Week 4 takeaways: Coaches talking smack, Texas playing defense

Florida's Ricky Pearsall channels OBJ with must-see grab (0:28)

Florida WR Ricky Pearsall needs just one hand to make a spectacular catch for a first down. (0:28)

A loaded Week 4 slate, including six ranked-versus-ranked matchups, figured to unveil a lot about the 2023 college football season.

Oregon and Washington State earned huge home wins, the ACC kept rolling thanks to some unlikely unbeatens, and Alabama bounced back in a big way against Ole Miss.

Our reporters break down what we learned in another wild week.

The ACC is thriving

There have been many narratives surrounding the ACC over the course of the past few years: No playoff appearances, big-name football brand struggles and few marquee nonconference wins hurt the way football was viewed.

Add to that questions around conference realignment and whether league teams could compete facing a major revenue gap with the SEC and Big Ten, and well, it all served to create the perception that the league was just barely hanging on.

But look what has happened to start 2023: The ACC has six undefeated teams, tied with the 2012 SEC for the most teams in a Power 5 conference to start 4-0 in a single season in the AP Poll era (since 1936).

North Carolina is 4-0 for the first time since 1997, with two nonconference wins over Power 5 opponents. What may be most surprising of all, though, is who else is undefeated, too.

With Clemson off to a 2-2 start, the hot ACC teams have made the Tigers' seeming elimination from playoff contention almost feel like an afterthought. Duke, which handed the Tigers an opening weekend defeat, is also 4-0 and will host "College GameDay" for the first time in school history this Saturday for its big home game against Notre Dame.

In fact, Duke and North Carolina are 4-0 in football at the same time for the first time since ... 1971. Syracuse is 4-0 in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1959-60. Louisville, at 4-0 for the first time since 2016, has used its prolific offense and terrific running from Jawhar Jordan (No. 8 in the nation in rushing yards) as native son Jeff Brohm has lived up to the hype.

And 4-0 Miami is delivering a year after Mario Cristobal also returned home -- with an offense that is allowing Tyler Van Dyke to flourish once again. Van Dyke ranks No. 4 in the country in quarterback rating -- completing 74.7% of his passes with 16 touchdowns to just two interceptions.

"Whether you like it or not the narrative starts to get set with how you play in the nonconference. I'm really proud of how we've started the season with more opportunities left," ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said. -- Andrea Adelson

Alabama freshman steps up

Much has been made about the Crimson Tide's quarterback situation through the first four weeks, as the offense has been last in the SEC in total offense at 364.8 yards per game.

Jalen Hale came into the program this fall from Longview High School (Texas) as one of 13 top-50 prospects in a recruiting class that finished atop the 2023 rankings. Hale caught 12 touchdown passes as a senior in high school, but it was his first collegiate score -- a 33-yard reception from Jalen Milroe midway through the third quarter Saturday -- that gave Alabama the breathing room it needed to pull away from Lane Kiffin and 15th-ranked Ole Miss in a 24-10 victory. With Nick Saban now fully behind Milroe in the quarterback competition that also saw Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner and Ty Simpson see time under center, the focus now turns to who can step up and become the latest to hold up the program's legacy at wide receiver. If Saturday is any harbinger, Hale bears watching. -- Blake Baumgartner

A different kind of coachspeak

Maybe it's the advent of Prime Time on a Power 5 stage that has freed some coaches up. Maybe it's the fact that coaches have been forced to increasingly become more online as their players have now grown up living there. Maybe it's just that they are searching for motivation at every turn, TV show or tweet. Whatever the case, Saturday was a banner day for coaches speaking their minds.

In the quotes of Ryan Day, Dan Lanning and Deion Sanders, among others, there were far fewer coach clichés, far less "both teams played hard" and far more pointed comments at former coaches, current coaches, broadcasters and anyone who might have said something to besmirch their team. In turn, players like Oregon's defensive lineman Brandon Dorlus took cues from their coaches, giving voice to the disrespect they felt by mundane things such as players walking over midfield logos.

"They came in yesterday, stepped on our O," Dorlus said, referring to a video the Buffs posted of them walking around Autzen Stadium the day before. "That's the result you get."

Oregon wide receiver Troy Franklin agreed.

"Pregame I didn't really understand why they were on our half of the field, things like that," he said. "They just weren't kind of respectful."

Perceived disrespect or actual disrespect fuels much of this sport for better or worse, and while some might feel like random overreactions (looking at you, Ryan Day), if it means players and coaches will speak their mind as they try to use anything from an off-handed comment to a prediction in order to craft an "us against the world" mentality and give themselves an edge, I, for one, welcome it. -- Paolo Uggetti

Texas' defense might be the Big 12 difference

No. 3 Texas began its final Big 12 quest by making quick work of Baylor with a 38-6 win in Waco, where the Longhorns had lost in their past two trips.

Texas hasn't won the Big 12 since 2009, which is hard to believe. It also hasn't been this high in the polls since that season.

Steve Sarkisian said all offseason that fixing the deep passing game was one of the biggest priorities. So far, it's been much better, though quarterback Quinn Ewers had his struggles against Wyoming. But thus far this year, Ewers has 11 completions of 30-plus yards this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Ewers had just 10 such completions all last season.

The Horns have a chance to go 5-0 this week with Kansas coming to Austin. And while all the spotlight has been on those offensive stars along with Sarkisian's reputation as a playcaller, the Texas defense may be the unheralded star of the show.

Texas has held each of its past nine opponents under 30 points, tied with Penn State and Kentucky for the longest current streak in FBS. It has allowed just 50 points in the first four games this season (a stretch that includes a trip to Tuscaloosa against Alabama) and has held opponents to 10 points or fewer in the first half in 10 games since last year, most in the Big 12. Sarkisian said it's been a long process, but the progress is showing.

"It's been three years in the making of putting a staff together, putting a scheme together, making adjustments to that scheme," Sarkisian said Saturday night. "I think we've added depth to that roster on the defensive side of the ball on all three levels. I think we have really good veteran leadership on defense from front to back. Then what comes with that is confidence."

The result -- along with a vastly improved Oklahoma defense -- is that early returns look like a Longhorns-Sooners collision course in Dallas on Oct. 7 for Big 12 supremacy. In the two schools' final season in the league, that is probably fitting, albeit uncomfortable for league leadership. -- Dave Wilson

Ohio State-Notre Dame fallout puts both coaches in the spotlight

After Ohio State's dramatic win over Notre Dame, the focus quickly shifted to both coaches -- for very different reasons. I've known Ryan Day since 2017 and have never seen him so animated after a game, both as he pumped his fist and pumped up the fans huddled around the Buckeyes' tunnel, and then in his news conference.

Day might have been set off by the comments from former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz on "The Pat McAfee Show," but Holtz's main point, that Day's teams aren't tough enough, was something Day clearly has heard for a while. When I talked with him before last year's CFP, he used the word "calloused" to describe how he dealt with the criticism that came from dropping consecutive games to Michigan. Still, Holtz clearly picked open the scab.

The question is whether Day's emotion, and the way Ohio State won, can springboard the team to outplay and out-tough its remaining opponents, especially Penn State and Michigan. Day coached with similar emotion in the CFP semifinal against Georgia and his team responded well, largely outplaying the eventual national champions. But too much emotion from a coach, bordering on being unhinged, can work against a team.

"That's definitely the most animated I've ever seen him, and rightfully so," quarterback Kyle McCord said after a big performance down the stretch. "People were taking shots at him, taking shots at the team, that weren't true. ... I think we proved a lot of people wrong, but the bigger thing is: Can you prove yourself right?"

Notre Dame's Marcus Freeman, meanwhile, has reached a crossroads early in his tenure. Freeman's team largely outplayed Ohio State and could have secured one of its biggest wins in years. But then a series of missteps occurred -- passing on second-and-15 rather than forcing Ohio State to burn its final timeout, and then having only 10 defenders on the field for consecutive goal-line plays, despite taking a timeout in between -- that cost Freeman and the Irish.

Freeman is only in his second year as a coach and has a relatively young staff, but every mistake is magnified, especially inexcusable ones like having 10 men on the field. Instead of a 5-0 start, Notre Dame left the field heartbroken and now enters a very difficult stretch against Duke (road), Louisville (road) and USC (home).

"We use every game to make us better, but specifically this one, right?" Freeman said. "How do you find a way to make your team better through a difficult loss? And we'll do that. I know our coaches and our players will."

What happens next will reveal a lot about Notre Dame and its young coach. -- Adam Rittenberg

Is Georgia really No. 1?

Putting Georgia at the top of your poll -- any poll -- is the easy way out. Nobody, not even Kirby Smart, knows if Georgia is the best team in the country, because it hasn't done anything this season to prove it.

Wins against UT Martin, Ball State, South Carolina and UAB -- four straight home games -- shouldn't be enough to declare the Bulldogs No. 1, even if they are two-time defending national champs. Not when Texas won in Tuscaloosa. Ohio State won in South Bend. Florida State won in Death Valley and beat LSU in Orlando.

And let's be honest -- Washington has looked like the most complete team in the country.

There will be time for Georgia to reassert itself at the top of the playoff pyramid. September isn't it. -- Heather Dinich

Who is playing better than WSU QB Cam Ward?

Against an Oregon State defense that had been -- by every important metric -- at least a top-two defense in the Pac-12 for the past two seasons, Washington State quarterback Cam Ward turned in a signature performance Saturday night. It wasn't just the yards (404) or the completion percentage (82.4) or deep throws that left a positive impression. It was that under new offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle, Ward looked in complete control at just about every moment. For a guy that went from zero-star recruit in a run-heavy high school offense to where he is now -- one of just three FBS players (along with Notre Dame's Sam Hartman and USC's Caleb Williams) with at least 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions) -- is a remarkable rise.

Ward was solid last year for the Cougars after transferring from FCS Incarnate Word, but his year-over-year improvement is among the most impressive in college football, and NFL scouts have taken notice. In a conference full of future pro quarterbacks, Ward has still stood out. His production is right there with Washington's Michael Penix Jr. and Williams, perhaps the two Heisman Trophy front-runners. -- Kyle Bonagura