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  • You're not alone in thinking this Saturday's slate of games looks pretty soft—ESPN agrees with you. But there's plenty of intrigue in Week 4 if you look hard enough.
By Chris Johnson
September 19, 2017

ESPN’s decision to host College GameDay from Times Square on Saturday will provide an interesting contrast to the college campus settings synonymous with the flagship morning preview show. Watching Rece Davis, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and Desmond Howard break down games and make picks in the heart of a city where pro sports are king, with skyscrapers and giant video billboards in the background, could be disorienting for viewers who’ve grown accustomed to sunny, picturesque landscapes at schools across the country. The Gameday location choice is also a tacit acknowledgement that the roster of matchups this weekend is, for the most part, lame.

But weak slates tend to produce the most chaos, so anyone who eschews their typical fall Saturday routine risks missing out on a game or two that could shake up a conference championship race or alter the College Football Playoff picture. SI.com can’t predict which Week 4 contests will drastically contradict point spreads, but here are five we’re excited about:

No. 1 Alabama at Vanderbilt (Saturday, 3:30 P.M. ET, CBS)

The Crimson Tide are in the early stages of what should be their fourth consecutive run to the playoff. They made easy work of ACC contender Florida State in Week 1 and then scored 41-points in back-to-back weeks in slamming a pair of Mountain West squads (Fresno State and Colorado State) that didn’t belong on the same field. In all likelihood, the Crimson Tide won’t find themselves in serious danger of losing at any point between now and November, when they’ll face LSU at home (Nov. 4) and Mississippi State on the road (Nov. 11) before the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Thanksgiving weekend. But if Alabama is going to suffer an unexpected wipeout in conference play, it could happen at Vanderbilt.

No, really! The Commodores are coming off their first non-conference victory over a ranked team since the year after the end of World War II, a 14–7 win over Kansas State last Saturday; they lead the Football Bowl Subdivision in points allowed per game; and no SEC quarterback has completed a higher percentage of passes (71) or posted a higher efficiency rating (194.9) than junior Kyle Shurmur. Upending the Crimson Tide would make last week’s conquest of the Wildcats look like child’s play, and Vanderbilt almost definitely won’t pull it off. If it does, though, you’ll want to be watching.

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North Carolina State at No. 12 Florida State (Saturday, Noon ET, ABC/ESPN2)

This game lost some of its gloss when the Wolfpack dropped their Week 1 tilt against South Carolina, but they recovered to put away Marshall and Furman the last two weeks. This is NC State’s chance to atone for that season-opening slip-up. Florida State hasn’t played since falling to Alabama on Sept. 2, and the challenge its offensive line faces on Saturday won’t be much easier.

Like the Crimson Tide, the Wolfpack’s success is predicated on the trench mauling done by its defensive line. And whereas the Seminoles had a quarterback with a year of starting experience, Deondre Francois, trying to deal with Alabama’s front, they’ll roll out a true freshman with a three-star recruiting rating and an unproven record as a passer, James Blackman, against NC State. Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher can feed running backs Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick often to limit Blackman’s mistakes, but the newbie is going to have to prove he can make throws downfield to keep the Wolfpack from stacking the box. Blackman came in to hand the ball off a few times after Francois went down with a knee injury late in the fourth quarter against Alabama, but a Week 2 date with Louisiana-Monroe that would have served as a good testing ground for the Glades Central (Fla.) High product was cancelled because of Hurricane Irma.

No. 8 Michigan at Purdue (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, FOX)

The Wolverines made it through their non-conference schedule unscathed, a feat that shouldn’t be taken lightly considering they brought back only five total starters from last season, the fewest in the FBS, according to Phil Steele. We’re about to find out how this young roster acquits itself in a conference road game against an opponent that could make the Wolverines pay if they don’t reverse a worrying tendency.

In wins over Florida, Cincinnati and Air Force, Michigan reached the red zone a total of 10 times and scored only one touchdown, a conversion percentage tied for second to last in the FBS. Sophomore kicker Quinn Nordin has bailed out the Wolverines by making 11 of his 13 field goal attempts, including five in a 29–13 win over Air Force on Saturday (all but one of which were from 36 yards or closer). Michigan may not be able to afford settling for three points at the end of drives against the Boilermakers. New head coach Jeff Brohm has wasted no time getting his high-powered offense pumping at full speed in West Lafayette. After taking a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter against Louisville in an eventual 35–28 Week 1 loss, Purdue whipped preseason MAC East favorite Ohio (44–21) and Missouri on the road (35–3) to move to 2–1. The Boilermakers haven’t faced a defense as imposing as the Wolverines’ yet, but Michigan can’t count on holding down Brohm’s attack for 60 minutes.

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No. 16 TCU at No. 6 Oklahoma State (Saturday 3:30 P.M. ET, ESPN)

After hanging 162 points combined on their first three opponents this season, the Cowboys might have to work a little harder to get by the Horned Frogs. It’s too early to say whether this is a vintage Gary Patterson defense, but among Big 12 teams, only Oklahoma and Kansas State have allowed fewer yards per play than TCU’s 4.47. Horned Frogs quarterback Kenny Hill has connected on three-fourths of his passing attempts while posting an efficiency rating 46.2 points higher than last season, and he has had a reliable ground game to turn to, with running back trio Darius Anderson, Kyle Hicks and Sewo Olonilua combining for 497 yards on six yards per carry. (Hicks could be held out against Oklahoma State due to an injury.)

If this game turns into a shootout, the Cowboys should bury TCU before the fourth quarter. Hill may have made progress after a rocky debut last season, but he’s not on Oklahoma State counterpart Mason Rudolph’s level as a passer, and Rudolph has a larger and more talented crop of wide receivers to work with. Yet even if this one does get out of hand, few things in college football are more entertaining than Rudolph firing laser beams to targets in space. And if the Horned Frogs drop extra guys back to cover Cowboys pass catchers, tailbacks Justice Hill and J.D. King can keep the chains moving on the ground.

No. 7 Washington at Colorado (Saturday 10 P.M. ET, FS1)

If the Huskies are on track to make the playoff for the second year in a row, it’s hard to tell based on what they’ve done so far. They led woeful Rutgers by only three points at halftime of the teams’ Week 1 bout in Piscataway, and their next two opponents came from the Football Championship Subdivision (Montana) and the Mountain West cellar (Fresno State). Washington had no trouble turning on the jets after working through a dreadful non-league schedule a year ago, so it should be ready to dive into Pac-12 play on Saturday.

Colorado lost a host of key pieces from the defense that fueled its South division championship run in 2016, including ace defensive backs Chidobe Awuzie, Ahkello Witherspoon and Tedric Thompson, but it locked down a potent Colorado State offense in Week 1, limiting the Rams to only three points and 88 rushing yards on 33 carries (2.7 YPC). In one weekend, the Buffaloes could leave the North championship up for grabs by taking out the division favorite and position themselves to make a repeat run at the South crown in the event USC self-destructs during conference play. Though staying up into the wee hours for an ostensibly uneven meeting between a playoff threat and a rebuilding squad is a tough ask, at least give Colorado the first half to make a case for itself before dozing off.

Other games to monitor: No. 4 Penn State at Iowa (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC); Notre Dame at Michigan State (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, FOX); No. 5 USC at Cal (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC); No. 17 Mississippi State at No. 11 Georgia (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

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