NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Miami

It would be totally unfair and way too early to suggest Mario Cristobal and Marcus Freeman are in trouble as we nudge up to the halfway point of the season. This is the second year of an all-in Miami initiative that is set to pay Cristobal $80 million over a decade. Freeman, also in his second season, earned his promotion as a difference-making defensive coordinator who was the right-man, right-time choice of Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

Still, college football is never totally fair. 

Coming off losses last week, both coaches are under scrutiny (if that's the right word). They enter Week 7 coaching their most important games in their limited tenure at their current schools. No. 25 Miami hits the road for a showdown with fast-rising No. 12 North Carolina. No. 21 Notre Dame, meanwhile, hosts No. 10 USC in a traditional rivalry that suddenly takes on added weight after the Fighting Irish were routed by No. 14 Louisville last week. 

Any Notre Dame coach throughout recent memory has known that his standing is a week-to-week proposition. Last week's loss was especially disappointing because it all but eliminated the Irish from the College Football Playoff mix halfway through the season. Notre Dame had won 30 straight games against ACC opponents dating back to 2017, and that second loss of the season turned the remainder of 2023 into a chase for a New Year's Six bowl bid.

Freeman has already been forced to answer for a debacle this season after Notre Dame only had 10 players in the field in the crucial moments of a loss to No. 3 Ohio State. Last week, Cristobal joined the club. 

Not only will the college football world be watching to see whether Notre Dame can recover from its first loss to an ACC school in six years, it will have eyes on Miami players and how they react on the field after Cristobal's failure to call a kneel down against Georgia Tech led to a stunning loss to the Yellow Jackets. Off the field, the Hurricanes seem to have his back. 

"We love our coaches to the end of the world," freshman defensive end Reuben Bain said Tuesday. "The decision that was made. We're not living in the past and just focusing on this week." 

Those are encouraging words, but the remainder of the season will prove whether the 'Canes have indeed flushed that memory. The error in judgment has obscured the fact that this team has improved -- at least in the short term -- after going 5-7 in Cristobal's debut last year. 

The discussion for each program won't end after Saturday. Both coaches may have played whatever strategic mulligan they had in the bag. The first one off the tee was yanked into the woods. 

Freeman acted quickly after the Ohio State loss, going on somewhat of a media tour the following week to make himself available and transparent. That was smart in a strategic communications sense. He owned it, promised to be better and moved on. 

Pounding Cristobal for his gaffe has been low-hanging oranges in South Florida. Now, however, the entire program is on upset alert. Not so much for its game at North Carolina -- the Tar Heels are deserving 4-point favorites -- but rather how the 'Canes react the rest of the way. 

A faction of each school's fan base wonders whether their team has the right guy. It might be unfair, but that's how the profession works. Here's the unwritten clause in these eight-figure contracts: You get all this money and a huge buyout, but in return, the world gets to judge 1.5 years in. 

Week 7 deep dive

USC's season is on the brink: The Trojans remain one of the 14 undefeated FBS teams, but the defense (certain parts) continues to be a problem. As seen in the triple-overtime struggle with Arizona last week, it's only a matter of time before a loss is pinned on this defense. As good as he is -- arguably the best player at the halfway point -- Caleb Williams can't play defensive end, too. 

"This is a much-improved unit, there is no question about it," coach Lincoln Riley told reporters this week. "When you talk about top-end potential, [it] has potential to get better, fast. … A lot of people in the media that the first second there was any adversity this year, [it's], 'Oh God, should have done this and should have made this change.' … You go through the whole year you're going to have a tough game, you're going to have a tough quarter. Do you respond?"

Judge for yourself whether this is a much-improved USC defense in 2023 (2022 numbers in parentheses):

  • 2023 total defense: 421.3 yards, 112th nationally (423.9, 106th)
  • 2023 scoring defense: 27.0, T-80 (29.3, 93rd)
  • 2023 third-down conversions: 39.4%, 77th (42.9, 109th)

The Trojans' salvation remains Williams and the defense's big-play ability. The 36 takeaways by the Trojans so far in the Riley era (20 games) is fourth among Power Five programs since the beginning of 2022. USC led the country in turnover margin last season. The 57 tackles for loss are tied with Texas A&M for the national lead. 

Best of the West, continued: The Pac-12 remains the nation's best conference on the field, and we'll learn a little more after a loaded Week 7 schedule that includes two games between ranked teams. No. 8 Oregon at No. 7 Washington is being called perhaps the biggest Pac-12 game since the conference became the "Pac-12" in 2011. To the winner goes the favorite's role in the conference and pole position for a CFP berth. 

The Ducks have dominated the rivalry lately, winning 15 of the last 18 meetings. But Washington's Michael Penix Jr. has shot adrenaline into a city and a program. Take the over because these teams can't stop scoring (64 combined points per game).

No. 18 UCLA -- visiting No. 15 Oregon State -- has become sneaky good defensively under Chip Kelly. The Bruins have held all five opponents to 17 points or fewer, the longest such streak for UCLA since 2001. EDGE Laiatu Latu should be a consensus All-American halfway through the season. Seven Pac-12 teams continue to be ranked, and the conference boasts three of the remaining 14 unbeaten teams (Washington, Oregon, USC). 

"The only thing I worry about is there might be too much depth," former Washington coach Chris Petersen told CBS Sports. "They beat each other up and cannibalize each other. I still think they have garnered so much respect playing outside of conference. I still think you get a one-loss Pac-12 team they're going to be hard to keep out." 

Vols-Aggies storylines: Joe Milton needs to break out against Texas A&M. The quarterback for No. 19 Tennessee has yet to throw for 300 yards or three touchdowns in a game. Hendon Hooker did the former four times in an injury shortened season, passing for at least 300 yards five times in 2022. The Aggies are a sack machine, leading the nation in that category (26). That defense is getting a tackle for loss once every six snaps. Still, that hasn't kept the Aggies from being routed by Miami and out-grinded by Alabama. In the loss to the Crimson Tide last week, Texas A&M became the first FBS team to lose a conference home game despite getting six sacks and limiting the opposition to less than 50 yards rushing.

When ranked teams look like an Elite Eight: No. 12 North Carolina, No. 17 Duke, No. 18 UCLA, No. 23 Kansas and No. 24 Kentucky (combined record: 23-3) are ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time simultaneously.

Wyoming is in the Mountain West game of the year for the second week in a row. The winner of Wyoming-Air Force could become the favorite for the Group of Five's New Year's Six bowl berth. Of the schools' 47 combined bowl game appearances, only four have been in major postseason games. The Cowboys are 5-1 for the first time since 1998 after knocking off Fresno State last week to end the nation's second-longest winning streak. Air Force (5-0) has quietly won 10 in a row. 

Travis Hunter is a game-time decision Friday night vs. Stanford after Colorado's two-way star has missed the last three games. 
Hunter has been sidelined following an injury suffered from a hit by Colorado State's Henry Blackburn on Sept. 16. Regardless, it's time to review his accomplishments in only 2.5 games: 340 total snaps (149 offense, 180 defense, 11 special teams). That equates to an astounding 136 snaps per game. 

Quick kicks: No. 1 Georgia has scored 126 consecutive points against Vanderbilt going back to 2019 … No. 2 Michigan (vs. Indiana) has won all of its first six games by at least 24 points for the first time since 1904 … Georgia's Brock Bowers is the second tight end this century with three straight 100-yard receiving games … prior to No. 11 Alabama's game with Arkansas, we present your moment of Nick Saban Zen and "The importance of nothing."