June 13, 2024

There are some college football doozies on tap for Week 7, which once again should result in some separation in conference races (for the time being, that is) and even the race for the College Football Playoff (for the time being, that is).

Perhaps no game is bigger than No. 8 Oregon at No. 7 Washington, pitting two high-powered offenses in a Pac-12 showdown to remain undefeated. But that’s not the only marquee matchup Saturday. USC travels to Notre Dame, which is coming off a drubbing at the hands of Louisville, and Miami, fresh off its own embarrassing loss, is at North Carolina.

Our reporters preview Week 7 with a look at the which teams need the win more, offensive lines to watch and some of the week’s best quotes.

Who needs the ‘W’ more?

Miami at North Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC): Had Miami actually lined up in victory formation and beaten Georgia Tech last week, this would have been a far more difficult question to answer. But since the Hurricanes lost, this is an easy choice. Miami needs this one maybe more than any other team across the country needs a win. Coach Mario Cristobal has been at the center of a firestorm for opting to hand the ball off with the lead and 30 seconds remaining. You know what happened next: Don Chaney fumbled, and Georgia Tech scored the game-winning touchdown with one second remaining.

Cristobal and his players fielded one question after another this week about the way that game ended and how they would respond on the road against a vastly improved North Carolina team following such an emotional loss. Players were asked whether they had faith in their coaching staff for bungling the end of the game. In one clip from the sideline, center Matt Lee is seen crying and saying, “What the f— are we doing?” Lee said this week he had “unwavering faith” in Cristobal to get the job done. “When our leadership council met, it was all very positive and it’s, ‘Hey guys, move on.’ You have to have a short memory. You put in work all year for 12 games, so s— happens and you move on, and the team and every coach has done a great job of that.”

Miami is now 0-1 in ACC play, but this game presents a huge opportunity. The Hurricanes have games against all three current undefeated ACC teams left on the schedule: North Carolina, then Florida State on Nov. 11 and Louisville on Nov. 18. They can get themselves back into the ACC race with a win Saturday. But to do that, they have to find a way to push past the disappointment and not allow what happened against the Yellow Jackets to linger and ruin their season.

“Yeah, it sucks. We know we should have won,” quarterback Tyler Van Dyke said. “But we’ve got to move on from it. We’ve got a tough matchup this week, and we’ve just got to get ready for that.” — Andrea Adelson

Oregon at Washington: There is a compelling case for both teams here because they essentially are mirror images, sitting at No. 7 and No. 8 in the country, with high-powered offenses and Heisman candidates at quarterback.

However, Washington hasn’t been on a major stage yet this season, so this is a much bigger opportunity to make a national statement. Oregon had 10 million people watch it absolutely embarrass Colorado. This will be a similar chance for Washington, with “College GameDay” in town, a nationally televised game and an appealing kickoff time (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

If Washington loses, it will have chances to get back into the mix, but not until Nov. 4, when it travels to USC, the first of four games against ranked teams to end the season. Perhaps unfairly, a loss might also delegitimize Washington’s hot start for people who hadn’t been watching it until this week. That’s just how college football operates sometimes.

But again, a lot of this is equally true for Oregon. That’s all to say this is a game with massive stakes. It has the potential to be among the best games this season. — Kyle Bonagura

USC at Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC/Peacock): The answer is Notre Dame, which has already lost twice despite looking improved from last season. It needs to avoid a spiral under second-year coach Marcus Freeman. But let’s start with USC’s defense, which has been unable to shed the stink from 2022 despite upgrades.

The Trojans excel in the flashy categories — they’re in the top five nationally in sacks (22), tackles for loss (57) and forced fumbles (8) — but remain prone to busts, even though many have come with comfortable leads. Coach Lincoln Riley is tired of the criticism, saying Tuesday the defense isn’t being evaluated with enough context.

“This is a much-improved unit, there is no question about it,” Riley told reporters. “This is a unit that, when you talk about the top-end potential, has a chance to really grow and get better fast. … There’s a lot of good things happening on this defense, man.”

Back to Notre Dame. The Irish are fighting through a brutal stretch against opponents that entered their game undefeated — Ohio State, Duke, Louisville and USC. Quarterback Sam Hartman had not thrown an interception during six games at Notre Dame before getting picked three times against Louisville. Hartman’s accuracy has dropped in the past two games, and Notre Dame’s deficiencies at wide receiver are starting to show up again.

Freeman stressed the need to establish a run game with Audric Estime, who had just 20 yards on 10 carries against Louisville.

“If we have to simplify, we have to do it,” Freeman said. “That’s the biggest thing when you talk about the difference between two weeks ago till now. It’s like, ‘OK, we’re making mistakes [identifying] in the run game, and why aren’t we blocking this guy?’ We have to simplify to make sure there is crystal clarity on what we need to do.” — Adam Rittenberg

Florida at South Carolina: It’s difficult to see the loser of this game going on to have a successful season, a season that was pivotal for both teams — albeit for different reasons. Billy Napier, in his second season at Florida, needed to show marked improvement after the Gators suffered through a 6-7 campaign a year ago. Florida (4-2, 2-1) was pummeled two weeks ago at Kentucky and has played poorly away from home since Napier arrived. The Gators are 1-7 when they’ve ventured outside the Swamp, and after the trip to Williams-Brice Stadium, they still have to play Georgia in Jacksonville and LSU and Missouri on the road before closing the season at home against No. 4 Florida State.

For Shane Beamer and South Carolina, there was a ton of momentum surrounding the program after the Gamecocks won eight games a year ago and beat Tennessee and Clemson to end the regular season, creating lofty expectations in Year 3 for Beamer Ball. But much like a year ago, the Gamecocks (2-3, 1-2) need a strong close to the season after losing to three top-25 teams in their first five games.

Florida routed South Carolina 38-6 last season, but the Gamecocks bounced back to play their best football of the season and win their next two over Tennessee and Clemson. They’re going to need a similar resurgence to finish with their third straight winning record under Beamer, and that starts Saturday at home against the Gators. — Chris Low

Wyoming at Air Force: Week 7 brings us a couple of enormous matchups in the race for the Group of 5’s New Year’s Six bowl bid. Tulane and Memphis are each 4-1 and 1-0 in AAC play; the winner of Saturday’s game in the Liberty Bowl could tell us who the American front-runner is, and generally “one-loss AAC champion” is a good thing to be.

At the moment, however, Air Force might be at the front of the line. Troy Calhoun’s Falcons are 5-0 and already 3-0 in Mountain West play. They have been held under 39 points only once, and they’re allowing just 12.2 points per game.

On Saturday, however, they face by far their best opponent, a 5-1 Wyoming team that boasts wins over Texas Tech and Fresno State and a loss only at Texas. The Cowboys technically need this one more because they’ve already suffered a blemish, but this one’s huge either way. This weekend will bring quite a bit of clarity to the New Year’s Six race. — Bill Connelly


Whose offensive line makes the difference?

ACC: Duke coach Mike Elko has done a terrific job in transforming the offensive line to a position of strength since his arrival in Durham. This season, the group got even stronger with the additions of transfers Jake Hornibrook (Stanford) and Scott Elliott (Harvard), two veterans with starting experience at their previous schools. The projected starting lineup for their game Saturday against NC State has a combined 162 starts. Duke has allowed only four sacks on the season and ranks in the Top 25 in the country in rushing offense. But this unit will definitely face a test against the Wolfpack, who have 21 sacks this season and have allowed less than 100 yards rushing per game. If QB Riley Leonard (ankle) is unable to play, that could affect what Duke does on the ground — especially if NC State tries to load the box to make Henry Belin IV make some plays. — Adelson

Big Ten: Michigan’s offensive line has won the Joe Moore Award for best offensive line unit the past two seasons. Offensive coordinator and line coach Sherrone Moore had to replace a few players from last season, but the staff went to the transfer portal to fill those needs immediately. Rimington Award winner Olu Oluwatimi left for the NFL, so the coaches brought in Drake Nugent from Stanford, who has started at center this season. They also added tackle Myles Hinton and guard LaDarius Henderson. Michigan’s line has been an important part of the offensive success and has once again been dominating defenses up front. Michigan quarterbacks have been sacked just three times, and the Wolverines’ running backs are averaging 2.36 yards before contact on runs. Running back Blake Corum has an FBS-leading 10 touchdowns, and while Corum has executed those runs, he also has an excellent offensive line to thank for creating holes and blocking up front. — Tom VanHaaren

Big 12: Last season, Texas Tech averaged 3.9 yards per carry and was 111th nationally in sacks allowed at 3.15 per game. The Red Raiders brought in transfer center Rusty Staats, who started 45 games at Western Kentucky, and reshuffled the entire offensive line in the process. This season, they’re averaging 179 rushing yards per game, 4.9 yards per carry, and running back Tahj Brooks is the first Tech player with four straight 100-yard games in the past 20 years. Kansas State, meanwhile, ranks fourth nationally in run defense, allowing just 2.99 yards per carry and 93.4 yards per game. The Wildcats have given up just three rushing scores all season. How the Texas Tech line holds up will go a long way toward its survival in the conference race. — Dave Wilson

Pac-12: Bo Nix may be the headliner in Eugene as he tries to continue a Heisman-level start to the season, but the work of the Ducks’ offensive line so far cannot be overstated. The unit has allowed only three sacks of Nix all season and only 20 tackles for loss. Washington’s offensive line has protected Michael Penix Jr. in similar fashion, which has allowed him to get off to an equally, if not more, impressive start than Nix. Both offensive lines may be the key to Saturday’s matchup; whoever gives their respective quarterback more time against staunch defensive lines could be the team that emerges with a crucial win. — Paolo Uggetti

SEC: Another year, another solid Georgia offensive line. And this time the Bulldogs are doing it without Warren McClendon and Broderick Jones, who left during the offseason for the NFL. And they’re doing it without starting right tackle Amarius Mims, who has missed the past few weeks after undergoing tightrope surgery to repair a sprained ankle. But the numbers say Dylan Fairchild, Earnest Greene, Tate Ratledge, Xavier Truss and Sedrick Van Pran are doing just fine. Ratledge hasn’t given up a pressure all season. All told, Georgia ranks fourth in the FBS in pressure percentage (20.5%) and sixth in yards before contact (2,069). — Alex Scarborough

Notable quotes

Mario Cristobal: If you’ve been paying attention, you might have heard the Miami coach’s mea culpa regarding the Canes’ agonizing loss to Georgia Tech.

“I made the wrong call. I take full ownership in not taking a knee and giving them the opportunity to have a couple extra plays and preventing us from sealing the win.”

Mark Stoops: Kentucky’s coach made a pitch to fans for donations to fund his team during a weekly radio show, using Georgia, which had just beaten the Wildcats 51-13, as the primary example.

“I can promise you — Georgia, they bought some pretty good players. You’re allowed to these days, and we could use some help. That’s what they look like, you know what I mean, when you have 85 of ’em. I encourage anybody that’s disgruntled to pony up some more.”

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