Conference play has finally arrived in college football, not a moment too soon. Week three was light and filled with near upsets, though #11 Michigan St (Washington 39-28), #12 BYU (Oregon 41-20), and #13 Miami (Texas A&M 17-9) all lost to cause shifts in the rankings. The top nine teams in the AP Poll all won by a combined score of 483-93, it was a massacre as only Georgia (South Carolina) and Oklahoma (Nebraska) played P5 teams.
Looking forward, Clemson/Wake Forest, Florida/Tennessee, and Arkansas/Texas A&M all play games that will begin shaping conference races. Clemson lost their division to Wake Forest in 2021 and needs a quick snapback. If Tennesee can get past Florida, their schedule sets up two significant upset opportunities against Georgia and Alabama. Meanwhile, Texas A&M and Arkansas look to be two of the four best teams in the SEC West, and this game keeps the winner alive in the race. We gathered Footballguys staffers to get you ready for week four in College Football.
What Game Are You Watching?
#5 Clemson at #21 Wake Forest
Jason Wood - Clemson vs. Wake Forest stands above the fray this week as two Top 25 teams match up in a conference game that likely decides the ACC champion and, with it, the league's only chance at a BCS playoff berth. Both teams enter the game undefeated at 3-0, but Clemson sits at a No. 5 ranking while Wake Forest ranks 21st. This matchup illustrates the problem with preseason rankings; it augers in voters' thinking where they incrementally move teams up or down rather than evaluating the data holistically and re-rating every team each week. Clemson is the powerhouse with a litany of 4- and 5-star recruits, including embattled quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei. Meanwhile, Wake Forest is led by Sam Hartman, who sometimes feels like he's 30 years old and has been there for a decade. Hartman has been the better player over the last two seasons, and a big showing against Clemson would go far in cementing Hartman's NFL prospects.
#10 Arkansas at #23 Texas A&M
Jonathan Morris - I'm looking forward to the Arkansas-Texas A&M game this weekend. Arkansas can establish itself in the SEC West with a win at AT&T Stadium. On the other side, Texas A&M beat Miami last week to steady the ship, but they will again be in a lot of trouble if they drop this game to Arkansas. A&M has excellent talent, but their offense has been highly questionable through three games. Both teams have demanding schedules ahead of them, and they can go south quickly after a loss. Arkansas has Alabama coming to town next week; if they can get the win on Saturday, it would set up one of their biggest matchups in decades. Quarterback K.J. Jefferson has been electric on the ground and through the air, but this A&M defense will be a different monster than what he has seen this year. A&M has three SEC road games following this one, and they need to build off the positive momentum and do their best to right the ship this year despite the Appalachian State loss. The A&M offense will have to find the ability to move the ball through the air and take the pressure off NFL running back prospect Devon Achane and the running game.
#7 USC at Oregon St.
Kevin Coleman - As the resident West Coast staffer here at Footballguys, I feel responsible for highlighting USC at Oregon State. Both teams head into this contest 3-0, with USC a strong contender for the College Football Playoff. USC is led by quarterback Caleb Williams and wide receiver Jordan Addison both players who could be at the Heisman ceremony this December. While USC has a playoff-worthy offense, its defense is not. Per NCAA College Football Rankings, the Trojans rank 104th in the nation in rushing defense which is a big problem heading into the meat of their Pac-12 schedule. Their first test will be Oregon State and their rushing attack. Deshaun Fenwick and Damien Martinez lead the Beavers' rushing attack. Martinez is a player to watch this season as the true freshman has shown flashes of being special. This game is the first big test on the USC schedule.
#20 Florida at #11 Tennessee
Christian Williams - #20 Florida is heading to Knoxville to take on #11 Tennessee, and that looks like the game of the weekend. After a Week 1 performance that vaulted Anthony Richardson inside the top-three quarterbacks in the 2023 NFL Draft, he has cooled to the point of concern. Florida struggled to beat South Florida in Week 3, and Richardson hasn't found a groove through the air. Meanwhile, the Tennessee offense is humming, ranking fifth in the nation in passing yards per game and fourth in points per game. Hendon Hooker brings experience to the rivalry, but Florida has already shown they can beat good football teams. A Tennessee win would likely vault them inside the Top Ten in the AP poll, with a matchup against Alabama on the horizon.
Matt Bitonti - College Gameday will be in Knoxville, the fans will be decked out in #CheckerNeyland garb, and the game will be national on CBS. It's inevitable that this game gets on my TV and stays there for several hours. I'm watching the 11th-ranked Vols host the 20th-ranked Gators, of course. History says Florida wins this going away, but the Vols are 11-point favorites, looking for a big win over their SEC East rivals. Tennessee is the more explosive offense, but this feels like too many points for a rivalry game. Fun fact, Tennessee defensive tackle #51 Elijah Simmons is not only the Volunteers' most vital player, but he sings like an angel.
Maryland at #4 Michigan
Kyle Bellefeuil - The game I'm excited to watch this weekend is No. 4 Michigan against Maryland at the Big House. I'm a Michigan fan, so that makes me a bit biased here. But this 3-0 Michigan team heads into Big Ten play after a cakewalk non-conference schedule against Colorado State, Hawaii, and Connecticut. Maryland is also 3-0 and coming off a come-from-behind win against SMU, where they trailed at halftime (20-17) but finished strong in the second half to win. The Michigan defense has been stout, but this week will be its first test against a Maryland offense that can move the ball with Taulia Tagovailoa, Rakim Jarrett, and Roman Hemby, who's coming off a big rushing day against SMU. The Maryland defense is no juggernaut by any means, but it will be the best Michigan's offense has faced so far due to its weak opening schedule. Michigan is a -17 point betting favorite in this game, and I'll be watching intently to see if they can win handily in their first real test this week.
Dan Hindery - Maryland at Michigan has the potential to be a fun game featuring a pair of sneaky-good offenses. Maryland is led by Tua Tagovailoa's brother, Taulia, who has multiple future NFL wide receivers at his disposal. Maryland has been able to put up big offensive numbers at times in the past couple of years but has generally not shown up against the very top teams. Michigan beat them by 41 last season but is replacing some key pieces on defense, so this will be a nice test for the Wolverines on that side of the ball and another chance to see if Maryland's offense can perform on the big stage.
What Player Are You Watching?
WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio St.
Jason Wood - Jaxon Smith-Njigba came into the season on a shortlist for the mantle of "best college receiver" and was thought to be the best playmaker on an Ohio State team full of 5-star studs. But the talented pass catcher hurt his hamstring in the season opener against Notre Dame. Coach Ryan Day expects Smith-Njigba back against the Wisconsin Badgers, who rank 5th in SP+ defensive ranking nationwide. If Smith-Njigba can return to form this week, everything falls back into place for his college season and his dynasty outlook as a premier pick once he comes out for the draft.
WR Rakim Jarrett and WR Dontay Demus Jr., Maryland
Jonathan Morris - I'll cheat here and take two players I want to check out, but both are receivers on the same team. Wide Receivers Rakim Jarrett and Dontay Demus Jr. of Maryland are both explosive playmakers that figure to go in the first few rounds of the upcoming NFL draft. Jarrett was a highly regarded prospect out of high school and has fulfilled all the expectations. Demus Jr. had an extremely promising future, but his season ended last year due to a gruesome knee injury. He still has all the talent, but he needs to prove that he is the same receiver he was in 2021. They have solid quarterback play in Taulia Tagovailoa and an offensive line that is average enough to get their playmakers the ball. They will get their first real test against Michigan in the Big House this Saturday. Michigan and Maryland started 3-0, but both have experienced easy front ends of the schedule. This should be a good test to see how these receivers perform against a top-tier defense and if they can continue to build their draft stock.
RB Rahiem Sanders, Arkansas
Kevin Coleman - Raheim Sanders from Arkansas is a player to watch as his Razorbacks take on the Texas A&M this week. Sanders has had a fantastic season thus far, rushing for 440 yards on forty-four carries and scoring three touchdowns. He's also already surpassed his receiving total from all of last season in just three games. Sanders possesses a unique blend of size and speed that not many backs possess in college football. His early season performance has pushed him up draft boards, and a solid game against a tough Aggies defense could push him up even further. Sanders has a chance to prove he's one of the best running backs of the 2024 draft class. Arkansas is also in a prime spot to be 4-0 after this game and could pull off the upset against an Alabama offense that has yet to click next week. Sanders stock is on the rise!
QB Michael Penix Jr, Washington
Christian Williams - Washington's Michael Penix Jr. looks like an NFL quarterback through three weeks of the college football season, and the Stanford defense that allowed Caleb Williams to dice them up for 341 yards bodes well for him to build on that. His ball placement has been remarkable, but his off-platform work and arm talent make him one of the most intriguing quarterbacks moving forward. Penix Jr. ranks 2nd in the nation in passing yards per game and has taken care of the football, a recipe for the meteoric NFL Draft rise fans see yearly.
QB J.J. McCarthy, Michigan
Kyle Bellefeuil - My eyes will be on Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy. McCarthy won the early season quarterback battle with Cade McNamara and has been efficiently running this offense to start the season. McCarthy is also willing to push the ball downfield, which is a welcomed element of this offense. While the defenses have been soft, McCarthy has gone a cool 30-34 for 473 yards and three touchdowns. McCarthy has a healthy Ronnie Bell and an electric playmaker in Roman Wilson at wide receiver, not to mention legit wheels if he needs to use them. A big performance in Michigan's first Big Ten game will go a long way to build some serious momentum for the young Wolverine quarterback.
Dan Hindery - A big reason why I'm looking forward to Maryland versus Michigan is that it is the first opportunity to see a full game of J.J. McCarthy at quarterback against decent competition. The star passer is the one thing missing from Jim Harbaugh's tenure at Michigan. He has not been able to recruit and develop an Andrew Luck in Ann Arbor. McCarthy has a shot at being that guy. He was one of the top recruits in the 2021 class, and it looks like he has made a second-year leap, starting the season 30-of-34 for 473 yards.
Who Is Your Early Heisman Frontrunner?
QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio St. AND QB Stetson Bennett, Georgia
Jason Wood - I'll split my answer here. Based on the odds at the major bookmakers, the frontrunner is C.J. Stroud. The Buckeyes are the No. 1 ranked offense (SP+) in the country, and that's without two of their offensive cornerstones healthy yet. As long as Stroud keeps putting up numbers and Ohio State doesn't slip against its inferior Big Ten opponents, he'll win the award. But the guy I'm most interested in wagering on right now is Georgia's Stetson Bennett. Bennett was viewed as a game manager last year, whose job was not to lose the Bulldogs championship. And while he lacks the athleticism or pedigree of other top-tier quarterbacks, it's time to start paying attention to his numbers. They're fantastic. With a 183.5 passer rating and leading the nation's best team (by a wide margin right now), he could quickly hoist the trophy if the Bulldogs are undefeated at season's end.
Dan Hindery - C.J. Stroud should be considered the early favorite. With the veteran wide receivers (Jaxson Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming) getting healthy for Ohio State and the two true sophomores (Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka) starting to evolve into stars, it is clear Stroud is going to continue to put up big numbers. He already has 11 touchdowns with 0 interceptions and has some upcoming games that will allow him to pad his stats. It depends on whether Ohio State can win its next nine or ten games. If so, team success and counting stats should give Stroud the edge over the field.
I also want to mention another guy who is a fun long-shot candidate (currently 20-to-1 odds). Assuming it comes down to team achievement, Stetson Bennett should be considered a strong contender if you think Georgia wins out. Bennett's taken a big step forward this year, developing into something more than a game manager. He has made the Georgia offense fun to watch for the first time in years. If the Bulldogs take down Alabama in the SEC Championship and Bennett has a big day, it would impress voters at just the right time.
QB Dillion Gabriel, Oklahoma
Jonathan Morris - It's easy to say CJ Stroud for the same reasons Jason mentioned. We've yet to see this offense genuinely blossom, and Stroud is still the frontrunner. If Ohio State keeps rolling, I think this is his award to lose. Someone that could be a sneaky dark horse to take on Stroud and be a finalist is Dillon Gabriel of Oklahoma. The Sooners have become somewhat of an afterthought after Lincoln Riley bolted for Southern Cal. Brent Venables, the new head coach for Oklahoma, is known as a defensive mind. Still, Gabriel has put up impressive numbers under offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby. He will need to perform in Oklahoma's few big games this year against Baylor and Texas. He also can't afford a misstep against the lesser competition to keep his name relevant in the race.
QB Caleb Williams, USC
Kevin Coleman - This race is slowly shaping into the battle of quarterbacks. C.J. Stroud, Caleb Williams, Bryce Young, and Stetson Bennett should be on everyone's shortlist early in the season. But this race is a two-person race between Stroud and Williams. Right now, my favorite is Williams. Through the first three games, Williams has USC as a legitimate playoff contender and is the perfect fit for Lincoln Riley's offense. He has improved every facet of his game from his freshman season and has thrown for 874 yards and eight touchdowns this season. Williams also plays in a weaker conference which should allow him to put up better numbers down the stretch of the season. If he can lead USC to an undefeated regular season, it would be hard for Heisman voters to vote for anyone else but him.
Christian Williams - A few players come to mind for the Heisman this season, but no one stands out quite like Williams. He has averaged over 300 yards per game, pushed the ball downfield effectively, and taken care of the football over the first three weeks of the season. With USC looking like a potential playoff team with a weak schedule moving forward, Williams could continue along the path of success and become the second-straight true sophomore to win the award.
Kyle Bellefeuil - As a few others have mentioned, this looks like a two-player race between Stroud and Williams. Both quarterbacks are off to fantastic starts, and it will be fun to watch them push each other for the coveted award this season. But I'm going to go chalk here and take the current slight betting favorite of the two in Stroud. Stroud just got Jaxon Smith-Njigba back to his star-studded wide receiver group, and that certainly should only make him more challenging to stop as he heads into conference play.
Matt Bitonti - If I were betting, I would lay off Stroud, even though he's a favorite. With a road trip to Penn State and homecoming against Michigan still on the schedule, it feels like a stumble could be possible. Williams at USC would be my choice; he has an easier path to the postseason.
Jason Wood - Matt, I love what Riley is doing offensively at USC, and I think they'll be a national contender soon. But there's no way a team with a 46th-ranked SP+ defense has an easier path to the playoff than Ohio State. That's a "zero chance of winning the title" ranking.
Matt Bitonti - Jason, in the spring, USC was 45-1 to win the Natty. Before Week 1, they were 25-1. After Week 3, they are currently 12-1. it's still unlikely, but their schedule is easy, and if they go entirely undefeated, that will give Williams the advantage over Stroud (assuming OSU loses a game). There's also a weird USC QB Heisman pipeline in history. How did Matt Leinart win it in 2004?
Jason Wood - Matt 2004 was a different era. Heisman trends are far tighter now b/c there's more data and coverage. Again, I love USC and Williams and think IF they go undefeated into the playoffs, he could win the Heisman. But I'm just saying that USC hype THIS YEAR is overdone because their defense isn't good. And no team with that kind of defense has sniffed the title in the playoff era. But in 2023 and beyond? All bets are off.
Matt Bitonti - Jason, I agree USC isn't going to win it all and also agree their defense stinks, but the Heisman happens Dec 11 after most of the games but before the Bowls. I could see them undefeated at that point, that is all. Utah is probably their toughest test. I could see Stroud losing to Penn State or Michigan before that point. This is all probably moot, as smart money is flowing toward Bennett. He's a terrible pro prospect but perfect for the Heisman.
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