar potential.
The Week 4 college football docket sees an uptick in conference matchups, which is typically a surefire recipe for chaos. What’s more, a few favored, ranked teams travel for road dates; always a formula to brew some Saturday magic.
LAST WEEK: 3-3, 4-2 ATS
SEASON: 16-13, 15-11 ATS
SATURDAY’S SIX-PACK: ALESMITH .394 PALE ALE
Coinciding with the start of conference play around college football is that autumn rite of passage known as the pennant race. As I have gotten older and had more responsibility in life, my baseball fandom isn’t what it once was; in college and my first few years after graduating, for example, I followed every single Chicago Cubs game like it was a Playoff contest.
It’s difficult to monitor 162 games as vigilantly now. However, September’s arrival reignites the same intensity I once felt for America’s Pastime. This week’s Saturday Six-Pack is a double toast: first to the MLB divisional races. Second, this San Diego-based brewing company worked with Tony Gwynn shortly before the Hall of Famer’s passing to craft this excellent pale ale.
Gwynn was a proud alum of and two-sport star at San Diego State, which played its way back into the Top 25 this week behind burgeoning Heisman candidate Rashaad Penny.
NC STATE WOLFPACK at No. 12 FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
Kickoff: Noon ET/9 a.m. PT
Line: Florida State -12.5
Raleigh’s been a trap destination for Florida State in recent years. Russell Wilson’s incredible career reached an early high in 2010 against the Seminoles…
There was the 2012 Wolfpack upset that spawned one of the most iconic fan shots of the decade…
…and the 2014 shootout. Last year, Florida State survived a 24-20 test at Carter-Finley Stadium. Yes, Seminoles trips to NC State have been challenging. When the Pack go to Tallahassee? Not so much. Florida State’s average margin of victory in home games vs. NC State swells to 27.7 over the past three contests.
Still, this year’s meeting in Doak Campbell Stadium should make Noles’ faithful nervous. It’s Florida State’s first game since Sept. 2, when a series of special teams gaffes cost the Seminoles despite a valiant effort against top-ranked Alabama. The rescheduling of a rivalry date with Miami and cancellation of a tune-up contest with UL-Monroe due to the recent hurricanes could leave Florida State rusty in this ACC opener.
What’s more, the loss of quarterback Deondre Francois to a knee injury has James Blackman making his first start against one of the most intimidating defensive lines in the nation between Bradley Chubb and Kentavius Street. The question for NC State becomes can the Wolfpack move the ball against a defense that’s every bit as good as their own — if not better? NC State’s self-inflicted errors cost it an opener it should have won against South Carolina.
PREDICTION: FLORIDA STATE 27, NC STATE 24
No. 16 TCU at No. 6 OKLAHOMA STATE
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT
Line: Oklahoma State -13.5
I don’t proclaim to be any kind of sports betting expert; hell, I don’t bet. The lines are included in this weekly preview and picks column for informational purposes, and I keep tabs on my record for fun — my own fun, in case I do well, and fun for the audience if I’m struggling.
With my ignorance toward Vegas in mind, I read the Oklahoma State -13.5 line and was blown away. People are evidently really high on Oklahoma State after three straight weeks of decimating outmatched opponents, which is also reflected in Mason Rudolph’s surging stock in the Heisman race.
Although I don’t typically think of Gary Patterson-coached teams as losing blowouts, the recent history between TCU and Oklahoma State is surprising. The Cowboys won the past two meetings by a combined 45 points.
In turn, TCU won the 2014 installment of the series by 33. In fact, there hasn’t been a single-digit margin since 1993, when TCU was a member of the Southwest Conference and Oklahoma State repped the Big 8.
OK, so perhaps a two-touchdown Las Vegas line isn’t so surprising, after all. Still, this is the first real test for the Cowboys this season, whereas TCU’s experienced a challenging road game after its victory at Arkansas. That experience, and the impressive performance of Oklahoma State alum Chad Glasgow’s defense, should make for a rare competitive matchup between the Horned Frogs and Cowboys.
Rudolph’s excellent corps of pass-catchers, headlined by James Washington, match-up with a veteran TCU secondary of Ridwan Issahaku, Ranthony Texada, Julius Lewis and Nico Small. Such is the game-within-the-game that could shape Saturday’s outcome. Likewise, the Cowboys offensive line must contain an improved TCU defensive front.
Ultimately, however, TCU’s performance on the other side of the ball may be the deciding factor. Kenny Hill’s had flashes of sheer brilliance as TCU’s quarterback, but never quite sustained at a high level from week-to-week. The Oklahoma State defense’s been impressive — but, again, against overmatched competition.
PREDICTION: OKLAHOMA STATE 38, TCU 31
No. 8 MICHIGAN WOLVERINES at PURDUE BOILERMAKERS
Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT
Line: Michigan -10.5
It’s difficult to get much of a beat on this Michigan team through three games. That’s not all that surprising, given the Wolverines faced more starting lineup turnover than any team in the nation coming into 2017. And, considering the lack of starting experience up and down the Wolverines roster, their 3-0 start isn’t insignificant.
But how much can truly be gleaned from their wins? Cincinnati’s downright bad as Luke Fickell rebuilds from the disappointing Tommy Tuberville era. Air Force’s option poses problems for any team, and Michigan responded well defended it — but the Wolverines also enjoyed a pretty wide gap in talent over the Falcons. Florida appears to be what Florida’s been throughout Jim McElwain’s tenure: an excellent defensive team without much going on offensively.
Odd as it may seem, there’s more to take away in Purdue’s 2-1 start under first-year head coach Jeff Brohm. Brohm brought over the same high-flying offense that made Western Kentucky one of college football’s most patent passing attacks, and Boilers quarterback David Blough is thriving. He’s completed more than 76 percent of his pass attempts, which fits nicely with the potent rushing output running back Tarrio Fuller (6.1 yards per carry) has delivered.
Purdue’s the best offensive team Michigan will have seen through the first four games. If the Boilers can pull the Wolverines into a high-scoring affair — one in which either team has to put up at least four touchdowns — Purdue has the edge. A Wilton Speight-quarterbacked offense should struggle in such a scenario.
PREDICTION: PURDUE 31, MICHIGAN 27
No. 17 MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS at No. 11 GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT
Line: Georgia -4.5
Mississippi State’s utter deconstruction of LSU in Week 3 was perhaps the weekend’s most surprising result. Dan Mullen’s done a terrific job in Starkville, turning a perennial cellar-dweller into a viable threat, but even so, LSU’s talent advantage should have been too much for the Bulldogs. In theory.
In theory, Georgia enjoys a similar edge. The Georgia Dawgs have Sony Michel and Nick Chubb sharing carries; Terry Godwin, Javon Wims and Riley Ridley all are averaging better than 20 yards per reception; and the defense? Roquan Smith, Trenton Thompson, De’Andre Walker, J.R. Reed: studs in every positional group.
Georgia has the edge pretty much across the board, including home-field, save for two very important facets: Nick Fitzgerald is the best quarterback taking the field on Saturday Between The Hedges. The Starkville Bulldogs’ dual-threat play-maker is developing into the same kind of weapon Dak Prescott was in Mississippi State’s magical 2014 campaign.
MSU also has Dan Mullen on the sideline. National banter for the past week has focused on how underrated and under-appreciated Mullen’s tenure in Stark Vegas has been; so much so, no one can realistically deem him underrated any longer. I expect Mullen to have something ready for Kirby Smart and Co. in what could be the most surprising upset of the weekend, even if it wouldn’t be the most lopsided by Las Vegas standards.
PREDICTION: MISSISSIPPI STATE 24, GEORGIA 21
No. 20 FLORIDA GATORS at KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT
TV: SEC Network
Line: Florida -1.5
Kentucky and Florida has grown into the preeminent rivalry in SEC basketball. The two programs combined for four national championships in the past two decades, eight Final Four appearances since the 1997-’98 season, and both should be ranked in the Top 10 of the initial college basketball poll come November.
Why all this hoop talk in a preview of the Kentucky-Florida SEC football contest? Because the football “rivalry” has been as much a rivalry as Frank Grimes vs. Homer Simpson.
Florida’s won every meeting since 1987, back in the days when Dwayne Schintzius and Kenny “Sky” Walker were patrolling the hardwood for the Gators and Wildcats, respectively. Most of the games haven’t been close, either; save an overtime meeting at the end of the Will Muschamp era, and Jim McElwain’s bunch eeking out a win in 2015, it’s mostly been one blowout after another.
In 2007, the best Kentucky team in recent memory pulled Heisman winner Tim Tebow and the Gators into a shootout before ultimately falling by eight. No, not even the cosmic force that was the 2007 season could save Kentucky from its dubious losing streak.
I wrote in last week’s Four Downs that this season was starting to have an air about it comparable to the ’07 campaign. What could provide more of a shake-up than a 30-year losing streak coming to an end? Kentucky has the manpower to do it.
The Wildcats defense is dramatically improved from a season ago, the result of several underclassmen getting meaningful playing time in 2016. A struggling Florida offense won’t be able to get motoring as it did on Kentucky in Gainesville. The key for Kentucky is avoiding giveaways and special teams miscues, which have been the Gators’ lifeline in 2017. I’m calling on Stephen Johnson, who has been an effective game manager in Kentucky’s 3-0 start, to go legendary in a Wildcat win.
PREDICTION: KENTUCKY 35, FLORIDA 27
No. 4 PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS at IOWA HAWKEYES
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT
Line: Penn State -13
2008. Penn State was building its strongest case for national championship contention in more than a decade — let’s be honest, no one thought the 2005 Orange Bowl team could unseat Texas or USC for a spot in the BCS Championship Game — when the Nittany Lions visited Iowa City.
What ensued was an upset for the ages.
The Hawkeyes rallied from a 23-10 deficit to begin the fourth quarter and won, 24-23.
Fast forward almost a decade, and James Franklin has the best Penn State team since arguably 1994. I single out that season because both quarterback Kerry Collins and running back Ki-Jana Carter were Heisman Trophy front-runners, and this year, Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley adeptly fill those same roles.
With Franklin’s offensive acumen overseeing an attack that also features stud receiver DeSean Hamilton and outstanding pass-catching tight end Mike Gesicki (four touchdown receptions this season), this is an offense unlikely any previously seen in Happy Valley. This certainly isn’t the stereotype of Big Ten football invading Iowa City — and, despite the Hawkeyes’ reputation under head coach Kirk Ferentz, this is an Iowa bunch that score a little bit, too.
Barkley’s widely recognized as the best running back in college football, and with his leading the Lions in receiving through three games, he looks like the top utility back, as well. But Akrum Wadley brings a similar dynamic to the Iowa offense, ripping off more than 25 yards per catch to complement his 258 yards rushing. Sharing carries with James Butler, Iowa’s run game can match Penn State’s.
Quarterback Nate Stanley, whose 10 touchdown passes through three games match the output of Heisman front-runner Baker Mayfield, could be the difference-maker. In two of its three losses last season, Penn State allowed eight combined passing touchdowns. In all three defeats, the Nittany Lions’ opponents scored at least 42 points.
It’s not necessarily Iowa’s comfort zone, though the Hawkeyes already boast a win in a shootout against a team featuring one of college football’s best running backs this year. Why not make it two?
PREDICTION: IOWA 41, PENN STATE 40