College football Week 4 primer: USC already in must-win territory
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Week 4 is set to be a doozy - so let's dive right in, shall we?

Top 5 games to watch

5. Washington State at USC (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Friday night's game is basically a must-win for the Trojans, who face the prospect of falling to 1-3 overall and 0–2 in the Pac-12. Back-to-back beatdowns on the road against Stanford and Texas have left Clay Helton’s young side in a fragile position.

Meanwhile, USC represents the first test for Mike Leach's Washington State outfit, but it's a favorable matchup for the Cougars against a particularly thin secondary. Leach and his band of receivers should feast in the passing game.

As always, the question for WSU is whether its run defense will hold up. Hercules Mata'afa - who dominated the matchup with USC a year ago - isn’t walking through that door. And nobody on this year’s team can match the ex-Cougars' talent or explosiveness.

Still, Washington State's defensive front has experience - with four of its top six being seniors - while USC’s run game has been disappointing so far. The Trojans, particularly young quarterback JT Daniels, need more from their offensive line and the star-studded running back tandem of Stephen Carr and Aca'Cedric Ware on early downs.

For his part, Daniels has some learning to do, and he’s taken his licks over the past few weeks, struggling mostly on third downs. But he also has bags of potential and we know all about his athletic traits. How he responds Friday night will tell us an awful lot about his intangibles.

A victory for USC could get the program back on track. A win for Leach’s Cougars would put them in prime position in the wide-open Pac-12 North.

4. No. 17 TCU at Texas (Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, FOX)

Gary Patterson and TCU came oh so close to pulling off the upset of the week last Saturday, out-coaching and out-scheming Ohio State for all but six minutes. Patterson's players showed they have the speed on the perimeter to compete with anyone in the country.

That’s not great news for Texas. But you know what is? Tom Herman finally won a big game as an underdog! Although, the latest edition of USC-Texas was more a battle of brands than it was quality teams.

Still, Herman seems to have figured out his quarterback situation. And the Longhorns have loads of potential on defense. But whether they can put it all together for four quarters is another deal entirely.

Look for TCU to pull away late.

3. No. 22 Texas A&M at No. 1 Alabama (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

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I know what you’re thinking: With Tua Tagovailoa at the helm, this Bama offense is unstoppable.

That’s true. But meanwhile, this isn't your older brother's Alabama defense.

This season, Nick Saban's crew is nowhere near as flexible or versatile as it has been in recent years. Despite his wealth of five-star recruits, Saban isn’t able to run the varied personnel packages he's become fond of. Specifically, his linebacking unit is littered with old-school thumpers, meaning he can’t get to his dime package as often as he’d like.

That gives Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies a chance.

It helps that sophomore quarterback Kellen Mond has been a super-duper-star through three weeks. He’s throwing downfield more consistently and more accurately, having completed 42.9 percent of his tosses that traveled at least 20 yards, compared to a measly 19.1 percent last year.

Fisher is also an excellent game-day coach. I expect to see more tempo from the Aggies' offense on Saturday, which should push into overdrive if Alabama has its base personnel (three linebackers ) on the field.

Still, there’s no solving a problem like the 2018 Alabama offense. And there’s also the fact that Saban is 12-0 against his former assistants, with a cumulative score of 453-134. That’s an average tally of 38-11, which sounds about right.

2. No. 7 Stanford at No. 20 Oregon (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC)

This is one of college football’s annual must-watch events. We have Stanford’s slow, pound-the-ball, snooty, over-choreographed approach against Oregon’s goofiness - the uniforms, the numbers, the duck.

The teams don't quite contrast as much as they used to, but the innate difference is still there, and that should be enough to get football snobs excited.

The return of Cardinal rusher Bryce Love from injury adds intrigue to the matchup. However, while Stanford has traditionally bulldozed Oregon in the running game, this year will be different. Watch for Jalen Jelks, a versatile defensive lineman who shifts across the front, and Jordon Scott, a fire hydrant who plants himself in either A-Gap, to enjoy coming-out parties for the Ducks on the national stage.

The stage is also set for Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert to have a big performance. Herbert is the most talented draft-eligible quarterback in the country. He can sling fire from any conceivable arm angle, he's mobile, and he's accurate. He could very well be the No. 1 overall pick in 2019.

An early-season win over Stanford would be huge for Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal, who's still trying to imprint his identity on the program.

1. No. 14 Mississippi State at Kentucky (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

In terms of entertainment value, I'm not sure it gets much more fun than this.

At its core, this game is a matchup between Joe Moorhead’s explosive, up-tempo Bulldogs offense versus Mark Stoops' suffocating four-deep Wildcats defense. Something has to give.

Moorhead certainly wants to go fast. The go-go Bulldogs often stick to one personnel grouping and flick through a raft of formations in a bid to keep opposing defenses on their heels.

But they don’t always snap the ball. No, sir. That would be a waste of precious intel. They jump to the line, give the coach time to survey the landscape, and then pick from a bunch of specific coverage-beaters.

That presents an interesting dilemma for Stoops. The veteran head coach runs the same base concept on nearly every play, aside from blitzes. He's not going to fool Moorhead or Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, but can his Wildcats suffocate the vertical passing game and disrupt Mississippi State's tempo?

What about the other side of the ball? Kentucky has a chance to run long, sustained drives, but Mississippi State has one of the five best defensive fronts in the country. Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons live in the backfield, while Gerri Green, Leo Lewis, and Willie Green typically arrive in time for the high fives.

Kentucky can still move the ball, though. Transfer quarterback Terry Wilson looks pretty special, as he's a rare athlete who somehow looks quicker and more agile than everyone else on the field.

Wilson will need to be at his best on Saturday. Plays are going to break down. Mississippi State's pass-rush is going to get home. How will he handle that kind of pressure? Can he create a couple moments of magic?

Player to watch

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Texas Tech QB Alan Bowman vs. Oklahoma State

Did you catch Bowman's performance last week? The true freshman quarterback posted astonishing numbers as Tech upset Houston at home. Bowman went 43-for-59 passing, racking up 605 yards (!) with five touchdowns and zero interceptions.

It was an epic performance, and just the third time ever that a freshman has thrown for 600 yards or more. Bowman broke Patrick Mahomes' Big 12 and Texas Tech's single-game freshman records for touchdown passes and passing yards. I think coach Kliff Kingsbury has found his quarterback.

Bowman will head to Stillwater this week as the Red Raiders will face the No. 15 Oklahoma State Cowboys, with both teams kicking off their conference schedules. Oklahoma State is currently sixth in S&P+ and is surging, having steamrolled every opponent to open the season.

Both sides are known for their explosive offenses. Bowman will likely have to come close to his record-breaking performance from last week to give Texas Tech a chance.

Under-the-radar matchup

No. 23 Boston College at Purdue (Saturday, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

Purdue has endured a dreadful start to 2018, losing one-score games against Missouri, Northwestern, and Eastern Michigan. One of those is explainable; two are not - Northwestern is not good, folks!

Still, Jeff Brohm's Purdue side is known for its quirky offense. Brohm doesn’t run a bunch of crazy things, but he dresses up classic concepts using all kinds of creative pre-snap looks and movements. It just looks fun.

Meanwhile, Boston College is really, really good.

Commentary surrounding Steve Addazio’s side has hit all the cliches. The Eagles run the ball and play good defense. Running back AJ Dillon is a legitimate Heisman contender. Ben Petrula, a sophomore who lined up at center last season but has shifted back to his natural spot at right tackle, is one of the most physically dominant and technically gifted linemen in the country.

BC's offense is actually balanced, but the unit pops so many long runs because opposing defenses are forced into split-safety looks, clearing out the box to defend the pass.

Addazio’s defense should give BC the edge. It’s solid, if unspectacular. But I expect Purdue to keep the game close. This team is much better than its 0-3 record indicates.

Coach who needs a win

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Lovie Smith, Illinois vs. Penn State

Expecting Illinois to beat Penn State is folly. What Lovie Smith cannot afford, however, is to get utterly embarrassed. We know James Franklin feels fine running up the score, and Smith can’t allow that to happen.

Unfortunately, Smith's side lacks talent. He’s just a couple years into his rebuild and is a million miles away from being able to compete with the upper-echelon Big 10 programs, and probably even the middle class. Illinois beat Kent State by one score in Week 1 and lost 25-19 to USF last Saturday.

Against Penn State, Lovie has to show some something. He won’t get this thing turned around if he can’t sell recruits on his vision. Penn State is entering the game as a 28-point favorite. It’s easy to picture a scenario in which Franklin’s guys get up by 50 with the camera panning to a perplexed-looking Smith on the opposite sideline.

At this point, Smith is expected to get another couple of seasons to see this remodeling all the way through. He was hired to bring NFL gravitas to a school desperate for a football identity. However, those plans will quickly change if Illinois doesn’t show even subtle signs of improvement this year.

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College football Week 4 primer: USC already in must-win territory
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