North Carolina started the season with some promise, but Mack Brown’s team has fallen back to earth, losing to Wake Forest and Appalachian State in back-to-back weeks. Meanwhile, Clemson has outscored its three Power 5 opponents 117-30. Unless quarterback Trevor Lawrence gets hurt or the Tigers fall victim to some extremely bad turnover luck, Clemson should have no problem moving to 5-0.
Since losing two straight games to Ole Miss in 2014 and 2015, Alabama has outscored the Rebels 176-53 in three subsequent meetings. ESPN’s Football Power Index barely entertains the idea of the Crimson Tide losing, giving Alabama a win probability of 98.1%. Ole Miss allowed 29 points to Football Championship Subdivision level Southeastern Louisiana in Week 3. How many will the Tide score before they call off the dogs?
No. 5 Ohio State (-17½) at Nebraska
Chance for an upset: Unlikely
Ohio State has been one of the most dominant teams in the country, and there’s nothing to suggest a Nebraska team that struggled to beat Illinois on the road last week can slow the Buckeyes. The Cornhuskers have enough dynamic playmakers on offense to keep this game interesting, but their defense needs to play much better to have any hope of stopping quarterback Justin Fields and Co.
As long as Jalen Hurts is healthy, Oklahoma will have one of the most potent offenses in the country. There’s a chance Texas Tech can make it a shootout, but the Red Raiders struggled to score in a 28-14 loss to Arizona last week and the Sooners defense has actually been decent thus far. Quarterback Alan Bowman would need to have a career game for Texas Tech to have any shot.
Mississippi State at No. 7 Auburn (-10½)
Chance for an upset: Possible
Freshman Garrett Shrader will likely get another start at quarterback for Mississippi State as Tommy Stevens recovers from injury. Playing against Auburn’s standout defensive line is a tough task for any quarterback, let alone one as inexperienced as Shrader. But the Bulldogs have talent on both sides of the ball, and Tigers freshman quarterback Bo Nix has struggled with his accuracy, completing just 53.8% of his passes. This game will probably be close in the fourth quarter, and that spells trouble for Auburn.
Northwestern has been able to punch above its weight in the Big Ten under Pat Fitzgerald, but the Wildcats just don’t have the talent to knock off a team as good as Wisconsin this year. Only two Football Bowl Subdivision teams (Akron and Rice) have averaged fewer points per game this season than Northwestern’s 15.7. Scoring more than that against the nation’s best scoring defense would be a miracle.
Towson might play in the FCS, but the Tigers are one of the best teams at that level. Despite losing to Villanova last weekend, Towson is ranked No. 5 in Bill Connelly’s beta FCS SP+ rankings, a tempo- and opponent-adjusted efficiency rating. Tom Flacco, the brother of former Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, is among the best quarterbacks in the FCS and is generating some interest from pro scouts, but he’s never faced a defense as good as Florida’s, let alone played in an environment as hostile as The Swamp. Towson might be able to cobble together a few points, but hanging with an SEC power — even one playing its backup quarterback — is too much to ask.
No. 18 Virginia at No. 10 Notre Dame (-12½)
Chance for an upset: Possible
Perhaps Virginia subscribes to The Solid Verbal podcast’s “body blow” theory, which suggests that teams coming off physically and emotionally draining games need more than a week to recover. Notre Dame just lost a hard-fought game against Georgia and turns around to face an undefeated Cavaliers team with its highest ranking since 2007. If the Fighting Irish can play as well as they did against the Bulldogs, they’ll be fine. Whether Notre Dame is in shape to do so is another matter.
No. 12 Penn State (-6½) at Maryland
Chance for an upset: Very possible
Don’t let Maryland’s loss to Temple two weeks ago fool you. The Terps, under first-year coach Mike Locksley, have talent across the roster and boast one of the nation’s best groups of running backs, led by Anthony McFarland Jr. The question for Maryland will be how graduate transfer quarterback Josh Jackson handles the Friday night national spotlight and a rugged Penn State defense after one of the worst performances of his career. The Nittany Lions have plenty of talent, too, but this will be the first road game for a young team with a first-year starting quarterback in Sean Clifford. This is the Terps’ best chance for a statement victory, and you can bet they’ll rise to the occasion.
Middle Tennessee at No. 14 Iowa (-23½)
Chance for an upset: Highly unlikely
Middle Tennessee hung around for a little bit against Michigan at The Big House, but given what we’ve seen from the Wolverines lately, that might not be that impressive after all. Iowa has been solid if not spectacular this season, but that should be more than enough to shut down the overmatched Blue Raiders.
Arizona State at No. 15 California (-4½)
Chance for an upset: Very possible
The last time Cal was ranked in the top 15 was 2009, when the Golden Bears climbed as high as No. 6. This ranking might be short-lived, as Arizona State comes to Berkeley with one of the nation’s best freshman quarterbacks in Jayden Daniels and a defense that has been surprisingly stout, having allowed just three total touchdowns in its first three games before giving up 34 points in a loss to Colorado. Cal has been able to ride its own standout defense to four close wins, and will have to do so again to keep the good times rolling under Justin Wilcox.
Some smaller questions worth asking
Is Southern California a serious Pac-12 contender? Amid coaching rumors and athletic department turmoil, the No. 21 Trojans just keep winning. New offensive coordinator Graham Harrell has finally let USC’s athletes shine in his Air Raid scheme, and they’ve taken advantage to become one of the best passing teams in the country. How the Trojans fare at No. 17 Washington will say a lot about their legitimacy as a conference title contender.
Is Wake Forest good enough to take care of business on the road? If the Demon Deacons beat a middling Boston College team, they’ll almost certainly be ranked next week for the first time since 2008. It would be a big step forward for coach Dave Clawson, who could be headed for a bigger job in the offseason.
Is SMU really an American Athletic Conference contender? The Mustangs are quietly 4-0 after beating No. 25 TCU last week in Fort Worth. Texas transfer Shane Buechele has the SMU offense cooking under Air Raid coach Sonny Dykes, and the Mustangs get to face a South Florida team that needed to beat MEAC also-ran South Carolina State to end its eight-game losing streak. SMU hasn’t won more than seven games in a season since 2011 and hasn’t been ranked since 1986 — the last season before being handed its infamous “death penalty” by the NCAA.
Is Kansas State worthy of its No. 24 ranking? Chris Klieman built an FCS powerhouse at North Dakota State. He’s already turned the Wildcats into a tough, smashmouth team, but they haven’t exactly been tested yet. A road win over Mississippi State was nice, but can Kansas State prove it’s a legitimate threat in the Big 12 by going on the road to beat Oklahoma State, last seen giving Texas a hard time?
Can Utah and Washington State recover from gut-wrenching losses? No. 19 Utah probably lost its shot at a playoff berth by falling to USC. Washington State was leading UCLA by 32 points in the third quarter before falling apart. Each team still has a chance to reach the Rose Bowl, but that won’t happen with another loss. That adds some tension to this #Pac12AfterDark matchup.
Was last week’s explosive performance the start of something real for UCLA? What will Chip Kelly do for an encore against Arizona after that incredible 67-63 victory over Wazzu? With an enticing quarterback matchup in Dorian Thompson-Robinson vs. Khalil Tate, this game could very well live up to last week’s historic shootout in Pullman. Another high-scoring performance from the Bruins could help turn around what was thought to be a lost season.
How real is Minnesota’s 3-0 start? Give credit to the Golden Gophers for getting through a tough stretch against FCS standout South Dakota State, perennial Mountain West contender Fresno State and ever-frustrating-option-team Georgia Southern unscathed. Now Minnesota travels to Purdue, and a win would give P.J. Fleck’s squad even more momentum heading into the meat of the Big Ten schedule. With games following against Illinois, Nebraska and Rutgers, the Gophers could face Maryland on Oct. 26 undefeated or with just one loss. A Big Ten West crown isn’t unrealistic.