The 2023 college football season officially begins this week, as this is the best slate of games we’ve had in years. 

There are six ranked matchups on the Week 4 schedule and significant games in each Power 5 conference this weekend. 

I’ll be on the call for Saturday’s “Big Noon Kickoff” game between No. 16 Oklahoma vs. Cincinnati, as the Bearcats play in their first Big 12 contest. 

Here is a look at what to expect in five big-time games on Saturday.

No. 16 Oklahoma vs. Cincinnati (12 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app)

When I look at this game, I look at Oklahoma first and foremost. 

I think the Sooners are a little undervalued at this point. I’ve spoken all week about above-the-line teams and below-the-line teams in college football. Over the last decade-plus, we’ve had that line right at about two or three teams in the sport that we really believe can win the national championship. I believe that this year, that line has been lowered way down to 11 teams.

At this point in the year, I wouldn’t consider Oklahoma an above-the-line team. But if there was a team out there that isn’t in the top 11 that could potentially make a run at the playoff, it could be Oklahoma. This is a team that lost five one-possession games last year. That could easily go the other way and all of a sudden, you’re a 10-, 11-win team. 

Remember, Dillon Gabriel was either hurt or didn’t play in a few of those losses last season. All of a sudden, the Sooners have a healthy Dillon Gabriel, they’re deeper at wide receiver, and they’re probably deeper at running back, although the latter really hasn’t come to fruition yet this season. 

The defense, which was horrid a year ago, seems to be a lot better. I still have my concerns with their secondary and I think Sooner fans would probably agree with me, that the concerns lie with the secondary. They bolstered their defensive front seven, namely the defensive line, through the transfer portal. And I like what they did at linebacker. 

Will Cincinnati upset Oklahoma in their first Big 12 game?

I don’t think it’s a shoo-in that Texas beats Oklahoma next month, and I think Oklahoma is better than most other teams in the Big 12. 

As for Saturday, Gabriel has had a really strong start to the season. He leads the country in completion percentage (82.5%). He’s coming off a 400-yard game with five touchdowns in that win over Tulsa. This Cincy defense is a great test for a quarterback, as we’re going to find out if Gabriel’s quality start to the season was just about the level of competition or if it’s something that has more staying power. 

That applies similarly to Oklahoma as a team. This is a team that has got to prove to itself that it can get over the hump because it started great last year. But after a 49-14 win over Nebraska in Week 3, the Sooners proceeded to go 3-7 following that.

Oklahoma enters Saturday with a top-five scoring offense and defense. Is this an OU team that we came to appreciate and know over the last two decades or is this a team that is not quite there? 

I believe that this week, we’ll find out a lot about this team, which goes up against a Cincinnati team that had a disappointing loss to Miami (OH) last week.

No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 9 Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET)

No team in America gets the level of scrutiny as Ohio State. This is a team that has beaten everybody handily this season, and should because it hasn’t played anybody particularly tough. Ohio State has a brand new quarterback and I think that the Buckeyes are coming into their own a little bit with the way that that film looked against Western Kentucky. This is a team that is much better than it was in Week 1. It found its identity a little bit in terms of its run game and in its pass game.

Ohio State is going on the road to face a Notre Dame team that I really believe in. So, this is a great matchup. This is the first great game that we’ve got in college football this season.  

Sam Hartman has been spectacular, and if you’re a Notre Dame fan, this is exactly what you dreamed of when he transferred. He has been outstanding. It is very clear that last year, they did not have a requisite quarterback. 

Now, they have an adult in the room at quarterback. I know that sounds harsh, but having Hartman has actually improved every element of their offense. Audric Estime has been a better running back because of Sam Hartman. The skill position players are better because of Sam Hartman. The offensive line is better because of Sam Hartman. 

Will Sam Hartman and Notre Dame upset Ohio State at home?

This is a guy that gives me a lot of belief in what the ceiling can be for Notre Dame. I think this could be the biggest win that Notre Dame has had in basically 30 years because a victory over Ohio State would mean the Fighting Irish are legitimate title contenders. 

The biggest question mark for Notre Dame is not how its offense is going to play, because I think its offense will play particularly well. It’s how much can you disrupt the timing and the impact of what Kyle McCord is feeling on the opposite side?

Notre Dame’s job is going to be to get pressure on McCord. But if the Buckeyes can protect McCord, and he can just play within the system, they will be able to move the football. It’s going to be really important that Notre Dame runs the ball efficiently, particularly early, because one of the things that makes this Fighting Irish offense so potent is their ability, in particular, in the second quarter to play with tempo.

I feel similarly for Ohio State. I believe that a lot of this game rests on how much the Buckeyes can affect the passer. This is an area where Ohio State has not been strong so far this year, and an area that we thought it would have some strength coming into the season. J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer, two highly recruited players that we thought could be dominant edge rushers, have yet to record a sack between them this season against lesser competition. Last week got better though, posting 13 pressures between them against Western Kentucky after they only had four in the first two games. If they can get to Hartmann, Ohio State’s got a great chance in this game.

This is going to be a wonderful game. I believe the key to the whole game lies in the hands of the pass rush of each team. The team that generates pass rush is going to win the game because everything else to me is somewhat constant and equal.

No. 19 Colorado vs. No. 10 Oregon (3:30 p.m. ET)

Oregon is one of those teams that, I believe, is an above-the-line team. It’s quietly been one of the best teams in the country, posting the No. 2 scoring offense with 58 points per game. To be fair, part of that is dropping an 81 burger on Portland State in the opener.

One of the reasons why I have pounded the table for the Pac-12 is the quarterback play, and part of the quarterback play is Bo Nix. He’s been outstanding. 

I thought Oregon’s run game was going to take a little bit of a dip this season, given the Ducks had to replace four offensive linemen. However, Oregon is averaging 7.2 yards per carry, which is the second-best mark in college football. I’m not going to put away my concerns about Oregon’s running game though, as the Ducks did run for 3.7 yards per carry against Texas Tech, but I don’t think Colorado’s defensive front is as stout. So, there’s a good chance Oregon is able to run the ball fairly effectively and its offensive line has done a tremendous job protecting Nix, allowing just one sack this season.

Will Coach Prime and Colorado upset Oregon on the road?

I get why Oregon is a 21-point favorite in this game. The impact Colorado’s poor offensive line had on its offense in the first 58 minutes of its game against Colorado State makes you question how good this unit really is, even with Shedeur Sanders under center.

Now, we could see Alton McCaskill play for the first time this year for Colorado. The Houston transfer won the AAC Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2021 but tore his ACL last year. He’s a dynamic player and Colorado has tried to slow-play him to get him ready and get him healthy for the majority of the season.

McCaskill, along with Dylan Edwards, gives Colorado some electricity out of that backfield. But can the Buffaloes block anybody? Colorado State played a light run box, meaning it didn’t have a free rusher in the run box, and it had something good going defensively. 

Colorado has to find a way to run the ball and find a way to take pressure off Sanders, literally and figuratively. He’s been sacked 15 times through three games, which is the most of any Power 5 quarterback, and Colorado has rushed for just 61 yards per game. Colorado is constantly in passing situations as a result, throwing the ball on 67% of its plays. That has to be remedied a bit.

The big question will be if Colorado can keep it close late. Oregon’s the better team … it’s better on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, it can run the football and it can control the clock. You also better believe that the environment in Eugene is going to be electric welcoming in Colorado and that hype train.

But Sanders has played outstanding football this season. He’s the most clutch player in the sport so far this year. What he’s done in the fourth quarter hasn’t been matched by anyone else, and he’s clearly been the best fourth quarter quarterback. 

No. 24 Iowa vs. No. 7 Penn State (7:30 p.m. ET)

Penn State is a 14.5-point favorite a week after it looked sluggish against Illinois on the road. This is a huge test for Drew Allar, and for his sake, it’s really good this game is at home, in a “White Out.” It is really tough to win at Penn State.

Allar’s test this weekend against Phil Parker’s Iowa defense is immense because it’s very different from what he sees in practice from his own defense, and really different from what he saw from Illinois. His defense plays a high percentage of man coverage. That’s what he’s used to. But this is a very different test because this is an Iowa team that majors in zone defense, and they’re really good at it. That’s why they get so many interceptions every year.

Allar has to play his best football, but if his timing is elevated, and he’s too excited, and the ball starts to sail, he will turn it over because that’s what Iowa’s defense does.

I’m not sure Iowa has the offense to go out against a very good Penn State defense and score a lot of points. Yes, it went out last week and put up 41 points against Western Michigan. But it’s still 122nd in total yards per game and 122nd in passing yards per game. Its offense is also banged up. It’s going to be tough for Iowa, but Cade McNamara, Iowa’s QB, won in Happy Valley when he was starting under center for Michigan.

No. 15 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Alabama (3:30 p.m. ET)

Alabama is favored by seven in this game … that’s a lot. I’m going to call this the “rope-a-dope” effect. When George Foreman fought Muhammed Ali, Ali realized that his initial strategy was not going to work. So this guy just did whatever it took to win the fight. Even though he wasn’t going to be the best fighter that night, he implored whatever strategy necessary to win the fight, because he was a great champion.

That’s kind of the way I view this game. I don’t know if Ole Miss is definitely better than Alabama. From a roster perspective, that’s not the case. Alabama has the better roster. But you get the sense that there is a sense of confidence about Ole Miss that they can do it. This might be their time and the moment they walk into Tuscaloosa as the better team.

Can Nick Saban and the tide survive Lane Kiffin and the Rebels?

Last week was not Alabama. Last week was basically a glorified scrimmage for Alabama. I will maintain the belief that it was trying to figure out its starting QB last week. It knew what it had in Jalen Milroe. It had to figure out what they had with Tyler Buchner and Ty Simpson.

Nick Saban hasn’t lost two games in his building since his first year at Alabama, in 2007. Kiffin is 0-4 against Saban, and the chirping suggests that he feels he is going to get his first win. I love it, fans love it, but deep down in Tuscaloosa, there is a burning hatred for this game. I get the sense Alabama has a little bit of Muhammad Ali in them – “whatever it takes, we’re going to win this game.”

So now, Milroe is back under center, and Alabama is going to have to be dominant on first and second down in order to get to a position where Milroe doesn’t have to drop back and pass. It’s going to have to simplify the passing game. This is going to be a new-look Bama. I believe it should slow the game down and be more methodical. It needs to be deliberate and limit the number of possessions. 

This is the “rope-a-dope.” 

If you think Ole Miss is going to roll into Tuscaloosa just because Alabama is down, you will get something that you are not prepared for, just like George Foreman did. This is the Muhammad Ali game.

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