Welcome to the Week Four edition of the Three by Three. Allow me to be your college football sherpa, guiding you through the intrigue of the sport each week. I will try to avoid just covering the big obvious stuff, but sometimes Notre Dame is the most interesting thing, you know?
Each week I will highlight three interesting storylines each from the Missouri contest, in the SEC, and around the nation. Let’s get to it.
Missouri vs Memphis (in St Louis) – 6:30 PM Central on ESPNU
1.) Don’t overlook Memphis
Please, Missouri, please do not overlook Memphis. This is a business trip, not a getaway. Memphis is a team very similar to conference peers South Carolina and Arkansas. That might hurt for those fanbases to hear, but it’s true. All three are reliant on a veteran quarterback who leads a pretty good offense with a beatable defense. Look at the similarities:
If Missouri is going to build on this Kansas State win, and not just have it be another peak in a roller-coaster season – like 2020 LSU or 2021 Florida – then they cannot come out flat against Memphis. The (bad) Tigers will be pumped up to beat an SEC team, and they have a legitimately fun offense. Don’t let them find any rhythm or confidence early.
2.) Get the running game back on track
It’s okay to get stoned against Kansas State’s front. They are a sound and well-coached unit— hell, they did just win the Big 12 last season. It’s not gonna be a good sign if Missouri’s run game gets stoned again by Memphis’ front. Unfortunately, the (bad) Tigers are kind of a bad matchup for Mizzou’s efficient but not explosive run game: Memphis ranks 93rd in the country in allowing explosives, but 43rd in preventing successful rushes. The (good) Tigers rank 125th in explosive rushes this season. At some point this just is your identity, but Missouri will need to be able to move the ball on the ground for me to feel good about conference play.
3.) Keep Passing Like That!
Saturday’s win felt so good because it was such a breath of fresh air from the past 30 or so Missouri football games. There was real, actual downfield passing. The ball was spread around between multiple receivers. The scheme was creative and varied. They ran play action a lot. It was beautiful.
Am I worried that Mizzou’s coaching staff knew how big the Kansas State game was, and spent a disproportionate amount of time in the offseason working on that game’s script? Am I worried that they will turtle back up again to either protect Brady Cook’s health if he plays, or guard against Sam Horn’s inexperience if Cook can’t play? Yeah, a little bit.
Brady Cook has shown clear advancement as a passer, and this year’s receiving corps has a much more varied and well-matched skill set. Show us that Saturday was the start of something, and not just a one-off.
1.) Ole Miss at Alabama, 2:30 PM Central on CBS
Alabama has looked downright pedestrian this year, with offensive line struggles, a mediocre receiver corps, and a troublesome quarterback situation. Have the Tide fallen so far that they are in danger of losing to an Ole Miss team they have picked their teeth with in recent years? Nick Saban famously handles his business against his former assistants, but Ole Miss has built the whole plane out of Saban assistants.
2.) Mississippi St at South Carolina, 6:30 PM Central on SEC Network
Both fanbases talked themselves into being SEC sleepers this year, but both teams are still snoozing. (n.b. I don’t blame fans for doing that — that’s the whole point of being a fan!) Spencer Rattler has been playing the best ball of his career, but has very little help from the rest of his teammates; his hot start grabbed them a 14-3 lead in Athens last week before the talent differential turned into a landslide. Speaking of talent differential, Mississippi State got pantsed last week by LSU. At least with Mike Leach’s Air Raid scheme they had an identity and a roster to fit it; they are operating a stretch run playbook with the wrong pieces, and it might be a long season in Starkville. There is a low-flying panic attack setting in for each team right now, but one will get a feel-good win on Saturday to revive the optimism.
3.) UTSA at Tennessee, 3:00 PM Central on SEC Network
Is Tennessee merely mediocre, or have they just been sleepwalking through the early slate? This matchup looked like one of the best shootouts on the slate in the summer, but UTSA’s veteran gunslinger Frank Harris has been limited with turf toe and Tennessee’s Joe Milton has been limited by being Joe Milton. In all seriousness, the Volunteers offense clearly misses the wideouts they had last season, the offensive line has regressed, and Milton, despite his big arm, has not been pushing the ball down the field the way this scheme calls for.
Around the Nation
1.) Ohio State at Notre Dame, 6:30 PM Central on NBC
In a schedule chock full of great matchups and name brands in tough spots, this one stands above the rest. Notre Dame has been playing football to start the year, with Sam Hartman adding a dangerous passing element to a sturdy run-game-and-defense recipe. Ohio State is uncharacteristically searching for that pass attack, despite having the best wide receiver room in the country; Kyle McCord has been only average in replacing CJ Stroud. It will be fascinating to watch two teams try to grind out a win with a physical, pound-the-rock style: one that wants to play that way, and one that might be playing that way by necessity.
2.) Western Kentucky at Troy, 11 AM Central on ESPNU
A college football hipster’s delight! Think of this one like a Group of Five version of USC vs Iowa. Western Kentucky quarterback Austin Reed is one of the most audacious gunslingers in the sport, and his favorite target, Malachi Corley, is NFL-bound. Troy has an excellent defense and largely views offense as that annoying task you have to do in between chances to get sacks and interceptions. Troy found some scoring juice in winning the first leg of this matchup on the road last year, thanks to some late-game heroics, and will look to make it a clean sweep. Western Kentucky would love to get their road revenge.
3.) UCLA at Utah, 2:30 PM Central on FOX
UCLA is one of about seven programs good enough to stand between the Utes and their third straight Pac-12 championship. Both teams are 3-0 to start the year; Utah checks in at 17th in SP+, and the Bruins at 19th. Both teams rely heavily on their run games, although there is plenty of quarterback intrigue, too. UCLA’s five-star true freshman Dante Moore is ready for his first big test – and it's only on the road against Utah’s physical defense in one of the best home field environments in the sport. And Utah’s veteran Cameron Rising might finally make his 2023 debut after a knee injury nine months ago playing in the Rose Bowl. This year’s Pac-12 race is going to be a mad one, and it starts in earnest right here. Enjoy.