In November 2014, Mississippi State was undefeated at 9-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country by the College Football Playoff selection committee. It was quite the surprise, considering the Bulldogs had been picked by the media to finish fifth in the SEC West that season. Instead, they landed squarely in the playoff debate in the inaugural CFP after defeating three top-10 teams in succession: LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn.
Can they do it again?
The Bulldogs, who were picked by the media to finish sixth in the SEC West this season, upended No. 12 LSU last week and have another opportunity to knock off three straight ranked opponents, as they head to No. 11 Georgia this week and travel to No. 15 Auburn on Sept. 30.
"I don't know if we're quite at that point with this year's team," coach Dan Mullen said of 2014. "... We come away with a win this past week. We won the game, so we get a little bit of attention. If we win again this week, we get a little bit more attention."
Probably a lot more.
The Bulldogs aren't alone. Week 4 is a chance to evaluate the state of the States. Among teams in the top 50, the 17th-ranked Bulldogs and No. 6 Oklahoma State have made the biggest leaps in ESPN's Football Power Index since the preseason. On Saturday, they face ranked conference opponents in games that could help propel them further into consideration for a top-four spot. While Mississippi State visits SEC East favorite Georgia (ESPN & ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET), Oklahoma State hosts undefeated TCU (ESPN & ESPN App, 3:30 p.m. ET), a team playing the best defense the Cowboys will have seen yet.
Coach Mike Gundy is well aware of his team's potential. The Cowboys have scored more first-quarter points (59) than their opponents have scored in three games combined (52). But he knows there is still much to prove.
"They've been committed ever since the bowl game last year in January," Gundy said. "They've been very committed to each other. We don't have a lot of issues. They understand the importance of preparation and focus. There's just not a lot that's surprised me right now. I felt good about them coming into the year. It doesn't mean it's always going to work out that way, but at this point, they've done very well."
So have TCU and Georgia. They're all undefeated. The perception of conference races in both the SEC and Big 12 could change quickly this weekend. Everyone wants to know which team could beat Alabama. If it's not LSU, Auburn or Mississippi State, maybe it's Georgia in the SEC title game.
There has also been so much talk about Bedlam on Nov. 4 and a potential rematch between No. 3 Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the renewed Big 12 title game. But No. 16 TCU might have something to say about it.
"I'm excited about my team," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "We've got ourselves to 3-0. We've got ourselves in a position where we feel like we have a very mature football team, and so we're excited for the challenge. You always want to play against really good people. You can find out what you're like and what your level is and what you play at. Definitely Oklahoma State puts us in that category."
We'll find out more about what category they're all in during Week 4.
Are we in store for a wacky Week 4?
This is the kind of September weekend that elicits either a shoulder shrug or a complete overhaul of your preseason perceptions. Maybe, just maybe, Kentucky (3-0) and Vanderbilt (3-0) are the teams to beat in the SEC East. Maybe Cal will be 4-0. Maybe TCU, not Oklahoma State, will be Oklahoma's biggest challenger in the Big 12.
Hold your snickering.
While upsets are unlikely (that's why they are called upsets), it takes only one weird weekend, and this one has that kind of potential from coast to coast:
Nobody has seen Florida State play since its Sept. 2 loss to Alabama. The Noles were derailed by a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Deondre Francois, and then Hurricane Irma forced them to cancel one game and postpone another.
Now NC State, with its senior-laden defensive line, comes to Tallahassee to face the first true freshman starting quarterback at Florida State since 1985. How James Blackman fares will determine whether the Noles can rebound from their season-opening loss and play their way back into the CFP debate. FSU's defense is national-championship caliber. The offense is a mystery.
"Nobody's ever been through this," coach Jimbo Fisher said. "They never went 21 days without playing before. In that regard, you worry about rust. Can it be like an opener? Yes. Could it not be? Yes. All you can control is how you practice and your mindset going into the game, looking forward to playing well and being able to execute what you do, and that's what we've got to be able to do."
FPI says: NC State has a 14.4 percent chance of winning.
What if: Kentucky beats No. 20 Florida (SEC Network, 7:30 p.m. ET)?
The Gators have done nothing to earn the benefit of the doubt in this one. They are last in the SEC in scoring offense (21.5 PPG) and 12th in scoring defense (26.5). Only Missouri has allowed more yards per game in the SEC. The Gators haven't been able to run the ball or stop the run. Kentucky's biggest area of improvement, meanwhile, has been stopping the run. Yet history reminds us that the burden of proof is on Kentucky, which has lost 30 straight to Florida, dating back to 1987.
"It's fair to say we've come a long way," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. "... With every opportunity our players do become more confident, but it's every seven days you have a new opportunity to prove yourself, and that's how we look at it."
FPI says: Kentucky has a 42.9 percent chance of winning.
What if: Cal beats USC (ABC & ESPN App, 3:30 p.m. ET)?
It's not that Cal looks like a juggernaut (though wins over North Carolina and Ole Miss are better than what a lot of teams can claim right now); it's more that No. 5 USC looks vulnerable. Cal has forced three or more turnovers in three straight games, while USC quarterback Sam Darnold has already thrown six interceptions this season. The Golden Bears' defense has been one of the most glaring improvements, as they allowed 42.6 points per game last season compared to 22 through the first three games this season.
"Sam Darnold is as good as there is at playing his position," Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. "He's arguably the best player in the country, so a ton of respect for him. It will be a great challenge for us."
Cal hasn't beaten USC since 2003, when Aaron Rodgers was the Bears' starting QB. A win Saturday would be an upset of epic proportions.
FPI says: Cal has a 17.2 percent chance of winning.
According to Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, "our guys are feeling it right now." And they should be. Purdue has been one of the biggest surprises this month, pushing No. 19 Louisville to the brink before losing 35-28 and recovering for back-to-back wins against Ohio and at Missouri. Michigan's offense has been underwhelming, particularly in the red zone. Still, Jim Harbaugh knows how to win with defense and special teams as the offense works to improve.
"We've got our hands full," Brohm said. "In these type of games, you have to go in internally believing that you can get it done. You've got to be willing to fight the entire game. You have to be able to do the small things and not beat yourself so that you can get in the second half and be close. Then if you can do that, a few things go your way -- you never know."
FPI says: Purdue has a 22.1 percent chance of winning.