College football picks, Week 4: Georgia, Notre Dame headline Playoff-defining weekend

It’s Week 4 of the college football season, about the time contenders for the College Football Playoff start separating themselves from the pack.

This week, that Playoff race will be made clearer with three games between ranked opponents, all of which have single-possession lines: No. 8 Auburn at No. 17 Texas A&M, No. 11 Michigan at No. 13 Wisconsin and No. 7 Notre Dame at No. 3 Georgia.

So, yeah. Not quite the dud that Week 3 was.

Even better, there are plenty of great games to get excited about outside those top-25 matchups. Unbeaten Oklahoma State will aim to crush Texas’ Big 12 and Playoff hopes before the turn of the season. No. 10 Utah, likely the Pac-12’s last hope to contend for the Playoff, will have to stave off an upset from USC. And Central Florida will look to make a statement against Power 5 opponent Pitt.

All that, and more, heading into the weekend. Sporting News is 12-4 in our straight-up picks this season, bolstered by a 7-1 mark ahead of Week 3.

That said, you might want to pay attention to our picks ahead of Week 4 (odds provided courtesy of Sportsbook Review as of Monday, Sept. 16):

Tennessee at No. 9 Florida (-14)

Florida quarterback Kyle Trask will make his first start of the season against a Tennessee team that won its first game of the season in a 45-0 drubbing of Chattanooga on Saturday. It’s a tough ask against a rival, but Trask proved he can handle high-pressure situations in leading a come-from-behind win against Kentucky. All he needs to do is manage the game and rely on a defense with a nation-leading 16 sacks. Do that, and Florida should win handily.

Pick: Florida 35, Tennessee 20

No. 16 Oregon (-8.5) at Stanford

One-loss Oregon can’t afford another heart-breaking loss against the Cardinal if it wants to remain a Playoff contender. Luckily for the Ducks, Stanford surrenders 280 yards a game through the air, and just gave up four passing touchdowns to UCF’s Dillon Gabriel. Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert (11 touchdowns, zero interceptions) should be able to take advantage of Stanford’s defensive shortcomings and keep his team’s Playoff hopes alive another week.

Pick: Oregon 42, Stanford 27

No. 15 UCF (-10) at Pitt

Speaking of Central Florida and the Playoff, the Knights will try to make a lasting statement on Saturday at 1-2 Pitt, its last Power 5 opponent this year. The Panthers are coming off a hard-fought 17-10 loss to rival Penn State, and must avoid an emotional letdown against UCF. That said, Pitt could keep this closer than most might think: It ranks 37th nationally in yards allowed per game (307), while the Knights rank 114th in offensive output (321 ypg). UCF should be in control throughout, but it won’t be able to distance itself from the Panthers in a frustratingly close game.

Pick: UCF 31, Pitt 23

No. 10 Utah (-3.5) at USC

Utah looks like the Pac-12’s best bet to make the Playoff, and with good reason. Tyler Huntley is efficient at quarterback, completing 42 of 54 passes for 602 yards and four touchdowns to zero interceptions. Zack Moss remains a force at running back, rushing for 373 yards, four touchdowns and a 6.5 yards-per-carry average. The defense surrenders just 9.5 points per game. USC, meanwhile, is coming off an ugly loss against BYU (a game in which quarterback Kedon Slovis threw three interceptions). That said, Utah is winless in the LA Coliseum, and Trojans coach Clay Helton is probably coaching for his job. USC keeps it close, but the Utes make a play late to seal the game.

Pick: Utah 31, USC 28

MORE: Week 4 Playoff predictions

Oklahoma State at No. 12 Texas (-7)

Texas’ defense faces a doozy of a challenge this week against Oklahoma State, which boasts the FBS leaders in receiving (Tylan Wallace, 390 yards) and rushing (Chuba Hubbard, 521 yards). The Longhorns failed their last test against LSU, surrendering 471 passing yards and four touchdowns to Joe Burrow in a 45-38 loss. But Oklahoma State’s defense is again the weak link on this team, ranking near the bottom half of the country in points and yards allowed per game. So, we’ve got a shootout on our hands. And, as Big 12 games often do, this one should come down to quarterback play. We’ll pick Sam Ehlinger to come through for Texas in a close one.

Pick: Texas 38, Oklahoma State 35

No. 8 Auburn at No. 17 Texas A&M (-4)

Texas A&M has looked great outside a 24-10 loss to top-ranked Clemson, out-scoring cupcake opponents Texas State and Lamar 103-10. Auburn, meanwhile, has dealt with inconsistency all year, even against overmatched competition in Tulane and Kent State. Auburn quarterback Bo Nix will need to play better than he has all season, and the Tigers’ defensive front will need to limit Kellen Mond’s big-play ability. Something else to consider: Auburn is 3-0 all-time in College Station, winning by an average of 15.5 points in its last two visits. It’ll be closer this time around, but Auburn should find a way to come away with another win.

Pick: Auburn 27, Texas A&M 23

MORE: 10 questions for biggest Week 4 matchups

No. 11 Michigan at No. 13 Wisconsin (-3)

Both teams come into this game off a bye, an indicator of just how important this game is in the Big Ten race. Wisconsin has out-scored South Florida and Central Michigan 110-0 this year, but will face its first real test of the season against Don Brown’s Michigan defense. The question in this game, however, is whether Michigan — particularly quarterback Shea Patterson — can overcome early struggles on offense and put points on the board. The Wolverines won this game last year by limiting Alex Hornibrook to 7-of-20 passing for 100 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. That means Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan will have to make plays through the air, as the Wolverines will almost certainly key in on Jonathan Taylor. If Coan can limit his mistakes, then Wisconsin can leave Madison with a close win. We think he does.

Pick: Wisconsin 24, Michigan 21

No. 7 Notre Dame at No. 3 Georgia (-14)

The Week 4 headliner comes in the form of a top-10 matchup between Georgia and Notre Dame, Playoff teams in 2017 and ‘18, respectively. The Bulldogs won by a sliver at Notre Dame in 2017, and it looks like it could be close again this time around. The quarterback duel between Ian Book (29 of 47, 553 yards, six touchdowns) and Jake Fromm (42 of 56, 601 yards, five touchdowns) promises to be exciting, but this game should be decided on whether Notre Dame can slow Georgia’s rush attack. The Irish rank 120th nationally in rush defense (230 ypg), while Georgia has five backs, led by D’Andre Swift, with at least 100 yards this season. Georgia should be able to rely on that depth late into the game, wearing down Notre Dame’s defense in a big win for the Bulldogs.

Pick: Georgia 35, Notre Dame 24

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