Michigan’s first test, Oregon and USC hit the road, more we’re watching in Week 4

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By RJ Young and Laken Litman
FOX Sports College Football Writers

We’re heading into Week 4 of the college football season, and things are about to get serious.

That’s because we’re entering the thick of conference play. No more preseason games serving as glorified scrimmages. Every matchup now matters in the quest for conference championship games and potential postseason glory.

There are a number of interesting conference matchups we’re keeping our eyes on Saturday, leading off with Maryland at Michigan on “Big Noon Kickoff” on FOX.

The No. 4 Wolverines (3-0) have rolled through the early part of their schedule and appear intent on defending their Big Ten crown, but the Terrapins (3-0) are eager to make a statement and feature players like Greg China-Rose who don’t know the meaning of “quit.”

Greg China-Rose’s journey to Maryland

“Big Noon Kickoff” and Tom Rinaldi tell the story of Greg China-Rose’s journey from walk-on to starter with the Terrapins.

But that’s not all we have going on this weekend. Here’s what we’re looking forward to watching in some of the biggest matchups on Saturday.

What are you watching in Maryland at Michigan (noon ET; FOX and the FOX Sports app)? 

Young: In college football, only rival fans and media care that “You Played Somebody.” Three cupcakes to start the year causes folks like me to yell, “They ain’t played nobody!”

But by December, when that same team is hitting nine or 10 wins? That’s how you fundraise. 

But if you lose to a cupcake — put money in the bag — you’re gonna catch a load of cream filling to your face like a clown. You could also lose your job. Like the Rolling Stones taught us, “Don’t play with cupcakes ‘cause you’re playing with fire.”

See: Nebraska (paid $1.423 million for a loss to Georgia Southern), Arizona State ($1.5 million for a loss to Eastern Michigan). If you get a bonus for being bowl-eligible, why wouldn’t you schedule three wins using other people’s money?  You would. You definitely would.

Now that the Wolverines have eaten their dessert before the main course, let’s see if they have room for their vegetables — i.e., Maryland. 

Last season, the Wolverines were a two-touchdown favorite against the Terps and won 59-18. I want to know if Michigan just gets up for Maryland or if this game is a harbinger of conference games to come, as it was a year ago. 

Is Michigan’s schedule too soft for the CFP?

RJ Young examines how good the Michigan Wolverines have looked so far this season.

Litman: How does J.J. McCarthy look in his first conference start? Last week, Michigan shut out UConn, 59-0, and the first-year starting quarterback completed 15 of 18 passes for 214 yards through almost three quarters. There was only one passing TD the whole game, which didn’t come from McCarthy, but he didn’t throw an interception either. 

The Wolverines rushed for six scores, including five from running back Blake Corum, and totally dominated Jim Mora’s Huskies. Michigan had more first downs (26-2), more total yards (465-110) and didn’t even allow UConn to reach the red zone. 

Maryland comes to Ann Arbor with a top-20 offense (499.0 yards per game) and a top-30 scoring offense (40.3 points per game). Can veteran quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (Tua’s brother) test the yet-to-be-tested UM secondary? Can the Terps’ defense get pressure on McCarthy and force him to make mistakes? 

Even if Maryland can do those things, to have any hope of an upset it has to stop committing penalties. Through three games, Maryland is the second-most penalized team in the country, averaging 10.3 per game. Michigan, meanwhile, has committed the second-least amount at 2.7. 

What storylines are you watching in Duke at Kansas (noon p.m. ET; FS1)?

Young: When Lance Leipold was hired to coach Kansas in May 2021, I thought athletic director Travis Goff nailed his opportunity to flip KU football from embarrassing to enchanting.

Leipold has made Goff (and me) look good, first with a win at Texas last season, and now with a 3-0 start for the first time since 2009. It’s not fair to say that Duke, also 3-0, presents the challenge West Virginia and Houston did to the Jayhawks, but it is fair to say they’re walking into a game for the first time in over a decade with pressure to win. 

I’ll be interested to find out how the Jayhawks respond to expectations not that they can compete, but that they can win. 

Litman: A classic basketball matchup!

You have to love that both of these teams are 3-0 and led by up-and-coming head coaches Mike Elko (Duke) and Lance Leipold (Kanas). Last year around this same time, the Blue Devils beat the Jayhawks, 52-33, then didn’t win another game. KU has already surpassed last year’s win total of two games.

Some people say college football is better when programs like Texas, USC, Miami and Notre Dame are good. Well, it’s certainly more interesting when Duke and Kansas are undefeated. 

How about Minnesota at Michigan State (3:30 p.m. ET; BTN)? 

Litman: How does Michigan State respond after getting beat up by Washington last week? The Spartans were ranked No. 11 heading into that road matchup and fell out of the AP Poll following a 39-28 loss.

Michigan State didn’t play well in any phase of that game — it couldn’t run the ball (it had just 42 total rushing yards) or protect quarterback Payton Thorne — and Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. threw for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns. The Spartans have a lot to clean up before heading into its Big Ten schedule.

Young: As I wrote in our staff picks piece this week, keep your eye on Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim, who rushed for more than 200 yards against Colorado and has put together 12-straight 100-yard rushing performances dating back to 2019. 

The Gophers are one of just two teams averaging more than 300 rush yards per game this season. The other is an academy team (Air Force). 

The Gophers are my pick to represent the Big Ten West in the Big Ten title game.

Why Minnesota is a top-10 team

In the preseason, RJ Young predicted Minnesota would win the Big Ten West and play Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship.

How about Oregon at Washington State (4 p.m. ET; FOX and the FOX Sports app)?

Young: The pitcher’s duel between Wazzu quarterback Cameron Ward and Oregon quarterback Bo Nix ought to be fun. Both arrived at their new programs this year as ballyhooed transfers and have been paired with offensive coordinators they’re more than a little familiar with. And both have already led their programs to wins against top-25 teams.

This game should serve to prove who can challenge Washington, Utah and USC for Pac-12 supremacy when the time comes.

Litman: Which Nix are we getting this week? While the Oregon quarterback has been inconsistent throughout his career, he had a stellar performance in last week’s 41-20 beatdown of BYU. Nix went 13-for-18 for 222 yards with two passing touchdowns and ran for three more.  

How will he perform against a stingy Washington State defense? The Cougars are allowing just 12.7 points per game, and the group is led by senior linebacker Daiyan Henley, who leads the Pac 12 in sacks (four) and is fourth in tackles (30). In last week’s win over Colorado State, he had 13 tackles and three sacks. Can he get to Nix and force him into making mistakes? 

What interests you most in Wisconsin at Ohio State (7:30 p.m. ET)

Litman: Now that the Buckeyes have reached Big Ten play, will we see more of Jaxon Smith-Njigba? This is my question every week given how different the Buckeyes’ offense looks when he’s healthy and starring alongside C.J. Stroud. And that’s saying a lot, considering OSU scored 77 points on Toledo last week.

Young: If the Badgers are going to mount a charge for the Big Ten West title, there is no better time to do so than against the No. 3-ranked Buckeyes. But that’s a tall order, even for a Jim Leonhard defense.

Ohio State also has beaten Wisconsin eight times in a row. 

The Buckeyes fell just 13 yards shy of the school record (776) for yards in a game last week against Toledo, and they were able to do that with Stroud and TreVeyon Henderson sitting for most of the game. 

Alongside USC quarterback Caleb Williams and Georgia QB Stetson Bennett, Stroud has established himself as a Heisman front-runner. Through three games, he’s passed for 941 yards, 11 TDs and zero INTs while putting together a 208.6 passer rating. 

What’s worth watching in Kansas State at Oklahoma (8 p.m. ET; FOX and the FOX Sports app)?

Litman: Kansas State is coming off a 17-10 loss to Tulane. Oklahoma is coming off a 49-14 win over Nebraska. This game could and probably will get ugly. 

Young: I agree with Laken that this game could get ugly. The Wildcats have been all but putrid offensively with K-State quarterback Adrian Martinez passing for just 306 yards — 4.6 yards per completion — through three games.

After watching Brent Venables’ defense methodically dismantle Nebraska in Lincoln, it’s hard to see how Chris Klieman pulls out a win against an Oklahoma team that is, once again, charging toward the College Football Playoff. 

What are you looking for in USC at Oregon State? (9:30 p.m. ET; PACN)?

Young: After watching the Trojans lose twice as many games (eight) as they won (four) last season, Lincoln Riley has an opportunity to match last season’s win total before the month of September ends.

He’s done that with outstanding quarterback play from Heisman contender Caleb Williams, but also in spite of the defense’s performance. Last week Fresno State quarterbacks combined to complete 21 of 30 pass attempts for 257 yards, and running back Jordan Mims rushed for 114 on just 15 carries.

Facing an undefeated Oregon State brimming with confidence, I want to see if Alex Grinch’s defense establishes an identity that can be counted on to carry it to the Pac-12 Championship Game. 

Litman: The Riley-Williams train is moving right along this season. USC is 3-0 and is scoring more than 50 points per game. Williams has one of the best quarterback ratings in the country (190.49) and has thrown eight touchdowns and zero interceptions. While a night game in Corvallis could be an early trap game for the new-look Trojans — USC is just a 6.5-point favorite — Williams simply has too many options out wide and will pose the toughest test the Beavers’ defense faces all year. 

And finally, what catches your eye in Stanford at Washington (10:30 p.m. ET; FS1)?

Litman: How does Washington look a week after pulling off such a dominant win over Michigan State? Will it overlook Stanford, or be prepared? These kinds of games are always tricky for teams that spend so much time getting hyped up for big games.

Young: After knocking off top-25 opponent Michigan State last week, Kalen DeBoer’s Huskies aren’t sneaking up on anyone. With Michael Penix Jr. leading the league in passing and a defense overflowing with confidence, I, like Laken, want to see if Washington is good enough to challenge for the Pac-12 title with a target on its back.

And here’s just a fun note: The overall series between these programs is tied at 44-44-4.

Read more:

– CFP, Heisman and other predictions from FOX Sports staff 

– Pac-12 is back in the spotlight, for all the right reasons

– The Ultimate College Football Road Trip hits Tennessee

– Maryland-Michigan and more: Week 4 by the numbers

– Oklahoma on the rise: Joel Klatt’s top 10

– USC, Oklahoma on a CFP collision course?

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously covered college football, college basketball, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and the Olympics at Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. Her first book, written in partnership with Rizzoli and Sports Illustrated and titled “Strong Like a Woman,” was published in spring 2022 marking the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The Number One College Football Show.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube.


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