College News & Analysis

College Football Week 3 Preview: Storylines, matchups and predictions for the five biggest games

2RTE0BC Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III (7) throws to a receiver during an NCAA football game against Austin Peay on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

• Tennessee-Florida: The No. 11 Volunteers will try to regain their offensive identity on the road against Florida.

• Minnesota-North Carolina: Drake Maye and the No. 20 Tar Heels will look to improve to 3-0 against a stingy Minnesota defense.

• LSU-Mississippi State: Can the Tigers get back on track after losing to Florida State in Week 1?

Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes

The first weeks of the 2023 college football season have already produced some massive showdowns, including Florida State-LSU and Texas-Alabama. While Week 3 doesn’t have any games between ranked teams, there are still plenty of matchups to get excited about.

Here are the storylines to know, matchups to watch and predictions for the five biggest games this weekend.

No. 14 LSU Tigers at Mississippi State Bulldogs (12 P.M. ET on ESPN)

Storyline to know: Can the Tigers prove their head coach wrong?

Following LSU’s season-opening 45-24 loss to then-No. 8 Florida State, head coach Brian Kelly remarked that the Tigers “are certainly not the football team I thought we were.” 

LSU cleansed its palate with a 72-10 drubbing of Grambling State, but this road game against Mississippi State is the Tigers’ first chance to prove that they’re back on track. The Bulldogs are currently a top-25 team in PFF’s power rankings.

Matchup to watch: Can Mississippi State get back to its roots?

Following the tragic death of head coach Mike Leach, the Bulldogs switched things up schematically under new offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay. Mississippi State threw the ball on 69% of its plays in 2022 in Leach’s Air-Raid system, the highest rate in the country. That number has been essentially halved to 34% so far this season, the seventh-lowest rate in the FBS.

If the Bulldogs want to pull off an upset, they’ll need to let Will Rogers throw much more often. LSU’s defense currently has the 10th-worst coverage grade in the Power Five (62.5) while placing in the top 30 for run-defense grade (80.4).

Prediction: LSU 31, Mississippi State 23

The Tigers win the first SEC game of the season and regain some of the hype that they lost against Florida State.

No. 15 Kansas State Wildcats at Missouri Tigers (12 P.M. ET on SEC Network)

Storyline to know: Can Eli Drinkwitz pick up a signature win?

Drinkwitz might not be on the hot seat yet, but his chair is certainly getting warmer. In his four years as Missouri’s head coach, Drinkwitz has gone 19-19 and has yet to have a winning season. The Tigers finished above .500 in 11 of the prior 15 seasons before he took over.

He has an opportunity to prove his program is heading in the right direction against No. 15 Kansas State. If Missouri pulls off the upset, it will be the Tigers’ first win over a top-15 team since 2018. 

Matchup to watch: Missouri’s offensive line vs. Kansas State’s defensive line

For the Tigers to shock the Wildcats, they’ll need to generate serious push in the run game. That’s because Missouri has run the ball on 67% of its plays this season, the third-highest rate in the Power Five. The Tigers have created lanes at will, earning the sixth-highest run-blocking grade in the Power Five (77.4). Making the offensive line’s performance even more important is the fact that Brady Cook has posted just a 34.6 passing grade under pressure this season, the fifth-worst mark among Power Five quarterbacks.

Missouri will have its hands full with Kansas State’s front seven. The Wildcats currently have the third-highest team pass-rushing grade in the Power Five (82.8). They’re also 12th in that same group with a 2.98-yard average depth of tackle in the run game. Austin Moore has been the star in that aspect so far with a 91.0 run-defense grade that stands second among Power Five linebackers.

Prediction: Kansas State 27, Missouri 23

The Tigers keep it close, but it won’t be enough to take down the defending Big 12 champions. 

No. 7 Penn State Nittany Lions at Illinois Fighting Illini (12 P.M. ET on FOX)

Storyline to know: The first test for Drew Allar

Drew Allar faced high expectations entering the 2023 season. So far, the former five-star recruit has lived up to them with a 90.2 passing grade that places him eighth among Power Five quarterbacks. However, the sophomore has played West Virginia and Delaware in his first two starts. The Mountaineers aren’t a top-70 team in PFF’s power rankings, and the Fightin’ Blue Hens play in the FCS.

He’ll make his first career road start against Illinois, a top-40 team in our power rankings.

Matchup to watch: Penn State’s offensive line vs. Illinois’ defensive line

Making matters even more difficult for Allar is that a top-five defensive line in college football will be coming after him. That line is led by Jer’Zhan Newton, the best interior defensive lineman in college football and a top-10 player overall. His two sacks so far this season are tied for the most among Power Five interior defensive linemen, while his seven pressures are the fourth most.

While the Nittany Lions have a potential top-five pick at left tackle in Olu Fashanu, the rest of the offensive line is not nearly as dominant. In fact, all five of Penn State’s starters along the offensive line sport sub-70.0 grades so far this season. Luckily for the Nittany Lions, they boast one of the nation’s best running back units and Allar has dealt very well with pressure. He’s earned an 88.0 passing grade under duress, fourth among Power Five quarterbacks.

Prediction: Penn State 31, Illinois 17

Even if the Nittany Lions’ offensive line struggles, Allar and the duo of Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen will make enough plays on their own while Penn State’s defense shines.

Minnesota Golden Gophers at No. 20 North Carolina Tar Heels (3:30 PM ET on ESPN)

Storyline to know: Will someone step up for Drake Maye?

The Tar Heels have a projected top-five pick at quarterback in Maye, who’s done nothing to dispel that hype with an 88.4 passing grade so far. And he’s doing it without his two best receivers from a year ago in Josh Downs and Antoine Green. To make up for that loss, North Carolina brought in Kent State transfer Tez Walker, but he was ruled ineligible for the entire 2023 season due to being a two-time transfer. 

The Tar Heels’ receiving corps has earned the eighth-lowest grade in the Power Five (59.7) thus far. While Bryson Nesbit entered the season as a top-five tight end, he has only four catches for 31 yards through two games. North Carolina’s receivers could struggle against a talented Minnesota secondary headlined by safety Tyler Nubin, a top-40 prospect on PFF’s 2024 NFL Draft big board.

Ultimately, North Carolina may rely heavily on a rushing attack that has had a different 100-yard rusher in each of the first two games. The Golden Gophers have struggled mightily in run defense, with the second-highest average depth of tackle against the run in the Power Five (5.77 yards).

Matchup to watch: Can the Golden Gophers get anything going offensively?

Minnesota’s offense has struggled against two relatively weaker opponents in Nebraska and Eastern Michigan. The Golden Gophers are one of 15 Power Five schools that have negative expected points added per play, averaging just 19 points per game.

After fielding one of the worst defenses in the nation a year ago, the Tar Heels have had an inconsistent defense in 2023. They allowed just 17 points against Spencer Rattler and South Carolina but surrendered 34 to Appalachian State. If Minnesota wants any chance of an upset, it needs to hope the latter version shows up on Saturday.

Prediction: North Carolina 28, Minnesota 17

Minnesota struggles to get anything going offensively while Maye and the dominant Tar Heels run game find enough success to come out with a victory.

No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers at Florida Gators (7 P.M. ET on ESPN)

Storyline to know: Will Tennessee regain its rhythm offensively?

The Volunteers constructed the nation’s second-most efficient offense by EPA per play last season. Even after losing many key pieces from that offense, such as quarterback Hendon Hooker and wide receiver Jalin Hyatt, expectations remained high for Tennessee to have similar success in 2023. After all, much of the success should’ve been attributed to head coach Josh Heupel’s offensive brilliance and the Volunteers had a rocket-armed quarterback in Joe Milton III who was thought to fit like a glove in the offense's vertical throw-based scheme.

So far, the Volunteers haven’t been nearly as efficient as they were a year ago. Tennessee stands just 56th in the nation in EPA per play, and Milton has posted just a 66.9 passing grade. That also came against Virginia, the No. 100 team in PFF’s power rankings, and an FCS school in Austin Peay. The Volunteers will need to shore things up against the Gators, who have one of the country’s top 30 defenses in both defensive grade (29th) and expected points allowed per play (30th).

Matchup to watch: Will Florida finally rely on the run game against a porous Tennessee run defense?

Tennessee isn’t the only offense in this game that has bucked preseason expectations. With a dominant running back unit led by Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne to go along with a questionable quarterback, at best, in Graham Mertz, it was believed that Florida would rely heavily on its rushing attack this season. That couldn’t be further from the truth, as the Gators have run the ball at the lowest rate in the Power Five and the third-lowest rate nationally (30%).

They’ll need to get back to their roots if they want a chance at upsetting the Volunteers, who possess the 11th-worst run-defense grade in the Power Five (62.8).

Prediction: Tennessee 34, Florida 27

Milton is able to create enough explosive plays to escape with a victory in “The Swamp.”

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