This is the kind of week that college football fans love. We’ve got SIX top-25 matchups. You normally only see that during rivalry week, conference championship week, and bowl season. Three of those six pit undefeated teams against one another. Plenty of other matchups provided additional intrigue. Let’s keep this intro short and sweet and jump right to my week 7 takeaways! (Enjoy the draft nugget at the end.)
Six Teams Suffer First Losses of the Season
When undefeated teams play each other, somebody has to lose. After all, there are no ties in college. Here, we’ll take a look at what caused these teams and other new one-loss teams to come up short and see if this is a worrisome trend or a blip against a superior opponent (or inferior ones in James Madison and Coastal Carolina’s cases). I’ll do this in rank order.
We all knew Tennessee was good. Who actually thought that the 9-point underdogs would actually BEAT (3) Alabama? I’m not going to blame the offense for this Crimson Tide loss. They’ve been good-to-great at most times with Bryce Young in the game, and I’ll discuss that side of the ball a bit later. The defense let this team down today. When you score 49 points, you should win. Alas, the defense allowed 52 (with a special assist from kicker Will Reichard, who missed a potential game winner and gave Tennessee one more chance in regulation).
As I discuss below in another section, Alabama is still in decent shape. Winning out would still leave them with a great chance to play in the CFP. However, the defensive lapses and occasional offensive stagnation leave them vulnerable. They barely held on against Texas in week 2, even though QB Quinn Ewers was lost to injury early on. Arkansas came within 5 points of tying their week 5 game before Alabama pulled away. Scariest of all, Texas A&M had one play at the goal line to steal a win, but they came up short. When you’re a team with such a surplus of talent, sometimes your worst enemy stares you right in the mirror.
The loss by (7) USC to Utah is an unmitigated disaster for the Pac-12. The lone remaining undefeated team in the conference, and thus likely its only playoff shot, is UCLA, and I wouldn’t place my bets on that team. It’s looking like the Pac-12 will get left out of the CFP yet again. Back to the game at hand, this was exclusively about USC’s defense. QB Caleb Williams was phenomenal, tossing 5 TDs and exceeding 400 total yards. The problem was that they allowed Utah to look just as great, even with a 42-35 lead late in the 4th quarter. Utah didn’t respect USC’s defense, so they scored and went for a go-ahead 2-point conversion. It was good.
Williams’ last gasp came up short, but this wasn’t his game to win or lose. If there’s any solace for USC, it’s that the defense hasn’t allowed 30+ points in any other game and that Utah is a very fickle team. The Utes have demolished the Beavers while losing to the Gators. They’re capable of beating anyone, as their preseason ranking suggested. USC is still very much in the Pac-12 race, and who knows? Maybe, just maybe, if absolute chaos ensues, they can claw their way back into playoff consideration.
(8) Oklahoma State didn’t so much lose this game as much as TCU came and took it. However, they did have a bit of a collapse in the second half. They only scored 6 points in the final 30 minutes of regulation, but a 30-16 lead in the 4th quarter should have been safe with this defense. The Cowboys couldn’t hold the Horned Frogs off. The offense was decent in overtime, scoring 10 points, but TCU’s was better. OKST ended up falling 43-40.
Most of these issues are consistent with what we’ve said about OKST thus far. The defense has been good at times this year but has shown some cracks lately. They’ve increased their points allowed in each of the last 3 games (25 vs. Baylor, 31 vs. Texas Tech, and 43 vs. TCU). Spencer Sanders and the offense have produced 34 points or more in each game, but they haven’t played their best. Sanders completed under 50% of his passes against TCU, and he has disappeared for quarters at a time. This is still a very good team, but they no longer control their own destiny in the CFP race.
I probably could have written this piece about (10) Penn State last week. In fact, I did describe my concerns with their offense. The scouting report on the defense has been that they’re stout in coverage and in the pass rush but have trouble against the run. They made that analysis look perfect today. DC Manny Diaz’s defense held QB JJ McCarthy to just 145 yards passing with a pick six, but the run defense was atrocious. RBs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards both eclipsed 160 yards and scored 2 TDs each. The Wolverines totaled 418 yards with 4 TDs.
To be fair, the offense wasn’t helpful. QB Sean Clifford completed just 7 of his 19 pass attempts for 120 yards. Only 10 of PSU’s 17 points came on offense, which was a far cry from Michigan’s 41. As I’ve said before, this team just isn’t a threat against the heavyweights with Clifford under center. They’re still pretty good overall though and shouldn’t drop too far in the rankings. I don’t anticipate them contending for a Big Ten title, but a good bowl game should be in the cards.
Well, it was fun while at lasted (25) James Madison. A 5-0 start and a program-first appearance in the top 25 is a fantastic way to start your tenure in the FBS. Saturday was not their day though. Offensively, QB Todd Centeio led a good comeback attempt with 468 passing yards and 2 TDs, but his 3 INTs really hurt. The defense allowed Georgia Southern QB Kyle Vantrease to produce 578 passing yards and 4 air scores. JMU had a tie game at 24-24 before imploding a bit, but they came back to take a late 38-37 lead. The cover unit failed again, and GASO won 45-38.
These ups and downs should be expected of a brand new FBS team. JMU has done extremely will to get this far. Conference games are always tricky, and they learned that the hard way this week. I think a 9-3 record is a solid projection for this team. They could deviate a bit from that in either direction, but this is a quality football team. They’ll improve from this experience.
We discussed in an earlier article that the Sun Belt had an excellent start to the season. Things haven’t been as rosy as of late, and this week, both of the conference’s unbeaten teams fell: JMU and Coastal Carolina. There’s a reason CCU hasn’t been ranked despite their previously unblemished record. Specifically, that reason has been the defense. They haven’t held a single team to less than 20 points this year, including Gardner-Webb of the FCS. The offense hasn’t felt quite as consistent and explosive as it has in recent years, but QB Grayson McCall has been typically excellent, and this was their first game with a low score (21).
Allowing 49 points to Old Dominion, a team that hadn’t hit 30 in any of their previous games, is not a recipe for success. A win this week might have finally earned the Chanticleers a spot in the top 25, but that’s out of the question now. Their games against Appalachian State and James Madison are basically must-win contests if CCU wants to play in the Sun Belt championship game. McCall provides enough firepower to get the job done, but the defense will have to follow suit in the weeks ahead.
QB Dillon Gabriel Returns, and So Does Oklahoma’s Offense
You wouldn’t think that Oklahoma’s bonkers offensive system would be so dependent on any one player, even a QB. I guess it is. Dillon Gabriel has been out for a couple weeks due to a concussion suffered on a dirty hit. The game he missed fully, last week’s Red River Showdown against Texas, was embarassing, with the Sooners falling 49-0 at home. It took only one drive for Oklahoma to get right against Kansas.
Though he had a bit of trouble on some timing routes due to the lack of recent playing time (that should be fixed by next week), Gabriel was efficient and productive, throwing for 403 yards and 2 TDs (1 INT) while adding 37 yards rushing with another TD on the ground. His offense produced 52 points (52 more than a week ago!), and they needed just about every one as the defense allowed 42 to Kansas. Awareness was Gabriel’s biggest issue. He lost 2 fumbles that were avoidable, but we can chalk that up to rust.
Head coach Brent Venables needs to fix this defense, as it has now given up 41 or more points in 5 straight games (and 5 of their past 6). An offense that can win shootouts might be the quickest fix. Keeping Gabriel upright will be the key to that effort. He has shown that when he’s in the lineup, the Sooners can put up 30+ points with ease.
QB Bryce Young Returns, and So Does Alabama’s Offense
The headline of this section is just like the one above, and the reasoning is the same as well. Alabama is so loaded at every position (except kicker; it’s always kicker with Nick Saban isn’t it?) that you’d expect every QB to shine there. Just about every recent starting QB has done just that. The backups, however, have not played to the same standard when pressed into service. Jalen Milroe gave an admirable effort the last week and a half against Arkansas and Texas A&M, but with all due respect, this team is just different when Young is in the game.
His return was tainted by a heartbreaking loss, but Bryce Young is not to blame. He went 35 of 52 for 455 yards and 2 TDs in a turnover-free game. Young barely ran at all, which was a smart move to protect his still-injured shoulder. That said, he moved expertly within the pocket and broke out of the pocket when needed to make plays with his arm. Without Young, Alabama was held to just 24 points in last week’s game. The offense also stalled against Arkansas when he left with his injury. With him, the Tide scored 49 versus a very good Tennessee outfit.
The time lost due to injury could cost him a shot at a repeat Heisman win, as he needs every bit of production he can get to catch up to Ohio State’s CJ Stroud. As a more immediate matter, his presence at QB is urgently needed to keep Alabama at just 1 loss. While Tennessee is a conference opponent, they’re in the SEC East with Georgia. Alabama remains the frontrunner in the SEC West. Should they reach the conference championship game with one loss, a win there would assuredly earn a playoff spot. It will be up to Young and the offense to carry them there.
Colorado Buffaloes, Last Winless Team in FBS, Finally Earn a Victory
Nobody has to suffer through a 12-0 season this year! It’s been a rough road for the Buffaloes, who had lost each of their previous 5 games by 23 or more points. The start was so bad in fact that the administration fired head coach Karl Dorrell before their bye last week, replacing him with Mike Sanford. The team responded well to Sanford, but the offense is still going to be a problem. Dorrell cycled through 3 QBs in search of a solution (including Josh McCown’s son), and Sanford used two of them himself today. The defense played solid football though, keeping the team in the game and even holding a lead at halftime.
To their credit, the offense did just enough in the 4th quarter, scoring 10 points to force OT. The defense held once again, and Montana Lemonious-Craig’s 22-yard receiving TD proved to be the winning score against California. A hard-fought conference win like this can give a team a serious boost, especially in a new coach’s debut. California will probably feel a bit embarrassed about this one (and they should), but let Colorado enjoy this. They’ve earned it, which is something they haven’t done since 11/20/2021.
Quentin Johnston is the #1 WR in the 2023 Draft Class
I don’t often dedicate a subsection to a single player that’s not a QB, but TCU’s Quentin Johnston has popped off the tape in every game this season, and I don’t think people know nearly enough about his game. If you look at WR rankings in the media, you’ll likely spot Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Oklahoma’s Marvin Mims, LSU’s Kayshon Boutte, and USC’s Jordan Addison. All of those players are really good, and several of them are likely to be taken in the first round. I just think Johnston is the best of the bunch.
Johnston didn’t have the hottest start to the season, catching 4 balls or less in each of his first 4 games. Still, he seemed to make a fantastic grab that caught your attention every single week. Against Kansas in week 5, something clicked. Johnston exploded for 14 catches, 206 yards, and a TD. He was uncoverable, using his 6’4″ frame to box out cornerbacks, his speed to blow by safeties, and his good route running to create separation. Against Oklahoma State this week, he balled out again, tallying 8 catches for 180 yards and a TD. The way he forces defenses to adjust to him opens up the rest of the offense, and his play is a big reason TCU is 6-0 so far.
A receiver that does not have a ton of production might still be selected with a high draft pick if he has size and speed. You can teach route running and how to play against man and zone coverages, but you can’t teach raw talent. However, if you have a complete game in addition to that talent, you’re suddenly an elite prospect. I think that’s where Johnston is right now. If he keeps this up, look for him to appear in the top 10 of future mock drafts…and the real one.