There are games, and then there are games-within-the-games, those telling head-to-head matchups that put a thumb on the scale for the more dominant side.
Who’ll be the big winners and who’ll be hanging their heads in despair by the end of Week 4? So much is going to hinge on which side prevails in these crucial unit and player clashes.
10. RT Zach Banner and the USC O-line vs. DE Hunter Dimick and the Utah D-line
Banner and the Trojan blockers, who’ve been spotty so far this year, are being entrusted with protecting redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold in his first career start. It won’t be easy, because young quarterbacks tend to hold the ball too long and because the Ute front is ferocious. Now, USC held Stanford to one sack in Week 3. However, Utah had 10 against San Jose State on the same day, and the mix of ends Dimick and Pita Taumoepenu and tackles Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi is a safe bet to force Darnold into costly rookie mistakes.
9. Clemson WR Mike Williams vs. Georgia Tech CBs Lance Austin and Step Durham
The early returns on the rebuilt Yellow Jacket secondary have been positive so far. But opening the season with FCS Mercer and the feeble attacks of BC and Vandy will hardly prepare a defensive backfield for Deshaun Watson and the pass-catching duo of Williams and elusive Artavis Scott. Williams is a big, NFL-ready target, though he’s still looking for his first 2016 score. He’ll get one—or more—on Thursday night against a Tech secondary itching to get exposed, especially since Durham is dealing with a leg injury.
8. Michigan LB Jabrill Peppers vs. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley
Through the first three games, Peppers’ shift from safety to linebacker is producing glowing results. He’s been everywhere for the Wolverines, leading the team in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and quarterback hurries. This Saturday, he turns his attention to Barkley, Penn State’s best chance for keeping the chains moving in Ann Arbor. Barkley was running well last week against Temple before injuring an ankle. He’ll play on Saturday, but he could be greeted by Peppers at the line of scrimmage on multiple occasions.
7. Georgia C Brandon Kublanow vs. Ole Miss NT D.J. Jones
Really, the entire Bulldog line will be under the microscope at Vaught-Hemingway. The unit has struggled the last two games with Nicholls State and Missouri, and it’s being reflected in Nick Chubb’s uncharacteristically low production. In Ole Miss, the floundering Georgia O-line faces its toughest test of the season so far. Not only is Jones an interior gap-buster, but defensive end Marquis Haynes is also a flash around the edge. To keep pace with Rebel quarterback Chad Kelly, Georgia must unleash Chubb and give its own quarterback, Jacob Eason, time to locate Isaiah McKenzie in the slot.
6. Baylor WR KD Cannon and Oklahoma State WR James Washington vs. Opposing DBs
No, Cannon and Washington won’t technically be squaring off head-to-head. Still, their on-paper matchup in Waco is going to go a long way toward deciding a winner in the Big 12 game of the week. Cannon and Washington, who had each had nine catches for more than 200 receiving yards last week, are two of the most dynamic playmakers in America. And when they’re stretching defenses and commanding double-coverage, it makes everyone on their unit better. For fans of NFL teams needing game-breaking receivers—and Biletnikoff Award voters—this game meets the can’t-miss test.
5. Arkansas RB Rawleigh Williams vs. WLB Shaan Washington and the Texas A&M Run D
After allowing five yards a carry in 2015, the Aggies have made impressive strides against the run, the bread-and-butter of Bret Bielema’s Razorback offense. With Washington roaming from sideline-to-sideline and tackles Hardreck Walker and Kingsley Keke holding their blocks on the inside, A&M is down to 3.2 yards per rush. Arkansas is a team that wants to ride the 226-pound Williams to set up the pass, but if he’s shut down, undue pressure will be heaped on Austin Allen’s relatively untested right arm.
4. UCLA QB Josh Rosen vs. Stanford CBs Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks
Holder and Meeks are 6-2, fluid in coverage and gushing with confidence after shutting down JuJu Smith-Schuster and the USC receivers. Now, the rising Cardinal defenders will face Rosen’s targets, which have lacked consistency this month. The Bruins don’t have a true No. 1 receiver, like Jordan Payton or even Thomas Duarte a year ago. They’ve got a collection of twos and threes, who’ll struggle to shake Holder and Meeks. And if the outside receivers are blanketed, Rosen’s talented arm will be relegated to dump-offs, slants and quick-hitters in the flat.
3. LSU OLB Arden Key vs. Auburn OTs Austin Golson and Robert Leff
Auburn couldn’t contain Myles Garrett and the Texas A&M edge rush last week, leading to a dreadful overall offensive performance. More of the same is expected this week with LSU in town. Key is a flash around tackle, using his long frame and closing speed to make lumbering tackles look silly. This is just a tough matchup all-around for the struggling Auburn offense. Key and the front seven will flush QB Sean White, who’ll be forced to tuck and slide when realizing his receivers are neutralized by corners Tre’Davious White and Kevin Toliver.
2. Florida MLB Jarrad Davis vs. Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs and RB Jalen Hurd
The Gators won’t extend their hex on the Vols to 12 games with offense. Florida was already sputtering before QB Luke Del Rio went down with a knee injury. Nah, Florida will lean with even more weight on a defense that’s yielded just nine passing first downs in three games. Assuming CB Teez Tabor can negate Tennessee’s top receiving option, Josh Malone, Butch Jones will have to rely on the feet of Dobbs and Hurd. This is where No. 40 becomes real important. Davis is a 238-pound run-stuffer in the middle, Florida’s antidote to the versatile Vol backfield.
1. Wisconsin QB Alex Hornibrook vs. Michigan State CBs Vayante Copeland and Darian Hicks
Hornibrook is to the Badgers what Sam Darnold is to USC—redshirt freshman quarterback whose first career start is in hostile territory. Hornibrook came off the bench last week and was sharp, completing 8-of-12 for 122 yards, a touchdown and a pick. But that was Georgia State in Madison. This is Michigan State in East Lansing. Now, Hicks and Copeland are far from air-tight in coverage, so it’ll be up to Hornibrook and receivers Jazz Peavy and Rob Wheelwright to sit down in the soft spots of the D.