CFB insider Matt Hayes tackles the biggest topics ahead of this weekend’s college football slate.

Commonalities in the SEC

Here’s a rarity in the race for the SEC title: There are numerous potential common opponents between the respective (inevitable) division champions Alabama and Florida.

When Florida plays host to Kentucky this weekend, it will be the 5th common opponent with Alabama, including Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Missouri and Georgia.

The teams also play Tennessee, Arkansas and LSU. Florida has already beaten the Hogs; Alabama plays at Arkansas Dec. 5. Alabama already has played Tennessee, Florida has not. Both teams still have a game scheduled with LSU.

That’s 8 common opponents. In nearly every SEC season since the first championship game in 1992, the common opponents for division winners are typically between 2-4 teams.

A look at the common results between Alabama and Florida (so far):

  • Ole Miss: Florida won 51-35 (at Oxford); Alabama won 63-48 (at Oxford)
  • Texas A&M: Florida lost 41-38 (at Texas A&M); Alabama won 52-24
  • Missouri: Florida won 41-17; Alabama won 38-19 (at Missouri)
  • Georgia: Florida won 44-28 (at Jacksonville); Alabama won 41-24

Northwestern and the inevitable

We could try to explain the Big Ten tiebreakers to you, or you can read it here. Or it can be as simple as this: If Northwestern does this weekend what typically hasn’t done of late – avoid a confounding loss to a team it has no business losing to – the Wildcats can all but clinch the Big Ten West Division.

Northwestern is a 13.5-point favorite over a Michigan State team whose only win is over rival Michigan. A Michigan State team that has scored a combined 34 points in 3 losses to Rutgers, Iowa and Indiana.

A Michigan State team that hasn’t yet faced a defense like Northwestern.

“This is a really good team, a really good defense. They’re playing good, smart football,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said of Northwestern.

But it’s also a Northwestern program with a history of strange losses. It all sets up for an intriguing weekend this weekend in East Lansing.

The Wildcats are coming off a natural letdown from last week’s critical win over Wisconsin. Michigan State has had an extra week of preparation after Maryland had to cancel last week’s game because of positive COVID tests.

Most teams this season play well after a COVID break, and many coaches have told me it allows players to mentally recharge and reset after grinding for weeks to reach and maintain COVID protocols. Michigan State is desperate and has had 2 weeks to prepare.

Now, among those weird losses for Northwestern:

— 2018: Losses to Duke and Akron in a season that included a B1G West title and a Holiday Bowl win over Utah.

— 2017: Loss to Duke in a 10-win season.

— 2016: Back-to-back losses to Western Michigan and FCS Illinois State with a team that eventually won a bowl game.

Beating Northwestern means getting smart play from the quarterback position. Since beating Michigan in late October, Spartans QB Rocky Lombardi has 0 TDs and 5 INTs, and was benched 2 weeks ago in a loss to Indiana.

One other thing to consider: in Tucker’s 2 seasons as a head coach, he has 6 wins – and 3 against ranked teams (2 in 2019 at Colorado).

UNC’s big challenge vs. Notre Dame

While we all wait for a likely Clemson-Notre Dame rematch in the ACC Championship Game, don’t ignore what could happen this weekend in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The Tar Heels can throw the ball as well as anyone in the nation, and if there’s one weakness in No. 2-ranked Notre Dame’s defense, it’s coverage in the back end.

Or as one NFL scout told me this week, “If North Carolina can protect, (UNC QB Sam) Howell will have a field day against that secondary.”

The problem: UNC hasn’t exactly done a sterling job of protecting Howell this season. In 8 games, UNC is 109th in the nation in sacks given up (22), and there have been many more pressures.

But if he has time … in the last 2 games alone, Notre Dame has given up 439 yards to backup Clemson QB D.J. Uiagalelei and 272 yards to Boston College QB Phil Jurkovec.

Jurkovec isn’t at the same level as Howell, and Uiagalelei – while uber-talented — hasn’t seen nearly the defensive looks that Howell has. And Howell, like Uiagalelei, has an elite run game to provide dynamic ability and balance.

It’s impossible to discount a quarterback (Howell) who has played in 21 career games, and has 61 TDs – or about 3 a game. Or an offense that has 102 touchdowns – 4.85 per game — in the same span.

“I don’t know if (UNC) can avoid getting mauled,” an ACC coach told me. “Notre Dame is physical. They’ll impose their will on you. Two different styles, and (UNC) needs to get it into a track meet. They can’t get bogged down with trying to slug it out.”

The BYU question

BYU is in the middle of its best season in years and has an elite top-5 NFL Draft pick in QB Zach Wilson.

And now, because of the impact of COVID, the Cougars, who play as an FBS independent, have no chance to prove their worth compared to Power 5 teams.

Before the shakeup of the season (and elimination of most Power 5 nonconference games), BYU had a schedule that included games against Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State, Missouri, Stanford and Boise State.

The schedule post-COVID isn’t remotely as attractive, with BYU’s best game against Boise State (without injured QB Hank Bachmeier).

BYU coach Kalani Sitake says BYU will play anyone, and it’s still possible to schedule a game against Pac-12 teams that lose games because of COVID protocols (Washington nearly happened this week). The Cougars have open dates Dec. 5 and Dec. 19.

The natural fit is Cincinnati, currently ranked No. 7 in the CFP poll. Both the Bearcats and BYU need an important nonconference game to support their résumés, and both have Dec. 5 as an open date.

Dec. 19 is out for any legitimate nonconference add for BYU because it’s championship week for the 10 FBS conferences.