College football games, Week 4: Penn State, Michigan on alert as Big Ten play starts

There are bad weeks for upset predictions and there are good weeks. Last week was, um, a bad week. However, I’m feeling confident about the law of averages because Week 4 of the college football season looks like it’ll shape up to be a good week.

It starts in the Big Ten with No. 4 Penn State and No. 8 Michigan on the road at Iowa and Purdue, respectively. The Hawkeyes have been awfully good at home against top-five opponents and coach Jeff Brohm has the Boilermakers playing at a much higher level three games into his tenure. In fact, four of this week’s five upset alert games feature road games for top-10 teams.

With all of that in mind, we’re here to give you the top five upset alert games each week of the 2017 season based on matchups, injuries/suspensions and other factors. As a general rule, we try to avoid games whose lines are well within a touchdown with exceptions being made for cases that warrant them.

Toledo at No. 14 Miami (FL)

When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET | Where: Miami, Florida | Opening Line: Miami (FL) -14

Why it’s listed: I went back and forth between this game and TCU-Oklahoma State. Then I remembered how badly the Cowboys burned my upset alert pick last week against Pitt. The upset potential is still there for the Pokes, but the fact that Miami hasn’t played in three weeks is an interesting angle to this Week 4 nonconference matchup. How will the Hurricanes, who have actually moved up four spots from their preseason poll ranking for basically not existing, look when basically starting the season over? Our only tape on this team is against Bethune-Cookman from three weeks ago, which is almost like not having tape at all.

Toledo wins if: It’s a shootout. The Rockets can score — that much is obvious — and quarterback Logan Woodside is under-appreciated as one of the more accomplished signal-callers outside the Power Five. He already has 1,000 yards through the air with a 10-to-1 touchdown-interception ratio and 11 yards per attempt. The Miami defensive front seven will have to swarm and get to Woodside if they’re going to keep this thing from getting out of hand.

Miami wins if: It’s not a shootout. Compelling, I know, but Miami has the clear defensive edge. The talent in the front seven is there and Toledo’s defense has been gashed by the likes of Tulsa. If the Hurricanes can make enough stops and let running back Mark Walton do his thing (Toledo allows five yards per rush) this should be a game of little contest. Run the dang ball and lean on your defense, Canes.

No. 5 USC at Cal

When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET | Where: Berkeley, Caifornia | Opening Line: USC -16

Why it’s listed: This is one of those classic upset potentials where in no universe is Cal actually a better team than USC. However, the Trojans have shown enough vulnerability that if they’re not playing their best game, the Golden Bears might be able to do the unthinkable. Cal is 2-0 against the spread as a dog and USC is just 1-2 as a favorite. Cal’s first-year coach Justin Wilcox has had a surprisingly good first three weeks with wins at North Carolina and at home against Ole Miss. Neither team is particularly good, but there’s a real case that no first-year coach has done more right away than Wilcox has, especially with the visible improvements made on defense. However, this upset pick has a fine line. After USC, Cal faces OregonWashington and Washington State, and the first two are on the road. Cal has a lot of confidence right now, but a loss could just as easily start a downward spiraling effect.

Cal wins if: Wilcox works his magic on defense. The Golden Bears are doing a lot of little things right. Heck, even having defensive backs knowing how to play the ball downfield in coverage is an improvement. And though this 3-4 defensive base doesn’t have the Poona Ford or Malik Jefferson types like Texas does, it could still have similar success against the run while bringing pressure from a variety of different spots against quarterback Sam Darnold. Wilcox has some familiarity with USC, too, since he’s only a few years removed as the program’s defensive coordinator.

USC wins if: The Trojans from Week 2’s win over Stanford show up, as simplistic as that sounds. Granted, we know now Stanford has problems outside of running back Bryce Love, but that was USC playing near its apex. The running game was working and Darnold made some ridiculous throws. Plus, the defense showed excellent second-half adjustments. That’s the USC that is a playoff-caliber team. If that’s the team that shows up against Cal, this one probably isn’t close. But we haven’t seen that team two weeks in a row yet this season.

No. 8 Michigan at Purdue

When: Saturday, 4 p.m. ET | Where: West Lafayette, Indiana | Opening Line: Michigan -8

Why it’s listed: Historically, it made sense for Purdue to be a road dog at Missouri. The Boilermakers weren’t just abysmal on the road in recent years, but abysmal period. Still, that Week 3 upset pick was too easy. This one … not as much. Michigan is obviously far better, especially defensively. That’s going to be a tough outing for Purdue’s offense which, for all its fun and glitz with coach Jeff Brohm, still finishes with a so-so six yards per play. The thing is, Michigan isn’t any better on offense and horrific in red zone touchdown conversions (1-of-10). This one could be your classic Big Ten low-scoring fight.

Purdue wins if: It can get at least one, but ideally two, non-offensive touchdowns. Let’s start with what’s going right: Quarterback David Blough has been efficient with the ball with a 76.1 completion percentage, 8.9 yards per attempt and a 174.5 passer rating. Now for the other part: This is the toughest defensive test yet by a country mile for the Boilermakers. The 3.45 yards per play allowed by the Wolverines is tied for first in the Big Ten. Purdue will need help on defense and/or special teams, if for no other reason than to flip the field.

Michigan wins if: It overpowers Purdue and suffocates them until it runs out of air. The Wolverines have played in three tight games and then broke something open at the end with either a big offensive or defensive play. That’s what raw talent will do. Unless the passing game improves, this is who Michigan is, I guess.

No. 4 Penn State at Iowa

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET | Where: Iowa City, Iowa | Opening Line: Penn State -13.5

Why it’s listed: Iowa’s recent record against top-five opponents speaks for itself. The Hawkeyes are 4-2 vs. top-five opponents since 2008 and 3-0 when playing at home. Additionally, Iowa is on a two-game winning streak against Penn State (2008, 2009) when the Nittany Lions are ranked in the top five nationally. The past isn’t the best indicator of future results, but, yeah, that’s kind of noteworthy going into Saturday. As far as difficult places to play in the Big Ten, Kinnick should be up there.

Iowa wins if: The Hawkeyes have enough success passing the ball to open up the run. Running back Akrum Wadley left the Week 3 game against North Texas with an injury, but all signs point to him playing on Saturday. Wadley ranks sixth in the Big Ten with eight rushes of 10 yards or more — only two behind Barkley. But Penn State has an excellent run defense that’s given up only one touchdown and fewer than three yards per carry despite opponents averaging 42 attempts per game against them. Iowa’s passing attack isn’t prolific by any definition, but it is efficient and will be needed to open up those running lanes for Wadley.

Penn State wins if: Saquon Barkley does Saquon Barkley things. It feels as though we’ve almost become numb to how unreal of an athlete Barkley is. He’s a complete running back and all, but his ability to create plays on his own that look dead is next-level. This catch-and-run against Akron is mind-bending …

Penn State’s offense has been able to take advantage of defenses keying in on Barkley by attacking through the air with tight end Mike Gesicki … but Gesicki and Barkley are the team’s two-leading pass-catchers. At the end of the day, this offense runs through Barkley, and in big games, the best player on the field needs to take over.

No. 7 Washington at Colorado

When: Saturday, 10 p.m. ET | Where: Boulder, Colorado | Opening Line: Washington -11

Why it’s listed: It’s #Pac12AfterDark, baby, what else did you expect? A rematch of last year’s Pac-12 Championship Game could be closer than the 41-10 beatdown the Huskies gave in 2016. The revenge factor is certainly in play for the Buffs, but this is a game featuring two of the Pac-12’s better defenses. The Buffs rank sixth in the country in stop rate percentage, per Max Olson of The Athletic, while Washington ranks 12th. Both defenses do a good job of limiting explosive plays (10-plus yards) as well. We think of late-night Pac-12 games as crazy shootouts, but this one is shaping up to be a lower-scoring brawl.

Colorado wins if: Linebacker Drew Lewis has a career game against his former team. Lewis began his career with the Huskies before being dismissed in 2015. He leads Colorado with 25 tackles and 15 solo takedowns, as well as three quarterback hurries. To get that type of disruption from an inside linebacker is key. If Lewis can get to quarterback Jake Browning, it will disrupt the play-action long ball that Browning loves to throw.

Washington wins if: Its defensive front breaks through. The Huskies have a formidable front seven — arguably the best in college football — and Colorado has had trouble protecting Steven Montez by allowing an average of three sacks per game. Only Washington State and Arizona State have allowed more in the Pac-12. In a defensive struggle, getting behind the chains is bad news for an offense that will likely have to chip away at yardage.

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