Entering Week 7 of the college football season, there’s still a lot we don’t know. A season filled with upsets has opened the door for more contenders to emerge, many of them surprising. Here’s what to watch this weekend, starting with one of those upstarts facing the No. 1 team in the country:
Crunch time for Kentucky
Kentucky’s reward for its first 6-0 start since 1950? A matchup with No. 1 Georgia and one of the best defenses in recent memory. The Wildcats haven’t exactly been overpowering, beating Missouri, UT Chattanooga, South Carolina and Florida by seven points or less, but a 42-21 win over LSU last weekend showed what they’re capable of when they’re playing their best.
Penn State transfer Will Levis has provided stability at quarterback and helped turn the rushing attack into a weapon. That’s been enough to handle what’s so far been a soft schedule, but Georgia is an entirely different beast.
The Bulldogs might not be scaring anyone on offense with backup Stetson Bennett at quarterback, but the defense is on pace to be the best coach Kirby Smart has had since he took over in 2016. Georgia has allowed just two offensive touchdowns all season, and opponents are averaging just 2.15 yards per carry. Kentucky might be ranked 11th in the AP poll, but their overall efficiency suggests they’re the 30th best team in the country. It’s going to take a heroic effort from Levis and the defense just to keep this one close.
Cincinnati can’t slip up
Things have broken perfectly for No. 3 Cincinnati so far. According to ESPN, 40 ranked teams have lost already, surpassing the wild 2007 season for the most through six weeks in the Associated Press poll era (since 1936). A preseason top four that included Alabama, Oklahoma, Clemson and Ohio State has been whittled down to just the Sooners after the top-ranked Crimson Tide lost to unranked Texas A&M last week. But it would be foolish to count out those four heavyweights before the playoff committee has even revealed its first set of rankings.
That puts the pressure on the Bearcats to not only keep winning but show that they can punch above their weight in the Group of Five. They’ve already secured a pair of resume-boosting wins over Notre Dame and Indiana, but there are few opportunities remaining for a victory over a Top 25 team in what’s been a down season for the American Athletic Conference. Fair or not, Saturday’s game against UCF in front of a national audience on ABC will go a long way toward determining Cincinnati’s viability as a legitimate playoff threat. A dominant win would help erase the perception that this is just another plucky Group of Five contender.
Michigan State momentum
Michigan State’s 31-13 win over Rutgers last Saturday might not seem like much, but it was the fifth time in Football Bowl Subdivision history that a team had a 300-yard passer, a 200-yard rusher and a 200-yard receiver in the same game. Quarterback Payton Thorne, running back Kenneth Walker III and wide receiver Jalen Nailor have given the Spartans a collection of offensive talent rarely seen in East Lansing, let alone the Big Ten West. And it might just be enough to win the whole conference.
Former Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has brought an SEC mindset to the Big Ten, and the Spartans look ready to compete with Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State in just his second season as coach. A road matchup against Indiana this weekend will be an interesting litmus test before a huge game against No. 8 Michigan on Oct. 30.
Don’t overlook Oklahoma State
There might not be a more anonymous undefeated team in the Power Five this year than No. 12 Oklahoma State, which has quietly opened 6-0 and is coming off back-to-back wins over No. 25 Kansas State and No. 24 Baylor. If you haven’t paid attention to the Cowboys this season, you might think coach Mike Gundy’s usual high-powered offense is leading the way. But it’s the defense that has been most impressive, holding opponents to 18.6 points per game and ranking eighth in defensive SP+, ESPN’s tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency.
That defense will face its toughest test yet this weekend against No. 25 Texas, which is averaging 52 points per game since Casey Thompson took over as the starting quarterback last month. Thompson threw for 388 yards and five touchdowns in last Saturday’s 55-48 loss to Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry, as the Longhorns piled up 516 total yards. Texas has jumped to eighth in offensive SP+, and is favored by nearly a touchdown this weekend. It’s going to take another big effort from defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ unit to keep the Cowboys’ record unblemished.
What’s next for Arkansas and Auburn?
Back-to-back losses have dropped No. 17 Arkansas back down to earth after a 4-0 start, but there’s no shame in losing to Georgia and falling just short in a wild 52-51 shootout against Ole Miss. The question remains the same for the Razorbacks: Is this success sustainable?
Auburn can’t be too upset about losing to Penn State and Georgia under first-year coach Bryan Harsin, but a near-loss to Georgia State and a close victory over what has turned out to be a bad LSU team haven’t inspired much confidence in quarterback Bo Nix or the defense. Are the Tigers really capable of competing with the SEC’s best this season?
Arkansas deserves more patience given its sudden turnaround under coach Sam Pittman, but the same luxury isn’t usually afforded for Auburn, no matter the circumstances. Whichever team manages to come out on top Saturday is going to feel much better about its present and future, which means this game carries a little more weight than it might seem on paper.
Texas A&M’s encore
How do you follow an upset of the top-ranked team in the country? Oregon State was the last unranked team to take down No. 1, knocking off USC, 27-21, in 2008. The Beavers finished 9-4 that season with a No. 18 ranking in the AP poll. After starting 0-2 in SEC play before last Saturday’s stunning 41-38 win over Alabama, coach Jimbo Fisher and Co. should be happy with a similar outcome. But the Aggies likely aren’t satisfied.
Was backup quarterback Zach Calzada’s incredible 285-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Tide a sign of a breakout? Can the Aggies’ defense remain a top-10 unit? Will Ainias Smith, Jalen Wydermyer, Devon Achane and Isaiah Spiller continue to make big plays on offense and special teams? If the answer to all those questions is a resounding yes, Texas A&M might be more than the middling SEC team most experts thought they were just a week ago. Let’s see if they can avoid a letdown against Missouri first.
Who’s Oklahoma’s QB?
Freshman Caleb Williams might have saved Oklahoma’s season, throwing for 212 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 88 yards and a score in relief of an ineffective Spencer Rattler in last weekend’s come-from-behind win over Texas. Will coach Lincoln Riley stick with Rattler, a player many predicted to be the first overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft, or hand the keys over to Williams, a five-star prospect who’s next in line for stardom under Riley’s tutelage?
Riley can keep his decision private leading up to the game, but once the Sooners offense takes the field, we’ll have our answer. Whoever starts is tasked with keeping Oklahoma on track for another playoff berth, starting Saturday night against a TCU team that might be able to go punch-for-punch on offense.
— No. 19 BYU at Baylor: Are the Bears for real? Quarterback Gary Bohanon has been stellar so far this season, and Baylor has risen all the way to 23rd in SP+, thanks in large part to a formidable defense. BYU is coming off a disappointing 26-17 loss to Boise State and might be staring at a second straight defeat if the offense can’t get back on track under quarterback Jaren Hall.
— Miami at North Carolina: It’s hard to say who needs this win more. Both teams have failed to live up to high preseason expectations, combining for a 5-6 record through six weeks. Tar Heels coach Mack Brown is blaming the media for the misplaced hype, but this uneven start raises plenty of questions about the program’s trajectory in the ACC. Meanwhile, Hurricanes quarterback D’Eriq King is out for the season with a shoulder injury, which means freshman Tyler Van Dyke will start. Miami coach Manny Diaz has a lot of work left to do to convince his bosses that he’s the man for the job going forward.
— Pittsburgh at Virginia Tech: It might be hard to believe, but ESPN’s College Football Playoff predictor gives the 4-1 Panthers a 7% chance of making the final four. For a team that lost to Western Michigan, that sure seems high. But Pittsburgh’s offense looks like a juggernaut with quarterback Kenny Pickett, who’s shown a mastery of the playbook in his fifth season. If the Panthers can run the table, win the always unpredictable ACC Coastal and beat whoever emerges in the Atlantic (Wake Forest? NC State? Clemson?) for the conference title, coach Pat Narduzzi might have a special season on his hands.
— No. 5 Alabama at Mississippi State: Poor Will Rogers has to be on the receiving end of a fired up Alabama defense coming off a rare loss. The Mississippi State quarterback has been exceptional leading Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, completing 75.7% of his passes with 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions, but this might be a game to forget.
— No. 13 Ole Miss at Tennessee: Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin returns to Knoxville for the first time since his infamous departure from Tennessee in 2009, when he left the Vols after one season for his dream job at USC. What makes this matchup even more intriguing is Tennessee’s recent performance, having crushed Missouri and South Carolina to move to 14th in the SP+ rankings. The Rebels might have the best quarterback in the country in Matt Corral, but they’ll have their hands full this weekend if the defense continues to struggle.
— No. 22 NC State at Boston College: This game could decide the winner of the ACC Atlantic division, considering Clemson already has two losses and Wake Forest is unlikely to remain undefeated for much longer. There’s a lot to like about what coach Jeff Hafley is building at Boston College, especially with the offense overcoming the loss of starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec to remain one of the most efficient units in the country. If Hafley, a former defensive coordinator at Ohio State, can get his defense to come along, that’s a program to watch this season and beyond.
— Army at Wisconsin: Army and its triple-option offense average 318.2 rushing yards per game, second best in the country, while Wisconsin allows just 41.4 rushing yards per game, best in the country. Something has to give Saturday.
— No. 18 Arizona State at Utah: Is Arizona State a threat to win the Pac-12? The Sun Devils opened the season facing questions about their recruiting practices, but all they’ve done is start 5-1 while going 3-0 in conference play. Quarterback Jayden Daniels looks electric, and the defense is playing lights-out. In a cluttered Pac-12, coach Herm Edwards’ team might be the best of the bunch.