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College Football Picks 2021: Week Four

Jack Coan, Notre Dame

Current Picks Record: 20-7

Upset: 2-1

Superdogs: 3-0

(#12) Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. (#18) Wisconsin Badgers

Notre Dame and Wisconsin kick off Week Four at Soldier Field, in a game featuring two of the premier programs in the Midwest. This game is interesting not only because of the locale, but the fact that ND's starting QB, Jack Coan, was once the starter at Wisconsin before injury eventually forced in Graham Mertz. It's a superb opportunity for Coan to get revenge against his former team, while bolstering ND's underwhelming resume.

The Irish offense has been tough to read through the season's first three weeks. Coan has put up solid numbers and the passing statistics are some of the best they've been in years, but now the ground game has seemingly disappeared. The 1-2 punch of Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree simply has not found much success, as the duo is averaging just over 100 yards of yardage per game. It's hard to imagine Wisconsin being the team they get things going against; the Badgers have a deep and experienced linebacker corps, headlined by Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal, who is ready to go after missing time due to COVID-19. That puts more pressure on Coan and the aerial attack to open things up. Tight end Michael Mayer has been his go-to guy all season, but somebody else has to step up on the outside for ND, whether it be veterans Kevin Austin or Avery Davis, or possibly a young guy like Deion Colzie. The Irish and play-caller Tommy Rees simply haven't taken many shots down the field with Coan, but that is going to have to change as the schedule gets tougher. The Badger secondary is susceptible, as the Penn State offense showed in the opener.

Mertz has had a disappointing start to the season, without a single touchdown pass to his credit on the year. The Badgers simply need better production from the position, even with Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi leading the way on the ground. There's not a lack of playmakers on this offense, with the deepest collection of pass-catchers Wisconsin has had in years. Steady vet Danny Davis has been the big-play threat early on, but sure-handed Jake Ferguson and explosive Chimere Dike will also be featured. Dike in particular is interesting to me; he stepped up last fall when Davis and Kendric Pryor were injured, and he has the potential to hurt defenses in a variety of ways. However, the Badgers simply haven't looked to him much so far in the very early 2021 campaign, with only a handful of targets to his credit. Either way, Mertz is going to have to prove he's a better decision-maker than what we've seen early on this year. ND has one of the nation's best defenders in Kyle Hamilton, who is an absolute game-changer on the back-end. He's the early favorite for the Jim Thorpe Award, and could swing the game with a huge interception.

This is another matchup that's essentially a toss-up for me. Wisconsin enters as a touchdown favorite, but what we've seen early on from both teams doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Not to be simplistic, but I think that it's going to come down to quarterback play. Which QB is going to be able to take the necessary shot or two, but not turn the ball over? I have more confidence in Coan doing so than Mertz at this point. Coan is never going to be a game-changing QB, but he's proven to be serviceable enough to put the Irish in position to win. I like the Irish in a pretty ugly, low-scoring affair.

The Pick: Notre Dame, 23 Wisconsin, 20

(#7) Texas A&M Aggies vs. (#16) Arkansas Razorbacks

Even with Arkansas experiencing some down years over the past half-decade, the Southwest Classic between them and A&M has always been an exciting game. That should be the case once again and with both teams ranked, the rivalry takes on extra importance.

Texas A&M's 2021 hopes took a major hit when starting QB Haynes King fractured his leg in the win over Colorado. His absence has forced backup Zach Calzada into a larger role than expected, and while Calzada has done an admirable job, the Aggie offense has certainly taken a hit. Calzada did notch 275 yards and three touchdowns against New Mexico last week, but now faces one of the toughest defenses anywhere in college football in Arkansas. Needless to say, he'll need plenty of help from the other Aggie offensive pieces to put points on the scoreboard. That includes the two-headed Texas A&M backfield, with Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane splitting time. Both have put up strong numbers so far against pretty poor defenses, but Arkansas loads the box and has terrific linebackers. I wouldn't be shocked if Achane becomes the feature guy considering, as his explosiveness adds a different element to this offense than Spiller, who is more a power option. A&M needs more from the receiver corps, beyond steady Jalen Wydermyer and do-it-all Ainias Smith. Obviously, Jimbo Fisher will look to get those two the rock early and often, but who are the other threats Arkansas DC Barry Odom has to scheme against? Springy freshman Demond Demas interests me as a possibility. He went for a 70-yard score against New Mexico, and while he is raw, he could at least give Arkansas another weapon to worry about.

The good news for the Aggies is that there defenses matches up very well against Arkansas, with a stingy defensive front looking to stop the Razorback rushing attack. The Razorbacks are currently averaging over 280 yards per game on the ground, with Trelon Smith operating as the feature guy and QB K.J. Jefferson proving to be a dangerous dual threat. However, they have not faced a front with the type of athletes Texas A&M possesses and the offensive line is very beat up right now. That doesn't mean coordinator Kendal Briles is going to change up and start airing things out, but Arkansas might have to adjust things on the fly. K.J. Jefferson has a huge arm and Treylon Burks is among the most underrated receivers in the SEC, but you still wonder how aggressive Briles and company will be. The A&M secondary is one of the best anywhere in the nation, headlined by Antonio Johnson, Leon O'Neal, and Demani Richardson. It might not be a group that turns you over quite as much as other elite secondaries, but Jefferson is not going to have a pleasant time against it either.

Much like Notre Dame-Wisconsin, this game has a low-scoring and competitive slugfest feel to me. At full strength, I certainly like the Aggies but the Haynes King injury really complicates things. The defense is definitely good enough to keep them in every game they play the rest of the way, but I'm just not sure the offense has the firepower necessary to beat a really tough, physical Razorback team. On the flip side, Arkansas has been an awesome story, but beating a Top 10 Texas A&M in a neutral site is an even taller order than Texas at home. The Southwest Classic is always a thrilling watch and while this won't have very many points, I get the feeling it will end in an interesting way. I still think A&M is the smart bet right now, but Arkansas can set a tone by defeating Jimbo and company in Arlington.

The Pick: Texas A&M, 21 Arkansas, 18

(#25) Kansas State Wildcats @ Oklahoma State Cowboys

At this point in the very young season, the Big 12 Title race is wide open. Oklahoma and Iowa State still roam as the favorites, but neither has looked particularly dominant so far. TCU and Texas appear to still be in the hunt, but it's hard to feel supremely confident about either one of those teams just yet either. That leaves Kansas State and Oklahoma State as potential party crashers as they square off in a primetime contest to wrap up September.

Kansas State has been able to build a fairly decent resume so far, dominating Stanford and Nevada en route to their 3-0 start. They rolled past Nevada without the support of veteran quarterback Skyler Thompson, who will miss significant time after injury in the Southern Illinois game. Backup Will Howard is not the passer that Thompson is, but he can at least keep the Kansas State offense on track. Instead, this offense will once again lean on strong offensive line play to spell a potent ground game, as they've done throughout the Chris Kleiman era. Diminutive tailback Deuce Vaughn is having a superb beginning to his second year on campus, while sophomore Joe Ervin provides a nice change of pace. It's clearly not a flashy group but it's proven to be particularly effective so far. Oklahoma State's front seven has significantly improved over the years, thanks in large part to efforts from players like Malcolm Rodriguez. With that being said, their defensive line is simply not as physical or strong as Kansas State's O-Line, which puts them in a distinct disadvantage. Even if they load the box, Vaughn is enough of a weapon that he can open up this offense in other ways, with receivers Phillip Brooks and Malik Knowles potentially making plays on the perimeter. 

Oklahoma State has had three close victories to begin the 2021 season, with a combined 13-point differential. However, the Cowboys have been banged up all season long, and are looking to move forward with key contributors out on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Spencer Sanders missed the opener due to COVID and has been underwhelming in his return over the last two weeks. With that being said, he's still got the arm strength and mobility to cause defenses issues when he's on. It would help if he got more support from an injured receiver corps, but it's unclear who will be lining up out wide. Brennan Pressley has been one of the team's most consistent weapons and should be ready to go, but Tay Martin's status is uncertain after he didn't travel to Boise. Expect names like Rashod Owens and Cole Cabbiness, who both made clutch plays against Boise, to continue to step into larger roles. I also suspect Oklahoma State will lean on the ground game more than past Mike Gundy-coached teams. Jaylen Warren has been a revelation at running back early on this fall, leading the team with 264 yards and four touchdowns. He's probably the most dangerous piece on this offense right now, but K-State is a notoriously tough team to run on. The Cowboy offensive line is solid, but any hope of this team moving the ball hinges on them getting enough push in the trenches and Warren getting opportunities.

It's not even October, and both of these 3-0 teams are seriously beat up. Kansas State will have to make do with Will Howard running the show, while Oklahoma State is seriously depleted at receiver and multiple spots on their defense. It's hard to imagine this being a high-scoring affair unless someone like Vaughn is able to break things wide open, with it instead resembling a competitive, field position battle. I like K-State's chances to move to 4-0 and move into serious Big 12 Title contention. This is a program that has always played hard under Kleiman, and there are legit weapons on the roster. They'll use this one as momentum before clashing with Oklahoma and Iowa State over the next two weeks, two games that will essentially decide their season.

The Pick: Kansas State, 20 Oklahoma State, 14


Other Picks

(#9) Clemson, 27 NC State, 10 -- Even though the Clemson offense is struggling, their defense has yet to allow a touchdown on the 2021 season. If Will Shipley can do just enough to get the Tigers in the end zone, the defense will shut down the Wolfpack on the other side.

(#19) Michigan, 34 Rutgers, 13 -- Rutgers has been a good story so far in 2021, off to a 3-0 start on the season. With that being said, they could be in store for a blowout against a Wolverine team playing incredible football on both sides right now.

(#11) Florida, 37 Tennessee, 21 -- How does Florida respond after nearly shocking Alabama last weekend? They seem to have figured out their offensive problems, but the Florida-Tennessee games are always interesting.

(#14) Iowa State, 28 Baylor, 24 -- An underrated upset watch, as the Bears enter this one 3-0 playing good football. The Cyclones will have to travel to an underrated atmosphere in Waco, but should have the horses to squeak this one out.

Upset: Nebraska, 24 Michigan State, 21 -- The Spartans have been a terrific story so far in 2021, but I think we may be reading too much into three wins against mediocre opponents. Nebraska's looked much improved after their "Week 0" loss to Illinois, but they need their kicking game to show up here.

Superdog (covers > 21 spread): Louisiana-Monroe (+24) vs. Troy -- Nice value in the Sun Belt, as Louisiana-Monroe gets 2-1 Troy at home. The Warhawks are not a good football team, but nothing in the Trojan offense gives me much confidence they'll score much more than 24 on their own.

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