Those frustrating days of April when the NBA is wrapping up its regular season with meaningless games and baseball has not picked up steam yet, we dream of weekends like this one. Those quiet days of mid-July, when the NBA and NHL have finished their playoffs and baseball has reached its dog days, we long for weekends like this one. Those long days of August that are mired in so much preseason prep it makes our eyes water as the sun comes up, we struggle in anticipation of weekends like this one.
College football may have scheduled too much joy for this weekend. Someday a czar will oversee the 133 teams’ schedules to better balance the fall. But until then, we can enjoy this weekend.
A Top-10 matchup in South Bend, an ACC tilt in Death Valley, Deion Sanders’s first great test, and Lane Kiffin’s return to Tuscaloosa are all happening, not to mention the Pac-2 Championship Game and Iowa’s trek into a White-Out.
All that goodness risks us overlooking the rest of the slate, where Clay Helton has a chance to build momentum before conference play begins, Georgia Southern is perhaps still a dark horse for a Sun Belt title.
Let’s set the stage for those two games before venturing into a moneyline underdog in one of those primetime tilts as the Triple Option offers Covers’ best college football picks for Week 4.
College football Week 4 picks
Picks made on September 21. Click each pick to read full analysis.
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College football Week 4 odds, picks, and predictions
Georgia Southern vs Ball State prediction: Georgia Southern -6.5
For a program that moved away from this column’s namesake — the triple-option — Georgia Southern has done it with less trouble than anyone else perhaps ever has. Two years ago, in Chad Lunsford’s final season, the Eagles ran 62.6% of the time (counting sacks as dropbacks). Through three games this season, Georgia Southern has flipped that ratio, dropping back to pass on 63% of its snaps.
Here comes a twist: the Eagles will put up points on the Cardinals because of their ground game.
Clearly, Georgia Southern barely runs the ball, leading the country in how often it chooses to throw the ball when factoring in game state, per CFB Graphs. But when the Eagles do run, they do it quite well, ranking No. 29 in expected points added per rush attempt. Georgia Southern only runs when it has ample reason to expect success, success likely set up by its passing game, and then it succeeds.
Ball State’s defense has yet to show it can do anything well. Charitably, it may be decent against the pass. In reality, it ranks No. 107 in the country in passing success rate against. If the Eagles are going to throw the ball on nearly two-thirds of their snaps, then a quarter of their overall plays can be assumed to be successful right out of the gate. Succeeding — and in this case, success is defined by making down-appropriate progress compared to the chains — one out of every four plays is a recipe to keep most drives moving. And those successes will eventually open up the ground game for Georgia State to opportunistically exploit, as it prefers.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals offense is one of the worst in the country. It has some semblance of a rushing game, even with Carson Steele now starring at UCLA, but Georgia State’s defensive strength is stopping the run. Opponents move further away from scoring on their average rush attempt against the Eagles.
Betting on a road favorite to win by a touchdown may seem risky, but when it can dictate its terms on offense and its defensive strength matches up against the underdog’s offensive preference, it becomes less of a concern.
For that matter, Ball State went 1-4 against the spread at home last season against FBS opponents, including 1-2 as an underdog. Not to mention, on their trip to Georgia Southern, the Cardinals lost 34-23, also falling ATS, giving up 6.1 yards per play. The Eagles set the terms then and now they'll do it again in Muncie.
PICK: Georgia Tech -6.5 (-105 at Caesars)
USC vs Arizona State prediction: USC -34.5
Are you 6-foot-3 and at least 270 pounds? Do you still have college eligibility? Please consider heading to Phoenix, where an opportunity to get your keister repeatedly knocked to the ground while adorned in Adidas apparel can await you.
No, really, the Sun Devils need offensive linemen. They did not have enough entering the season, and injuries have reduced their corps even further. If there is any rash of injuries a rebuilding program cannot afford, it is along the offensive line. Yet, bookmakers are not appropriately reacting. This number opened at -30 on Sunday, and it reached -33.5 by the end of the day.
When Arizona State’s quarterback situation became clear this week — Notre Dame transfer Drew Pyne looks like the healthy-enough sacrificial lamb — the number ticked further north, settling at -35 with some books holding onto -34.5.
That is obviously a crucial hook.
Pyne tends to turn pressures into sacks. Last week, Fresno State got into the Arizona State backfield eight times to hassle the quarterback, getting to the passer on five of those occasions, including three times sacking Pyne as he split time before leaving banged up. While in a plain gold helmet last year, Pyne had a strong day against USC, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns, but he was also sacked both times the Trojans pressured him.
With a dwindling offensive line, Pyne will be pressured plenty Saturday night, and he will turn those moments into sacks, setting the offense back even further.
Meanwhile, USC head coach Lincoln Riley has had a bad week, one of his own making, one created by a college football coach trying to control everyone and everything around him, even people who are not employed by him.
Riley revoked the credentials of a local beat reporter for two weeks because the writer had the audacity to report a conversation heard during media availability, a conservation that served only to personalize a freshman running back. Riley insisted this reporter had been warned about infractions previously, things like referring to a part of a game as “garbage time” in a story.
Deservedly, Riley has been questioned about this dictatorial decision this week, and the mistake of his own making has become the dominant storyline around a program with the defending Heisman Trophy winner.
Look for Riley to try to distract for his own immaturity issues by hanging a crooked number on Arizona State. Caleb Williams certainly has that ability. And a few short fields courtesy of Pyne sacks or Pyne mistakes trying to avoid sacks will only further tilt the scoreboard.
PICK: USC -34.5 (-110 at Caesars)
Ohio State vs Notre Dame prediction: Notre Dame ML
A peak beneath the hood here: This entire column was outlined by Thursday morning with every pick ready to go. But this one, committing to this last bet, required a few more hours of deliberation, a few hours checking on things in South Bend, and a few hours being sure no developing angle was missed.
And here we are, not just picking Notre Dame to cover as a +3 or +3.5-point underdog against Ohio State but to win outright.
Those hours of delay cost the value here, with the best number available dropping to +135 from +136. No, that was not a typo. And if prudence costs us a cent, so be it.
The Irish have the better quarterback, a 24-year-old who is hardly in classes as a non-degree-seeking graduate student, thus alleviating most worries Sam Hartman’s ankle may not be full-go after a Central Michigan defender rolled up on it last week. Hartman kept playing on Saturday and has had a full week of treatment. A full week. This is when not needing to go to many classes or fret over massive papers pays the greatest dividends. Hartman could focus on practice and the training room.
Ohio State junior Kyle McCord has no injury worries at the moment, but this will be the biggest game of his career, and after three starts, he has yet to look totally comfortable in the pocket.
Part of that unease may be because the Buckeyes are getting used to three new starting offensive linemen, replacing their center and both tackles from last season. Just like O-line injuries ravage a program, new-look offensive lines take time to gel. Ohio State’s line hasn’t yet, and it hasn’t faced a challenge like Notre Dame’s front seven.
The Irish start seven seniors or fifth-year veterans, rotating in another fifth-year defensive end in Ohio State transfer Javontae Jean-Baptiste, a pair of junior defensive tackles averaging 300 pounds between them, and a pair of sophomores with hound-the-quarterback tendencies. Defensive coordinator Al Golden has simplified the playbook this year and trusted those veterans to properly adjust before the snap. They have.
That may be the most under-discussed part of this matchup.
Sure, the Buckeyes have star receivers, and Notre Dame has a pair of cornerbacks in preseason All-American Benjamin Morrison and fifth-year Cam Hart who may be up for that challenge. Those downfield plays will be riveting entertainment.
But only when McCord gets rid of the ball without hassle. The Irish front seven could overwhelm Ohio State’s three inexperienced offensive linemen, and that thought is enough to embolden a moneyline play, particularly one backing the most experienced quarterback in college football.
PICK: Notre Dame moneyline (+135 at BetMGM)
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