An unpredictable season took yet another twist ahead of Week 7 thanks to a turbulent couple days off the field. The news of Steve Sarkisian’s leave of absence from USC, reportedly due to problems with alcohol, kicked it off on Sunday when the dust had hardly settled from Week 6. That was followed by a manic Monday that saw USC fire Sarkisian, the NCAA suspend Florida starting quarterback Will Grier for a year due to a positive PED test and the news that legendary coach Steve Spurrier was set to retire.
While the off-field news has slowed, a jam-packed Week 7 slate promises just as much on-field drama on Saturday, not to mention a key Pac-12 clash between Stanford and UCLA on Thursday night. With five matchups pitting top-20 teams, including two top-10 clashes, this week could go a long way in determining the College Football Playoff race.
Here are five storylines to watch in Week 7:
1. How good is Michigan State?
The Spartans simply haven’t played like a true contender this year, and there are real doubts as to whether this team is at the level of the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl squads of the past two years. The home win over Oregon in Week 2 seemed huge at the time, but now it’s hardly impressive. Michigan State struggled to put away clearly inferior opponents in Central Michigan and Purdue and then nearly lost to moribund Rutgers last week. The Spartans have had to deal with a lot of injuries, particularly on the offensive line and in the secondary, but a team with this much talent and one of the top quarterbacks in the country in Connor Cook should be performing a lot better.
Now Michigan State has to travel to Ann Arbor to face a Michigan team that’s playing as well as any in the country, and though MSU has won six of the past seven in the in-state rivalry, the coaching advantage the Spartans enjoyed the past four years is gone. Mark Dantonio’s teams have always brought something extra to this matchup and you can expect the same on Saturday. Still, if Michigan State doesn’t raise its game significantly, Michigan is poised to expose its neighbor/tormentor and emerge as the biggest challenger to Ohio State in the Big Ten.
2. Treon Harris in the spotlight
Florida’s resurgent season took a radical turn with the out-of-nowhere suspension of Grier. The redshirt freshman had emerged as a leader for an improved offense, and his play was a big reason the Gators were able to come back and beat Tennessee in Week 4 and pull off a surprising blowout of Ole Miss the following week, which cemented their status as a legitimate SEC contender. And just like that he’s gone, thrusting Harris into the spotlight ahead of what might be Florida’s toughest game of the season at No. 6 LSU.
Harris certainly can’t be written off. The sophomore started six games last year, including a win over then No. 9 Georgia, and split time with Grier at the beginning of this season. He also poses more of a running threat than Grier. But there’s a reason Harris ultimately lost the job—Jim McElwain knows the offense is more consistent with Grier under center.
Florida likely won’t ask too much of Harris given the circumstances, but with Leonard Fournette on the other sideline, Harris will have to be productive for Florida to pull the road upset. How he performs in perhaps the most uniquely challenging situation any signal-caller will face this year will be of keen interest on Saturday.
3. Alabama versus the spread
Nick Saban’s Alabama teams have had one Achilles’ heel they haven’t yet fully solved: stopping spread-based teams. The Tide have beaten plenty over the years, but when they have had trouble, it’s almost always come against spread offenses. Think the famous Johnny Manziel game in 2012, the Kick Six Iron Bowl in 2013 and the Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State. This season has been instructive in that regard: Alabama was felled by Ole Miss in Week 3 while looking dominant in wins over pro-style teams Wisconsin, Georgia and Arkansas (defensively, at least, in the latter). There’s a reason Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin have begun incorporating spread principles into the Tide’s attack.
Alabama is confronted with the Aggies’ spread once again in Week 7 in what might be the defense’s toughest remaining test (Fournette and LSU will present a different kind of challenge). Behind quarterback Kyle Allen and electric freshman receiver Christian Kirk, Texas A&M is once again a threat offensively, so the onus will be on the Tide’s D to adapt after facing pro-style units the past two weeks. It will be especially important in this go-around with the Aggies because their defense is much improved, meaning Alabama can’t necessarily expect to keep pace if Texas A&M’s offense has a big day.
4. Can USC regroup?
USC was already in a desperate situation heading into this game. All the goodwill from the road blowout of Arizona State was immediately erased by the unforgivable home loss to Washington last Thursday, and with a Notre Dame-Utah-California-Arizona stretch on deck, the Trojans’ season was suddenly in the balance. And then arrived the Sarkisian news and all the distractions and off-field stress that come with it. The good news is interim head coach Clay Helton has stepped into this role before, having filled in for Ed Orgeron in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl, a 45–20 win over Fresno State.
He’s taking over in the middle of the season this time, amid chaos brought by Sarkisian’s leave-turned-firing. It’s legitimately possible that the players rally around Helton and help USC complete a respectable finish to the season, a la 2013 when Orgeron took over for the fired Kiffin, but it’s at least as likely that the outside noise, combined with the disappointing start to the season, proves too much to overcome and the Trojans bottom out. It will be fascinating to see how USC responds on Saturday against a very good Notre Dame team still fighting for a playoff bid.
5. Iowa taking control of Big Ten West
Iowa has been running in place for a while now. Since going 11–2 and finishing tied for second in the Big Ten in 2009, it’s averaged 6.8 wins a season while usually fielding mediocre, frustrating offenses. The Hawkeyes have almost always been competitive in that stretch, but their fans had grown tired of the program’s inability to rise any higher than that, and taking into account Kirk Ferentz’s huge buyout, change was unlikely.
The pattern has been broken so far in 2015. Led by tailback Jordan Canzeri, Iowa is 6–0, just one win shy of last season’s total. With a victory over Wisconsin in their pocket and the rest of the Big Ten West looking uninspiring, the Hawkeyes can seize firm control of the division with a win at Northwestern. The bad news is that the offense is still far from explosive, meaning few remaining games are likely to be walkovers, and injuries are beginning to mount. This week Iowa will be without both starting offensive tackles and No. 1 wide receiver Tevaun Smith due to injury, and star defensive end Drew Ott is out for the year with a torn ACL. But if the Hawkeyes can overcome those losses and find enough offense on Saturday, the West surprisingly will be theirs to lose.