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College football storylines, Week 7: Alabama vs. Georgia is worthy of the hype

The biggest game of the college football season has arrived, and one of the sport’s biggest names might be forced to sit out.

Alabama coach Nick Saban won’t be on the sideline during Saturday night’s game between his No. 2 Crimson Tide and No. 3 Georgia after testing positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, a former head coach at Washington and Southern California, will take the reins with the six-time national championship winner in isolation.

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Florida’s game against LSU on Saturday was already postponed to Dec. 12 because of an outbreak among the Gators, while four other games — Oklahoma State at Baylor, Cincinnati at Tulsa, Vanderbilt at Missouri and Florida International at Charlotte — will also not be played this weekend because of COVID-19 concerns.

While the season continues to push forward, and the Big Ten and Pac-12 openers loom, it’s time to take stock of the biggest storylines from around the country. Here’s what to watch in Week 7:

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Best vs. best: What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? We’ll find out Saturday when Alabama’s offense takes the field against Georgia’s defense. Whether you’re into scoring average (Georgia is allowing 12.3 points per game; Alabama is scoring 51.0 per game), total yards (Georgia is allowing 236.7 per game; Alabama is gaining 560.3) or efficiency (both units rank No. 1 in ESPN’s SP+, a tempo- and opponent-adjusted metric), these are the two best units in the nation. Alabama quarterback Mac Jones is playing lights out, ranking first in the country in passing efficiency with eight touchdowns and one interception through three games. But the Crimson Tide’s first three opponents, Missouri, Texas A&M and Ole Miss, don’t come close to the Bulldogs' talent level on defense. Led by star safety Richard LeCounte, edge rusher Azeez Ojulari and interior defenders Devonte Wyatt and Jordan Davis, Georgia has wreaked havoc on opposing offenses, recording 10 sacks in three games and picking off five passes. How the Dawgs limit Alabama’s explosive group of playmakers — including running back Najee Harris and wide receivers Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith and John Metchie III — will decide the outcome.

Bennett’s big break: This game is so big it deserves a second look. Stetson Bennett IV was an afterthought heading into the season behind incoming Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman and former four-star recruit D’Wan Mathis. But once Newman opted out of the season and Mathis struggled in the season opener, the former walk-on got his moment to shine. All he’s done is throw five touchdown passes and zero interceptions while calmly leading the offense to wins over Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee. He doesn’t have the big arm of his counterpart Jones, but he’s masterful at working the middle of the field with pinpoint accuracy. Alabama’s defense has taken a step backward from its usual spot among the nation’s best, but the Tide still boast NFL talent all over the field, including defensive linemen Christian Barmore and LaBryan Ray, linebacker Dylan Moses and cornerback Patrick Surtain II. If Bennett can move the ball efficiently, make a couple of big third-down throws and limit his mistakes, the Dawgs have a shot at knocking off the team that has been the biggest thorn in their side for more than a decade.

SEC’s muddled middle: While Alabama and Georgia battle it out for SEC supremacy, the rest of the conference is left to scratch and claw its way back to the top. With LSU falling back to earth after its national title run and Florida getting taken down by Texas A&M (and then COVID-19), the door is open for another contender to emerge. Tennessee and Auburn both couldn’t hang with Georgia, and Texas A&M was swept aside by Alabama, but that doesn’t mean their seasons are lost. The No. 18 Volunteers (vs. Kentucky), No. 15 Tigers (at South Carolina) and No. 11 Aggies (at Mississippi State) are all favored this week and would do well to win and keep their faint conference title hopes alive. Meanwhile, Ole Miss and Arkansas square off in an intriguing matchup of also-rans, given that both have been very competitive thus far against more talented opponents. Whichever new coach emerges victorious Saturday — Lane Kiffin of the Rebels or Sam Pittman of the Razorbacks — would have an uplifting performance to point to as a sign of progress for often impatient fan bases.

Can Miami bounce back? The Hurricanes were humbled in Saturday night’s blowout loss to No. 1 Clemson, but a defeat to Dabo Swinney’s national powerhouse, led by stars Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne and a ferocious defense, is no reason to hang their heads. Miami just isn’t on Clemson’s level, as painful as it might be for some fans who yearn for the glory days of “The U” and its transcendent star power. How the program responds to its first loss is the bigger concern. The Canes can’t let Clemson beat them twice, as the old saying goes. Pittsburgh is coming off back-to-back losses after being ranked in the Top 25, and the Panthers have a defense with nearly as much talent as Clemson’s. If this is truly a new era for Miami under coach Manny Diaz, the Canes need to take care of business Saturday. There’s still plenty left to play for this season, including a possible rematch with the Tigers for the ACC title.

Tread carefully, Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish are 14-point favorites against Louisville, but there’s reason to be on upset alert. The Cardinals haven’t exactly showered themselves in glory in starting 1-3, but they have a dynamic playmaker at quarterback in Micale Cunningham and an explosive game-breaker in receiver Tutu Atwell. Louisville ranks 12th in offensive efficiency thus far, according to ESPN’s SP+. The problem is the defense, which has allowed 34.3 points per game and 6.19 yards per play, ranking 96th out of 127 FBS programs in efficiency. Notre Dame should be able to score at will, but if the Cardinals can force some turnovers, it could be a shootout.

Any fight left in Florida State? Mike Norvell’s tenure as Seminoles coach has gotten off to a rocky start both on and off the field. Not only has his team been outscored by 61 points in losing three of its four games, but Norvell was also forced to miss a blowout loss to Miami after testing positive for COVID-19. Florida State has already made a quarterback change, handing the reins over to sophomore Jordan Travis, who threw for 204 yards and a touchdown and ran for 96 yards and a score in last week’s loss to Notre Dame. Making matters worse, the Noles get their second top-five opponent in a matter of weeks, with No. 5 North Carolina coming to Tallahassee for a prime-time game Saturday night. Florida State has the talent to hang with the Tar Heels; the question is whether they’re disciplined enough to execute. UNC quarterback Sam Howell leads one of the nation’s best offenses, and while the Heels defense has struggled at times, it boasts some NFL-caliber talent. If the good version of Florida State shows up, we could be in for a treat.

Early anxiety in the AAC: Saturday’s matchup between Central Florida and Memphis was circled on the calendar before the season as one of the games of the year in the Group of Five. The teams have met in two of the past three American Athletic Conference title games and both ranked inside the top 20 at one point earlier this season. The shine has faded slightly after both teams suffered upset losses and dropped out of the polls, but there’s still plenty to play for. The winner of this game will likely keep its AAC title hopes alive, while the loser faces a steep climb to get back in the race. Led by star quarterbacks Dillon Gabriel of UCF and Brady White of Memphis, both offenses are capable of scoring points in bunches, especially against lackluster defenses. It’s a game worthy of its early afternoon national audience and a great appetizer for Saturday night’s big game.

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