College Football Week 7 Preview: Storylines, matchups and predictions for the six biggest games

2T075HR PALO ALTO, CA - SEPTEMBER 30: Oregon Ducks RB Bucky Irving (0), Oregon Ducks OL Marcus Harper II (55) and OOL Josh Conerly Jr. (76) drop back to protect Oregon Ducks QB Bo Nix (10) in the game between the Oregon Ducks and the Stanford Cardinal on September 30, 2023 at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, CA. (Photo by Larry Placido/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

• No. 8 Oregon-No. 7 Washington: In one of the biggest games of the year, the Ducks and Huskies square off to determine the Pac-12 frontrunner.

• No. 10 USC-No. 21 Notre Dame: The Trojans are forced to prove their legitimacy for the first time this season against the reeling Fighting Irish.

• No. 18 UCLA-No. 15 Oregon State: The Pac-12 is fully in the spotlight this week as the Bruins and Beavers clash in a matchup of two top-20 teams.

Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes

We’re in college football heaven.

Week 7 marks the fourth straight weekend with at least four games between ranked opponents, with five if you go by our top 25. Here are the storylines to know, matchups to watch and predictions for the six biggest games of Week 7.

Read more: PFF’s College Football Midseason All-American Team

No. 8 Oregon Ducks at No. 7 Washington Huskies (3:30 PM EST on ABC)

Storyline to know: Who will become the team to beat in the Pac-12?

The Pac-12 is the best conference in college football this season. Seven of the 12 members are in the top 20 of the AP poll, three more than any other conference.

The two highest-ranked Pac-12 teams are Washington and Oregon, meaning the winner of this game becomes the early frontrunner to win the conference and secure the Pac-12’s first College Football Playoff berth since 2016.

Matchup to watch: Two of the nation’s highest-powered offenses square off

Oregon and Washington make up two of the three most efficient offenses in the country this season in expected points added per play.

Leaders in EPA per play among FBS teams
School EPA per play
Oregon 0.418
LSU 0.369
Washington 0.358
USC 0.349

Washington and Oregon both rank in the top three in overall pass-blocking grade, with the Ducks' 95.2 mark sitting more than four points higher than the next-closest school. Washington’s offense features the nation’s highest-graded quarterback in Michael Penix Jr. (93.7) and the best receiving grade in the country (89.6) thanks to Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk and Jalen McMillan, among others.

While Oregon also likes to air it out with Bo Nix and his talented group of receivers, the Ducks are also capable of pounding the rock. Oregon’s 93.3 rushing grade ranks second in the country, and the Ducks average the most yards per carry in college football (7.5).

It’ll be an uphill battle for each defense to slow down the opposing offense, but Oregon seems more likely to be up to the task. The Ducks are 13th in the FBS in expected points allowed per play, while the Huskies are 68th.

Prediction: Oregon 35, Washington 34

In what should be another shootout, Oregon’s defense makes just enough stops to hold on for the victory.

Texas A&M Aggies at No. 19 Tennessee Volunteers (3:30 P.M. EST on CBS)

Storyline to know: Time for Tennessee to prove it’s more than last year’s run

The Volunteers are still riding the high from last year’s 11-2 season, the program’s best record since 2001. Florida, the top team Tennessee has played so far this season, beat the Volunteers 29-16. None of their four victories have come against a school that’s currently in the top 50 of PFF’s power rankings.

That can change this week, as Texas A&M is currently No. 27 in our rankings, three spots ahead of the Gators. A win for Tennessee would prove that this year’s team can stand on its own two feet instead of piggybacking off last year's success.

Matchup to watch: Texas A&M’s passing game vs. Tennessee’s defense

To say Max Johnson has filled in admirably for the injured Conner Weigman would be a massive understatement. The redshirt sophomore’s 91.1 passing grade this season ranks sixth among all quarterbacks. He is aided by a receiving corps that places 12th in the nation in receiving grade (79.0).

Meanwhile, Tennessee’s defense is tied for third in coverage grade (93.0) —behind only Alabama and UCLA. Where the Volunteers can truly expose the Aggies is in the trenches. Tennessee is fifth in the nation in pass-rushing grade (83.7), while Texas A&M has allowed the fourth-highest pressure rate in the Power Five (35.7%).

Prediction: Texas A&M 30, Tennessee 27

The Aggies pull off the road upset and knock Tennessee out of the top 25.

No. 10 USC Trojans at No. 21 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (7:30 P.M. EST on NBC)

Storyline to know: Will USC finally get burned or can they take advantage of a weary Notre Dame team?

The Trojans have been playing with fire this season. They just went to triple overtime with Arizona, the No. 81 team in PFF’s power rankings. The week before, USC was outscored 27-14 by Colorado in the second half and narrowly escaped with a seven-point victory. While the offense has remained elite, the defense ranks just 80th in the nation in EPA per play.

This week, USC has its toughest test on the road against Notre Dame. Luckily for the Trojans, the Fighting Irish are burning the candle at both ends right now. Notre Dame is one of only four FBS schools that has already played seven games this season. This week also marks the Fighting Irish’s fourth straight night game against a top-25 opponent after facing Ohio State, Duke and Louisville the past three weeks.

Matchup to watch: Notre Dame’s run game vs. USC’s run defense

The game plan for USC is simple: Turn this into a duel between Caleb Williams and Sam Hartman. The sixth-year senior earned an 86.9 passing grade over the team's first four games — against weaker competition — to rank 16th among Power Five quarterbacks. In the past three contests against ranked opponents, that number has fallen to a 62.0 mark that places Hartman 40th. If he’s forced to go throw-for-throw with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, it's a battle the Trojans are most likely going to win.

Luckily for the Fighting Irish, their biggest offensive strength matches up with USC’s most glaring defensive weakness. Audric Estime was recently named to PFF's midseason All-American team because he leads all FBS running backs with an 89.0 grade and paces all Power Five backs with 38 forced missed tackles. USC’s defense has the fourth-most missed tackles in the Power Five this season (79) while also having the fourth-worst average depth of tackle in run defense (5.3 yards).

Prediction: USC 34, Notre Dame 31

Notre Dame is forced to rely on Hartman early in this game to keep up with Williams and USC’s explosive offense, playing right into the Trojans’ hands.

No. 25 Miami (FL) Hurricanes at No. 12 North Carolina Tar Heels (7:30 P.M. EST on ABC)

Storyline to know: How does Miami respond to the most inexcusable loss in college football history?

Miami head coach Mario Cristobal was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons this past weekend. With fewer than 40 seconds left against Georgia Tech, his Hurricanes held the ball and a three-point lead while the Yellow Jackets had no timeouts remaining. Instead of kneeling and allowing the clock to expire, Miami inexplicably ran the ball. Donald Chaney Jr. fumbled, and Georgia Tech recovered. Haynes King then threw the game-winning 44-yard touchdown pass to Christian Leary with one second left to hand the Hurricanes their first loss of the season — a defeat as indefensible as they come.

Miami must rebound from that agonizing loss quickly, as the team now goes on the road to face a red-hot North Carolina team that is 5-0 for the first time in 26 years.

Matchup to watch: Can Miami slow down Drake Maye?

While Caleb Williams is the near-consensus top quarterback prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft, there are more than a few who prefer Drake Maye. In fact, Maye’s 92.4 grade over the past two seasons leads all quarterbacks in the country and barely edges out Williams’ 92.3 mark. To say the Tar Heels rely on him to carry their offense would be an understatement.

North Carolina’s offensive grades this season
Facet Grade Rank Among FBS Teams
Passing 89.7 9th
Receiving 70.6 T-55th
Rushing 82.8 40th
Pass-blocking 68.9 55th
Run-blocking 51.4 118th

Miami’s defense sports the nation’s second-best run-defense grade (92.5), placing even more pressure on Maye to shoulder the load. The Hurricanes also possess the 10th-best pressure rate in the country (39.8%), which could leave Maye vulnerable behind a porous offensive line. Miami’s coverage unit has been just average so far this season, but preseason All-American safety Kamren Kinchens did return last week from injury.

Prediction: Miami 30, North Carolina 28

Miami gets its season back on track by spoiling North Carolina’s undefeated season.

Missouri Tigers at No. 24 Kentucky Wildcats (7:30 P.M. EST on SEC Network)

Storyline to know: Which team will get back on track?

Missouri and Kentucky each suffered their first losses this past weekend. The Tigers were on the losing end of a 49-39 shootout with LSU. The Wildcats' loss wasn’t nearly as close, as top-ranked Georgia curb-stomped them by a final score of 51-13.

The winner of this game will have an argument, along with Tennessee, to be the second-best team in the SEC East, while the loser will have lost most of the hype generated from a 5-0 start.

Matchup to watch: Two teams with drastically different offensive identities face vulnerable defenses

Missouri’s offense and Kentucky’s offense win in polar opposite ways.

The Tigers want to air it out on their opponents. That’s for good reason, too, as Brady Cook’s 87.7 grade ranks 16th among FBS quarterbacks and Luther Burden III has been the best receiver in college football this season. He leads all FBS receivers in receiving grade (93.1) and receiving yards (790) while pacing Power Five receivers in yards after the catch (484) and yards per route run (4.36). Missouri ranks 12th in the nation in pressure rate allowed (14.7%), giving Cook time to find Burden and his other weapons. Meanwhile, Kentucky is only 71st in the country in pass-rushing grade and 50th in coverage grade this season.

The Wildcats’ offense runs through one man: Ray Davis. His 404 rushing yards after contact this season are the fifth most among Power Five running backs, and his 89.9 rushing grade ranks third. He now faces a Missouri run defense that surrendered 291 yards to LSU on 6.9 yards per attempt.

Prediction: Missouri 30, Kentucky 24

Missouri’s offense is too explosive for Kentucky to handle and the Tigers enter next week with a number next to their name once again.

No. 18 UCLA Bruins at No. 15 Oregon State Beavers (8 P.M. EST on FOX)

Storyline to know: Which team is for real?

Both Oregon State and UCLA have endured up-and-down starts to their respective seasons. The Beavers are 5-1 with a win over then-No. 10 Utah and a loss to then-No. 21 Washington State. The Bruins are also 5-1 and the inverse of Oregon State, beating Washington State but losing to Utah.

The winner of this game will establish itself as one of the Pac-12’s top contenders outside the big three of Washington, Oregon and USC. The loser’s lofty dreams of a conference title will be all but dashed.

Matchup to watch: Oregon State’s offensive line vs. UCLA’s defensive line

This promises to be a heavyweight title fight in the trenches.

Oregon State currently has the highest-graded offensive line in the Power Five this season (85.2). The Beavers’ front five ranks third in the country with an 89.8 run-blocking grade and ninth in the Power Five with a 14.1% pressure rate allowed. The star of that group is right tackle Taliese Fuaga, whose 90.1 run-blocking grade is 3.5 points higher than the next-closest FBS tackle.

He’ll often be lined up against Laiatu Latu, the highest-graded defensive player in the nation this season (93.6). His 24.3% pressure rate ranks fourth among all edge defenders this season. UCLA also leads college football with a 2.77-yard average depth of tackle in the run game and paces the Power Five with an 89.8 pass-rushing grade.

Prediction: UCLA 28, Oregon State 27

In a game that will be won at the line of scrimmage, the Bruins just barely come out on top.

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