Week 4 of the college football season lacks a must-see matchup, but there are plenty of intriguing subplots to follow. Here’s what to watch this weekend, starting with a chance for revenge:
Familiar face: When No. 12 Notre Dame and No. 18 Wisconsin meet Saturday at Chicago’s Soldier Field, all eyes will be on former teammates Jack Coan and Graham Mertz. Coan went 12-6 as the Badgers’ starting quarterback before suffering a broken foot last season and ceding the job to Mertz, the highest-rated recruit in Wisconsin program history. When the Badgers decided to stick with Mertz, Coan transferred to Notre Dame — which recruited him to play lacrosse in high school — and has led the Fighting Irish to a 3-0 start.
“It’s definitely going to be weird,” Coan said of playing against his former team, which was upset by Penn State in the season opener, 16-10, with Mertz throwing two interceptions, including one at the goal line in the final seconds.
The pressure falls on Mertz to prove that the Badgers made the right decision. After going 4-3 in 2020, he’s yet to throw a touchdown pass this season. The sophomore has plenty of time to establish himself, but he hasn’t lived up to his four-star status and the promise he showed in a five-touchdown debut against Illinois last season.
While Notre Dame has looked rickety to start the year, needing overtime to beat Florida State and a last-minute touchdown to defeat Toledo at home, Saturday’s game is an opportunity to add a quality win to a resume that could be playoff worthy. Back to playing an independent schedule, the Irish don’t have to worry about winning an ACC championship game this year.
Sizzlin’ start: An often overlooked rivalry — at least outside of Texas — is the battle for the Iron Skillet between TCU and SMU, a series that dates to 1915. Both teams enter Saturday’s game undefeated, with SMU coming off a 39-37 win over Louisiana Tech on a Hail Mary in the final seconds and TCU sneaking past California, 34-32.
With bad blood and two exciting quarterbacks in the Horned Frogs’ Max Duggan and the Mustangs’ Tanner Mordecai, both former four-star recruits, expect fireworks.
“It’s always going to be Dallas vs. Fort Worth, but no one comes to Texas for Fort Worth,” SMU wide receiver Rashee Rice said. Them’s fightin’ words.
Horns down, guns up? Another Lone Star State rivalry renews this weekend, with Texas Tech taking on Texas in Austin. The Red Raiders are off to a promising 3-0 start under third-year coach Matt Wells, who is looking for his first winning season in Lubbock. Longhorns coach Steve Sarkisian, meanwhile, is 2-1 in his debut after getting blown out by Arkansas in Week 2.
With starting quarterback Hudson Card injured, Texas has turned to Casey Thompson, who impressed in a win over Rice but has struggled to get on the field during his three seasons in Austin. Oregon transfer Tyler Shough has been solid at quarterback for Texas Tech, which has risen to 48th in overall efficiency, according to ESPN, after being ranked 70th in the preseason.
Texas might be ripe for an upset, which would give Wells a boost as he tries to end nearly a decade of mediocrity in Lubbock.
Hog wild: In just his second season, coach Sam Pittman has No. 16 Arkansas back in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 2016. Led by quarterback KJ Jefferson, star receiver Treylon Burks and a sturdy defense, the Razorbacks are 3-0 and looking like a real contender just two years after finishing 2-10.
This weekend’s matchup against No. 7 Texas A&M is a chance to see if Pittman’s rebuild is ahead of schedule. The Hogs might have trouble moving the ball against an Aggies defense ranked fifth in the country in efficiency, but if they can turn it into a slugfest, they have a shot.
Clemson confusion: Growing pains were expected for the No. 9 Tigers after losing star quarterback Trevor Lawrence to the NFL, but needing to sweat out a 14-8 win over lowly Georgia Tech at home is a major cause for concern.
Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei has struggled, a head-scratching development after the former five-star flashed so much potential in a two-game stint as the starter last season. A trip to NC State this weekend should be a clear indication of what’s to come for the Tigers. If they can’t get back on track, a seventh straight trip to the playoff might not be in the cards.
Michigan, man: The No. 19 Wolverines have yet to face a quality opponent, but they’ve dominated every week. In Saturday’s 63-10 romp over Northern Illinois, they piled up 373 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. A trouncing of a surprisingly competent Rutgers squad — up to 59th nationally in efficiency in coach Greg Schiano’s second season — might be next.
There’s a lot to be excited about in Ann Arbor, with running backs Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins tearing up defenses and quarterback Cade McNamara delivering efficient outings. Don’t overlook the defense, either.
It’s a small sample size, but the Wolverines rank sixth overall in efficiency this season, one spot ahead of Penn State and just two spots behind Ohio State. This might be the year coach Jim Harbaugh finally breaks through in the Big Ten East.
Meep, meep: This is a good weekend to get acquainted with the UTSA Roadrunners, the best college football team you haven’t heard of. Coach Jeff Traylor is 3-0 in his second season, including a 37-30 win over Illinois.
UTSA has a chance to make a big statement, taking on a Memphis team that just beat Mississippi State (albeit with a little help from the officials). If the Roadrunners win, they could finish undefeated and reach a New Year’s Six bowl game in just their 11th season as an FBS program.
According to ESPN, UTSA has a 2.9% chance of going 12-0, which would put them in prime position for the Group of Five’s automatic bowl bid if Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina slip up. This is the kind of underdog story that makes college football special.
Hold on, Huskers: Nebraska has become a punch-line for its consistent failures under fourth-year coach Scott Frost, but last week’s 23-16 loss against then-No. 3 Oklahoma shows there’s still some fight left in the Cornhuskers. A road game against upstart No. 20 Michigan State is a good opportunity for Frost to prove he still has some answers. Nebraska has actually been more efficient than the Spartans overall (No. 39 vs. No. 40), and is only a five-point underdog.
Mounting a charge: A season-opening loss to Maryland seemed to indicate that West Virginia wouldn’t be much of a factor in the Big 12 title race. After an upset win over then-No. 15 Virginia Tech, the Mountaineers are all of the sudden back in the mix.
West Virginia’s Jarret Doege has at times looked like the second-best quarterback in the conference behind No. 4 Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler, who he’ll face Saturday night in Norman. Rattler, who entered the season as a Heisman Trophy favorite and the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 draft, hasn’t quite lived up to the hype through an uneven 3-0 start. If Doege can outplay him, this could be an upset.
Gator bait? Tennessee enters The Swamp as a 20-point underdog Saturday night, which means the chance of a competitive game might be slim. But the Volunteers have shown signs of improvement of late, rising 17 spots from 45th to 28th in overall efficiency after a 56-0 dismantling of Tennessee Tech. Quarterback Hendon Hooker, a Virginia Tech transfer, has looked much better than Michigan transfer Joe Milton, and the defense might be improving.
No. 11 Florida is coming off an impressive performance in a 31-29 loss to No. 1 Alabama, but a physical game against the Crimson Tide tends to take its toll. If the Gators aren’t ready to play, their rival could take advantage.