Week 3 college football picks: Auburn at Penn State, USC, UCLA and more

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Auburn quarterback Bo Nix (10) carries the ball during the first half of an NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Auburn quarterback Bo Nix carries the ball during the first half on Saturday in Auburn, Ala. (Butch Dill / Associated Press)

Each week, the Times’ national college sports reporter J. Brady McCollough will pick the week’s eight best games — that have a combination of big-brand intrigue and a spread within a touchdown — plus the USC and UCLA games.

Michigan State at No. 24 Miami

Through two weeks, the Spartans have put the country on notice that their 2020 struggles were a pandemic-related blemish in Mel Tucker’s first year in East Lansing. Michigan State will face a real test against Miami, which is trying to make a full recovery from its season-opening Alabama beatdown. Michigan State should be able to control the clock with running back Kenneth Walker III and hit some big plays over the top to its sneaky fast receivers. Michigan State 28, Miami 24

No. 15 Virginia Tech at West Virginia

The Hokies shocked preseason darling North Carolina in Week 1, taking advantage of a rowdy home crowd and a dominant defense. Can Virginia Tech take that show on the road against a West Virginia team looking for a statement win? The Mountaineers have a solid defense and should be able to keep the game tight and win it in the fourth. West Virginia 20, Virginia Tech 17

No. 8 Cincinnati at Indiana

Cincinnati running back Jerome Ford is pushed out of bounds by Murray State cornerback Cayvian Holmes.
Cincinnati running back Jerome Ford is pushed out of bounds by Murray State cornerback Cayvian Holmes during the second half on Saturday in Cincinnati. (Jeff Dean / Associated Press)

This will be Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell’s first audition for USC fans now that Clay Helton is out of the picture (of course, that doesn’t mean Fickell actually wants the job). The Bearcats have an outside shot at the College Football Playoff if they can beat the Hoosiers and Notre Dame on the road and then run the table. Indiana was pounded at Iowa in its opener and lost its ranking, but it will be no pushover in Bloomington. Cincinnati 30, Indiana 27

Minnesota at Colorado

The Buffaloes had Texas A&M on the ropes last week but could not muster more than one touchdown in a 10-7 loss. Minnesota has a much softer defense, though, and is still trying to piece together its offense after losing star running back Mohamed Ibrahim for the season. Colorado 23, Minnesota 21

Purdue at No. 12 Notre Dame

Jeff Brohm had a breakthrough victory over Ohio State in 2018, and three years later he could certainly use another one Saturday at Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are vulnerable after narrowly escaping Florida State and Toledo, but they’ve also been humbled enough to possibly find renewed focus this week. Purdue’s offense has weapons led by wide receiver David Bell, who will become a national name this week in South Bend. Purdue 34, Notre Dame 31

USC at Washington State

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a pass during a loss to Stanford.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a pass during a loss to Stanford at the Coliseum on Saturday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

It will be surreal for USC fans watching the Trojans and not seeing Clay Helton’s face on the sideline. In his place will be interim head coach Donte Williams, who will be learning on the fly in his new role. Can Williams, a master motivator when it comes to recruiting, get the same level of player buy-in on game day? It will probably be good to get the Trojans out of L.A. to more easily come together with a chip on their shoulders. USC 28, Washington State 20

No. 22 Auburn at No. 10 Penn State

In what should be the best game of the day, first-year Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin will face his first test as the Tigers’ leader, and it’s a gargantuan undertaking — a “white out” night game in Happy Valley. The buzz is that Harsin is getting the most out of much-maligned quarterback Bo Nix, but playing well in this atmosphere is one of the toughest things to do in college football. Penn State’s defense will be out for blood, and as long as quarterback Sean Clifford doesn’t make big mistakes, the Nittany Lions should prevail. Penn State 24, Auburn 19

Oklahoma State at Boise State

The Cowboys appear to have lost the magic they once had under Mike Gundy, but maybe they can rediscover themselves on the blue turf in Boise. The Broncos similarly are trying to find their footing under new head coach Andy Avalos. In a game that feels like it should be a stalemate throughout, we’ll go with the home crowd and Boise State wide receiver Khalil Shakir being the best player on the field. Boise State 27, Oklahoma State 24

No. 19 Arizona State at No. 23 Brigham Young

BYU has already beaten Arizona and Utah, while Arizona State has roughed up two cupcakes. It seems like their rankings should be flipped, but, unfortunately for the Sun Devils, that’s just enough to make the Cougars even more fired up. Think BYU doesn't want to improve its record to 3-0 against the Pac-12? Arizona State is walking into trouble. BYU 38, Arizona State 28

Fresno State at No. 13 UCLA

UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet powers upfield against LSU.
UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet powers upfield against LSU at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 4. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The bye week probably came at a pretty good time for the Bruins after their season-shaping win over Louisiana State. It gave Chip Kelly time to get his players refocused and healthy, plus a little extra scout time on a Fresno State team that is fully capable of sending UCLA to its first loss of the young season. UCLA’s defense will have a lot to handle with quarterback Jake Haener, running back Ronnie Rivers and receiver Jalen Cropper, but the Bruins will make enough plays to get off the field. UCLA 42, Fresno State 30

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.