The doldrums of Weeks 2 and 3 are finally behind us, which means we have actual, real interesting football from noon to midnight. Cue the Hallelujah Chorus. Here are the top eight story lines we're watching heading into Week 4 of the college football season.
1. Is this, finally, the week Mississippi State looks like a real SEC contender? This one is pretty simple. Mississippi State was everyone's favorite SEC dark horse, and quarterback Dak Prescott was everyone's favorite Heisman dark horse. At 39-28, Dan Mullen has inarguably pulled the program out of the ditch he found it in, but that 39-28 record looks entirely different when broken out against opponents unranked (37-7) and ranked (2-21, including 15 straight losses). LSU is ranked in the top 10, as are future SEC West opponents Texas A&M, Auburn, Alabama and Ole Miss. That's rough, but it's also life in college football's toughest division.
This isn't the first time the "Hey, look out for those Bulldogs!" meme has announced itself, either. Consider 2012, where Mississippi State rose from outside the rankings to No. 13 on the strength of a 7-0 start that included one win over an above .500 opponent - an 8-4 Middle Tennessee team that didn't garner a bowl invite. Mississippi State lost its next three to Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU by a combined score of 113-37, and dropped five of its final six, all by 14 points or more.
Either "Dan Mullen is building a contender at Mississippi State" will happen or it won't, and this feels like the right time to find out.
2. What about West Virginia-Oklahoma? The lines aren't clearly as drawn and the stakes not quite as dramatic, but the same story lines are apparent at Oklahoma-West Virginia on Saturday night.
3. Well, what was that all about? Florida's visit to Alabama Saturday is not a referendum on Act II of Will Muschamp's tenure at Florida and his hiring of Kurt Roper, but it will be treated that way. Florida is an underdog in Tuscaloosa for the same reason 120 or so other teams would be underdogs in Tuscaloosa, but West Virginia provided a blueprint for attacking Alabama, the same way Oklahoma did before them, and Auburn before them, and Texas A&M before them.
One thing is certain: Florida's (abbreviated) pre-season is over. After Alabama, the Gators get a clearly improving Tennessee team, and then face LSU, Missouri and Georgia in consecutive weeks. Two working byes present themselves in November in the forms of Vanderbilt and Eastern Kentucky, but followed by dates against South Carolina and Florida State.
4. Is this the most fun Thursday night game this season? Auburn hasn't visited a ranked non-conference opponent was in his second year as the head coach at Springdale High School. Kansas State hasn't hosted a non-conference opponent ranked this highly since No. 2 Penn State came to Manhattan in 1969. Clearly, this is a game neither of these program typically plays. It may not be the best Thursday night game of the year; UCLA-Arizona State and LSU-Texas A&M certainly have an argument.
Auburn is rightfully a healthy favorite on paper and on the field, but who knows what happens when you get 50,000 purple-headed crazies together? There's also the time Bill Snyder tried to hire Gus Malzahn, the time Snyder tried to sign Nick Marshall. Also consider the long history of for-no-other-reason-than-it's-Thursday-night upsets and this stat:
It may not be the best Thursday night game of the year, but it is the epitome of why Thursday night football was invented.
5. Can Clemson close the gap with Florida State? In 2011, Clemson beat Florida State 35-30 and went on to win the ACC. Since then, not only has Florida State claimed the last two ACC titles (and last year's conference championship), it has clobbered the Tigers in the process, winning the two meetings by a combined score of 100-51. Florida State is a three-touchdown favorite for Saturday. Dabo Swinney said last year he thought his Clemson team would beat Florida State five times out of 10, and stood by it today. They get one shot to send their season in one of two completely opposite directions, and it comes in a raucous Doak Campbell Stadium.
6. Who's going break out of the rut, Al Golden or Bo Pelini? Both arrived with much celebration. Both have brought success since then, but neither have taken their programs over the top. In fact, in nine combined seasons, neither Golden or Pelini have lost less than four games, with Pelini hitting that exact number six years running. A win almost certainly gets Pelini off the four-loss treadmill, with a 4-0 start and only two ranked opponents left... right? And a win for Golden puts him at 3-1 with only one ranked foe left on the slate, which puts him on track for a 9-3 season.... right?
7. Can Mike London keep the good times rolling? Last year's rain-drenched Virginia-BYU affair was one of the strangest results of the season, where BYU outgained the Cavaliers by 139 yards, ran 19 more plays, achieved seven more first downs, won the turnover battle, and lost the game. Virginia started 1-0, and then finished 1-10, with no more wins against FBS opponents. A win Saturday puts London's team at 3-1, surpassing last year's total before the end of September, and stakes the Cavaliers as a contender in the wide-freaking-open ACC Coastal.
BYU has been a bull in a china shop this season, but Jon Tenuta's defense (eighth nationally in sacks and TFL, 17th in rush defense, 24th in pass efficiency defense) has the goods to make it interesting.
8. Is ABC going to get fined for violating FCC laws? Texas A&M visits SMU on Saturday. The game will be broadcast nationally on ABC. I'm pretty sure the FCC has laws against showcasing that type of gore. Here's hoping the unexpected change at head coach breathed some life into the SMU program.