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September 19, 2011

Week 4 Watch: Unbeatens will fall

As college football enters the final week of the first month, 33 teams -- just more than a quarter of the FBS programs -- remain undefeated.

They range from the superior (Alabama, Oklahoma, LSU) to the surprising (Florida International, Vanderbilt), from the unchallenged (Wisconsin, Texas Tech) to the unimpressive (Kansas State, Wyoming).

Little is assured in college football, but the ranks of the unbeaten definitely will be trimmed by at least seven this week because of matchups of undefeated teams.

Player under the gun

West Virginia QB Geno Smith

Smith and the Mountaineers have played two outstanding quarters in each of their first three games. That's been good enough to keep West Virginia undefeated. It won't be good enough for the Mountaineers to stay unbeaten. Not with LSU and its intimidating defense coming to Morgantown this week. LSU hasn't allowed a touchdown in either of its last two games. Smith and the Mountaineers started slow and finished fast against Marshall and Norfolk State. They started fast and hung on for dear life at Maryland. Smith will need to play his most complete game of the season for West Virginia to have any chance this week.

The most intriguing are Arkansas at Alabama, Oklahoma State at Texas A&M and LSU at West Virginia. All three of those matchups were decided by six or fewer points last season.

In addition, North Carolina aims to avenge last season's six-point loss to Georgia Tech. That will require slowing the Yellow Jackets' top-ranked offense, which rolled up 768 yards in Saturday's victory over Kansas.

State rivals South Carolina and Clemson will look to stay unbeaten. South Carolina plays surprising Vanderbilt, which often has tested -- and on occasion bested -- the Gamecocks in recent seasons. Meanwhile, Clemson takes on Florida State, which tries to rebound from its loss to No. 1 Oklahoma.

Then there is Michigan, which has gotten off to a 3-0 start under first-year coach Brady Hoke. The Wolverines face 3-0 San Diego State -- the team Hoke previously coached.

Best game: Arkansas at Alabama, 3:30 p.m., CBS. The Razorbacks bring the SEC's top-rated offense to face Alabama's top-rated defense. Behind QB Tyler Wilson, Arkansas has scored at least 38 points in all three games and twice has exceeded 50. Meanwhile, Alabama's defense has allowed just two touchdowns. The Tide hold fast to the cliche that defense wins championships. The Razorbacks aim to prove otherwise. Alabama staged a fourth-quarter rally to edge Arkansas 24-20 last season. This season's game figures to be just as close.

Don't overlook this one: California at Washington, 3:30 p.m., Fox Sports Net. The Bears are 3-0 on the strength of their defense, which held Fresno State to 68 rushing yards and Colorado to 108 yards in the first two weeks of the season. Both teams have solid running backs in Fresno's Robbie Rouse and Colorado's Rodney Stewart, but the Huskies' Chris Polk may be better than both. Polk has topped 100 rushing yards in each game this season.

Under-the-radar storyline: Kansas State at Miami, 3:30 p.m., ESPNU. Miami recruited the highly touted Brown brothers, Wichita, Kan., natives who were five-star recruits in 2008 (linebacker Arthur Brown) and 2009 (tailback Bryce Brown). Arthur signed with the Hurricanes, while Bryce committed to Miami but eventually signed with Tennessee. Now, both are "home" at Kansas State. Arthur, the Wildcats' starting middle linebacker and leading tackler, will be tasked with trying to stop UM TB Lamar Miller, who has rushed for 303 yards in two games. Bryce did not play in K-State's last game against Kent State because of a minor injury.

[Dienhart: Florida State loses swagger in loss to Oklahoma]

On the midweek marquee: UCF at BYU (Friday, 8 p.m. ESPN) and N.C. State at Cincinnati (Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN). The first three weeks of the season brought us some memorable non-Saturday action with Baylor's wild win over TCU, Arizona State edging Missouri in overtime and LSU grinding it out to beat Mississippi State. Now, we get these two less-than-stellar matchups. UCF and BYU are both coming off losses to in-state rivals. Thursday, Cincinnati's porous defense may give Wolfpack QB Mike Glennon a chance to shine.

Coach under the gun

Ole Miss' Houston Nutt

Saturday's Georgia-Ole Miss game may as well be co-sponsored by Tabasco and La-Z-Boy for all the references to "hot seat" we'll hear in the days leading up to the game. Perhaps no coach in the nation has undergone more scrutiny than Georgia's Mark Richt over the first three weeks of the season, but at least his team is coming off a victory. Nutt's team just lost 30-7 to Vanderbilt. If that weren't embarrassing enough, consider that Ole Miss has now lost to Vanderbilt by a double-digit margin for the second season in a row. A loss Saturday would drop Ole Miss to 1-3 and would make it increasingly likely that the Rebels stay home for the holidays for a second consecutive season.

[RebelGrove: Nutt, Ole Miss have hope]

Best individual matchup of the week: Clemson WR Sammy Watkins vs. Florida State CBs Greg Reid, Mike Harris and Xavier Rhodes. Watkins, a five-star freshman, has lived up to billing thus far with four TD catches. He already is Clemson's main big-play threat and had a field day against Auburn's porous defense last week. The going should be tougher this week. FSU's secondary did a solid job in the Seminoles' loss to Oklahoma, and if this trip of corners can keep Watkins in check, FSU's chances for a win increase greatly. Watkins is from South Fort Myers (Fla.) High, but was one of three five-star recruits from the state of Florida who chose to sign with Clemson.

Best unit matchup of the week: Georgia Tech offensive line vs. North Carolina defensive front seven. Tech's offense has been extraordinarily productive through three weeks, and its rebuilt line has been mauling people and creating huge holes. The Yellow Jackets are averaging 427.7 rushing yards and 675.3 total yards, along with 59.3 points. But the step up in competition this week will be glaring. UNC has an athletic and aggressive front seven. The Tar Heels need big games from touted T Tydreke Powell and from speedy LBs Kevin Reddick and Zach Brown.

[College Football Pick'em: Sign up and play today]

Best coordinator chess match: Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken vs. Texas A&M defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. Monken, who arrived in the offseason from the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, oversees one of the nation's most dynamic offenses, one led by QB Brandon Weeden, TB Joseph Randle and WR Justin Blackmon. It will be great theatre to watch him match wits with DeRuyter, who arrived from Air Force before last season and has had a big impact on a woebegone Aggies defense with his 3-4 scheme.

Spotlight conference: Big 12. It's a big week for the Big 12, with the top four teams playing big games among themselves. The headliner is Oklahoma State's visit to Texas A&M in what could be a high-scoring shootout. Missouri's trip to Oklahoma could be a trap game for a Sooners team coming off an emotional victory at Florida State. Remember that the Tigers beat Oklahoma last season. In addition, Kansas State's visit to Miami is a crossroads game of sorts, as each team is looking to show it's legit.

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