The key storylines for Alabama-Tennessee, Penn State-Michigan and the rest of Week 7’s biggest games
Coming into the college football season, a lot of focus was put on the Week 6 slate. Jimbo Fisher against Nick Saban after an offseason of chatter and the new age of the Red River rivalry ahead of an SEC move highlighted what was supposed to be the week that made contenders and pretenders.
We were just off a week, it turns out.
Week 7 brings all the fireworks we were ready for last week as Alabama heads to Tennessee in a top-six SEC showdown that could very well be the conference championship game, while Kentucky and Mississippi State try to keep up with the current front-runners in another top-25 matchup. The Big Ten has a top-10 battle of its own this week with Penn State traveling to Michigan in what could be a College Football Playoff-defining game.
No. 3 Alabama Crimson Tide at No. 6 Tennessee Volunteers (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Set aside the unknown of Bryce Young‘s health and how it will impact Alabama’s offense on Saturday afternoon. We saw against Texas A&M last weekend that Young’s backup, Jalen Milroe, might not be ready to go into Tennessee and come away with a victory.
Instead, look to the battle of Tennessee’s offense vs. Alabama’s defense as the key factor in this clash of unbeaten teams.
The Vols’ offense is first among FBS teams in score rate, yards per game and points per game.
“They’re probably one of the most explosive offenses, if not the most explosive offense, in the country,” Saban said.
But the Crimson Tide’s defense is no slouch. It ranks in the top 10 in opposing score rate, yards per game and points per game.
Something has to give. And that something will likely be determined by Alabama’s ability to put pressure on Tennessee star quarterback Hendon Hooker, who has four talented receivers at his disposal with Jalin Hyatt, Bru McCoy, Cedric Tillman and Ramel Keyton — all of whom have more than 200 yards receiving this season.
In the past, Alabama has struggled against teams that go up-tempo, and Tennessee is the fifth-quickest team in the country in terms of time of possession per play (21.3 seconds). The Vols have allowed the second-lowest pressure rate in the country (16.1%), which looks at any time the quarterback is sacked, under duress or hit.
In other words: Getting a hand on Hooker won’t be easy.
But Alabama has generated the sixth-highest pressure rate in the country (37.0%) for a reason. Just look at the Texas A&M game, in which the Tide debuted their so-called “Cheetah package” that featured speedy edge rushers Will Anderson Jr., Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell on the field at the same time. Saban said simply, “It was effective.” No kidding. The defense racked up 28 total pressures against the Aggies. Anderson had a season-high 12 on his own.
“Between their personnel being good enough to win a lot of one-on-one matchups and then all their pressures and all their games up front, you gotta do a really good job,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said of his offensive line. “You have to win the one-on-one matchups and then you gotta do a great job working together as all five guys.” — Alex Scarborough
No. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions at No. 5 Michigan Wolverines (Saturday, noon ET, Fox)
The last time Michigan and Penn State met at Michigan Stadium, they played in a virtually empty building because of COVID-19 restrictions. Penn State was 0-5 for the first time in team history. Michigan wasn’t much better at 2-3.
The teams are much better, and the stakes are much higher Saturday. Both teams are undefeated and in the top 10. Saturday’s winner will be labeled the primary challenger to Big Ten favorite Ohio State, and a bona fide College Football Playoff candidate. Michigan is defending its league title, but Penn State hasn’t been in this position since an 8-0 start in 2019.
“We know that these types of games every year are critical,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
Penn State’s fortunes could hinge on an emerging run game and a pressure-heavy defense under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz. A Lions offense that hasn’t averaged more than 200 rush yards per game since 2018 has averaged 216.3 rush yards over the past four games with 14 touchdowns. Freshmen Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton are combining to average 153.2 rush yards per game.
They face a Michigan defense that, despite the NFL draft losses of star pass-rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, ranks seventh nationally in rush yards allowed per game (81.7) and sixth in yards per rush (2.62). Penn State’s run game could take some pressure off senior quarterback Sean Clifford, whose numbers to date mirror those of past seasons.
“It’s about execution, but it’s also about keeping people on their toes,” Franklin said. “If you can run in predictable passing situations and be efficient and effective, that’s what you want to do, and vice versa.”
Michigan also wants to broaden its offense as sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy makes his sixth career start and first against a ranked opponent. McCarthy’s athletic ability and overall skill set give Michigan a chance to open up the offense in ways it truly hasn’t under coach Jim Harbaugh. But McCarthy has operated a mostly conservative scheme, showing accuracy on high-percentage routes while struggling on deeper ones.
McCarthy’s decision-making and execution will be tested by Diaz’s defense, which has pressured quarterbacks 85 times on dropbacks, more than all but five FBS teams.
“When you look at what we have as a group and who we’re coached by, and you look at what we’re doing on the field, it’s just not matching up with our potential and where we should be, and where we’re going to be,” McCarthy said. “We should not be getting stopped offensively.” — Adam Rittenberg
No. 4 Clemson Tigers at Florida State Seminoles (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN app)
The Clemson-Florida State matchup used to be the can’t-miss game in the ACC, but it has turned into a relative afterthought over the past five years.
Perhaps the Seminoles can change that Saturday.
Though it has lost its past two games, Florida State (4-2) is in position to challenge the No. 4 Tigers (6-0) based on the improvements the team has made across the board. Much of that starts on offense, where Florida State has one of the best rushing attacks in the country.
Florida State has 32 explosive run plays this year on offense, 12th most in FBS and tops in the ACC. Clemson, on the other hand, has allowed just four explosive run plays — best in the nation. What’s more, Clemson is expected to have its top five defensive linemen — Bryan Bresee, Tyler Davis, Xavier Thomas, K.J. Henry and Myles Murphy — available to play for the first time this season on Saturday.
On the other side, the status of Florida State leading rusher Treshaun Ward remains unclear after he sustained an injury last week against NC State and was seen with a sling on his arm on the sideline. Florida State coach Mike Norvell said the injury wouldn’t require surgery but has not given a timetable for his return. If Ward cannot play, Trey Benson and Lawrance Toafili will carry the load.
That matchup is one of the most intriguing to watch in this game — especially if Florida State has any shot at breaking a six-game losing streak to the Tigers. The results have been ugly over that stretch, though the Seminoles had their opportunities in a 30-20 loss last year, a game in which they led 20-17 midway through the fourth quarter.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said during his news conference this week he “wanted to vomit” watching the game tape from last year, then noted how much better the Tigers are this year — most especially with an improved DJ Uiagalelei and better offensive line.
“Grading our tape this year versus last year is night and day in every area,” Swinney said.
Clemson is now the overwhelming favorite to win the Atlantic Division, while Florida State is just hoping to avoid a third straight loss after starting the season 4-0. Of course, this is also the third straight AP-ranked opponent the Seminoles will face, the only team in the ACC scheduled to play Wake Forest, NC State and Clemson in a row.
“I love this team. I love the mindset of what they bring,” Norvell said. “Nobody wants to have a disappointing outcome in any game or in any play, but how you choose to respond to things is really what’s indicative of the character that you have and the identity of what you are going to put out. These guys continue to work, they continue to believe. We’ve got to have a great week of prep to capitalize on what’s coming here Saturday night.” — Andrea Adelson
No. 16 Mississippi State Bulldogs at No. 22 Kentucky Wildcats (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network/ESPN app)
The two “Wills” were always going to dominate the buildup to this football game — Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers and Kentucky quarterback Will Levis.
But there’s a bit of a twist.
Levis has generated much of the buzz this season from pro scouts and is widely regarded as one of the top quarterback prospects in the 2023 NFL draft. He’s also not healthy and is battling a turf toe injury that kept him out of the South Carolina game a week ago, a 24-14 home loss that saw the Wildcats average just 4.7 yards per play and go 3-of-12 on third down with redshirt freshman Kaiya Sheron making his first career start at quarterback.
The Wildcats (4-2) are hopeful that Levis can return for this game, although it could still be a game-time decision. Whoever is at quarterback, the Wildcats have to find a way to protect him better if they’re going to avoid their third straight loss. They’ve allowed 25 sacks in six games, which ranks them 129th nationally out of 131 teams in sacks allowed. Zach Arnett’s 3-3-5 defense at Mississippi State has feasted on forcing turnovers (12 in six games) and has allowed just 16 touchdowns in six games. Two of those TDs came in the fourth quarter of blowouts.
The Bulldogs (5-1) have been a more balanced team all the way around this season, be it running the ball more consistently on offense or playing the kind of defense that’s going to keep them in every game.
But the centerpiece remains Rogers, who is the only quarterback in the country with more than 2,000 passing yards (2,110) and more than 20 passing touchdowns (22). If he ever was truly underrated, he’s not now. The 6-2, 210-pound junior, who still has two years of eligibility remaining, has established himself as one of the most productive quarterbacks in college football. He passed Georgia‘s Aaron Murray last week as the SEC’s all-time completions leader. Rogers did it in only 28 games. Murray set the mark over a span of 52 games.
“He’s a guy that elevates even the other sides of the ball,” Mississippi State coach Mike Leach said of his quarterback.
Rogers has been masterful at spreading the ball around this season. Six different Mississippi State receivers have caught at least 20 passes. No other SEC school has more than three (Georgia).
Kentucky has had trouble scoring against SEC foes. The Wildcats have yet to score more than 19 points on offense in their first three conference games, which becomes even more of a problem depending on Levis’ health.
On the flip side, few teams in college football have been better at scoring in the red zone than Mississippi State, which leads the nation with 19 touchdowns in 21 trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
The last thing the Wildcats want is to get into a scoring match with the Bulldogs, who are 12-0 under Leach when they score at least 30 points. — Chris Low
No. 15 NC State Wolfpack at No. 18 Syracuse Orange (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network/ESPN app)
When NC State hosted Syracuse a year ago, the defensive game plan for QB Garrett Shrader was simple enough: Make him throw the ball.
Shrader had proved an exceptional runner in 2021, and indeed, he carried 17 times for 70 yards and a score in last year’s 41-17 loss to the Wolfpack. But throwing the ball was misery. Shrader completed just 8 of 20 throws for a measly 63 yards, plus an interception for good measure. The passing game was Syracuse’s kryptonite. For the year, Shrader completed just 52.6% of his throws.
Enter Robert Anae. The new offensive coordinator for the Orange has refined the passing game and worked wonders.
“Everyone thinks Syracuse can just run the ball, and that’s it,” receiver Oronde Gadsden II said. “We wanted to develop a passing game so that when they’re running Cover 1, Cover Zero, we’ve got some dudes out there that can beat man and get open and score touchdowns.”
Syracuse can certainly run the ball. Shrader’s mobility is a weapon, but so, too, is tailback Sean Tucker, who was an All-American last season. But now there’s a genuine alternative when teams stack the box, and Shrader has proved he can find receivers downfield.
So far this season, he’s completing 71% of his throws with 10 passing TDs and just one pick. He trails only North Carolina‘s Drake Maye in passer rating among ACC QBs.
“Last year, I thought he struggled throwing the football,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said. “Now he has a 70% completion rate and is playing really well.”
Shrader is one of just four QBs in the country with 1,200 passing yards, 200 rushing yards, 10 passing touchdowns and five rushing. Add in a completion percentage of more than 70%, and the only other QBs to match those marks through five games in the playoff era are Brock Purdy, Justin Fields and Jalen Hurts.
Doeren said the priority remains containing Shrader in the pocket — something NC State struggled to do against another mobile QB, Florida State’s Jordan Travis, just last week. Travis ran for 108 yards in the 19-17 NC State win, a week after Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei ran for 70 against the Wolfpack. NC State has allowed just 745 rushing yards (not counting sacks) this season, which ranks among the best marks in the ACC. But 358 of those yards (48%) have come from QBs. And the fact that the Wolfpack must now respect Syracuse’s passing game opens up even more avenues to run.
“It’s 11-man football in the run game, and sometimes the run is just created in a pass where a guy jumps back and takes off,” Doeren said. “We have to do a great job with their quarterback and not allowing him to get out.” — David Hale
No. 7 USC Trojans at No. 20 Utah Utes (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, Fox)
When asked earlier this week what it would take to duplicate USC’s undefeated first half over the next six games, coach Lincoln Riley said with a smile: “Just six?” alluding to wanting to play for not just the conference title but perhaps a playoff game, too. “That’ll get quoted, oh boy. Everybody calm down.”
The unprecedented run to an undefeated season, though, gets tougher for the Trojans this week. Few places have given USC as much trouble as traveling to Salt Lake City in the past decade. Before the Trojans beat the Utes in a fan-less Rice-Eccles Stadium during the COVID-shortened season in 2020, USC hadn’t won there since 2012.
This weekend’s matchup lost some of its luster after UCLA beat Utah at the Rose Bowl, but the importance of this game — for both teams — has not been diminished.
Though Utah has not met preseason expectations, Kyle Whittingham’s team is stronger at home, and the expectation is that the Utes will bounce back from Saturday’s loss, especially after an uncharacteristic two-turnover day from quarterback Cameron Rising.
Earlier this week, Riley waxed poetic about Rising, whom he recruited out of high school. And by all accounts, Rising might be the best quarterback USC’s turnover-happy defense has faced so far.
For the Utes, dropping a third game (second in conference) would mean that the road back to the Pac-12 championship would require not just winning out, but hoping one of the L.A. teams and Oregon falter. For the Trojans, a win would not only keep their undefeated record intact heading into an easier stretch (and a bye week), but it would also create a simple path toward the title game: Beat UCLA.
“This is when it gets the most fun,” Riley said. “You put yourself in a great position, now it’s time to go accelerate and be our best.” — Paolo Uggetti