Entering the final Saturday in September, a handful of teams will let us know exactly who they are.
We’ve seen plenty of the big boys beating up on cupcakes and have gotten a couple barometer games from the truly elite programs, but we should start seeing where teams are a handful of games in with conference play having already begun or around the corner for most.
Georgia took out Clemson. Virginia Tech upset North Carolina. Oregon stunned Ohio State at the Horseshoe. Michigan shut down Washington. Penn State held off Auburn. Alabama survived at Florida.
The coming weekend will feature a handful of interesting contests that will separate contenders and pretenders pretty clearly. Here are the 10 most appealing matchups that should teach us plenty about where key programs stand.
Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin (in Chicago), 12 p.m. ET
The Fighting Irish improved to 3-0 with a home win over Purdue last Saturday and covered the spread for the first time. Victories over Florida State, Toledo and the Boilermakers aren’t impressive, so this showdown with the Badgers at Soldier Field will be a proving ground. QB Jack Coan will be facing his former teammates, guys he still talks to all the time, so he knows the type of challenge that awaits him in one of the nation’s top defenses.
Coan, a grad transfer who has gotten off to a strong start thus far in South Bend, played in 25 games for Wisconsin from 2017-19. He’ll be facing a unit that gets back key LB Leo Chenal this week following a COVID pause. Corner Faion Hicks and safety Collin Wilder are also back after missing the team’s Sept. 11 win over Eastern Michigan, so the Badgers are back at full strength defensively. Paul Chryst is 10-4 coming off a bye and should have his team prepared. Expect both fan bases to show up in Chicago to support their teams as Notre Dame looks to improve on a 10-0-2 record at Soldier Field. The Badgers are a 6-to 6.5-point favorite to end their run of success in the Windy City. They’ll need QB Graham Mertz, the much-hyped third-year redshirt freshman who beat Coan out for the gig, to rise up and play to his potential.
Texas Tech at Texas, 12 p.m. ET
New head coach Steve Sarkisian has already made a quarterback change in his first month on the job, promoting sophomore Casey Thompson over second-year freshman Hudson Card following a Sept. 11 upset loss at Arkansas. Thompson has led Texas to scores in 16 of the 18 drives he’s piloted since the 2020 Alamo Bowl and just led the Longhorns to a 58-0 blowout of Rice. Now we’ll see whether he can be as productive against the Red Raiders in the Big 12 opener.
Texas Tech overcame an early deficit against Houston and roared back to win in Week 1. It narrowly avoided an upset loss to FCS member Stephen F. Austin in its home opener and put up 54 points against Florida International last week, so this is a big test to see if Matt Wells’ team is capable of ending a string of five consecutive losing seasons. Oregon transfer Tyler Shough and WR Erik Ezukanma will need to have big days to give Tech a shot in Austin, but last season’s game went to overtime as both starters threw five TD passes in a 63-56 Longhorns win. Sam Ehlinger is in the NFL now and ex-Tech starter Alan Bowman transferred to Michigan, but both offenses have already proven they can fill it up. The total has been set at 62, a figure that has been topped in five of the last six meetings.
LSU at Mississippi State, 12 p.m. ET
The Tigers opened the season by trash-talking UCLA but were quickly dispatched at the Rose Bowl. They’ll now open SEC play on the road against a Bulldogs team coming off a loss at Memphis. One of these teams are going to be 2-2 and really unhappy come Saturday afternoon. Ed Orgeron called LSU’s 44-34 setback in Baton Rouge to open the season “embarrassing,” so this is a good spot to hit the reset button since the program is looking to avoid slipping to 7-7 since winning its national championship.
KJ Costello threw for 623 yards against LSU’s defense but has since left the program. Will Rogers is running Mike Leach’s Air Raid, an attack which leads the country in pass frequency. Mississippi State is averaging 361 passing yards per game and has seen Cal transfer Makai Polk emerge as a reliable go-to receiver and probably won’t have to deal with Tigers corner Derek Stingley Jr., a lock Top-10 pick who is listed as “very questionable” with an unspecified injury. LSU’s Max Johnson has thrown 11 TD passes and just two picks, teaming with star WR Kayshon Boutte to do damage. Expect a shootout and ride the high side on 56.5 points.
SMU at TCU, 12 p.m. ET
It took a fluke bounce on a Hail Mary that landed in WR Reggie Roberson Jr.’s hands for a 33-yard score as time expired, but a 39-37 win at Louisiana Tech kept SMU’s record unblemished entering this DFW showdown against TCU. After being canceled due to COVID last season, the Battle for the Iron Skillet returns for its 100th installment. The Horned Frogs lead the series 51-41-7 thanks to a 17-3 over the last 20 matchups since 1999, but the Mustangs won the most recent matchup 41-38 as an eight-point underdog. The number for the 2021 installment has been set at TCU -10, in part because Gary Patterson’s team is coming off a bye while the Ponies played a track meet in Ruston and nearly lost despite winning the turnover battle and outgaining the Bulldogs 578-543.
This will be SMU’s toughest challenge of the season, while TCU already survived a Power-5 battle against Cal in winning 34-32 after falling behind by two touchdowns. RB Zach Evans is one of the nation’s most talented backs, QB Max Duggan struggles with accuracy but can beat you with his legs and his feet and leading returning receiver Quentin Johnson looks much improved. Meanwhile, Mustangs QB Tanner Mordecai, a transfer from Oklahoma, threw for 395 yards and five TDs against LA Tech and has fired off 16 TD passes through three games. Expect to these teams go at one another and look for plenty of points, topping the 64 that’s been set as the opening total.
Missouri at Boston College, 12 p.m. ET
The Eagles played their first game without injured starting QB Phil Jurkovec, who isn’t likely to return this season after having surgery to heal a hand/wrist injury. Backup Dennis Grosel is set to make his 10th career start and is an experienced playmaker, so unbeaten BC remains optimistic that it can still compete in the ACC. A trip to Clemson is on top next week, so this tune-up against Mizzou will really go a long way in building up the team’s confidence or completely destroying it.
BC has crushed Colgate, UMass and Temple, teams that it was supposed to take apart. This will be its first real test, while the visiting Tigers have already lost their only road game 35-28 at Kentucky despite Connor Bazelak tying a career-high with four TD passes. He’s already surpassed his number of TD Passes from a season ago. Tyler Badie is a weapon out of the backfield and Ohio State transfer Mookie Cooper is a burner, so Mizzou should be able to move it well against BC. These teams are meeting for the first time and oddsmakers have made the visitors from the SEC a 1.5-point favorite.
Clemson at NC State, 3:30 p.m. ET
The Wolfpack are looking for their first win over Clemson since 2011. Conditions are ripe for an upset. NC State lost at Mississippi State to knock some of the shine off what it was hoping would be a special season in Raleigh. That disappointment can become a distant memory if it can pull off an upset as a 10-point underdog. The teams didn’t play last season and the Tigers posted blowouts in 2018 and ’19, but the games in ’16 and ’17 were both decided by a single touchdown.
Coming off a 14-8 win over Georgia Tech, Clemson has looked terrible offensively in attempting to effectively replace QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne. It hasn’t helped matters that the Tigers’ offensive line has taken a significant step backward, resulting in QB DJ Uiagalelei failing to find much of an in-game rhythm. True freshman Will Shipley has moved into the starting lineup at tailback. NC State will be without talented LB Payton Wilson but should still have enough on the defensive side to keep this close. If QB Devin Leary can effectively move the offense without turning it over and RB Bam Knight isn’t shut down like he was in Starkville, NC State could pull off a shocker. DraftKings and most other books list the Wolfpack as a +300 moneyline play, which means you can triple your investment if they come through with an upset.
Texas A&M vs. Arkansas (In Arlington), 3:30 p.m. ET
The Aggies have won the last nine matchups between these teams, but five of the last seven meetings have been decided by seven points or less. Jimbo Fisher is 0-3 against the spread vs. the Razorbacks despite winning all three games against them outright. He’ll be matched up with Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman for the second time after last season’s 42-31 result. The Hogs notched a backdoor cover by winning the fourth quarter 14-0 with the outcome already decided and actually out-gained A&M in College Station 461-442.
Tight end Jalen Wydermyer and WR Ainias Smith each grabbed two touchdown passes and will be a handful for Arkansas’ defense. Smith left last week’s win over New Mexico with a head injury and entered concussion protocol, so check on his availability leading up to the contest. A&M QB Zach Calzada struggled at Colorado in taking over for starter Haynes King, who is done for the season after fracturing his tibia, so the Razorbacks have a chance to limit the explosive Aggies if Smith is forced to sit. Arkansas QB KJ Jefferson threw for 366 yards and three TDs against Georgia Southern last weekend and can make a difference keeping drives alive with his legs. The Hogs are averaging 42.8 points over his first four career starts but this total has been placed at just 46.5. We may see this game wind up a defensive struggle. Texas A&M is favored by 4.5 points in Arlington’s AT&T Stadium.
UCLA at Stanford, 6 p.m. ET
After opening the season with victories over Hawai’I and LSU, UCLA couldn’t get stops down the stretch in a wild game against Fresno State, blowing the lead twice inside the final three minutes. The Bruins allowed the Bulldogs to drive 75 yards in 40 seconds in a 40-37 loss, surrendering 569 total yards, including 455 through the air. Chip Kelly has to sell his team on a quick recovery from that upset since they have everything to play for entering the Pac-12 opener in Palo Alto.
The Cardinal will be without running backs Austin Jones, E.J. Smith and Casey Filkins, so Nathaniel Peak will be the primary ball carrier. They’re also very thin in the secondary with most of their top safeties out since Noah Williams and Jonathan McGill are out. Top corner Salim Turner-Muhammad was lost in the preseason and key fill-ins Zahran Manley and Ethan Bonner are listed as questionable to doubtful. Top tight end Ben Yurosek is also out. UCLA is favored on the road, but the underdog has won the last two matchups between these teams outright and Stanford comes on 10-3 ATS run against the Bruins.
West Virginia at Oklahoma, 7:30 p.m. ET
The Sooners struggled defensively at Tulane in Week 1 and were held to just 23 points in a win that was much closer than expected against visiting Nebraska last Saturday. If not for Pat Fields’ 100-yard kickoff return late in the third quarter, the Sooners could’ve been in real trouble. As expected, they’ve gotten through the non-conference portion of their schedule unscathed and now open Big 12 play by welcoming West Virginia into Norman.
Oklahoma has won eight consecutive games against the Mountaineers, last losing in 2008. These teams didn’t play last season but played a 59-56 classic as recently as 2018. QB Jarrett Doege would have to play well above his expected level to hang with counterpart Spencer Rattler, who has thrown seven TD passes and has run for two more but did the bulk of his damage against FCS member Western Carolina. West Virginia leaned on its defense turning away Virginia Tech time after time late in last Saturday’s home win over the Hokies and they will look to ride that resistance to slow down the Sooners and hang around here as a 17-point underdog.
Oregon State at USC, 10:30 p.m. ET
The Trojans saw Jaxson Dart break out last week, debuting with 391 passing yards, a school record in a debut, while throwing four TD passes in starting for the injured Kedon Slovis at Washington State. USC won 45-14 despite falling behind by two touchdowns in the second quarter and trailing at halftime. Dart suffered a meniscus injury that required surgery, but Slovis is set to return from a neck injury that knocked him out of the game in Pullman early following a helmet-to-helmet hit. Slovis has struggled this season and had a rough game in his last outing against Stanford, following up an unimpressive outing against San Jose State. He’s got to get it going.
Oregon State defeated Oregon at home last season and has posted wins over Hawai’i and Idaho following a season-opening loss at Purdue, but it is still on an 0-6 run in road games dating back to late 2019. The Beavers have lost 23 consecutive games at the L.A. Coliseum against USC, last winning in 1960. They beat the Trojans in Corvallis back in 2010 but have dropped the last four games of this series, covering the spread only once. Interim coach Donte Williams will look to build on a brilliant second half at Washington State where everything came together on both sides of the ball. Drake London made 13 receptions for 170 yards but took a big hit and hasn’t practiced much outside of conditioning this week. It remains to be seen whether he suits up and his absence would make it all that much harder to cover an 11-point spread.