Week 4 of the college football season is here, with another Saturday of terrific matchups.
Our handicappers Adam Burke, Tim Murray, Wes Reynolds and Scott Seidenberg are here to give you their best bets for the weekend's card.
Overall record: 14-11-2 ATS
Lines are consensus odds from VSiN's college football lines page, as of Wednesday night.
UNLV Rebels at No. 22 Fresno State Bulldogs (-30.5, 58.5)
Burke: The legendary performance from Jake Haener during #Pac12AfterDark in Saturday’s finale against UCLA came at a cost -- the signal-caller that is shooting up NFL draft boards took a beating in that game. It would seem to be in the best interest of Fresno State head coach Kalen DeBoer to protect his QB at all costs this week.
We should see a pretty basic game plan from Fresno this week, and likely one that includes freshmen QBs Logan Fife and Jaylen Henderson in a huge favorite role against UNLV.
As awesome as Haener has been for a Fresno State squad that ranks fourth in passing yards per game and 13th in yards per attempt, the running game for the Bulldogs has not been able to have much success (Fresno State ranks 87th nationally in yards per carry). This feels like one of those “we need to get the running game going” types of weeks for the Fresno offense.
Speaking of offenses, UNLV’s offense is offensive. Marcus Arroyo is in so far over his head that he hasn’t seen the sun in months. Doug Brumfield is expected to be back this week, but he’s completed 42 percent of his passes and has only scrambled for 4.7 yards per carry on 15 attempts. Cameron Friel and Tate Martell both looked awful last week.
The Rebels rank 127th in yards per play, better than only Navy, UConn and Louisiana-Monroe. Fresno State isn’t just a one-trick pony with a great passing game, as the Bulldogs rank 24th in YPP allowed on defense.
This should be a lopsided win for Fresno State in which a lot of underclassmen get the chance to play and Haener has a light workload.
Pick: Under 58.5
Utah State Aggies (+ 9, 65.5) vs. Boise State Broncos
Burke: The incredible turnaround in Logan has been a sight to see, as Utah State has already tripled last season’s win total (the Aggies went 1-5 in six games in 2020 and also saw the dismissal of head coach Gary Andersen). Morale around the program was about as low as it could be, but then Blake Anderson was hired from Arkansas State and a new era of football was ushered in.
Anderson’s hire was an upgrade, but so were the hires of offensive coordinator Anthony Tucker from UCF and defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda from Miami (FL). The Aggies did struggle with the triple-option last week against Air Force, but also scored 49 points with over 600 yards of offense. The tandem of Logan Bonner and Andrew Peasley went 31-of-49 for 448 yards with five touchdowns and one pick.
Something to watch early in the season is how teams with first-year coaches adjust in the second half. Over the last two weeks against North Dakota and Air Force, Utah State has won the second half by a combined score of 64-24, including 36 points in last week’s game against the Falcons.
The defense is a work in progress for the Aggies, but this game has a total in the mid-60s and the Aggies offense has looked a lot more polished than Boise State’s. The Broncos have certainly played a tougher schedule to this point, but only have 2.1 YPC and Hank Bachmeier has been pretty pedestrian to this point. In a game projected to be a shootout, that should favor the better offense.
Oklahoma State was a team that I was low on entering the season and Boise State failed to pass that test. My line on this game is Boise State -6.5, so there is a little bit of equity around the key number of 7.
The jury is still out on Boise State’s first-time head coach Andy Avalos, but I haven’t been impressed to this point. On the flip side, Utah State looks great with a proven winner and well-respected coach in Anderson.
Pick: Utah State + 9
Missouri Tigers (-2, 59) at Boston College Eagles
Burke: There were two picks under consideration for me in this game. As referenced in this week’s box score study article, Boston College is really operating a weak offense right now. The thumb injury to Phil Jurkovec that put Dennis Grosel under center is a significant one. Grosel is 23-of-35 for 302 yards in his two starts, but he was just 7-of-15 for 59 yards last week.
With no choice but to run the ball, BC had 4.7 YPC, but that was against a Temple team that looks to be one of the worst in FBS this season. The Eagles were 2-of-10 on third down and got outgained in the 28-3 win.
The Eagles are 3-0, but have played Colgate, UMass and Temple. Jeff Sagarin rates 258 Division-I football teams. Boston College’s strength of schedule ranks 222nd in the nation.
Missouri has at least been tested a bit and the Tigers have over seven yards per play on the season, but, once again, level of competition is a factor. The Tigers had 398 yards on 76 plays against Kentucky in the conference opener and 52 of those plays were pass attempts. That is only 5.2 YPP and the Tigers averaged only 5.7 yards per pass attempt.
Boston College will play slowly and run the ball to play keep away as much as possible. Head coach Jeff Hafley was an outstanding defensive coordinator at Ohio State and the Eagles have historically been stout defensively.
Missouri minus the points was a consideration, but I’m looking to bet unders in Boston College games and this is one where going over the total is going to take a lot of work to achieve.
Pick: Under 59
SMU Mustangs at TCU Horned Frogs (-10, 64)
Burke: Not much has changed for these two teams since the 41-38 thriller back in 2019. It was Texas transfer Shane Buechele at QB for SMU, but now it is Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai, who has thrown for 1,023 yards in three games with 16 touchdown passes so far for the Mustangs. SMU’s offense continues to hum right along under Sonny Dykes and there are some legitimate Sunday players at the skill positions with running back Ulysses Bentley IV, tight end Grant Calcaterra and wide receiver Reggie Roberson Jr.
SMU ranks 17th in YPP (7.13) and draws a TCU defense that has allowed over six yards per play through two games. Remember when the calling card for Gary Patterson was defense? That is no longer the case, as TCU has gotten into a lot of high-scoring affairs in recent seasons.
The Horned Frogs are a lot more potent offensively, at least, and have scored 79 points through two games this season. The offense has averaged at least six yards per play in five of the last seven seasons. TCU has converted 57 percent of its third-down chances this season and SMU has allowed 5.8 YPP.
Defensive stops look few and far between in this game. The path to success for both teams is on the offensive side and that should foster a high-scoring environment in Fort Worth.
Pick: Over 64
No. 12 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers (-6.5, 46.5)
At Soldier Field, Chicago
Notre Dame and Wisconsin will meet for the first time since 1964 on Saturday afternoon in Chicago. The Irish enter the game with a 3-0 record, but it hasn’t been easy to get there. Notre Dame needed overtime to beat Florida State and was fortunate to slip past Toledo, 32-29. Last weekend, Notre Dame covered for the first time this season (defeating Purdue 27-13), but the offense continued to have its issues, especially on the offensive line.
Notre Dame lost four offensive linemen to the NFL off of last year’s team, and left tackle Blake Fisher was injured against Florida State and remains sidelined. Notre Dame is currently 126th in the country in sacks (5 per game) allowed, which isn’t ideal facing a top-notch defense like Wisconsin. On the ground, Notre Dame All-American running back Kyren Williams has 46 carries for 211 yards (4.6 YPC) but if you remove his two longest runs of the season, he’s only averaging 2.66 YPC. Through two games, Wisconsin has allowed just 66 yards on the ground, tops in the country. The Badgers will also get LB Leo Chanel back. Chanel, who missed the first two games of the season due to COVID-19, was second on the team in tackles last year with 46.
Defensively, the Irish had their best game of the season last Saturday, holding the Boilermakers to just 2.3 YPC and allowing no explosive plays (Notre Dame allowed four plays of over 60 yards in the first two games). Notre Dame’s defense continues to improve under first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, and the Irish are sixth in the country in sacks per game (4.33).
Wisconsin is no juggernaut offensively, as Graham Mertz has not thrown a touchdown through two games this season. In the red zone, Wisconsin is 128th in the country in scoring. The Badgers are just 5-for-10 (four touchdowns, one field goal) in red zone opportunities.
Saturday afternoon’s game has “grinder” written all over it. Wisconsin leads the country in time of possession. I expect Jim Leonhard’s defense to cause significant issues for the Irish. The Badgers should be able to grind out possessions on the ground and likely wear Notre Dame’s defense out. Can Wisconsin’s offense take advantage? That remains to be seen. All that said, I think points will be at a premium on Saturday in Chicago.
Pick: Under 46.5
Indiana Hoosiers (-9, 63.5) at Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Murray: Entering the 2021 college football season, Western Kentucky was one of the most fascinating teams in the country. Why? A season after finishing 117th in the country in yards per play, the Hilltoppers overhauled their offense, bringing in a new offensive coordinator, quarterback and a handful of wide receivers … all from Houston Baptist. After two games, the Hilltoppers lead the country in YPP (8.9) and QB Bailey Zappe has thrown for 859 yards and 10 touchdowns in just two games. WR Jerreth Sterns, another Houston Baptist transfer, has 16 receptions for 278 yards and four touchdowns.
The Hilltoppers had a bye last week to prepare for Indiana. The Hoosiers, on the other hand, squandered a two-touchdown lead and lost to Cincinnati, 38-24. Next week, Indiana visits No. 6 Penn State. Sandwich spot for the Hoosiers? Very possible. There is no doubt that Western Kentucky has had this game circled.
Western Kentucky is not nearly on the same level defensively as Iowa and Cincinnati, but Indiana QB Michael Penix has struggled so far this season. If you remove Indiana’s win over FCS Idaho, Penix has completed just 44% of his passes this season with two touchdowns and six interceptions.
The quick-strike capability is another reason to like the home ‘dog. As a six-point underdog at Army, Western Kentucky trailed 35-14 in the fourth quarter but rallied to score three touchdowns late and get the backdoor cover (Army won 38-35).
Pick: Western Kentucky + 9
West Virginia Mountaineers at No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners (-17, 55.5)
Reynolds: West Virginia jumped out to a 27-7 midway through the third quarter last week against No. 15 Virginia Tech, but had to hang on for a 27-21 victory. The Hokies had first-and-goal at the Mountaineers 3-yard line with two minutes to go and failed to come away with points. In fact, Virginia Tech had three drives inside the West Virginia 10-yard line where they came away with zero points.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma is 3-0 but failed to cover as a 31-point favorite vs. Tulane (40-35 win), and never even sniffed the -22.5 against Nebraska (23-16 win) last week. Last week was the first time during Lincoln Riley’s 55-game tenure in Norman that the Oklahoma offense failed to score 27 points. The much-maligned Sooners defense is only allowing 83 yards per game on the ground and will need to keep performing at that level against West Virginia’s Leddie Brown, who ran for 161 last week vs. Virginia Tech.
Setting aside the 76-0 blowout over FCS Western Carolina, Sooners quarterback Spencer Rattler, one of the preseason Heisman favorites, has gone 54-for-73 and thrown for 518 yards, but only has two touchdowns (and two INTs).
Oklahoma has owned the series between the two teams. Since joining the Big 12, West Virginia is 0-8 straight up and is on a 0-5-1 ATS run vs. Oklahoma.
The line opened -17 on Sunday at Circa Sports and WVU saw a bit of support down to 16 before some buyback (including mine) came on the Sooners. This looks like a buy-low spot on an Oklahoma team starting its Big 12 season and ready to put it into gear. The market looks to be lukewarm on the Sooners, but this is a spot for them to lay out a conference foe and proclaim to the college football universe that they are still every bit of the College Football Playoff contender that they were projected to be preseason.
Pick: Oklahoma -17
Liberty Flames (-6, 52.5) at Syracuse Orange
Seidenberg: These two teams are familiar with one another having just played last season, when Liberty rolled over a bad Syracuse team 38-21. While the Orange are much improved this season, they’ll have their hands full with this Flames team that pretty much returns everyone from that game.
Hugh Freeze has done a terrific job since taking over at Liberty. They have won 14 of their last 15 games, while Dino Babers is clearly on the hot seat for Syracuse; at least the Orange have already doubled their win total from a season ago. Led by Malik Willis, one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, the Liberty offense is rolling. The former Auburn transfer has thrown for 613 yards and seven TDs with zero INTs and has rushed for 225 yards and four scores. The Flames are averaging 38 points and 433 yards per game and have not turned the ball over once. The Syracuse defense has been great so far this season, but they have not yet seen an offense like this.
Defensively, Liberty is also off to a great start. The run defense is allowing just 58 yards per game. The Orange will continue to use a two-quarterback rotation in this game and I think both will struggle to find a rhythm. If the Flames can get into the backfield against this below-average Orange O-line, they will limit the rush and force third-and-longs. Working with a short field will allow Willis and company to rack up the points.
Ultimately, I think this Liberty offense will be too much for Syracuse to handle, and the Flames defense is good enough to limit what Cuse does best, which is run the football. Liberty has a good road win already this year against Troy and they’ll beat Syracuse for the second straight season and cover the number.
Pick: Liberty -6
Kentucky Wildcats (-5) at South Carolina Gamecocks
Seidenberg: First off, let’s acknowledge that Kentucky played some sloppy football last week against Chattanooga, thanks in part to some bad turnovers. But like Dom Toretto in the Fast and Furious says, “It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile, winning is winning,” and Kentucky got the win. So here are the Wildcats, 3-0 and favored on the road against South Carolina.
First-year coach Shane Beamer got his first taste of the SEC last week when they got rolled by Georgia 40-13. I think we see something similar here. Sure, it;s a night game in front of raucous crowd, but I actually think the road team will feed off this atmosphere. This game is an opportunity for the Wildcats to flex their muscles and show who they really are. It’s a simple as this: Kentucky is the better football team with the more experienced coach.
Last week against Georgia, South Carolina’s defense allowed 307 yards in the air; Kentucky comes into this game averaging 284 passing yards a game. Will Levis has thrown for 800 yards and seven TDs with four interceptions. The running game has been strong as well, averaging close to 200 yards per game, led by Chris Rodriguez, who is averaging 6.4 YPC. South Carolina gets a boost on offense with the return of QB Luke Doty, but that won’t be enough against this Kentucky defense that, despite not getting sacks, is still doing a decent job of pressuring the QB.
I think the lackluster performance last week against Chattanooga will serve as a wake-up call, and a point of emphasis this week for Mark Stoops. His team won’t under-estimate a lesser opponent here in South Carolina. They will come out focused, energized and play hard for all four quarters in what will result in a convincing win, pushing Kentucky up the rankings and setting up a Top 25 matchup with Florida next week.
Pick: Kentucky -5