The pandemic season of 2020 is really rolling along now with Week 4. Regular COVID testing and contact tracing has left a mark across college football with multiple teams facing opt-outs and challenging levels of player availability. A few games have been “postponed” and likely cancelled, and now the SEC is joining the madness with their conference-only season.
Week 3 was diminished when the freshly scheduled Houston-Baylor game was “postponed” because contact tracing and an unrelated player suspension diminished Baylor’s ability to meet the Big 12 threshold of having seven healthy offensive linemen that could take the field. That left only one Big 12 game on the schedule, Tulsa-Oklahoma State, which proved to be highly competitive if not terribly well played. The Cowboys’ already diminished offensive line took an injury and gave up an injury to star quarterback Spencer Sanders, leaving Mike Gundy’s program to eke out a 16-7 victory with strong defense.
Over in ACC country, Miami continued its strong start to the year by winning a shootout over Louisville when the Cardinals’ struggling defense kept losing tight end Brevin Jordan and yielded him seven catches for 120 yards and a score. Finally, the non-conference Appalachian State vs. Marshall showdown was unexpectedly oriented around defense. The Thundering Herd were able to slow down the vaunted App State zone rushing attack and came out with a 17-7 win.
This week we’ll get some warm-up action in the SEC between mostly unbalanced teams, and Big 12 conference play will also begin.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Kentucky at Auburn (-10.5) — Saturday 12 p.m. (SECN)
|When Kentucky has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2019 Rushing S&P+||12||7|
|2019 Passing S&P+||114||5|
|When Auburn has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2019 Rushing S&P+||100||3|
|2019 Passing S&P+||21||81|
Auburn had a pretty serious makeover in this last offseason. The NFL draft claimed six starters, including players at positions where blue-chip talent is most essential. They lost defensive linemen Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson, cornerback Noah Igbinoghene, and left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho. Auburn lost the rest of their offensive line as well and brought in head coach Gus Malzhan’s old friend and peripheral protege Chad Morris to coordinate the offense.
The success of the Tigers’ season will likely hinge on how Morris handles the development of the offense amidst these unique circumstances with a rebuilt offensive line that had to be developed over a bizarre offseason. Auburn will likely need to lean into the passing game more than they’ve tended to do under Malzahn, but Morris is a good addition unto that purpose. The Tigers have sophomore quarterback Bo Nix returning along with top targets Seth Williams, Eli Stove, and Anthony Swartz. Williams was their big-play threat on the outside and had 59 catches for 830 yards and eight touchdowns; nailing down the connection between him and Nix in Auburn’s play-action and RPO game will be one of the top priorities for Morris.
Kentucky’s defense is a stiff challenge. The Wildcats rebounded pretty well from losing most of their starters from the 2018 unit headlined by edge-rusher Josh Allen. Outside linebacker Jamar Watson had a strong season and helped replace Allen as a situational rusher, at other times playing deeper off the ball as a strongside linebacker. Three other members of the defensive front return along with leading tacklers Yusuf Corker (free safety) and DeAndre Square (weakside linebacker). At this point Mark Stoops has the Kentucky defensive program rolling with fresh talent rotating in every year.
If Auburn’s evolving offense is unable to make much of the Kentucky defense, this game could easily become a defensive struggle between the always stout Tigers and Kentucky’s improving offense. The Wildcats return four starters along their offensive line from a very good unit that powered excellent spread-option rushing attacks in 2018 and 2019. Last year the Wildcats lost quarterback Terry Wilson and were facing the risk of also losing their ability to get the ball to top playmaker Lynn Bowden Jr. at receiver. So they moved Bowden to quarterback and ran a Wildcat-style offense, direct-snapping the ball to their premier athlete and allowing him to operate option and quarterback run schemes for 1,468 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. Wilson is back this season and they’ll try to redistribute some of that production to their running backs and receivers.
The Auburn defense on the surface is replacing all its best players, but since hiring Kevin Steele to install a simpler, base scheme emphasizing man coverage outside and tight pattern-matching with the safeties and linebackers, the Tigers have been consistently excellent. Redshirt freshman Colby Wooden is filling in for Derrick Brown at defensive tackle and is expected to be Auburn’s next great interior lineman while Big Kat Bryant and Derick Hall will take the edges. The strength of the team is up the middle where linebackers KJ Britt, Chandler Wooten, and Owen Pappoe all return, backed by safeties Jamien Sherwood and Smoke Monday. All of those players saw extensive action in 2019.
The Tigers are a very tough team to move the ball against with option football if you can’t threaten them outside in the passing game. Their defensive line is consistently a menace, and Steele’s base schemes tend to get those safeties involved quickly in filling the alleys against the run game. Wilson will need to not only return healthy but ready to threaten teams in the air to a greater degree than in the past.
- Can Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson threaten Auburn outside in the passing game?
- Auburn’s retooled defensive line facing a strong, veteran Kentucky offensive line in the run game.
- How has Auburn’s offense evolved with Chad Morris coordinating sophomore quarterback Bo Nix?
FEI Outright Pick: Auburn by 17
Louisville at Pittsburgh (-3) — 12 p.m. (ACCN)
|When Louisville has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2019 Rushing S&P+||28||28|
|2019 Passing S&P+||8||9|
|When Pittsburgh has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2019 Rushing SP+||113||103|
|2019 Passing SP+||90||92|
In Year 5 on the job, Pat Narduzzi was finally able to get his Pitt defense playing at a level comparable to his famous Michigan State units that earned him the head job. There were a few key seniors on the team that helped get the job done, but eight starters return, including the team’s top three tacklers; pass-rushers Phil Campbell (5.5 sacks) and Patrick Jones (8.5 sacks); and press-man cornerback Jason Pinnock.
Narduzzi still employs his 4-3 over, press-quarters defense that attacks teams aggressively in the box while playing press-man coverage on the perimeter, particularly on the boundary. It’s a tough scheme to execute against spread offenses that are happy to toss the ball outside if you’re going to attack the box like Pitt does, but the Panthers have kept improving in the secondary and are starting to arrive at a place where they can pull it off. Louisville’s plan of attack will be different, based heavily in wide zone and play-action. That’s a tough way to attack this defense, which features aggressive defensive line play on the edges and fast flow linebackers backed up by the safeties. It’s hard to control the defensive line and if the ball is spilled there’s always an outside linebacker or safety arriving quickly in clean up.
On the other side of things, Narduzzi is also getting close to replicating the Michigan State winning formula on offense, such as it was. In other words, young quarterback Kenny Pickett is getting to a point where he can reliably bail them out of third downs caused by a plodding run game by executing a pro-style passing game. Pickett threw for 3,098 yards at 6.6 yards per attempt last year with 13 touchdowns to nine interceptions. Thus far in 2020 he successfully dragged the Panthers past Syracuse despite a run game that managed only 129 yards on 44 attempts.
Louisville’s defense has been terrible since head coach Scott Satterfield took over, regularly committing major busts that led to big plays such as the Miami successes throwing to their tight end in Week 3. Pitt’s preference is to grind out drives and hold on to the ball in order to keep scores down and give their defense a chance to control games by forcing turnovers or boosting the field position. If they can consistently manufacture drives against the Louisville defense, then they will turn this into the kind of low-scoring slog that Narduzzi prefers, which doesn’t play to Louisville’s advantages with generating explosive gains on offense.
- Can this Louisville defense avoid busts and get stops against Pitt’s plodding offense?
- The aggressive Pitt defense against the Louisville play-action passing game trying to catch them on the edge.
- Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett on third downs will likely settle the outcome.
FEI Outright Pick: Pittsburgh by 2.7
Mississippi State at LSU (-16.5) — 1:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
|When Mississippi State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2019 Rushing S&P+||25||19|
|2019 Passing S&P+||63||14|
|When LSU has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2019 Rushing SP+||63||3|
|2019 Passing SP+||107||3|
These two programs are facing some of the biggest transformations over the offseason in all of college football. In Starkville, Mike Leach is bringing his pass-focused Air Raid offense to a program that has never been much of a passing team and whose last head coach won biggest when running his quarterback for 1,000 yards a year. Over in Baton Rouge, the Tigers are overhauling their defense from Dave Aranda’s zone-blitzing 3-4 defense to Bo Pelini’s 4-down and while they are trying to maintain the 2019 Championship model on offense, they’ll be doing so with a completely new team.
Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, J’Marr Chase, and Justin Jefferson are gone on offense along with multiple linemen, while the LSU defense has only three returning starters to execute the new scheme. The team is exceptionally talented still with many a future NFL player, but many of them are likely further away from the draft than last year’s unit. At the skill positions where they lost Jefferson and tight ends Stephen Sullivan and Thaddeus Moss before also seeing J’Marr Chase opt out, the Bayoux Bengals are very young. New quarterback Myles Brennan will be throwing to five-star freshmen Arik Gilbert, a 6-foot-5, 253-pound freak who can flex out, and five-star freshman Kayshon Boutte. Their overall approach will be much the same as a year ago with lots of flexed-out spread sets but a greater emphasis on throwing to the tight end now that Gilbert is on campus.
Mississippi State’s offense will now look hilariously more similar to the new LSU scheme than previous Bulldog approaches. Leach quickly updated the roster by adding Alabama transfer Tyrell Shavers at wide receiver and Stanford transfer K.J. Costello at quarterback, and then JUCO transfer Malik Heath at receiver. He also updated their approach on defense by hiring San Diego State assistant Zach Arnett to install the sort of 3-3-5 with three deep safeties that was later developed further at Iowa State and became the “flyover defense” phenomenon that’s spreading across the game. It’s a good approach for trying to slow down the Tigers; by the end of 2019 opponents were testing all kinds of sub packages to stop the Tigers spread passing game. This approach makes for easier disguises and allows the defense to play some “bend don’t break” schemes that aren’t as easy for the Tigers to attack by moving their top deep threat receivers around until they get a one-on-one with someone that can’t run.
The Bulldogs defense against the LSU offense will be a fascinating battle. The Tigers haven’t had to attack this defensive scheme yet with their new pro-spread system, and of course the Bulldogs have never tried it before. Most eyeballs will be on the other matchup though, between Leach’s Air Raid with Mississippi State players going up against Pelini’s 4-down defense. Pelini got a great feel for defending the Air Raid back in the late 2000s when he developed 4-1-6 base dime packages at Nebraska to contend with Leach and other spread attacks in the Big 12. It’s likely that Leach will need more than a pandemic-shortened offseason to get his system truly embedded within Starkville’s football program but that won’t make this any less interesting to behold.
The Bulldogs’ best returning player from 2019 is running back Kylin Hill, whose power running is completely marginalized by an offensive coach whose last two starting running backs had only 127 and 122 carries apiece but each led the team in receptions with 86 and 83 respectively. Kylin Hill caught only 18 passes in 2019. Will Leach continue to make the run game something the quarterback only checks to when he sees the defense dropping everyone into coverage? Will they tweak the offense to hand off to Hill or try to weaponize him as a checkdown option?
- Can LSU replace all of their departed starters? How do quarterback Myles Brennan or freshman targets Arik Gilbert and Kaylon Boutte look?
- How will Mississippi State’s 3-3-5 “flyover defense” match up against the LSU offense, manned by young replacements?
- How will pass-happy Mike Leach utilize star running back Kylin Hill?
FEI Outright Pick: LSU by 20.6
West Virginia at Oklahoma State (-8.5) — 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||West Virginia||Oklahoma State|
|When West Virginia has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2019 Rushing SP+||126||70|
|2019 Passing SP+||101||64|
|When Oklahoma State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2019 Rushing SP+||61||15|
|2019 Passing SP+||70||59|
Before the season, Oklahoma State was the media’s favorite non-Oklahoma choice to end up winning the Big 12 conference, narrowly edging out Texas in the voting. There were a few concerns over the summer when starting left tackle Dylan Galloway retired for medical reasons and then young up-and-coming offensive linemen Bryce Bray and Jacob Farrell were dismissed from the team. The unit that then took the field against Tulsa in their season opener gave up six sacks and star quarterback Spencer Sanders had to leave the game with some kind of leg injury.
It’s unlikely that Sanders will miss this game — Oklahoma State has had him in a boot to protect the injury from any setbacks heading into conference play — but he may be limited and the issues along the line are serious. The Cowboys had to end the game by playing a redshirt freshman walk-on named Jake Springfield at left tackle in order to stabilize the unit. This makes for a challenging matchup facing the West Virginia defensive line, which includes tackles Dante and Darius Stills (who had a combined 14 sacks a year ago) and outside linebacker VanDarius Cowan, who had a sack in their opener working off Dante’s hip on the edge.
That matchup alone is an intriguing one for this game and a worrisome one for the Cowboys, who have arguably the most talented skill players in the league if they can just block well enough to get them the ball. Running back Chuba Hubbard ran for over 2,000 yards last season and wide receivers Tylan Wallace, Dillon Stoner, and Braydon Johnson are all proven big-play weapons. If his ankle is healthy, Sanders is also a terror at quarterback with breakaway track speed in the open field. Of course none of that can be brought to bear if the offensive line gives up a negative play on a run and forces the playcaller into calling dropback passes where the weakness of the line can be attacked even more aggressively.
West Virginia has a chance to make a big statement with this game and claim the place of being the Big 12’s true dark horse contender. The Mountaineers went 5-7 in 2019, Year 1 under current head coach Neal Brown, but they finished 2-1 after installing transfer quarterback Jarrett Doege and improving on defense. Those last three games included a 24-20 win over Kansas State, a 20-13 loss against the Cowboys, and then a 20-17 win over TCU that knocked the Horned Frogs out of bowl consideration. The offense has several talented receivers and offensive tackles that are now entering Year 2 under Brown and starting to come into their own with Doege behind center.
Oklahoma State will be a good test of how far along the Mountaineers offense has come this offseason; it was their defense that saved the day against Tulsa by shutting down the Golden Hurricanes run game. The Cowboys are playing a 3-3-5 scheme that’s a hybrid of the “flyover defense” model with three deep safeties before the snap and traditional 3-3-5 defenses that play a pass-rushing outside linebacker. Their pass-rusher, Trace Ford, lines up and blitzes from multiple angles while their safeties tend to move into normal Cover-3 or quarters coverages after the snap but with solid disguises to their movements. Tulsa got after the Cowboys by attacking the safeties with vertical routes from the slot receivers; West Virginia will surely do likewise.
- How healthy is the Oklahoma State offensive line and quarterback Spencer Sanders? Can they hold up against the West Virginia pass rush?
- West Virginia’s Jarrett Doege throwing to a talented wide receiver corps that’s now a year older in the new system.
- Does the winner of this game have the inside track to being the most competitive non-Oklahoma/Texas Big 12 contender?
FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma State by 9.9
Tennessee (-3.5) at South Carolina — 7:30 p.m. (SECN)
|When Tennessee has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2019 Rushing SP+||33||27|
|2019 Passing SP+||26||47|
|When South Carolina has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2019 Rushing SP+||98||99|
|2019 Passing SP+||31||106|
This is a huge season for Tennessee and head coach Jeremy Pruitt. He’s in Year 3 with the Volunteers, coming off a solid 8-5 season after a 5-7 record, and he has assembled a starkly talented roster. In particular, if Georgia transfer Cade Mays gets a waiver to play, the Vols will have five former five-star linemen in their starting lineup: offensive tackles Wanya Morris (6-foot-4, 309 pounds) and Darnell Wright (6-foot-6, 340 pounds), offensive guards Cade Mays (6-foot-6, 328 pounds) and Trey Smith (6-foot-6, 337 pounds), and then defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon (6-foot-5, 315 pounds). That’s a lot of talented, big men who are true athletes that can move.
Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano has had a mixed record in Knoxville, but he’s now a redshirt senior with almost three full seasons worth of starts and entering his second season with famous offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. He should be pretty savvy now in how to distribute the football in their schemes and all those big linemen should be generating a significant advantage up front in the run game to set the table for their running backs and generating space for the receivers outside. If the Vols aren’t running the ball effectively against teams like South Carolina it’ll be hard to make the expected leap as a team.
The Gamecocks are very stout on defense though, that has not been their issue under head coach Will Muschamp. The biggest danger to Tennessee will come from the South Carolina perimeter talent on defense. They return defensive ends Aaron Sterling and Kingsley Enagbare, who combined 9.5 sacks a year ago, and all five starters in the secondary headlined by cornerback Israel Mukuama, who had four interceptions and nine pass break-ups last season. The Gamecocks will play tight on the Tennessee receivers and get numbers around the box to try and mitigate the problems of handling the Vols’ size and athleticism along the offensive line.
Pruitt’s Tennessee defense is constructed to be similar to Muschamp’s; they’re both former Nick Saban assistants. The Vols are replacing star pass-rusher Darrell Taylor and defensive back Nigel Warrior but have some big-time talents emerging now, including the aforementioned Aubrey Solomon at tackle. They also have an easier setup facing the South Carolina offense. Muschamp has virtually never been the head coach for a team with a strong offense, always prizing toughness and a physical run game but rarely seeing many returns on the investment.
This year’s team will have Colorado State transfer quarterback Collin Hill at the helm under offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who also came to Tennessee from Colorado State. The Gamecocks will run a power-spread system designed to try and control the ball with the run game and pro-spread looks on passing downs that highlight returning receiver Shi Smith (43 catches for 489 yards and two touchdowns in 2019). The best case in this game for South Carolina likely involves a lower-scoring game in which their own defense keeps them competitive with the Vols.
- Tennessee has been stockpiling huge, former five-star athletes on their lines. Can they dominate the trenches?
- Will senior Vols quarterback Jarrett Guarantano finally put it all together in his final season?
- South Carolina’s new-look offense with old Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
FEI Outright Pick: South Carolina by 1.9
Florida State at Miami (-11) — 7:30 p.m. (ABC)
|Proj. FEI rating||42||43|
|When Florida State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2019 Rushing SP+||97||25|
|2019 Passing SP+||54||20|
|When Miami has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2019 Rushing SP+||16||53|
|2019 Passing SP+||55||69|
Florida State this weekend will be the first team to lose their head coach as a result of a COVID test. Mike Norvell is going to miss this first shot at a rivalry game with the Noles against a Miami squad that has had an impressive start to the year. The Hurricanes opened by whipping a solid Alabama-Birmingham team, which may not sound like much but it’s more than much of the Big 12 could accomplish in Week 1, and then they lit up Louisville in their ACC opener, 47-34.
The infusion of offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and quarterback D’Eriq King have belied the bad numbers and projections for the Miami offense. The Hurricanes have been running a zone-option offense that would be familiar to people that remember watching the offenses Lashlee coached at Auburn with Nick Marshall in 2013 and 2014. They have a lot of play-action passes that work off their zone and power-option schemes, throw to the tight ends and running backs well, and will use unbalanced formations and varying splits to manufacture space to either throw to a receiver or open the alleys for the run game. They have a lot clicking and are now surely growing in confidence after the positive start.
Florida State opened the year by getting shut down by Georgia Tech and then got two weeks off before this game, early on in which they discovered that Norvell wouldn’t be available to coach the team. It’ll be interesting just to see how well that program is able to maintain order and focus for a big rivalry game amidst such a big, distraction event. Beyond that, the Noles needed to make big strides on offense after coming up empty against the Georgia Tech defense.
Norvell’s spread run game schemes haven’t taken hold yet, likely in large part because the offensive line is so young and they hadn’t been recruiting tight ends previously to execute his schemes. An offense in a new system is likely to benefit the most from a break and practices that take place after the first game of the season, but to what extent will those benefits be blunted by the quarantining of their head coach?
At any rate, Miami would be a difficult team to measure offensive improvements against. The Hurricanes have been tested by a pair of strong offenses between South Alabama and Louisville and while they took some lumps in run defense, they were able to hold up and generate victories thanks to reliable tackling on the back end from safeties Bubba Bolden and Amari Carter. Miami’s pass rush with defensive end Quincy Roche and their linebackers on the blitz also has to be a major concern. Miami’s head coach Manny Diaz is from the zone-blitzing school of defense and will look to scheme up one-on-ones for his athletes up front against the more questionable components to the young Florida State offensive line. If that battle goes poorly the Noles may not be able to hold up in this game.
- Can Florida State’s athletic defense make life difficult for Miami’s clever, spread-option offense?
- How will the Florida State offensive line fare in protecting quarterback James Blackman against Miami’s blitzes?
- Is Florida State ready to play this game with their head coach quarantined after testing positive for COVID?
FEI Outright Pick: Miami by 3
FEI PICKS: WEEK 4
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||FEI Pick||FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Against the Spread
|at LSU||16.5||Mississippi State||LSU||LSU||LSU|
|at Oklahoma State||8.5||West Virginia||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State||West Virginia|
|Tennessee||3.5||at South Carolina||South Carolina||South Carolina||Tennessee|
|at Miami||11||Florida State||Miami||Florida State||Miami|
FEI picks against the spread in Week 3: 3-2
FEI picks against the spread this year: 7-4
Ian’s picks against the spread in Week 3: 3-2
Ian’s Picks against the spread this year: 6-5