NOTRE DAME vs. WISCONSIN
The quarterbacks will be a popular storyline for this showdown at Soldier Field in Chicago. Jack Coan, a Wisconsin transfer, is 3-0 as the starter for the Fighting Irish. Coan left for Notre Dame because Graham Mertz, a former five-star recruit, was considered the Badgers’ future at the position. Coan is consistent and has been the better player this season, passing for 828 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions in narrow victories over Florida State, Toledo and Purdue. Mertz is erratic and remains a mystery. He passed for a total of 326 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions as the Badgers split their first two games against Penn State and Eastern Michigan. Quarterbacks aside, Wisconsin appears to have a few advantages, especially on the offensive line. The Badgers are typically big and physical up front, and junior Chez Mellusi has been a workhorse running back while rolling up 265 yards on 51 carries. Wisconsin is also stronger on all levels of its defense. The Notre Dame defense can be soft against the run and is suspect in pass coverage, but Mertz has yet to prove he can beat a talented defense through the air. The offensive line is a weakness for the Irish, who have allowed Coan to be sacked 14 times while star running back Kyren Williams has struggled to break loose for big gains. If the line holds up, the Irish have much more big-play potential. Despite boasting the better QB, Notre Dame is a 5.5-point underdog on a neutral field. The Irish have not been impressive, but neither have the Badgers, and the point spread seems inflated at more than a field goal. Look at the underdog in a low-scoring game.
— Matt Youmans
UCLA at STANFORD
Hit the brakes on the Chip Kelly hype train. The UCLA coach touted his “special” team after double-digit victories over LSU and Hawaii, but Kelly had nothing to brag about Saturday after the Bruins were stunned as 11-point favorites in a 40-37 loss to Fresno State in Pasadena. The result was no fluke. The Bruins were a train wreck on defense while allowing 569 total yards and 32 first downs to a Mountain West offense. Jake Haener connected on 39 of 53 passes for 455 yards and two touchdowns, including the winning 13-yard throw with 14 seconds left. Haener led the Bulldogs on a six-play, 75-yard drive in 40 seconds to cap an improbable last-minute comeback. On the bright side, the Bruins’ offense remained strong as Dorian Thompson-Robinson passed for 278 yards and three touchdowns. Haener’s performance was special, and now UCLA’s beleaguered defense will face another quarterback on the rise. Two weeks ago, Tanner McKee threw for 234 yards and two scores as Stanford, a 17-point road underdog, whipped preseason Pac-12 South favorite USC 42-28. Cardinal coach David Shaw has quickly turned around his team after a season-opening loss to Kansas State. Stanford has won 12 of the last 13 in this rivalry, including a 48-47 double-overtime decision last year at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins could be emotionally deflated after the Fresno debacle, and the Cardinal get a boost by playing at home in front of fans for the first time since 2019, so those factors point to Stanford as a home dog of 3.5 to 4 points. UCLA suddenly has the look of a fragile favorite.
— Matt Youmans
ARIZONA at OREGON
It will be tough for oddsmakers to inspire betting support for Arizona, which hit rock bottom while extending its losing streak to 15 games with a 21-19 defeat to Northern Arizona. First-year coach Jedd Fisch seemed to have something positive going when the Wildcats hung tough in a season-opening 24-16 loss to BYU in Las Vegas, but the Lumberjacks spoiled Fisch’s month, and the stench will linger with Oregon and UCLA next on the schedule. Arizona has rotated three quarterbacks — Gunner Cruz, Will Plummer and Jordan McCloud — and Cruz has been the most effective yet did not play against Northern Arizona. A week after upsetting Ohio State, the Ducks returned home to beat Stony Brook 48-7. Oregon is getting impressive play from quarterback Anthony Brown and running back CJ Verdell, and a banged-up defense is getting a needed break before the Pac-12 race heats up. The Ducks have no need to play defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux this week as he recovers from an ankle injury. Oregon opened as a 28-point favorite against Arizona, which will play hard for Fisch even when the score gets out of reach. The Ducks will probably show mercy in the fourth quarter. Is the number high enough for courageous dog players to take the points with the Wildcats?
— Matt Youmans
TEXAS A&M vs. ARKANSAS
Assuming a right leg injury will continue to sideline Haynes King, Texas A&M’s No. 1 quarterback, the Aggies forge ahead and hope for the best from new starter Zach Calzada. A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said King is doubtful to return before October. Calzada started Saturday and passed for 275 yards and three touchdowns in the Aggies’ 34-0 win over New Mexico, but the Lobos put up little resistance. It will be a different story this week as the scene shifts to Arlington, Texas. Outside the SEC, Arkansas might be considered a sleeper team. Inside the league, the Razorbacks are no secret. Arkansas was a 7-point home dog when it dominated Texas 40-21 on Sept. 11. The Hogs finished with 333 rushing yards and a 471-256 advantage in total yards, and their defense held two Longhorns quarterbacks to a total of 118 passing yards. Redshirt freshman KJ Jefferson passed for only 138 yards against Texas, but he cranked it up last week and threw for a career-high 366 with three touchdowns in a 45-10 victory over Georgia Southern. Are the Razorbacks ready to take down another heavyweight from Texas? The Aggies, who have won nine straight in this series, will be banking on running back Isaiah Spiller and their defense to avoid the upset. With Calzada at quarterback, A&M has reasons to be concerned. Arkansas coach Sam Pittman built a competitive team in 2020, and now he has a winning team in his second year. The Razorbacks are 6-point underdogs and don’t appear to be getting the respect they deserve. It’s the Aggies’ first true test after opening the season against three lightweight opponents.
— Matt Youmans
TENNESSEE at FLORIDA
Tennessee rebounded from a home loss to Pittsburgh with Saturday’s 56-0 thrashing of Tennessee Tech. Virginia Tech transfer quarterback Hendon Hooker threw for three scores and ran for another starting in place of Michigan transfer Joe Milton, who was sidelined with a lower leg injury. Vols coach Josh Heupel was mum Monday on who would start Saturday at the Swamp. Milton has struggled with accuracy, going 18-for-35 in his two starts. Florida looked like it was going to get rolled by the Crimson Tide when Alabama led 21-3 after one quarter Saturday. However, the Gators outplayed No. 1 Alabama for the final three quarters before being stopped on the potential game-tying two-point conversion and falling 31-29. Florida outgained Alabama 440-331 led by a rushing attack that is No. 2 in the nation after posting 245 yards (5.7 yards per carry). Coach Dan Mullen had been playing two quarterbacks, sophomore Emory Jones and freshman Anthony Richardson, through the first two games, but Richardson was held out with a hamstring injury. After a slow start and hearing some boos, Jones played his best game as a Gator with 195 yards passing and one interception plus 77 yards rushing and a TD. Moral victories are not good enough in Gainesville, but the Gators get a more manageable portion of the schedule with Tennessee coming to town. Florida has won 15 of the last 16 in this rivalry, falling in 2016. The Gators opened -22 at Circa Sports before some Tennessee support showed and slid the number to 20. The total also dropped from 67.5 to 62. Even in a loss, the initial market price on Florida likely increased due to its good showing against Alabama. But will the Gators be able to rebound from such a close loss to the nation’s top team? Like Ohio State last week, potential exists for a sluggish start for Florida.
— Wes Reynolds
RUTGERS at MICHIGAN
Two 3-0 teams hook up in a Big Ten opener. Rutgers and Michigan have not faced stiff competition but must be satisfied with positive momentum before the schedule gets substantially more arduous. The Scarlet Knights are 3-0 for the first time since 2012 with victories over Temple, at Syracuse and over Delaware. Though Rutgers routed Delaware 45-13, one concern could be the defense against the run as the Blue Hens ran for 159 yards on 34 carries (4.7 yards per carry) and hit the Scarlet Knights for rushes of 19, 23 and 72 yards. That could be bad news against a Michigan team that is averaging 350.3 yards per game on the ground and leads the nation in rushing offense. Michigan has three wins and three easy covers, including Saturday’s 63-10 victory over Northern Illinois in which the Wolverines gained over 600 yards total offense, including 373 on the ground. Cade McNamara has been efficient at quarterback but has not had much pressure due to the potency of Michigan’s rushing attack. Last season he came off the bench and went 27-for-36 for 260 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-42 triple-overtime victory at Rutgers. McNamara is holding off a challenge from true freshman J.J. McCarthy, Michigan’s highest-rated high school quarterback recruit since Ryan Mallett in the class of 2007. Michigan opened -19 at Circa Sports and now sits at -18.5. The Wolverines were -12 at Rutgers last season after a 1-3 start. Now they clearly have some believers after the market came in against them in the blowout opening win over Western Michigan. This is homecoming weekend in Ann Arbor and perhaps not the spot to determine whether the Wolverines are for real. That could come next week at Wisconsin, where Michigan will try to avenge two consecutive blowout losses to the Badgers.
— Wes Reynolds
MARSHALL at APPALACHIAN STATE
We’ll find out about the Thundering Herd’s recuperative powers after blowing a late lead last week against East Carolina and experiencing some adversity for the first time under new coach Charles Huff. What we do know is that Marshall has plenty of offense, scoring at a healthy 43-ppg clip and piling up 647 yards against the Pirates. Quarterback Grant Wells continued to click consistently with favorite target Corey Gammage, who had eight catches good for 180 yards against ECU and already has 23 receptions, while punishing Rasheen Ali gouged the Pirates for 189 yards rushing and is up to eight TDs after just three weeks. What we don’t expect in Boone, N.C., is a defensive display like last September in Huntington, W.Va., when the Herd won a 17-7 slugfest. App State is seeking revenge for that defeat, and transfer QB Chase Brice has not been making the mistakes he did a year ago while at Duke. With plenty of balance on both offenses and new questions about the Marshall defense, expect a lot more points than these sides produced a year ago.
— Bruce Marshall
BOISE STATE at UTAH STATE
What a difference some coaching can make. After Gary Anderson was dismissed halfway through last season, Utah State is getting some serious leadership from new coach Blake Anderson. He won consistently while at Arkansas State and has broken from the gate 3-0, already featuring comeback wins at Washington State and Air Force. Utah State hadn’t been 3-0 since 1978! Bringing along Logan Bonner, his quarterback in Jonesboro, Ark., proved a bonus in wins over Washington State and North Dakota, though Bonner got injured last week against Air Force. So backup Andrew Peasley completed the comeback, firing three TD passes in relief while RB Calvin Tyler Jr. provided a game-winning 61-yard TD run late in the fourth quarter. We’ll see whether the new Anderson vibe can turn around recent series trends that have been all Boise State, which has covered the last four clashes and won the last five outright, all by at least nine points. The Broncos are exasperated after allowing UCF and Oklahoma State to rally from double-digit deficits to post early-season wins, and coach Andy Avalos is wondering what happened to his offense after getting blanked in the second half last week against the Cowboys. For Boise to succeed, it needs to ramp up its running game for QB Hank Bachmeier, as the Broncos are gaining barely 2 yards per carry through three games.
— Bruce Marshall
LOUISVILLE at FLORIDA STATE
It took 45 years, but Florida State is back to almost exactly where it was when Bobby Bowden arrived. Taking over a program that had cratered, Bowden’s first Seminoles team in 1976 started 0-3 — the last time it had happened until this season, as Mike Norvell’s regime continues to have problems gaining traction. We’ve seen no evidence that FSU has solved the problems of an offense that still has no clear answer at QB between McKenzie Milton and Jordan Travis, who have combined for seven interceptions and just five touchdown passes and were guilty of six giveaways in a humbling loss Saturday at Wake Forest. Meanwhile, coach Scott Satterfield, now calling the plays for Louisville, appears to have solved some of the recent issues with QB Malik Cunningham, who did a pretty good Lamar Jackson imitation in an upset of UCF last week by accounting for 364 total yards and three TDs. In retrospect, maybe we shouldn’t downgrade the Cardinals for their opening loss to a rampant Ole Miss. Now, can Louisville find a helmet on which we can actually see the Cardinals logo?
— Bruce Marshall
GEORGIA at VANDERBILT
Georgia fans let Kirby Smart know he wasn’t supposed to lose to Vanderbilt when Smart’s first Bulldogs team was stunned by the Commodores 17-16 in 2016. Proving he paid attention, Smart has destroyed Vandy in the three meetings since by a combined 116-33 score, and the base is still burned that the Commodores had to twice back out of games last season due to COVID-19. As Smart seems inclined to play the poll game, Georgia is unlikely to show any mercy in Nashville. JT Daniels was back last week against South Carolina and showed no ill effects of his strained oblique by tossing his first three TD passes of the season in a functional effort. He’ll look to further sharpen his game before serious tests against Arkansas and Auburn. Meanwhile, the brief excitement on the Vandy campus after beating Colorado State was tempered more than a bit when Stanford dealt the Commodores a familiar whipping Saturday. With only a handful of completions beyond 20 yards in three games, it’s hard to see either Vandy QB, Ken Seals or Mike Wright, having time to do much damage downfield. Smart’s defense has allowed only one garbage-time TD in three weeks, though that did allow South Carolina a spread cover.
— Bruce Marshall
SOUTHERN MISS at ALABAMA
Practices under Nick Saban are never much fun, but we can bet they’re even tougher this week after the Crimson Tide almost let Florida come back last week in the Swamp amid myriad breakdowns after Alabama shot to a 21-3 lead. Saban is reportedly most concerned about a defense that suffered too many mental and physical gaffes in that narrow escape. Southern Miss looks like it should allow Pete Golding’s defense to regain some confidence, as the Golden Eagles failed to crack double digits against South Alabama and Troy. It has been very tough sledding for first-year coach Will Hall, whose offense appears overly reliant on RB Frank Gore Jr. and has had trouble protecting its QBs. Ty Keyes was swamped for nine sacks by Troy on Saturday after starter Trey Lowe went out with a foot injury the previous week against Grambling. Tide sophomore QB Bryce Young, who has 10 TD passes and no picks, should have a chance to pad his stats and enhance his Heisman Trophy candidacy. Saban has not delivered positive marks against the spread laying these types of bomber prices against nonleague foes in Tuscaloosa, covering just five of the last 17 of these types of games at Bryant-Denny. However, one of those spread wins came at the Golden Eagles’ expense in 2019 when Alabama rolled 49-7.
— Bruce Marshall
WEST VIRGINIA at OKLAHOMA
While Oklahoma remains unscathed at 3-0, the Sooners are not reminding anyone of powerhouses of the past, hanging on for narrow home wins over Tulane and Nebraska and not coming close to a spread cover against either. Those expecting fireworks reminiscent of Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray from QB Spencer Rattler have been disappointed. Rattler piled up five of his seven TD passes against outmanned FCS rep Western Carolina and produced two touchdown passes and two picks against the Green Wave and the Cornhuskers. That makes us wonder whether the dominant trend from recent years in this series can recur after six straight Over results, though the teams didn’t play last season due to COVID-19. True, the Mountaineers have generally not traveled well for third-year coach Neal Brown, losing the last five away outright. But they have been embarrassed only on a visit to Iowa State in December, and they bring in a bit of confidence after beating Virginia Tech on the road as senior RB Leddie Brown gouged the Hokies for 161 rushing yards. We wonder if the offense has enough horsepower behind QB Jarret Doege, who has three TD passes and three interceptions in games against Maryland and Virginia Tech, if forced into catch-up mode.
— Bruce Marshall
COLORADO STATE at IOWA
Chalk up Colorado State’s win at Toledo last weekend as one of the stunners of September. The Rams had displayed little in home losses to FCS foe South Dakota State and subpar Vanderbilt to suggest they could go on the road and dominate a MAC contender. Steve Addazio’s team used its defense to keep the Rockets in check and didn’t take many chances on offense, settling for five field goals from Cayden Camper and a 70-yard punt return by Thomas Pannunzio. But the CSU offense appears to have few dimensions with QB Todd Centeio mostly playing in safe mode, so it’s hard to see the Rams denting a robust Iowa defense that has already shackled Iowa State and Brock Purdy. With high imposts like this one, however, the question is whether Iowa has enough pop to clear the considerable point-spread hurdle. QB Spencer Petras has reluctantly pushed the ball downfield with only two TD passes in three games, consistent with his career stats of 11 TD passes in 345 attempts. But Kirk Ferentz has provided awfully good spread value in these situations lately, covering nine of his last 13 at Iowa City and 10 of his last 11 against non-Big Ten foes.
— Bruce Marshall
CLEMSON at NC STATE
Getting stonewalled by Georgia’s defense is one thing, but having to huff and puff to merely reach 14 points against Georgia Tech is a sure red flag for Dabo Swinney’s misfiring offense. With protection problems and receivers having trouble gaining separation, Tom Brady might find it hard to get the Tigers’ offense in gear, much less still-green D.J. Uiagalelei, whose big arm doesn’t look like it will get properly utilized until coordinator Tony Elliott gets the offense back into the garage for a tuneup. Not sure that will come this week, especially as NC State shook off the cobwebs of its Mississippi State loss by putting 38 on Furman in the first half Saturday. QB Devin Leary and the offense showed no ill effects of the debacle in Starkville. The Wolfpack did cover five of six as dogs for Dave Doeren last year. We’d be skittish about laying nearly two TDs with an obviously laboring offense.
— Bruce Marshall