College News & Analysis

College Football Week 4 Preview: Storylines, matchups and predictions for the seven biggest games

2RWCT5P Notre Dame's Sam Hartman (10) looks to pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Central Michigan on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Michael Caterina)

• One of the best slates in years: Six games between ranked teams headline a packed Week 4, tied for the most in a regular-season week in six years.

• No. 6 Ohio State at No. 9 Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish host the Buckeyes in a matchup between top-10 teams.

• No. 19 Colorado at No. 10 Oregon: Shedeur Sanders looks to continue his Heisman campaign in what should be a shootout between the Buffaloes and the Ducks.

Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes

If you work Saturday, call out sick. If you plan to clean your house, live in your filth for another day. If for some reason you have a wedding to attend that day, simply don’t show up. None of it is worth missing the Week 4 slate of college football for.

Normally in these preview articles, we highlight the five best games of the weekend. We're previewing seven this week. There are six games between ranked teams in Week 4, tied for the most in a regular season weekend since 2017. That’s not even including a colossal showdown between No. 4 Florida State and Clemson.

Buckle up.

No. 4 Florida State Seminoles at Clemson Tigers (12 P.M. ET on ABC)

Storyline to know: Was last week a fluke for Florida State?

Florida State beat Boston College 31-29 last week despite entering the game as 25.5-point favorites. The Eagles are currently the third-worst Power Five team in PFF’s power rankings.

Boston College exposed the Seminoles’ struggling run defense to the tune of 4.6 yards per carry. So far this season, Florida State has the Power Five’s worst defense in expected points allowed per rush. That could be an issue against a Clemson rushing attack led by Will Shipley and Phil Mafah. The Tigers have racked up 24 runs of 10-plus yards this season, tied for fourth in college football.

Matchup to watch: Florida State’s weapons vs. Clemson’s defense

Florida State’s skill position players are arguably the best in the country. Jordan Travis’ 91.8 grade over the past two seasons is tied for third among Power Five quarterbacks. Trey Benson is currently the top running back prospect on PFF’s 2024 NFL Draft big board, while both Keon Coleman and Johnny Wilson are first-round wide receivers in their own rights. Jaheim Bell entered the season as a top-five tight end. Lawrance Toafili leads all ACC running backs since 2022 with 342 receiving yards.

If any ACC defense can slow down the Seminoles though, it’s Clemson. The Tigers’ 90.6 run-defense grade is tied for eighth in college football. Clemson also ranks sixth in the nation in expected points allowed per play. Entering the season, the Tigers rostered the best linebacker unit in the country and the third-best secondary.

Prediction: Florida State 30, Clemson 27

Florida State does just enough to squeak by Clemson and secure its first win over the Tigers since 2014.

No. 15 Ole Miss Rebels at No. 13 Alabama Crimson Tide (3:30 P.M. ET on CBS)

Storyline to know: Can Ole Miss get healthy in time?

Four of the Rebels’ offensive stars are banged up right now. Quinshon Judkins was my No. 2 running back in the country entering the season but was limited this past weekend against Georgia Tech with an upper-body injury. Wide receiver Tre Harris is tied for third in the country with five receiving touchdowns, but he missed last week’s game against the Yellow Jackets with a knee injury. Memphis transfer Caden Prieskorn was a top-10 tight end entering the year but has yet to play this season as he deals with a knee injury of his own. UTSA transfer Zakhari Franklin made PFF's preseason All-SEC first team as a wide receiver and also has yet to make his Ole Miss debut with, again, a knee injury.

The good news for the Rebels is that both Harris and Prieskorn are practicing this week, which should have Ole Miss fans optimistic about their return this Saturday. They’ll be needed since Alabama’s defense sports the fifth-best coverage grade in the Power Five (90.7).

Matchup to watch: Alabama’s passing attack vs. Ole Miss’ defense

The Crimson Tide’s passing game has been nothing short of a disaster this season, placing just 91st nationally in expected points added per pass so far. New offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has struggled to build any sort of rhythm so far. The offensive line has surrendered the fourth-highest pressure rate in the Power Five (29.6%). There still aren’t any proven stars in the receiving corps, as Alabama has just the 63rd-ranked receiving grade in the country (67.9).

Above all, Nick Saban doesn’t have a quarterback he can trust. Jalen Milroe was benched after posting four turnover-worthy plays and a 53.3 passing grade in the loss to Texas. He was replaced by Tyler Buchner, who completed just 35.7% of his passes against USF. Ty Simpson replaced him and posted a 71.6 passing grade in the victory but still has only 21 career dropbacks to his name. Milroe is once again the starter heading into the showdown with Ole Miss. The Rebels currently own the 20th-highest-graded defense in the Power Five (84.9).

Prediction: Ole Miss 29, Alabama 27

Only three of Nick Saban’s former assistants have beaten him: Jimbo Fisher, Kirby Smart and Steve Sarkisian. Lane Kiffin becomes the fourth ever — and the second in three weeks.

No. 19 Colorado Buffaloes at No. 10 Oregon Ducks (3:30 P.M. ET on ABC)

Storyline to know: Is the hype too much?

Colorado is the biggest story in college football right now. The Buffaloes are 3-0, already posting two more wins than they secured all of last year. Head coach Deion Sanders has brought so much electricity to the program that College Gameday, The Rock, Lil Wayne, Rob Gronkowski and other celebrities made the trip to Boulder for Colorado’s clash with Colorado State, the ninth-worst FBS team in PFF’s power rankings.

However, the Buffaloes — 23-point favorites — still needed two overtime periods to take down the Rams. Saturday’s game against a top-10 opponent in Oregon will prove whether the hype for Colorado and the Heisman talk for quarterback Shedeur Sanders is warranted or if we all got a little too caught up in the spectacle. The Ducks’ defense ranks 14th in the Power Five in expected points added per pass.

Matchup to watch: Can Colorado slow down Oregon’s explosive offense?

While the Buffaloes’ offense has been a force, averaging 41.3 points per game, Colorado’s defense has also allowed more than 30 points per game, which has made every game a nail-biter. The Buffaloes have the fifth-worst run-defense grade in the Power Five (62.1) and are tied for ninth worst in overall defensive grade (70.0). Making matters worse is the fact that star cornerback/wide receiver Travis Hunter is out for the next three weeks with a lacerated liver that he suffered from a late hit in the Colorado State victory.

Oregon, meanwhile, ranks second in college football in offensive expected points added per play, trailing only USC. The Ducks also have the fourth-best rushing grade (90.1) and best pass-blocking grade (94.6) in the nation. That will be a mismatch for Colorado, which has just four sacks this season. Bucky Irving should be able to gash the Buffaloes, as well, as his 8.4 yards per attempt ranks seventh among FBS running backs. Plus, quarterback Bo Nix's 82.9% adjusted completion rate over the past two seasons leads all quarterbacks.

Prediction: Oregon 40, Colorado 30

It’s a much closer game than the three-touchdown spread indicates, but Oregon’s offense comes out on top in a shootout.

No. 22 UCLA Bruins at No. 11 Utah Utes (3:30 P.M. ET on FOX)

Storyline to know: Will Cameron Rising and Brant Kuithe be able to play?

Utah is 3-0 this season without its two best offensive players. Quarterback Cameron Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe have yet to play this year as they each recover from torn ACLs suffered last season. Without them, the Utes have mustered the Power Five’s 11th-worst passing game in expected points added per play. The Utes have also allowed the sixth-highest pressure rate in the Power Five (33.7%).

That could be an issue against a UCLA defense that ranks third in the country in pass-rushing grade (84.9). That unit is headlined by edge defender Laiatu Latu, the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2024 draft, according to PFF lead draft analyst Trevor Sikkema.

Matchup to watch: Dante Moore’s first true test

Dante Moore has been sensational so far this season. The true freshman has earned an 87.4 grade, placing 17th among all quarterbacks in college football. His 9.4% big-time throw rate trails only Caleb Williams among Pac-12 quarterbacks.

However, the Bruins’ first three games were against Coastal Carolina, San Diego State and North Carolina Central. The Eagles are an FCS team, while the Aztecs and Chanticleers have the 99th- and 114th-ranked defenses in PFF’s power rankings, respectively. That’s a far cry from a Utah defense sitting at 11th in the Power Five in both coverage grade and expected points allowed per pass.

Prediction: UCLA 28, Utah 24

This prediction ultimately hinges on Rising's and Kuithe’s health. Since that remains unknown, the Bruins pull off the road upset.

No. 14 Oregon State Beavers at No. 21 Washington State Cougars (7 P.M. ET on FOX)

Storyline to know: The Pac-2 square off

The biggest story of this past offseason was conference realignment. Following this season, the Pac-12 is losing 10 of its 12 members to other leagues after the conference failed to secure a media deal on par with the other Power Five conferences.

The only two programs that weren’t able to find a home in another Power Five conference were Oregon State and Washington State — ironically, both of which are ranked. Out of the 109 games these teams have played each other, this is the first time that both are in the AP top 25.

Matchup to watch: Oregon State’s run game vs. Washington State’s run defense

Simply put, Oregon State’s offensive goal is to physically dominate the opposition. The Beavers entered the season with my No. 3 offensive line in the country, trailing only Michigan and Georgia. That’s held true so far, as Oregon State’s 78.3 run-blocking grade ranks fourth among Power Five teams. It also doesn’t hurt that the Beavers have a star at running back in Damien Martinez. The sophomore’s 85.9 rushing grade this season sits at fourth among Power Five backs, and he ranks third in that same group with a whopping 8.6 yards per attempt.

Meanwhile, the strength of Washington State’s defense has been stopping the run. The Cougars are currently tied for fourth in the Power Five with a 91.4 run-defense grade, allowing just 2.6 yards per attempt. The team that wins at the line of scrimmage will likely come out on top in this one.

Prediction: Oregon State 31, Washington State 24

The Beavers produce just enough in the run game and DJ Uiagalelei makes enough big throws to lead Oregon State to its first road victory over a top-25 team since 2012.

No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes at No. 9 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (7:30 P.M. ET on NBC)

Storyline to know: Time for Kyle McCord to prove it

While the raw numbers might not show it, Kyle McCord hasn’t exactly filled C.J. Stroud’s shoes so far this season. The redshirt sophomore currently has a 65.1 passing grade on the season with as many turnover-worthy plays (four) as big-time throws. Keep in mind, this is on a team with easily the best receiving corps in college football, headlined by the two best receivers in the country entering the year, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. Ohio State hasn’t exactly faced tough competition so far, either, playing an FCS school in Youngstown State and two programs that are outside the top 80 of PFF’s power rankings in Indiana and Western Kentucky.

That all changes this week as the Buckeyes travel to top-10 Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish defense has allowed the lowest passer rating in the country this season (50.9) and a 50% completion rate. Notre Dame’s secondary is good enough that Harrison and Egbuka won't be able to win on talent alone. They need a quarterback who’s on his A-game.

Matchup to watch: Notre Dame’s offensive line vs. Ohio State’s defensive line

The Fighting Irish have the nation’s best receiving grade (88.6) and the country’s highest-graded running back in Audric Estime (92.6). That won’t mean anything unless the team's offensive line holds up. Joe Alt has proven this season why many, including myself, consider him to be the best offensive lineman in college football. He has earned an 80.5 run-blocking grade and hasn’t allowed a pressure on 107 pass-blocking snaps. The Fighting Irish’s other four offensive linemen have been solid but unspectacular.

They’ll need to step up against an Ohio State defensive line that is one of the best in the country, if not the best. The Buckeyes’ 87.3 pass-rushing grade leads all Power Five teams, and four of their defensive linemen are among the top 150 prospects on PFF’s 2024 NFL Draft big board: J.T. Tuimoloau, Michael Hall Jr., Jack Sawyer and Tyleik Williams. Ohio State has also given up just 2.3 rushing yards per attempt. Not to mention, Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman’s grade goes from a 91.0 mark when kept clean to a 44.3 figure when under pressure.

Prediction: Notre Dame 30, Ohio State 27

The Fighting Irish force Kyle McCord into a few costly mistakes and secure their first victory over the Buckeyes in 87 years.

No. 24 Iowa Hawkeyes at No. 7 Penn State Nittany Lions (7:30 P.M. ET on CBS)

Storyline to know: Can Iowa make this game ugly, if not hideous?

After fielding one of the worst offenses in the country a year ago, Iowa still has the 11th-worst Power Five offense this year by expected points added per play. The Hawkeyes are also in the bottom 10 of that same group in rushing grade (67.2) and receiving grade (60.6). They’ll face a Penn State defense that just forced five turnovers against Illinois and is the eighth-best unit in the nation in expected points allowed per play.

For Iowa to pull off the upset in college football's most hostile environment, the White Out, it’ll need a stellar defense to keep the game as low-scoring as possible.

Matchup to watch: Penn State’s offense vs. Iowa’s defense

This is an incredibly broad matchup, but it’s only fitting for how dominant Iowa’s defense is. The Hawkeyes are coached by Phil Parker on that side of the ball, among the best defensive coordinators in the country. Iowa currently has the second-best defensive grade (91.9) in the FBS, trailing only Ohio State. The Hawkeyes also rank in the top five in run-defense grade (91.4) and coverage grade (91.1). The unit is led by cornerback Cooper DeJean, a top-15 prospect on PFF's 2024 NFL Draft big board.

The only thing Penn State’s offense has been able to hang its hat on so far this season is quarterback Drew Allar. The sophomore’s 90.4 grade is tied for 11th among Power Five quarterbacks this season. The rest of the offense’s problems can more or less be attributed to the offensive line’s struggles. The Nittany Lions’ front five has just a 61.0 run-blocking grade on the season, tied for 82nd in the country. Keep in mind, this is a unit that features Olu Fashanu, the No. 4 prospect on PFF’s 2024 NFL Draft big board.

Prediction: Penn State 24, Iowa 17

In a mostly defensive game, Allar puts Penn State on his back to escape with a victory.

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