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Can Notre Dame hang with Georgia? How good is Wisconsin? Most intriguing college football questions for Week 4

Georgia's Jake Fromm reacts after James Cook scored a touchdown on a 37-yard run during a against Arkansas State on September 14, 2019 in Athens.
Georgia's Jake Fromm reacts after James Cook scored a touchdown on a 37-yard run during a against Arkansas State on September 14, 2019 in Athens. (Carmen Mandato/Getty)

After a relatively quiet Week 3 in college football with no major upsets, there will be plenty of opportunities for drama this weekend.

Here are the most intriguing questions for Week 4:

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Can Notre Dame hang with Georgia?

You don’t often see the No. 7 team in the country listed as a two-touchdown underdog, but that’s what the Fighting Irish are against the No. 3 Bulldogs on the road.

The teams were at the focal point of the playoff discussion last season, when an undefeated Notre Dame got in ahead of a two-loss Georgia, who suffered a close loss to No. 1 Alabama in the SEC title game. It’s something Dawgs fans won’t soon forget, especially after seeing how helpless the Irish looked in a 30-3 loss to eventual national champion Clemson in the Cotton Bowl.

This game will also mark a special anniversary of sorts for Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, who made his first career start in a 20-19 win over Notre Dame in South Bend in 2017. That season ended with an overtime loss to Alabama in the national championship game, signaling the program’s return to prominence under Kirby Smart, but the Bulldogs are still waiting for their first national title since 1980.

Georgia’s path back to the playoff runs through Alabama and a tough SEC schedule. However, a nonconference win over a top-10 opponent would only bolster its resume and could swing the committee in its favor when it comes time to decide the top four teams. If the Bulldogs fail to beat the Crimson Tide again, or slip up against Florida, Auburn or Texas A&M, a win over Notre Dame is a potential tiebreaker over another one-loss Power 5 team or undefeated Group of 5 champion.

Georgia and Notre Dame have yet to be tested, though both have looked dominant. For the Irish, who don’t get to play in a conference championship game as an independent, this is essentially a playoff-elimination game. There are only two more ranked opponents left on their schedule, and neither (Michigan nor Virginia) carry enough weight to make up for a loss.

These weighty nonconference games are few and far between in college football, and this one has all the built-up angst and pressure you could want. Let’s just hope the game lives up to the hype.

Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley scores against Northern Illinois safety Mykelti Williams during a game Saturday, Sept. 9, 2019, Salt Lake City.
Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley scores against Northern Illinois safety Mykelti Williams during a game Saturday, Sept. 9, 2019, Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Can Utah keep the Pac-12’s playoff hopes alive?

The Utes have four ranked teams remaining on their schedule, but Friday night’s trip to Los Angeles against USC might be their toughest test. The Trojans slipped out of the Top 25 after an overtime loss to BYU, but they’re still among the most talented teams in the conference, and freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis seems to improve each week.

The numbers like USC, too, with the Trojans ranking 23rd in ESPN’s Football Power Index (one spot behind Utah) and 32nd in Bill Connelly’s SP+. Throw in the fact that Clay Helton is coaching for his job, and this becomes a dangerous game for Utah.

However, Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss remain among the best quarterback-running back tandems in the nation, and the Trojans haven’t exactly been lights-out defensively, allowing 5.6 yards per play. The Utes have, allowing just 9.7 points per game and one passing touchdown all season.

With the pressure on Utah (which jumped into the AP top 10 this week) to carry the conference’s playoff hopes, the players might finally feel the weight of those expectations in a game they’re favored to win. Keeping his team locked in will be coach Kyle Whittingham’s biggest challenge yet.

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst talks to quarterback Jack Coan during a game against Central Michigan Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Madison, Wis.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst talks to quarterback Jack Coan during a game against Central Michigan Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Madison, Wis. (Morry Gash/AP)

Can Wisconsin prove that its dominant start wasn’t a fluke?

It’s not who you play, it’s how you play. And if we’re going to judge teams just three weeks into the season, the No. 13 Badgers deserve credit for being as dominant as any, outscoring South Florida and Central Michigan a combined 110-0.

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Preseason Heisman Trophy contender Jonathan Taylor has been as good as advertised at running back, and the defense ranks at or near the top in almost every major statistical category. But what has really stood out through two games has been the play of junior quarterback Jack Coan.

After taking over as the starter near the end of last season, Coan retained the job over highly touted freshman Graham Mertz in the offseason. He played adequately in 2018, completing 60.2% of his passes with five touchdowns and three interceptions. This season, he’s risen to another level, completing 76.3% of his attempts with five touchdowns and no picks and throwing for more yards (564) in two games than he did in five (515) last year. The coaching staff seems to have more trust in him, and with the return of receiver Quintez Cephus (who was found not guilty of sexual assault charges and returned to the team before the season), the offense has become more balanced. No longer can teams simply load the box to stop Taylor, who himself has also become more of a pass-catching weapon out of the backfield.

Saturday’s home game against No. 11 Michigan provides an early litmus test for the Badgers, who have aspirations of a Big Ten title, a Rose Bowl berth and a possible playoff appearance. While the Wolverines have struggled to find any success offensively under new coordinator Josh Gattis, they have one of the nation’s best defenses (ranked No. 1 in SP+) and have had two weeks to prepare and learn from their mistakes. Count out Jim Harbaugh at your own risk.

Auburn quarterback Bo Nix carries the ball during a game against Kent State, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Auburn, Ala.
Auburn quarterback Bo Nix carries the ball during a game against Kent State, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Auburn, Ala. (Butch Dill/AP)

Can Auburn really keep this going with a true freshman QB?

Vegas doesn’t think so. No. 17 Texas A&M opened as a 2.5-point favorite over the No. 8 Tigers, and the line has jumped to -3.5 since. FPI also favors the Aggies, who are projected winners 53.7% of the time.

After his last-minute heroics in the season-opening win over Oregon, Auburn true freshman quarterback Bo Nix has been able to settle in against Tulane and Kent State. Questions still remain about his accuracy, as he’s completed just 52.4% of his passes.

On the other side of the field will be Kellen Mond, who, despite struggling against Clemson, remains one of the nation’s best dual-threat quarterbacks.

While the Tigers defense is on par with any in the country, what to expect from Nix and the rest of the offense is still unclear. Auburn has the nation’s fourth-toughest remaining schedule, per FPI, with projected losses against Texas A&M, Florida, LSU, Georgia and Alabama.

Even if the Tigers pull out a victory in College Station, can they reasonably make a run at an SEC title? Probably not, but beating another ranked team, this time in a true road environment, would be another big step forward for Nix.

Some smaller questions worth asking

Is Oklahoma State a sneaky Big 12 contender? Another year, another good offense for coach Mike Gundy. Spencer Sanders has established himself as a dangerous dual-threat quarterback, and Chuba Hubbard, along with having one of the best names in college football, is averaging 7.9 yards per carry and already has seven rushing touchdowns. The Cowboys play No. 12 Texas on the road Saturday night, and if they can get past the Longhorns, they’ll likely be favored the rest of the way until Bedlam against Oklahoma at the end of the season. And who knows what will happen then.

Does Boise State have a chance to reach a New Year’s Six bowl game? The Mountain West has seven victories over Power 5 opponents in the first three weeks. That speaks well to the overall quality of the conference, which could help a team like Boise State build its resume as it seeks to go undefeated. That step up in quality also increases the chances of an upset, which might happen Friday night when the No. 20 Broncos host Air Force, which beat Colorado in overtime last week. Beating Florida State was supposed to be the hard part for Boise State. It turns out the Mountain West might pose a bigger threat.

Can Tennessee salvage an early debacle with an upset? Things could not have started worse for the Volunteers, but they finally celebrated last weekend with a win over UT Chattanooga. Now they head to The Swamp to face a No. 9 Florida team that just lost its starting quarterback for the season. The Gators are still 14-point favorites, but there’s more hope for a Tennessee upset than there was two weeks ago. A win wouldn’t erase all the misery from that 0-2 start, but it would pump some much-needed excitement back into the program.

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Is Steve Addazio’s job in jeopardy at Boston College? Losing to Kansas by 24 points at home is bad. Doing it in Year 7 of your tenure is even worse. Unlike Les Miles, who just took over the Jayhawks and is still molding the team in his image, Addazio has had six full seasons to recruit and develop players. It has resulted in no more than seven wins in any of those seasons and just one bowl victory, a 36-30 win over Maryland in the Quick Lane Bowl in 2016. If BC loses at Rutgers this weekend, Addazio might be in trouble.

Can Pittsburgh put another scare into a top-15 opponent? If the Panthers didn’t settle for a field-goal attempt down a touchdown with less than five minutes remaining against No. 13 Penn State, they could very well be sitting 2-1 and ranked in the Top 25. Instead, they host No. 15 Central Florida licking their wounds. Will the loss to their in-state rival galvanize them or sink their season?

How good is California? The rise of Cal’s defense under coach Justin Wilcox has been one of the most underrated stories in college football. The Bears, led by standout linebacker Evan Weaver, have allowed just four touchdowns this season, and that’s been necessary as the offense continues to find its footing during a 3-0 start. A trip to Ole Miss could spell a quick end for No. 23 Cal’s national ranking — unless its defense has anything to say about it.

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