With conference play nearly in full swing, Week 4 offered plenty of results to begin clearing up the picture of who will contend for conference titles and College Football Playoff berths. From the Pac-12 to the Big Ten to the SEC, the field has already narrowed considerably. Here are the three biggest takeaways from the week:
1. It’s time to take Wisconsin seriously
The Badgers began the 2016 season with a bang, beating LSU at Lambeau Field. But it was easy to focus more heavily on the Tigers’ loss as they were the perceived playoff contender of the two. Wisconsin also looked vulnerable after narrowly escaping a horrendous loss to Georgia State last week, and faced with a conference schedule that began with matchups against Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State, the Badgers seemed destined to fall back down to earth.
All expectations for Wisconsin have to be re-evaluated after it stomped Michigan State 30–6 in Spartan Stadium on Saturday. The Badgers’ defense is ferocious and held the Spartans to 4.6 yards per play while intercepting Tyler O’Connor three times. In four games, Wisconsin has yet to allow more than 17 points in a game and gave up a combined 20 points in wins over LSU and Michigan State. Despite losing defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to the Tigers this off-season, the Badgers are just fine with Justin Wilcox in charge.
Offensively, Wisconsin is a bit more of a work in progress but made huge strides Saturday. Redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook made his first start and completed 16 of 26 passes for 195 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Those aren’t eye-popping numbers, but they’re a significant improvement over the inconsistency of Bart Houston.
It also helps to get Corey Clement back after he hurt his ankle in Wisconsin’s Week 2 win over Akron. Michigan State mostly kept the senior in check—54 yards on 23 carries—but his two touchdowns helped the Badgers build an insurmountable lead. He’ll be pivotal if Wisconsin can stay atop the Big Ten.
With the win over Michigan State, part of the Big Three that reign over the conference, the Badgers announced themselves as legitimate contenders. Michigan, which hosts Wisconsin next week, has yet to face a serious test this season. Ohio State comes to Camp Randall two weeks later. Given the Badgers’ arduous schedule, they’re perhaps still not the favorite to win the Big Ten. Nebraska is undefeated and has a much easier schedule, and Minnesota avoids Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State entirely. Still, Saturday’s win proved the schedule is no longer a sufficient reason to count out Wisconsin. The Badgers are strong enough to contend, or at the very least play spoiler. Michigan State found that out the hard way.
2. Texas A&M is Alabama’s No. 1 challenger, while Tennessee controls the SEC East
The Crimson Tide are the unquestioned favorites in the SEC West, and their 48–0 rout of Kent State did little to change that. Such a result, however, was hardly surprising.
More notable in the SEC West this week was the shuffling of teams behind the Tide. With Alabama’s win over Ole Miss last week and LSU’s loss Saturday at Auburn, No. 10 Texas A&M’s meeting with No. 17 Arkansas at AT&T Stadium became a battle to become the top challenger in the West. With their 45–24 win, the Aggies proved they deserve that billing. Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight has brought stability to Texas A&M’s offense and proved himself a surprisingly capable dual-threat quarterback, passing for 225 yards, rushing for 157 more and finishing with four total touchdowns. The defense, in its second year under John Chavis, is finally coming together too, led by a ferocious front with ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. That pair is perhaps the most lethal in the country and will test any team’s offensive line. The Aggies’ showdown with Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 22 will be a must-watch.
The SEC East came into clarity Saturday, with Tennessee as the clear front-runner. The Volunteers snapped their 11-game losing streak to Florida by erasing a 21–0 deficit to win 38–28. The win was certainly cathartic, but it was equally pivotal in a division that essentially comes down to the Vols, the Gators and Georgia. Had Tennessee not coughed up the win at Florida last year, the Vols would have won the SEC East.
Further clearing the field for the Vols, Ole Miss thrashed Georgia 45–14. The Bulldogs had been living dangerously after an impressive Week 1 win over North Carolina, following up that victory with close calls against Nicholls and Missouri. Ole Miss, which could sneak back into the race in the SEC West if Alabama slips up, rebounded from its defeat to Alabama last week and kept its foot on the gas after blowing first-half leads of 21 and 22 points to the Tide and Florida State, respectively. Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason was never able to get into a rhythm and tossed a pick-six, and star running back Nick Chubb was contained (57 yards on 12 carries), while Ole Miss passer Chad Kelly ripped apart the Bulldogs’ secondary for 282 yards passing with three total touchdowns.
Tennessee now sits as the only undefeated team in the SEC East and has a chance to put itself in a very secure position if it can win at Georgia next week. That would leave the Vols at least a game up on both of their top competitors with the tiebreaker over each.
3. The Pac-12 contenders are dropping—and that’s a good thing for the conference
Before the season, the Pac-12 led the majority of the discussion for the Power Five conference most likely to get left out of the playoff. The reasoning was pretty simple: Much like last year, the Pac-12 was full of good teams who were capable of beating each other on any given day, likely resulting in no squad emerging with fewer than two losses. Entering the season, Stanford, Washington, Oregon and Washington State appeared capable in the Pac-12 North, while UCLA, USC and Utah all seemed like contenders in the Pac-12 South. Now the conference looks like it’ll realistically come down to just three teams: Stanford, Washington and Utah.
The Cardinal survived a tough test at UCLA, relying on a touchdown from Ryan Burns to JJ Arcega-Whiteside with 26 seconds left to beat the Bruins (followed by a front-door cover for the ages). The loss, UCLA’s second of the season but first in conference play, surely eliminates the Bruins from playoff contention, though the stout defense they showed in keeping Christian McCaffrey out of the end zone and Josh Rosen’s precise passing could still spoil other teams’ chances. Stanford’s odds of making the playoff are much higher for having survived its trip to the Rose Bowl.
Washington got its own road test, which proved to be much tougher than expected. The Huskies needed overtime to get past Arizona 35–28 as quarterback Jake Browning was held to just 160 yards passing. The narrow win, after the Huskies had won their first three games of the season by a combined 118 points, was definitely their worst performance of the season, but ultimately they survived to head into their meeting with Stanford on Friday undefeated.
Utah’s come-from-behind victory over USC, combined with UCLA’s loss, puts the Utes in the driver’s seat in the Pac-12 South. Arizona State and Colorado appear to be bigger threats than they seemed in the preseason, but the Utes, who avoid Stanford in the regular season, have to be considered the favorite in the South at this point. Their trip to UCLA on Oct. 22 could decide the division.
Overall, the collapse of Oregon, which lost again Saturday to Colorado; Washington State, which is 1–2; and USC, whose loss to Utah dropped its record to 1–3, is a positive development for the Pac-12’s playoff chances. The field has been cleared and the obstacles are more clearly defined. Now one of the remaining contenders just has to survive.