Compared to last week’s slate, college football’s Week 4 lineup looks somewhat less promising with just two Top 25 clashes.
Yes, we know, sometimes those are the weeks that produce the biggest surprises. The possibility does exist for some shockers, seemingly more so this year with several top teams showing early vulnerability.
Keep in mind, therefore, that there almost certainly will be other games not listed here that produce exciting moments and fantastic finishes. But we’ll offer up these five as Saturday’s top candidates, selected for long-term importance as well as entertainment potential. They include the aforementioned Top 25 showdowns, a couple of power-conference encounters, and a long-standing Metroplex rivalry.
No. 10 Notre Dame vs. No. 15 Wisconsin
Noon ET, Fox (in Chicago)
Why watch: The Fighting Irish are where they expected to be at 3-0, though the road thus far has been bumpy. Last week’s victory against Purdue, though still somewhat in doubt in the fourth quarter, was actually Notre Dame’s first that did not come down to the game’s final play as the defense kept the Boilermakers out of the end zone for most of the afternoon. The Badgers dropped their season opener to Penn State but had a tune-up game and an off week to rest for this Top 20 showdown. The major story line going into the game centers on Fighting Irish transfer QB Jack Coan taking on his former school, while Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz looks to get the better of the guy he replaced. Coan has a superb playmaker, RB Kyren Williams, in his backfield, but he might not have much room to operate against LB Jack Sanborn and the Badgers’ front. Mertz for his part must beware of Fighting Irish S Kyle Hamilton.
Why it could disappoint: Wisconsin would like to make this a grind-it-out affair, so it might not feature a whole lot of flash. Neither team is likely to pull away, but if you like big-play football this might not be the game for you.
No. 5 Texas A&M vs. No. 18 Arkansas
3:30 p.m. ET, CBS (in Arlington, Texas)
Why to watch: The conference opener for these SEC West rivals didn’t look like it would be a Top 20 clash when the schedule was released. But the Razorbacks found their way into the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll thanks to a convincing takedown of Texas and now look to make an even bigger splash. The Aggies got a needed breather of a game against New Mexico after not looking the part of a top-five team a week earlier in a narrow escape at Colorado. QB Zach Calzada in particular needed to work out some kinks after struggling in relief of injured opening-week starter Haynes King. He should get ground support, but LB Bumper Pool and the Razorbacks’ defensive front is fundamentally sound. The A&M defense has held up its end, but athletic Arkansas QB KJ Jefferson could present a challenge.
Why it could disappoint: If the Aggies figure out how to keep Jefferson bottled up, the Razorbacks will find points and first downs hard to come by. That in turn could allow A&M’s dynamic RB tandem of Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane to take charge.
Rutgers at No. 19 Michigan
3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Why watch: Considering where the Rutgers football program was just a few short years ago, getting to 3-0 with relative ease in coach Greg Schiano’s second stint is an achievement in itself. The real test of the program’s progress comes this week as the Scarlet Knights enter the Big Ten competition in the Big House. The Wolverines, unheralded in the preseason, have been a pleasant surprise themselves. The challenges their fans care about most are yet to come, of course, but they still can’t overlook the improved Scarlet Knights. The most significant measure of competence for Rutgers is the 0 in the turnover column through three weeks with QB Noah Vedral at the controls. The Wolverines also have not given the ball away, with RB Blake Corum providing dependable ground support for QB Cade McNamara. If both teams can continue to keep it clean, it could be a four-quarter game, albeit with few fireworks.
Why it could disappoint: The Wolverines still have a talent advantage. If the Scarlet Knights fall behind and have to start forcing matters, their turnover-free streak could end. Should that happen, the game will get away.
West Virginia at No. 3 Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Why watch: This Big 12 opener matches teams that have a lot of concerns despite some early success. The Sooners are 3-0 but haven’t exactly looked like a playoff team, while the Mountaineers are coming off an upset of Virginia Tech they nearly let getaway in the final minute. Oklahoma’s track record under Lincoln Riley would indicate there will be an improvement as the season moves along. It will need to come quickly now that league play is at hand. Sooners QB Spencer Rattler has not been sharp during the season’s first month, sporting a 74.7 percent completion rate but a pedestrian 7.7 yard average per attempt. WVU QB Jarret Doege has made some big plays but also some big mistakes. He’ll again need help from RB Leddie Brown to keep the chains moving in hostile environs.
Why it could disappoint: The Mountaineers’ defense is generating sacks (nine through three games) but not takeaways. If the turnover margin is in the negative again for WVU, the Sooners could put it out of reach.
SMU at TCU
Noon ET, Fox Sports 1
Why watch: We can’t promise another last-second thriller like the one SMU provided last time out at Louisiana Tech, but the Mustangs’ renewal of their series with the Horned Frogs with the Iron Skillet on the line should be worth a look. TCU had last week off, but its most recent contest was just as suspenseful, prevailing 34-32 in a back-and-forth affair with California. SMU’s driving force is QB Tanner Mordecai, the former Sooner who already has 16 scoring passes for the season including last week’s game-winner to WR Reggie Roberson. The Horned Frogs will counter with veteran QB Max Duggan, who has a solid 62 percent completion rate but also isn’t afraid to tuck it and run.
Why it could disappoint: With all due respect to Louisiana Tech, a perennial contender in Conference USA, TCU represents a significant step up in competition for the Mustangs. The firepower on both offenses makes a blowout unlikely, but the rested Horned Frogs could be better positioned to take advantage of any miscues.
Follow colleges reporter Eddie Timanus on Twitter @EddieTimanus