College football’s best head-to-head matchups for Week 7 are highlighted by an NFL-caliber battle in the trenches down in Knoxville.
There are games, and then there are games-within-the-games, those needle-moving head-to-head matchups that put a thumb on the scale for the more successful side.
Who’ll be the big winners and who’ll be hanging their heads in despair at the close of Week 7? Plenty will hinge on which side prevails in these crucial unit and player clashes.
10. Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes vs. CB Antonio Crawford and the West Virginia Secondary
No one this side of Mother Nature is stopping Mahomes, a next-level distributor who just happens to operate a passer-friendly system in Lubbock. However, the Mountaineers present an interesting challenge this Saturday as they look to remain unbeaten. Crawford, a Miami transfer is expected back from a shoulder injury, rejoining a defensive backfield that has been surprisingly stingy so far. Opposing quarterbacks are completing only 47.7% of their passes on West Virginia, which has accounted for more picks (5) than touchdowns passes (4) allowed through four games.
9. Washington State DE Hercules Mata’afa vs. UCLA OTs Conor McDermott and Andre James
Protect the franchise. Yeah, not happening in Westwood. Josh Rosen is struggling, in large part because of a lack of support from his blockers and receivers. Rosen was treated like a piñata last week by Arizona State, and Saturday’s trip to the Palouse won’t be any easier if he receives a medical thumbs up. The Wazzu D has dialed up the pressure and intensity the past few weeks, spearheaded by Mata’afa off the edge. The sophomore is the complete package, strong enough to defend the run, with the quickness, technique and motor to blow up plays in opposing backfields.
8. Notre Dame WR Equanimeous St. Brown vs. Stanford CBs Quenton Meeks and Frank Buncom
Rough year in South Bend. But St. Brown has been the silver lining in a season that the Irish were searching for a go-to receiver to supplant Will Fuller. St. Brown can vex defensive backs with his 6-5 frame and his separation speed, opening the year with 28 receptions for 571 yards and six touchdowns. This week, he and battery mate DeShone Kizer face a banged-up Cardinal secondary that’s had to play without Meeks and Alijah Holder the past couple of games. Meeks hopes to return, but he’ll need to be at full strength to stay with No. 6.
7. Oklahoma RB Samaje Perine vs. Kansas State LB Elijah Lee
The Sooner offense is beginning to percolate, the byproduct of keeping defenses flatfooted with balance and diversity. QB Baker Mayfield was a known commodity at the start of the season, and WR Dede Westbrook has emerged into a worthy successor to Sterling Shepard. But the change-of-pace provided by the 235-pound Perine, who stampeded Texas for 214 yards, adds a whole different hue to Lincoln Riley’s attack. K-State will need a big game from Lee, the team’s leading tackler and a player with the range to contribute to the run as well as the pass defense.
6. Clemson RB Wayne Gallman vs. WLB Airius Moore and the NC State Front Seven
The Tigers have finally begun to spring Gallman, who’s gone over 100 yards in each of the last two games. And it’s positively impacting everyone on offense, including Deshaun Watson. But can Gallman continue earning chunk yards against the Pack? State has been improbably good versus the run, yielding 91 yards a game and less than three yards a carry behind Moore and an underrated line bolstered by Bradley Chubb, B.J. Hill, Kentavius Street and Darian Roseboro. Will the stinginess continue now that the competition is stronger and weather won’t be a factor, like it was Saturday versus Notre Dame?
5. Colorado QB Steven Montez or Sefo Liufau vs. CB Kareem Orr and the Arizona State Secondary
Mike MacIntyre has yet to officially name his starter, hobbled Liufau or the precocious Montez. Whoever gets the ball from the coach will revel at the opportunity to dissect a defensive backfield surrendering more passing yards than any other FBS team … by far. The Sun Devils have been gashed this year, despite the fact that opposing quarterbacks are trying to avoid Orr. Fortunately for the Buffs, they house an abundance of quality receivers, namely Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields and Devin Ross, with which to target the other corners and safeties.
4. Miami RBs Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby vs. DT Nazair Jones and the North Carolina Run D
Big game in the Coastal Division, as teams jockey for contention. The Canes might be content to ride the legs of their two-headed ground game. Walton and Yearby are both averaging more than six yards a carry, even after being stymied by Florida State last weekend. The offense should get back on track this week, since Jones is a formidable exception to an otherwise soft front wall in Chapel Hill. The Heels rank last in ACC rush defense at 229 yards a game, needing an assist from Hurricane Matthew on Saturday to keep Va Tech from running wild.
3. The Tight Ends, Ole Miss’ Evan Engram and Arkansas Jeremy Sprinkle vs. Opposing Linebackers
Pay attention, Mackey Award people. This game will pique your interest, since two of the nation’s premier tight ends will be featured. The marquee matchup involves the quarterbacks, Chad Kelly and Austin Allen. If they go toe-to-toe, though, Engram and Sprinkle will have central roles in the outcome. Both are seam-busters, with Sprinkle sporting the 6-6, 255-pound frame to quickly ascend in NFL scouring circles. The Rebs and Hogs have been plucky in pass defense, but if too many resources are committed to outside receivers, Engram and Sprinkle are poised to blow up the middle of the field.
2. Wisconsin OLB T.J. Watt vs. Ohio State OTs Jamarco Jones and Isaiah Prince
If the Badgers are going to deliver an upset Saturday night in Madison, it’ll undoubtedly be driven by a defense that’s yet to allow more than 17 points, including the Michigan game. And Watt is one of those high-energy, hot-motor defenders whose body language becomes instantly contagious. He leads the team in sacks, pressures, tackles for loss and overall backfield disruptions. In the Ohio State O-line, though, Watt and his mates will be facing a unit that’s tied for the nation’s lead in fewest tackles allowed behind the line of scrimmage.
1. Tennessee DE Derek Barnett vs. Alabama OTs Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams
When the Vols were in holes against Georgia and Florida, Barnett went all Barnett to help take the games over. Tennessee will need to see that player this week versus top-ranked Alabama. Like everyone, Joshua Dobbs and the Volunteers will struggle to move the ball on the Tide. So, it’ll be up to the UT D to create money plays and short-field opportunities. Standing in the way of Barnett will be Robinson, who’s likely off to the NFL at the end of the year, and Williams, a rookie with Freshman All-American credentials.