In retrospect, Pitt beating UCF was ripe for the taking as the Panthers emerge from their cave once a year to end the dreams of ranked teams looking for glory. And UCF’s winning streak dating the past two-plus years was bound to end some time. But, such is life in scouring the lines for college football upsets. Sometimes, you miss on games like those. Other times, you miss spectacularly on the ones you do pick (hello, Washington-BYU). Oh well, time to circle the wagons.
Each week, I’ll give you the top five upset alert games based on matchups, injuries/suspensions and other factors. But in the spirit of the upset, I generally avoid games where lines are within a touchdown, though there will be some exceptions. Similarly, I’ll only go with moneyline picks when the payout is around 2:1 — maybe a little less, definitely when it’s more.
Week 4 results
No. 12 Penn State at Maryland
When: Friday, 8 p.m. ET | Where: College Park, Maryland | Moneyline: Penn State -240, Maryland +200
Why it’s listed: You could see Maryland’s upset at Temple in Week 3 coming a mile away, but the Terps are back home in a get-up game against a top-15 opponent and the spread is hovering only around a touchdown.
Maryland’s key to the game: Obviously, the Terps need to get back to leaning on their offense. No one is reasonably expecting them to score 71 points per game again, but Maryland was dreadful on third downs against Temple and missed so many scoring opportunities in the red zone. That can’t happen again.
Penn State’s key to the game: The Nittany Lions defense should travel (so, on a related note, under 60 is in play here) but I’m more interested in quarterback Sean Clifford making his first road start. How the offense performs probably dictates whether this is a blowout or upset in the making.
Pick: I’ve been waiting for a top-10/top-15 player from the Power Five to fall, so I’ll call my shot. Maryland’s offense finds its footing again and makes enough plays to win. Maryland +200
Indiana at No. 25 Michigan State
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET | Where: East Lansing, Michigan | Line: Michigan State -14.5
Why it’s listed: Michigan State isn’t good enough to look ahead to Ohio State next week, but I don’t trust the Spartans to beat even a semi-decent divisional opponent by more than two touchdowns. And with an over/under at 44, Indiana’s offense would really have to stall.
Indiana’s key to the game: Working around the loss of starting tackle Coy Cronk is going to be huge. Michigan State’s defensive front has some big-time playmakers, and the Hoosiers can’t make this a 10-7 game like Arizona State did.
Michigan State’s key to the game: Sparty is what it is. Win or lose, it’s likely going to be ugly. But quarterback Brian Lewerke is third in the Big Ten in total offense (273.5 YPG). He’ll probably have to be a work horse again.
Pick: The Hoosiers are usually good to put the fear of God into at least one favored and/or ranked Big Ten opponent a year. They actually beat then-No. 17 Michigan State in overtime in 2016, but more often than not they come up just short. ATS: Indiana, SU: Michigan State
When: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET | Where: Houston, Texas | Line: Louisiana Tech -9.5
Why it’s listed: Rice remains winless (and Army, Baylor and Wake Forest. It should be noted, too, that Texas is a common opponent with Louisiana Tech by way of a 45-14 win for the Longhorns in Week 1.) but is clearly improved. Other than a 48-13 loss to Texas, the Owls have at least shown signs of competitiveness on a schedule that includes
Rice’s key to the game: The Owls need help to get over the hump. That means an advantage in hidden yards and some points off of turnovers; Rice has forced three this year, tied for 11th in Conference USA, and has one field goal to show for it. They have to finish better.
Louisiana Tech’s key to the game: The Bulldogs have to win on first and second down defensively. Rice possesses one of the least effective passing offenses in the country.
Pick: Again, Rice is improved enough to keep this game within reach. Maybe direct points off of a turnover make it uneasy for Tech. The Owls just haven’t shown they have the offense yet to quite pull it off. ATS: Rice, SU: Louisiana Tech
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET | Where: Tallahassee, Florida | Line: Florida State -6
Why it’s listed: Florida State is 1-2 against the spread as a favorite this year and could have been 0-3 if Cam Akers hadn’t kicked down the front door vs. Louisville. On that note, do you trust the Seminoles with a lead of any kind?
NC State’s key to the game: Co-defensive coordinator Tony Gibson loves to bring pressure with his odd stack defense. Pair that against Florida State’s shaky offensive line and the Wolfpack might be cooking.
Florida State’s key to the game: The Seminoles defense is getting gashed on third downs. They have been been on the field for 63 third-down attempts — tied for 115th nationally — and have allowed conversions 41.27 percent of the time. That’s 86th nationally. The coaching staff has to do a better job of getting them off the field.
Pick: I’ll trust the recent history and give NC State the nod against the spread. But after getting beat thoroughly at West Virginia, I’m not sure the Wolfpack have what it takes to win on the road against a team that, for all its faults, still has skill. We’ll see. ATS: NC State, SU: Florida State
Washington State at No. 19 Utah
When: Saturday, 10 p.m. ET | Where: Salt Lake City, Utah | Moneyline: Utah -203, Washington State +182
Why it’s listed: Choking away a USC’s third-string quarterback kill them on deep passes.against arguably the worst Power Five team is the type of game Mike Leach’s team is good for about once a year, and it feels like this line is an overreaction to that. The Cougars committed six turnovers and allowed two special teams touchdowns plus gave up a 94-yard touchdown pass. That’s … how you lose. But Wazzu’s offense is a bad matchup for a Utah defense that just watched
Washington State’s key to the game: I would say hold on to the ball, but that seems obvious. Running back Max Borghi needs to be a difference-maker. We know the Cougars can pitch-and-catch, but what about run into the teeth of this Utes defense?
Utah’s key to the game: The status of running back Zack Moss is unknown after he left the USC games with an apparent shoulder injury, but it would be a big loss if he’s unavailable. Moss is a physical runner who can get tough yards. His absence was most evident in the red zone.
Pick: Washington State did everything it could to lose to UCLA, and it rebounds here. Conference road games are tough, but the Cougars have the weapons to win. Washington State +182
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