Ranking College Football's Best Weeknight Games of 2014 Season

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistJuly 18, 2014

Ranking College Football's Best Weeknight Games of 2014 Season

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Any self-respecting college football fan knows not to have anything planned on Saturdays, because that day is meant for dawn-to-way-past-dusk game viewing.

    But don't lump all your errands and responsibilities onto the weeknights, though, because year after year college football's footprint is extending beyond the Saturday landscape and stretching across the week.

    During the 2014 season, there will be more than 100 games involving FBS teams played on a weeknight, with at least one game scheduled for each night of the week. Even Monday, as Louisville makes its ACC debut on Labor Day against Miami (Florida) to cap an opening week of college football that spans over six days from Aug. 27 to Sept. 1.

    This year's slate of weeknight games features at least one great matchup every week, sometimes with more than one happening on the same night. And we're not just talking aspiring hopefuls from the mid-major conferences. The weeknight lineup includes plenty of power-conference teams, including both participants from last season's BCS National Championship Game.

    There are league games, nonconference tilts, rematches and first-time-in-a-while (or ever) matchups. You want it, the weeknights have got it.

    Here's our list of the 25 best weeknight games during the 2014 season, all of which should be much more fun to watch than whatever is on network television that evening.

25. Arizona at UTSA

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    WILY LOW/Associated Press

    When: Thursday, Sept. 4 (8 p.m. ET)

    TV: Fox Sports 1

    UTSA isn't taking the slow-and-steady approach to joining the FBS. Instead, the Roadrunners have gone full-bore since forming their program a few years ago and are being as ambitious as anyone when it comes to scheduling. And while that means being willing to play power-conference teams on the road, it's also resulted in getting many to come to the Alamodome.

    UTSA hosted Oklahoma State last year and has future home games slated with Kansas State (2015), Arizona State (2016) and Baylor (2018).

    For Arizona, this counts as its "toughest" nonconference game, as the others are home tilts with UNLV and Nevada. Coming just six days after their opener, the Wildcats might still be trying to work out the kinks from that first game and be susceptible to an upset.

24. Houston at BYU

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    When: Thursday, Sept. 11 (9 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN

    Houston began last season 5-0, matching its win total from the year before, but then found itself in a track meet when BYU came to town. The visiting Cougars won the game, 47-46, scoring with one minute and eight seconds left to end the back-and-forth scoring that resulted in six lead changes.

    Though Houston lost, the game was sort of a coming-out party for freshman quarterback John O'Korn, who threw for a then-career-high 363 yards with three touchdowns but was also picked off three times. It was also the game that saw BYU quarterback Taysom Hill come into his own as a true dual threat, not only running for 128 yards but also throwing for 417 with four TD passes.

    Expect nothing less than 80 points in this one.

23. Fresno State at Boise State

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    When: Friday, Oct. 17 (8 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN

    Fresno State's geographical rivals in the Mountain West would have to be fellow California schools San Diego State or San Jose State, but the team the Bulldogs consider their true nemesis is Boise State. And last year they finally vanquished that foe, winning 41-40 at home for their first win over the Broncos since 2005.

    This is apt to be a much different Fresno team that we'll see in 2014, as by mid-October Tim DeRuyter might finally have his defensive scheme in place and the focus away from the wide-open offenses of the past two years. Not having quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Davante Adams around affects that, too.

    We're unsure what kind of Boise team to expect, either, as after eight seasons under the guidance of Chris Petersen the Broncos have a new coach in Bryan Harsin. Harsin was on Boise's staff from 2001 to 2010, and he coached the offense on both of the Fiesta Bowl-winning teams.

22. Northern Illinois at Ball State

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    When: Wednesday, Nov. 5 (8 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN2 or ESPNU

    ESPN's annual midweek devotion to Mid-American Conference football, also known as "MAC-tion," begins the night before this with a pair of good matchups. But this clash of the West Division's two best teams is the highlight of the lot.

    Both Ball State and Northern Illinois have had to move on from prolific quarterbacks who had been the offensive centerpieces the past few seasons. Keith Wenning threw for more than 11,000 yards in his Ball State career, including 4,148 as a senior, while Jordan Lynch was a one-man show for the Huskies the past two seasons while setting numerous FBS records for rushing output by a quarterback.

    Even with those talents gone, though, both of these programs have been among the more consistent in the MAC over the years and should still have solid teams worthy of winning the division.

21. San Diego State at Fresno State

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    When: Friday, Oct. 3 (10 p.m. ET)

    TV: CBS Sports Network

    San Diego State had a penchant for making comebacks last season, not just in rallying from an 0-3 start to finish with eight wins but also in terms of late-game heroics. The Aztecs trailed in the fourth quarter of several of their victories, and thrice they needed overtime to come out on top.

    But the one that got away, so to speak, was SDSU's game at home against Fresno State. It scored two touchdowns in a three-minute span in the fourth to force overtime, but the team couldn't punch another one through and fell 35-28 to the Bulldogs.

    With these teams likely the top candidates to represent the West Division in the Mountain West title game, expect another tight-knit affair that may very well require an extra period or two.

20. BYU at Central Florida

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    When: Thursday, Oct. 9 (7:30 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN

    Since BYU isn't considered a desirable nonconference opponent in the eyes of the ACC and SEC, the Cougars have a limited supply of quality teams to line up games with in order to fill an independent schedule. Thankfully, BYU has been welcomed with open arms by the American Athletic Conference and is set to face three AAC foes during the regular season (as well as in the Miami Beach Bowl, assuming BYU is eligible).

    That means the Cougars will be making their first trip to Florida since 2010 in a matchup of programs that hope to grab the spot in the College Football Playoff awarded to a team outside the power conferences.

    Central Florida was technically that team last year, although the Knights made it to the Fiesta Bowl via the American's lone automatic BCS bid. The American wasn't included in the College Football Playoff's plans, so not only does UCF need to win its league, it needs to knock off strong out-of-league opponents like BYU.

19. Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh

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    When: Thursday, Oct. 16 (7:30 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN

    The ACC was a pioneer in weeknight games involving power conferences, having been a regular staple of ESPN's Thursday night programming for a long time. And the league hasn't just offered up its dregs for these games, as last year featured matchups such as Georgia Tech-Clemson and Miami-North Carolina.

    Pittsburgh made its ACC debut last year on a weeknight, though not many people will remember that the Panthers were involved in that Labor Day contest. All that's going to get recalled from that game is Jameis Winston, the untested redshirt freshman quarterback from Florida State who began his Heisman campaign that night with a 25-of-27, 356-yard, four-touchdown performance in the 41-13 victory.

    Virginia Tech is a regular on the Thursday night circuit, having beat Georgia Tech on that night in 2013 in the midst of a six-game win streak.

18. BYU at Boise State

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    When: Friday, Oct. 24 (9 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN or ESPN2

    BYU may have felt being independent (in football, at least) was better for its brand than staying in the Mountain West, but when it comes to scheduling, there's still a soft spot in there for old rivals. That, and the Cougars need to take whoever they can get, thus the presence of four Mountain West teams on the docket in 2014.

    In actuality, BYU and Boise never met as Mountain West opponents, as BYU bolted from the league before Boise joined. They've met the past two years, though, with BYU getting its first win in four tries against the Broncos in 2013 in a game that saw BYU quarterback Taysom Hill throw for three touchdowns and run for another.

    There's going to be a lot of Hill on weeknights this season, and one of the more unheralded dual-threat quarterbacks should shine in every one of BYU's non-Saturday games.

17. Miami (Florida) at Virginia Tech

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    When: Thursday, Oct. 23 (7:30 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN

    With most experts already marking Florida State's spot in the ACC title game in pen, that leaves just the entrant from the Coastal Division to get determined. This late October game in Blacksburg is certain to have an impact on who that team is.

    Miami was just starting its late-season tailspin in 2013 when it got beat at home by Virginia Tech, a win that helped turn the Hokies' season around. We didn't get a chance to see what Miami's Duke Johnson would do against a Frank Beamer defense, since he'd been lost for the season with a broken ankle by that point last year. That is just one of the subplots and matchups to watch for on this Thursday.

16. Arkansas State at Louisiana-Lafayette

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    When: Tuesday, Oct. 21 (8 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN2

    For all intents and purposes, the Sun Belt Conference is the low spot on the FBS totem pole. It's where the vast majority of the teams moving up from the FCS end up landing, and it only has three guaranteed bowl bids (up from two in 2013!) to dole out to what's now an 11-team league.

    Yet, the Sun Belt isn't as bad as you'd think; in fact, it's best teams are actually pretty darn good, as Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette have shown by going a combined 5-1 in bowl games over the past three years. Regular-season wins over power teams haven't come yet, but they will.

    Arkansas State and ULL have been the class of the league, so it's only fitting their annual game has once again been pulled out of the Saturday crowd for its own weeknight showcase.

15. TCU at Texas

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    When: Thursday, Nov. 27 (7:30 p.m. ET)

    TV: Fox Sports 1

    For so many years there was a specific date reserved on Texas' schedule for Texas A&M, and with few exceptions that was on Thanksgiving. But that rivalry has gone away with A&M moving to the SEC, so the Longhorns have been spreading the love and sharing the holiday with various other Big 12 teams from Texas.

    Last year it was Texas Tech, and this year it'll be TCU (as it was in TCU's first Big 12 season, in 2011). The Horned Frogs spoiled the party two years ago, winning 20-13 for their first win in the series since 1992.

    And for Lone Star State football fans who will be glued to their TVs watching the Dallas Cowboys' annual Thanksgiving game: Don't worry. By the time this one kicks off, Dallas will either have the game in hand or it will be preparing for a late collapse; either way, watching the college game is a better use of your post-meal viewing time.

14. Arizona at Oregon

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    When: Thursday, Oct. 2 (10:30 p.m.)

    TV: ESPN

    The Arizona-Oregon series has been a lot of things over the past decade, but one thing it hasn't been is dull.

    There have been major upsets by Arizona and field-storming by its fans, not always when the Wildcats have sealed a victory. The games have usually been really close or a major blowout by Oregon, with Arizona only winning four times since 1993.

    Last year's meeting, in Tucson, produced a lopsided Wildcats home victory that came not long after Oregon players were quoted as saying they weren't that excited at the prospect of playing in the Rose Bowl. Then the loss made that not a possibility anymore, so it was a form of karma.

13. Utah State at BYU

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    When: Friday, Oct. 3 (10:15 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN

    In case you hadn't noticed, BYU is playing a lot of weeknight games this year. Five, to be exact, and only the opener is against a team that had a losing record last season, but that should still be a tough one since it's on the road and will mark the debut of new Connecticut coach Bob Diaco.

    But of all the weeknight games involving BYU, this is probably the most significant one for the Cougars because it's an in-state rivalry game. And Utah State is looking to try to get some balance to this series. Now that the Aggies are pushing toward becoming one of the top mid-major programs, they need to start beating the Cougars.

    Utah State has won just four times in the past 40 years, but with quarterback Chuckie Keeton expected at full strength after missing most of last year with a horrific knee injury, we could see a result that goes against the grain even with the game in Provo.

12. Bowling Green at Toledo

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    When: Wednesday, Nov. 19 (8 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN2 or ESPNU

    The Mid-American title game is played on a Friday night in December, so it technically fits the definition of MACtion. But before we can get to that conference title game at Ford Field in Detroit, we have to determine who will win each division.

    That may very well be these teams, who are both among the favorites to claim their sides of the league. Bowling Green won the East in 2013, then upset Northern Illinois in the title game to claim its first MAC Championship since 1992.

    Toledo has won the last four meetings, including a 28-25 triumph last season, and as the home team will look to tap into the magic that has helped the Rockets knock off plenty of powerful opponents before at the Glass Bowl.

11. East Carolina at Cincinnati

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    When: Thursday, Nov. 13 (7 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN2

    The American Athletic Conference is still in the midst of a crossroads, as over the past two years it's pulled in a number of new teams to make up for those that have bolted for bigger (read: power) conferences. It's also stuck on 11 members, until Navy joins in 2015 and enables the league to split into divisions and hold a conference championship game.

    Until then, it not only has to declare its champion by the regular-season results, but it also can't have a true round robin without robbing teams of the chance to play a full slate of nonconference games. That means some of the better matchups don't happen, but thankfully this one is on the schedule.

    East Carolina is among the newcomers to the American, but after winning 10 games in 2013 (including against the ACC's North Carolina and NC State) the Pirates are among the favorites for the league title in their first season. Cincinnati is one of the few longstanding members of the league and will be looking to carry the flag for the old Big East teams that are still around.

10. Miami (Florida) at Louisville

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    When: Monday, Sept. 1 (8 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN

    Labor Day is an important holiday meant to celebrate the struggles of those who have worked hard (and continue to do so) to make the United States run smoothly. And what better way to honor those in the service industry than to watch an exciting game that also happens to mark the debut of a team to the world of power-conference football?

    Louisville has made the slow climb up the FBS charts, from independent to Conference USA to the Big East/American to finally getting an invite into the ACC. The Cardinals are also breaking in a new coach, who happens to also be an old friend, as Bobby Petrino returns to the fold after leaving last decade for the NFL and then Arkansas.

    These teams met in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Florida in December, but both are far different from the units that hit the field that night. Miami didn't have running back Duke Johnson and will be breaking in several new skill players, while Louisville is almost entirely revamped all the way from the field to the coaching box.

9. Boise State vs. Ole Miss (in Atlanta)

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    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 (8 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN

    Boise State is the poster child for mid-major football, having shown its willing take on whoever is willing to schedule the Broncos (often in a neutral-site game) as a way to beef up their national profile. The program was close to joining the Big East at one point, but instead, it is holding down the fort as one of the powers in the Mountain West that should be a top contender to get the non-power spot in the College Football Playoff.

    To help that cause, Boise could stand to collect a win over a major program, like it did in 2011 when it knocked off Georgia in a situation similar to the one it faces this year against Ole Miss in Atlanta. The Broncos will play anyone, anywhere, while the Rebels haven't ventured out of the south or southeast in some time.

    Mississippi can benefit from a win in this game, too, as it's the toughest of the Rebels' nonconference games. The SEC doesn't get a lot of credit for some of the opponents it schedules outside of league play, but beating Boise will help the resumes of the Rebels and the league.

8. North Carolina at Duke

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    When: Thursday, Nov. 20 (7:30 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN

    North Carolina's 2013 season bottomed out during a weeknight loss, a setback that also helped spark the Tar Heels to an amazing turnaround after a 1-5 start to the year. After blowing a big lead to unbeaten Miami (Florida) on a Thursday, UNC reeled off five straight wins to become bowl-eligible.

    It's only loss in the second half of the season was to Duke, which had its best year ever in 2013 by winning 10 games and reaching the ACC title game. That success earned the Blue Devils their first game on a weeknight game since 1996, and having it be a rivalry contest just adds to the intrigue.

    Both of these teams should be in contention for the Coastal Division crown, so a berth in the ACC Championship could be on the line in this one.

7. Central Florida at East Carolina

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    When: Thursday, Dec. 4 (7:30 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN

    Central Florida and East Carolina met every season from 2005 to 2012 as members of Conference USA, but that series was halted when UCF jumped to the American last year. East Carolina followed the Knights to the American a year later, and they'll get to end their regular seasons against each other in a game that might end up being a de facto conference title game.

    UCF reached the Fiesta Bowl last year behind the big arm of Blake Bortles, who is now in the NFL. East Carolina has its own standout quarterback, Shane Carden, who threw for 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns last season in leading the Pirates to a 10-3 record.

    UCF made its presence known during a weeknight road game last season, winning at unbeaten Louisville on a Friday night.

6. Texas A&M at South Carolina

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    When: Thursday, Aug. 28 (6 p.m. ET)

    TV: SEC Network

    ESPN and the SEC have joined forces to create a new TV network, giving us yet another channel to flip back and forth between on Saturdays to catch all the great college football action. But the SEC Network will get a special weeknight debut with a doubleheader featuring a big-time cross-divisional matchup.

    While those in the Nashville area are probably most excited to watch the nightcap between Temple and Vanderbilt, the big draw on this opening night of the 2014 season will be Texas A&M making its first visit to Williams-Brice Stadium, where the Gamecocks haven't lost since 2011. It's the start of a very challenging road schedule for the Aggies, who also play at old Southwest rival SMU as well as Alabama and Auburn.

    This game is likely to set a high benchmark for SEC Network ratings, assuming carriage deals are able to be worked out with satellite and cable providers before the channel goes live in mid-August.

5. Texas Tech at Oklahoma State

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    When: Thursday, Sept. 25 (7:30 p.m.)

    TV: ESPN

    Texas Tech began the 2013 season with seven straight wins before the bottom fell out during the second half of the year. Early on in that five-game slide was a humbling home loss to Oklahoma State during which the Red Raiders fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter and could never recover.

    Now Tech goes to Stillwater, where it hasn't won since 2001, to face an OK State team that was the only member of its conference not to have a player named to the preseason All-Big 12 team. The Cowboys were 10-3 last year and within a game of representing the league in the Fiesta Bowl, but the 2014 version doesn't have any major stars on the roster.

    Tech does, in the form of rising sophomore quarterback Davis Webb. One of several players to start at the position for the Red Raiders in 2013, he didn't play in their final two regular-season games, but he then threw for 403 yards with four touchdowns in the bowl victory over Arizona State. Against OSU last year, Webb passed 71 times in the loss.

4. UCLA at Arizona State

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    When: Thursday, Sept. 25 (10 p.m. ET)

    TV: Fox Sports 1

    Last November, Arizona State went into the Rose Bowl and locked up a chance to go back to the Rose Bowl in January, knocking off UCLA on the road to clinch the Pac-12 South Division. The Sun Devils lost something significant in that victory, though, as standout pass-catching running back Marion Grice suffered a leg injury and didn't play again.

    Last year's 38-33 ASU win continued a trend of nip-and-tuck results between these programs, with UCLA claiming a 45-43 victory at Sun Devil Stadium in 2012 and a 29-28 home triumph in 2011. UCLA ended up winning the South Division in both of those years.

    These are two of the top three contenders (along with USC) for the South Division in 2014, so the winner will get an early boost in the quest for that title.

3. LSU at Texas A&M

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    When: Thursday, Nov. 27 (7:30 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN

    As mentioned in an earlier slide, Texas and Texas A&M used to meet nearly every season on Thanksgivinga great tradition that was an unfortunate casualty of A&M's move to the SEC in 2012. And while Texas moved on quickly, scheduling other opponents for that annual holiday game, A&M was at the mercy of the SEC schedule-makers for who (and when) it would play during that week of the season.

    But now the Aggies are back on Thanksgiving and get to host an LSU team they haven't managed to beat since 1995. The schools have met each of the last three years, including in the 2011 Cotton Bowl, and the Tigers were the only team to beat Johnny Manziel twice.

    Manziel is gone, though, but the Aggies offense has the kind of weapons to excel no matter who's playing quarterback. LSU will have its hands full, and with the immense Kyle Field crowd showing why it's known as the 12th Man, it will make for great holiday TV.

2. Florida State at Louisville

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    When: Thursday, Oct. 30 (7:30 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN

    Florida State's defense of its national championship will go along a much tougher road this season, with the Seminoles' schedule significantly upgraded thanks to nonconference games against Oklahoma State and Notre Dame. It's also tougher in the league, with this pre-Halloween trip to Louisville likely proving to be the toughest road test.

    Louisville's first season in the ACC won't be easy, but the Cardinals didn't make the move because they expected smooth sailing. And having this one on a Thursday has some special significance, since it will come nearly eight years to the day that Louisville had one of the biggest wins in school history: a Thursday night triumph over No. 3 West Virginia on Nov. 2, 2006.

    Bobby Petrino was a part of that Louisville team also, but then he left for an NFL job two months later.

    The last time these schools met was also on a Thursday, in September 2002, with Louisville downing the fourth-ranked Seminoles 26-20 in overtime.

1. Auburn at Kansas State

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    When: Thursday, Sept. 18 (7:30 p.m. ET)

    TV: ESPN

    Auburn and Kansas State agreed to a home-and-home series nearly a decade ago, with Auburn hosting the first game back in 2007. The teams settled on 2014 for the return game in Manhattan, having no idea the contest would end up having such national significance in the future.

    But with the College Football Playoff and its selection committee determining who will play for a national championship each year, being able to notch quality nonconference wins is just as important as winning a conference title. And if Auburn is going to get a chance to return to the national title game after falling 13 seconds short to Florida State in January, it's going to have to win in "The Little Apple."

    The schools agreed back in February to move this game to a Thursday, and we couldn't be happier. The games scheduled for that Saturday are pretty good, but none are likely to have as much impact on the playoff picture as this one.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.