No matter what happens, a reality check is coming for many teams in Week 4. A handful of this season’s most surprising starts (Purdue, Vanderbilt, Cal) run up against top-10 opponents on Saturday, at which point we will truly begin to learn how much they have improved year-over-year. Those top 10 teams aren’t immune from learning some tough truths either, as the cupcakes on the schedule thin out and the gantlet of conference play begins.
Who will provide the weekend’s biggest statement win? Below, our writers and editors make their picks for Week 4’s top matchups, taking turns defending their predictions.
Molly Geary: 28–10 (73.7%)
Chris Johnson: 27–11 (71.1%)
Joan Niesen: 26–12 (68.4%)
Eric Single: 26–12 (68.4%)
Andy Staples: 24–14 (63.2%)
Scooby Axson: 14–10 (58.3%)
Bruce Feldman: 21–13 (55.2%)
Utah at Arizona (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, FS1)
Bruce Feldman picks Utah: Tyler Huntley has been playing very well as the Utes’ new QB, and Utah is much better in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Last year, Arizona induced a bunch of false starts from the Utes’ O-line. I suspect Kyle Whittingham’s team will be very up for this game.
NC State at Florida State (Saturday, Noon ET, ABC/ESPN2)
Andy Staples picks Florida State: The Seminoles have been plenty busy dealing with Hurricane Irma, but with one game cancelled and another moved because of the storm, the Seminoles’ offense has had time to adjust to true freshman James Blackman at the helm.
Texas Tech at Houston (Noon ET, ABC/ESPN2)
Joan Niesen picks Houston: Houston has already notched a win over one mediocre Power 5 team, and I think it has enough defensive firepower to keep Texas Tech's high-scoring offense at bay—or at least to keep it to fewer points than it can run up against the Red Raiders’ porous defense.
Texas A&M vs. Arkansas (Noon ET, ESPN)
Chris Johnson picks Texas A&M: Both of these programs stumbled during nonconference play—Texas A&M in a brutal come-from-ahead defeat to UCLA in Week 1, Arkansas in a home beatdown at the hands of TCU in Week 2. The bad vibes will linger in Fayetteville after a loss in Razorbacks alum Jerry Jones’s North Texas palace.
Alabama at Vanderbilt (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Molly Geary picks Alabama: The Commodores proved they are for real with a 14–7 win over Kansas State last week, but it would take an absolutely Herculean effort to take down the Crimson Tide. Vandy will make noise in the SEC this year, but Alabama is a step too high.
TCU at Oklahoma State (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Eric Single picks Oklahoma State: We haven’t gotten to see four quarters of Mason Rudolph and the Cowboys’ first-team offense yet this season, but I doubt TCU’s defense will appreciate the up-close look. The Horned Frogs and quarterback Kenny Hill have gotten a lot better, and we should readjust our expectations for them all over again if they keep it within 10 points in Stillwater.
USC at Cal (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
Bruce Feldman picks USC: I love what Tim DeRuyter and Justin Wilcox have been doing with the Cal defense, and they contained Ole Miss’s talented QB Shea Patterson and a good group of wideouts, but Sam Darnold and USC will pose even more problems. I also expect Trojans defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to find a way to exploit the Bears’ weaknesses up front. Cal is second-to last in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss allowed.
Michigan at Purdue (4 p.m. ET, Fox)
Scooby Axson picks Michigan: Look out, folks. Purdue has an offense that can put points on the board. But Michigan’s defense is a whole other story from what the Boilermakers have faced so far, ranking in the top 15 in the nation in four major defensive categories.
Mississippi State at Georgia (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Andy Staples picks Georgia: Mississippi State looked fantastic last week, but Kirby Smart’s defense has historically been Kryptonite for Dan Mullen’s offense.
Penn State at Iowa (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
Chris Johnson picks Penn State: Don’t be fooled by Iowa’s lack of ranking and ho-hum nonconference showing (wins over Wyoming, Iowa State and North Texas). The Hawkeyes are capable of grinding Penn State into a tense, low-scoring affair, but the Nittany Lions’ offense will turn the afterburners on in the fourth quarter.
Florida at Kentucky (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Eric Single picks Florida: No matter how hot or cold either team is going into the game, Florida beating Kentucky is one of those constants in life upon which you build the rest of your worldview. The Gators learned enough about their offense in the second half of last week’s miracle win over Tennessee to get past a charged-up Wildcats team in sold-out Kroger Field.
Notre Dame at Michigan State (8 p.m. ET, Fox)
Joan Niesen picks Notre Dame: Both of these programs have stumbled on hard times, but when it’s firing on all cylinders like it should be in this rivalry game, Notre Dame is just a hair more talented than the Spartans. Bank on this being a close one, though.
Washington at Colorado (10 p.m. ET, FS1)
Scooby Axson picks Washington: Note to Colorado: Don’t punt to Dante Pettis. In a rematch of last season’s Pac-12 title game, Washington’s dynamic WR/kick returner and quarterback Jake Browning (74%, eight touchdowns, one interception so far) will be too much for the Buffaloes, whose non-conference slate didn’t exactly prepare them for the Pac-12 season.
UCLA at Stanford (10:30 p.m., ESPN)
Molly Geary picks Stanford: The Bruins’ defense gave up 560 yards in its loss to Memphis and now must try to contain Bryce Love. Cardinal QB Keller Chryst will need to play better this week, especially with Josh Rosen under center on the other side, but Stanford has won nine straight in the series and has the edge at home.