It’s always the weeks with uninspiring schedules that produce some of the greatest games, and Week 4 was no exception. There were some thrilling finishes across the country (though surprisingly none from #Pac12AfterDark) that provided both answers and more questions but definitely made for a memorable week.
Here are the three biggest takeaways from Week 4:
1. Pac-12 reveals its contenders and pretenders
The national picture at this point looks very muddled: Who deserves to be No. 1? Who’s a playoff favorite? Which conference is toughest? Those questions lack definitive answers. Luckily the Pac-12 may be the last bastion of clarity. Three nighttime blowouts bulldozed a mile-wide line between which teams are capable of contending for a Pac-12 title and which ones aren’t.
UCLA blew past Arizona in Tucson 56–30 as true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen returned the stellar form he showed in Week 1. The Bruins gave up a hefty dose of rushing yards (353) but overall had little trouble trouncing the defending Pac-12 South champions. The Wildcats entered Week 4 a bit of a mystery after nonconference wins over UTSA, Nevada and Northern Arizona, but Saturday’s result offers strong evidence they’ll struggle to match last year’s 10-win total.
Oregon had already fallen this season, but a three-point defeat on the road to now-No. 2 Michigan State hardly seemed indicative of major failure. A 62–20 pasting at home to Utah—the Ducks' worst home loss since 1977—speaks a bit louder. The loss of Marcus Mariota has hampered Oregon’s offense much more severely than expected, and the defense has undergone a huge regression in the two seasons since ranking seventh in yards allowed per play. The Utes, however, appear to have risen to the top tier of the Pac-12. The offense looks considerably more dynamic with Travis Wilson giving it a steady option under center, while the defense remains aggressive. The special teams are top notch, as well, and contributed both a fake punt and punt return touchdown Saturday.
In the conference’s final result of the night, USC affirmed it’s still a player in the Pac-12 title race, rebounding from last week’s loss to Stanford with a 42–14 beatdown of Arizona State. The Trojans’ loss makes their margin for error slim, but a defense that failed to generate much of a pass rush and got picked apart by the Cardinal bounced back to force four turnovers and blank the Sun Devils for nearly three quarters. Arizona State, with its defeat to Texas A&M in Week 1, is effectively eliminated from playoff consideration. The Sun Devils’ offensive line issues will make conference victories a challenge.
So four weeks into the season, Stanford now looks like the team to beat in the Pac-12 North, though undefeated Cal could certainly challenge that assumption. In the South Division, the race is a bit wider but centers on UCLA, Utah and USC.
2. SEC title race narrows
The SEC didn’t produce the routs its West Coast counterparts did, but Saturday’s games still brought some definition to its race in both divisions.
After its one-point win over Tennessee, Florida has to be considered a serious contender in the SEC East. With their win over Kentucky last week, the Gators have already won two divisional games and are 4–0 on the season. Florida’s offense likely won’t win it any shootouts, but its defense should keep that from ever being necessary. The Gators held Volunteers quarterback Joshua Dobbs to just 83 yards passing Saturday. For the second time this season, Tennessee let a fourth-quarter lead slip away. The Vols are talented but lack the late-game execution to be a contender this season. Missouri’s loss to Kentucky confirmed a similar fate for the Tigers, who survived shaky performances the past two weeks to remain undefeated before Saturday. Georgia remains the clear favorite in the SEC East, and the division could be decided by the Bulldogs’ meeting with the Gators on Oct. 31.
The SEC West’s three undefeated teams all encountered closer-than-expected games, but all three ultimately got the wins critical to maintain their statuses atop the toughest division in the country. Ole Miss led Vanderbilt by just four midway through the fourth quarter before pulling away 27–16. Syracuse pushed LSU until a 10-point run in the fourth quarter gave the Tigers a comfortable margin. And Texas A&M needed a late touchdown to force overtime with Arkansas before prevailing. Still none of them gave the window to the rest of the division a loss would have provided, even if they didn’t boost their playoff résumés.
3. Though still undefeated, TCU’s playoff chances look slim
The Horned Frogs provided the unquestionably greatest game of Week 4, but they once again failed to inspire much faith in their chances of making the playoff. TCU has suffered massive losses to its defense, with an injury, suspension or leave of absence removing seven players from the unit, which returned only five starters from last year. The Horned Frogs remain undefeated despite those losses, but their absence have been clear over the past two weeks and especially Saturday.
TCU gave up 52 points in a wild shootout with Texas Tech before triumphing on a tipped pass in the end zone that running back Aaron Green managed to race under. With Heisman candidate quarterback Trevone Boykin—who has now passed for 918 yards with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions against the Red Raiders over the past two years—and star wide receiver Josh Doctson, among other weapons, the Horned Frogs are capable of winning plenty of shootouts. But that’s an unreliable long-term strategy, and unless the defensive replacements can make tremendous improvements, it’s hard to picture them having much better success against teams like Oklahoma and Baylor. TCU will face much better defenses than Texas Tech’s, and it may only take a few stops to put the Horned Frogs in a hole. At this point, both the Sooners and Bears look like safer options to win the Big 12.