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College Football: 25 Key Storylines Heading into Week 4

David LutherFeatured ColumnistOctober 22, 2016

College Football: 25 Key Storylines Heading into Week 4

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    Just three weeks into the 2012 college football season, some interesting—and unexpected—storylines have emerged.

    With the conference schedules quickly approaching, the college football world is left to wonder what's next for a thus-far turbulent season.

    Can anyone in the SEC knock off Alabama? How does the Pac-12 and Big Ten outlook change with losses by USC and Michigan State? Will Tennessee ever come back? How will Weeks 1 through 3 affect the rest of 2012?

    All of these questions and more will be part of our look ahead at the 25 key storylines for Week 4.

Don't Get Too High on the Roadrunners Just Yet

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    Texas-San Antonio is one of the four new FBS programs this season, and the Roadrunners are off to a 3-0 start.

    What does that mean?

    At this point, absolutely nothing. The three teams UTSA has beaten so far this season include South Alabama (itself a new FBS program), Georgia State (an FCS program) and Texas A&M-Commerce (a Division II program).

    Not exactly the kind of wins that should impress any objective observer.

    The Roadrunners take on Northwestern Oklahoma State—a program that's so bad the NCAA rejected its application to even join Division II. The Rangers are still part of the NAIA.

    Moving forward, UTSA won't be allowed to play NAIA or Division II programs (the FBS only allows games against FBS and FCS programs, but UTSA's contracted games were grandfathered in during its 2012 transition process).

    Once the real competition starts, expect the Roadrunners to fare about as well as UMass, Texas State and South Alabama have already this season (a combined 1-6 against FBS programs).

We Are Penn State

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    Penn State finally got into the win column this season with a 34-7 victory over a really bad Navy team.

    The win was a small but important step toward the Penn State community's eventual healing.

    There are going to be dark days ahead for the Nittany Lions, and the reality of sanctions simply can't be glossed over, as the pitifully poor on-field performances by Penn State proves. But for a brief moment, Penn State fans can celebrate the little things in life once again.

    A win over Temple can even the Lions' record at 2-2, giving the players and program even further reason believe in itself.

It's Now or Never for BYU

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    BYU decided to leave the life of a conference program behind partly to explore a national schedule and shake off the stigma of being part of a BCS non-automatic qualifying conference.

    But what good does all that do if you still lose perennially-scheduled games to teams like Utah?

    The Cougars were hoping to show that they had the ability to be a nationally relevant football program. After Saturday's loss to the Utes, BYU is in desperate need of a win to regain some of its legitimacy.

    Unfortunately, the opponent this week is Boise State. At Boise State.

    Starting 2-2 will destroy any chance of being considered nationally relevant—at least in 2012.

Cincinnati Is Slow

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    We're already through Week 3 and Cincinnati has played just two games.

    While that by itself isn't particularly odd, having a second bye week in Week 4 is.

    Typically, when we talk about slow starts, we're talking about losses, or struggling against lesser opponents.

    In Cincy's case, we're talking about the rest of the Big East passing it by as the Bearcats sit home idle for a second time in four weeks. While the media focuses on a ranked Louisville team and a Rutgers program that could join the Cards in the Top 25 with a win over Arkansas in Week 4, Cincinnati will be the forgotten, unbeaten team in the Big East.

The MAC Ain't All That Bad

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    It's easy to mock the MAC.

    After all, the conference as a whole has never been relevant, at least nationally. It's never produced a BCS buster (whereas the WAC and MWC have). And it has some programs where attendance woes are particularly bad (Eastern Michigan has had one home game this season with an attendance of 5,006, and averaged 4,267 in 2011).

    But the conference as a whole is off to a pretty competitive start in 2012. Ohio is still going strong at 3-0, and six other teams have one loss on the year.

    In addition to Ohio beating Penn State and Ball State beating Indiana, the MAC has been in some close battles, including a 18-17 loss by Northern Illinois at Iowa, a 28-23 loss by Western Michigan at Minnesota, and a 27-14 loss by Bowling Green State at Florida.

    The MAC actually looks fairly competitive. For once.

The Sun Belt Ain't, Either

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    The Sun Belt has had its own bout of competitiveness this season, with close games by conference members against Mississippi State, Auburn and Kansas State.

    And we can't forget about the two wins over the SEC, either.

    In fact, so far this season, the Sun Belt has a 2-5 record against the “mother of all conferences,” including over a then-Top 10 Arkansas team.  

Conference USA Is

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    But as the Sun Belt makes make their way up the ladder of competitiveness, Conference USA seems to be backsliding. A lot.

    As hard as it was to believe, Conference USA didn't have a single undefeated team after Week 2. Now that Week 3 is in the books, things don't look a whole lot better. In non-conference action this season, C-USA has a combined 8-21 record.

    And last year's darling of the league, Houston, is proving that all its detractors were correct—the Cougars are nothing without Case Keenum. Houston is off to an 0-3 start, its first since that fateful 0-11 2001 season, and has been outscored 123-68.

    Houston even managed to lose to Texas State in the Bobcats' first-ever game as an FBS program.

    Even the top teams in the conference this season have suffered lopsided losses against AQ competition. Conference play will begin providing much-needed wins for its teams, but there will be absolutely no national buzz around any Conference USA members this year.

    From Week 4 on, it's going to just be about that conference championship game.

Are the 3-0 Golden Gophers a Changed Team?

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    Minnesota, the doormat of the Big Ten for the last half-decade, is off to its first 3-0 start since 2008. But have the Gophers turned the corner?

    So far in 2012, the competition has been pretty soft. UNLV, FCS New Hampshire and Western Michigan aren't exactly the kind of opponents that test the mettle of men.

    Week 4 will tell us much more about this Minnesota football team, as the Gophers host Syracuse in a Big Ten-Big East matchup. A win against the Orange will give the Gophers much confidence, and a bowl trip may become a real possibility.

    Then again, a loss could signal the start of another downhill slide.

Boise State Is Still Relevant

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    For once, Boise State did not start the season with a resounding win against a Top 25-ranked AQ opponent.

    Michigan State got the better of the Broncos this season opener, and it seems as if no one is paying attention to Boise State any more. That would be a mistake.

    Chris Petersen is one of the best coaches in the nation, and if you blink, you'll miss the Broncos sprinting past you on the way to the end zone. For now, the Broncos are back in the Top 25.

    It's still possible that Boise State makes its way to the BCS this season—as it is the only non-AQ program currently ranked—but it's imperative the Broncos run the table now.

    The impending visit from BYU is easily the toughest remaining test on Boise State's schedule, and all of the BCS-busting hopes rest on this one contest.

Kentucky Is a Killer to the Top-to-Bottom SEC Argument

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    It's hard to argue that the SEC isn't the top conference in college football these days.

    It wasn't always the case, and it's certain to not be the case at some point in the future. But for right now, the rest of the nation should just sit back and prepare for the onslaught of meaningless conference pride (it's still odd to see Auburn people using Alabama or Florida fans using LSU as examples of why “their” conference is so great).

    But when SEC-philes jump to the “better, top-to-bottom” argument, it's hard not to crack a smile when Kentucky loses to Western Kentucky—a WKU team that has never defeated a BCS-AQ program* in its history before last weekend.

    And when that kind of loss doesn't come as a galloping shock to people, it should be a strong indicator that something doesn't smell quite right in the SEC's basement.

    *WKU has defeated Louisville 12 times and South Florida twice, but both programs were FCS programs at the time.

Louisiana-Monroe Can Prove It's for Real

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    After the Week 2 shocker against then-No. 9 Arkansas, there was as much talk about ULM being lucky or Arkansas being overrated and John L. Smith needing players' support as there was about the Warhawks actually being a good football team.

    By the way, the victory over the Razorbacks was ULM's first game of the season, too. But after shocking the nation and shaking the confidence of the SEC to the core, ULM did something no one thought was possible: following it up with another instant classic against another SEC opponent.

    This time, ULM came up just short in overtime against Auburn, but the question needs to be asked: If ULM can beat Arkansas and take Auburn to overtime, isn't it possible ULM is actually a darn good football team that can compete with teams from the power conferences?

    We might have an answer to that question after Week 4.

    This hot Sun Belt team hosts Baylor Friday night in the Warhawks' home opener. A win, or even a close loss, should be a sign that ULM is every bit as good as it looked beating Arkansas.

The Big Ten Is in Serious Trouble

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    Much to the delight of the SEC and Pac-12 fanbases, the Big Ten is seriously struggling this season.

    There was the opening week disaster Michigan had against Alabama. Then both Nebraska and Wisconsin fell to underdog Pac-12 opponents. Before you could catch your breath, the Big Ten found itself staring at a 26-10 record.

    But what makes the record look even worse is the fact that the Big Ten is 4-8 against other BCS AQ conferences (and Notre Dame), and three of those wins are from the 3-0 Northwestern.

    If the Big Ten is looking for respect from the rest of the nation, this isn't the way to do it.

    The Big Ten has some important Week 4 games, including Michigan at Notre Dame and Syracuse at Minnesota. If the conference can't start putting together big wins in its non-conference schedule, Big Ten fans need to be prepared for a whole lot more ridiculing.

Still Waiting for the Volunteers

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    For some reason, ESPN's College GameDay decided that the “marquee” SEC East matchup of Week 3 was more worthy of a visit than the Top 20 vs. Top 10 BCS-influencing meeting between Notre Dame and Michigan State.

    But while Florida showed signs of becoming relevant in the division again this season, we're still waiting for those Volunteers to show up and be counted.

    Tennessee has a historic football program and has traditionally been viewed as one of the great SEC powers over the years. The Vols even hold the distinction of winning the first-ever BCS championship.

    So where are they now? Relegated to the ranks of irrelevancy in the SEC (and nationally, too).

    The long-awaited resurgence we keep hearing about never really seems to materialize, and Tennessee is once again off to an 0-1 start in conference play—for the eighth-straight time.

    We can excuse ESPN for its heart-felt (and pocket-felt) longing for a resurgent Florida and Tennessee. After all, the SEC is “God's gift to football,” right? But maybe after yet another false start from the Volunteers, the GameDay crew has learned its lesson.

Kelly Has More Ice Water Ready for His Seat

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    Despite putting together back-to-back eight-win seasons, Brian Kelly seemed to be feeling a little heat on his fanny as the 2012 season got underway.

    But the Irish are now 3-0 for the first time since 2002, and Kelly's Fighting Irish have a better than decent chance of making that 4-0.

    So how many games does Kelly need to win this season before he can truly feel secure in his job at South Bend? That's a tough question to answer—the Notre Dame fans are a notoriously finicky bunch.

    But if and when the Irish knock off the Wolverines this weekend, you can bet that we won't be hearing too much from the hot-seat peanut gallery for a while.

Brady Hoke Broke His Glass Slipper

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    Last season, Brady Hoke became the biggest, manliest guy to ever be treated like Cinderella.

    After guiding Michigan to an amazing turnaround in 2011, which ended with a Sugar Bowl victory, Hoke's Wolverines were absolutely embarrassed at the hands of the Alabama Crimson Tide in their season opener.

    Michigan responded with a lackluster five-point victory against Air Force in Week 2.

    Week 3 was better, with a 50-point margin of victory—but that was against Massachusetts.

    Now, Hoke and company need to figure out how they'll handle a fired-up Notre Dame team that's starting to dream about a BCS berth of its own.

    If the Wolverines do start 2-2, one thing will be abundantly clear: A program like Michigan doesn't turn around overnight. It took years for Rich Rodriguez to really screw the program up, and it's going to take years to fix it.

South Carolina Finding Its Groove

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    When South Carolina escaped a scare by Vanderbilt in Week 1, it was only natural to ask oneself if the Gamecocks really have what it takes to compete in the SEC this season.

    Since that game, SC has rattled off two comfortable wins. Sure, the Gamecocks' victories came against East Carolina and Alabama-Birmingham, but wins are wins, and the pollsters don't seem to blame the them too much for their slow start (South Carolina is now the No. 8 team in the latest B/R Top 25 Poll).

    The blowout wins against lesser opponents also gives head coach Steve Spurrier a chance to ease running back Marcus Lattimore back into the swing of things at a more leisurely pace; Lattimore had 85 yards and a touchdown in limited work against UAB last week.

    But as the Gamecocks offense begins to roll, the defense has also stepped up its game a bit. South Carolina limited UAB to fewer than 30 yards on the ground, and now has the No. 6 rush defense in the FBS.

    Missouri is up next, and if the Gamecocks hand the Tigers something Georgia could not—a lopsided loss—then you may start to hear murmurs of South Carolina replacing UGA as the odds-on favorite in the SEC East.

The Big 12 Is About to Get Very Interesting

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    Kansas State and Oklahoma are both undefeated programs in the Big 12 with Top 25 rankings and dreams of conference championships and BCS berths.

    One of those teams will have its aspirations deflated a bit this week as the Sooners and Wildcats meet in Norman on Saturday.

    Can Oklahoma avoid a second straight season of Big 12 disappointment? Or will it be Bill Snyder sneaking one past the Sooners this year en route to a Big 12 championship run of his own?

    Outside of the conference schedule, TCU will welcome Virginia to Fort Worth. The Horned Frogs are enjoying their first season in the Big 12, complete with a 2-0 start and Top 25 ranking in hand. But the Cavaliers are no pushovers.

    A loss this week would be more than enough reason for serious doubt about TCU as a contender in its first season as a BCS automatic qualifier.

"The" Ohio State University or "The" Braxton Miller Football Team?

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    It's easy to overlook Ohio State this season. After all, the Buckeyes could run the table, finish 12-0 and it wouldn't really matter; there will be no Big Ten championship, no bowl game and certainly no BCS invitiations.

    But if you have been watching the No. 14 Buckeyes this season, you'll notice that it's a team with a lot more swagger than a year ago. It seems Urban Meyer has had a stabilizing influence on things, and his players are responding well to this new era in Ohio State football.

    But as good as Ohio State seems to be on the surface, the Buckeyes are still only 42nd in the FBS in terms of total offense with 453.7 yards per game. And Braxton Miller accounts for 329.4 yards per game, or nearly 73 percent of the offense.

    We won't deny some spectacular contributions form some receivers, and some solid carries from the true running backs, but Miller is looking more and more like the man on this team. In fact, he's such a big part of the offense in Columbus, he's drawing comparisons to Denard Robinson in his sophomore season.

    Miller is certainly putting the program on his back right now, which leads us to one very simple conclusion for the 2012 squad: As goes Braxton, so go the Buckeyes.

Jim Mora: The Missing Ingredient

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    After the mess the Bruins were in after the 2011 season, who would have believed they would be entering the Pac-12 portion of their 2012 schedule with an unbeaten record and Top 25 ranking?

    If you look at the team, it's not significantly different in its structure from last season. Sure, some of the faces have changed, but the new coaching staff hasn't even begun to put its stamp on the roster of this  once-proud program.

    So what's the difference? It has to be Jim Mora. Not only does he have his players believing they can win, he's actually coached them up to a point where they do win.

    Add in a stumble by USC last week against Stanford, and the Pac-12 South suddenly looks winnable for a team like UCLA. The upcoming meeting with Oregon State likely won't tell us a whole lot as UCLA should win handily, but it's worth noting that the last time the Bruins started 4-0, they finished 10-2.

USC Not What We Expected

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    It didn't take long for the preseason No. 1 to fall out of the top spot—and that was without even losing a game. Now that USC has lost a game, it's no surprise that the Trojans took a tumble in the polls.

    We are all used to seeing a talented USC football team, but the reality of sanctions have left the Trojans a mile wide but an inch deep. And last weekend, Stanford was able to exploit that lack of depth in talent to come away with yet another victory against USC.

    So, where do Lane Kiffin, Matt Barkley and all the rest go from here?

    Well, Cal next comes to town for a meeting at the Coliseum. Unfortunately for the Bears, USC is going to be feisty, and the Trojans know that there is no more room for error. The best USC can hope for now is meeting up with an undefeated Stanford again in the Pac-12 Championship Game in December while finishing up the rest of their regular season schedule without a blemish.

    Tall task for a team that has yet to face arguably the best the Pac-12 has to offer—Oregon. And let's not forget, Cal is no pushover. A good Ohio State team needed every single play this past Saturday to edge out the Bears in Columbus.

Is the Big East the Most Competitive BCS Conference in 2012?

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    OK, so maybe most competitive is a stretch. But unlike past seasons, the top of the Big East actually looks pretty decent in 2012.

    Rutgers, Cincinnati and Louisville are all undefeated thus far, and all received votes in the most recent B/R Top 25, with Louisville actually making the Top 25 at No. 19.

    The Big East may be in the throes of impending death, but the conference clearly isn't going to go quietly into that good night.

    With Rutgers traveling to Fayetteville this weekend to take on a clearly wounded Arkansas team, the Big East will have plenty of opportunity to put its detractors in their place.

    And we haven't even started what is sure to be that aforementioned very competitive Big East conference schedule...

Pac-12 Is Clearly Up for Grabs

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    A few short weeks ago, USC seemingly had its coronation as king of the west. Called that one a little early, did ya? Yeah, us too.

    But who could really blame us? Stanford looked pitiful in a squeaker against lowly San Jose State to start the year. Oregon was racking up points in bunches, as usual, but somehow seems a half-step off from previous seasons. And the rest of the conference was, well, the rest of the conference.

    Now, USC is a one-loss team, with Arizona, UCLA and Stanford joining the Trojans and Ducks in the Top 25.

    It may be too soon to call Arizona or UCLA favorites in the South Division, but the new coaching blood has certainly invigorated both of those programs, and anything is possible now that USC has been bloodied.

    Oregon is still the favorite in the North, but if the Cardinal can knock off a clearly favored USC, isn't it possible the Cardinal can do the same to Oregon? Too bad we'll have to wait until November 17 to find out.

    But there's plenty to get excited about in the meantime, as the Pac-12 schedule begins in earnest in Week 4. By the time the sun rises next Sunday morning, we should have a clearer picture of which Pac-12 squads will be the ones to watch in the Rose Bowl race this season.

Notre Dame for Real, Lacking Respect

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    It's funny, or at least pretty ironic that Notre Dame finds its way into the Top 25 seemingly every preseason only to fade away as an (as Irish-haters would put it) irrelevant fossil of a college football era gone by.

    So what do these same people say when Notre Dame starts 3-0 for the first time in a decade and knocks off a Top 10 team in the process?

    Surprise, surprise: All logic and reasoning goes right out the window. “Well, Michigan State must not have been that good.” Or, “Notre Dame wasn't very good, MSU just had a bad night." Or, how about, “the Irish got lucky.”

    Well, how about this one: Notre Dame is finally starting to gel under Brian Kelly, and the team stepped up big in a big game on national television and knocked off a quality, Top 10-ranked opponent from a BCS conference to make a statement that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are a nationally-relevant football program once again.

    Yet, Notre Dame still can't break into that magical Top 10. Heck, the Coaches' Poll had Notre Dame at No. 15 after knocking off the Spartans. No. 15!

    It seems nothing is good enough for people who have clearly made up their minds about Notre Dame; the Irish are ridiculed for clinging to a Top 25 ranking when they don't deserve it, and they aren't rewarded with a lofty ranking when they are.

    Maybe beating up on Michigan a little on Saturday will finally get the point across. Then again, there's more to lose this time around...

Michigan State Still Tops in the Big Ten

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    Speaking of Michigan State, one loss does not a season end.

    It may be a while before we really know how good that Notre Dame team that blew through East Lansing really is, but Michigan State can't let a little non-conference rivalry game loss get in the way of a good story, and MSU really has a good thing going right now.

    The Spartans will benefit greatly from a confused-looking Wisconsin team, a clearly overrated Michigan team, and an ineligible Ohio State team this season. With such shoddy opposition, the Spartans will make their own destiny in the Big Ten this season.

    And with the way things have gone so far in 2012, an 11-1 MSU could find itself right up there in early December with other one-loss teams—like USC, or either LSU or Alabama.

Alabama Undisputed, but Unchallenged?

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    Anyone who doesn't have Alabama at the top of their college football ranking now clearly isn't paying attention. While other teams are struggling—or even losing—early on, Alabama appears to be swiping away opponents like gnats.

    Michigan was easily dispatched in Week 1, while Western Kentucky put up little more than token resistance in Week 2. And just when we thought it couldn't get any worse for the opposition, Alabama absolutely slaughtered Arkansas in Hog country in Week 3, handing the Razorbacks their first home shutout loss since 1966.

    It's only natural to start asking the question: Is there any team out there that can challenge the undisputed leader of the college football world this season?

    Florida Atlantic certainly won't this weekend, and that's a guarantee you can take to the bank. But as the lopsided victories begin to mount for the Crimson Tide (Week 5 is a bye before Ole Miss comes to Tuscaloosa in Week 6), is it possible Nick Saban's crew will begin to buy into its own invincibility?

    It's never too early to look down the schedule toward November 3 and a possible third No. 1 vs. No. 2 Alabama-LSU game in a 12-month span.

    But in the meantime, Alabama can rest assured that it is head and shoulders above the rest of the nation—a nation that is tripping all over itself for a chance to challenge the reigning king of the college football mountain.

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