Top 25 Nonconference Showdowns We Wish We Could Schedule in 2015
With national signing day behind us, it’s time to start focusing on the 2015 college football season. Spring football is on the horizon (Duke has actually already started spring drills) and further beyond that is the offseason, preseason practice and, of course, the games themselves.
There are plenty of interesting nonconference games on the slate this fall, highlighted by clashes like Oregon-Michigan State, Notre Dame-Texas and Notre Dame-Clemson, among others, as Bill Bender of Sporting News notes, but there could be so many more. The College Football Playoff era encourages marquee matchups, but they’re hindered by most programs’ need for seven home games to balance their budgets as well as the desire to have a competitive (but not too competitive) schedule.
So we decided to take a look at some marquee nonconference games that could take place in a world unburdened by scheduling needs (or the games already on the 2015 schedule itself). Here’s a look at the top 25 nonconference games we’d like to see this fall. They’re ranked for their potential impact, and with one exception, there are no repeat teams in the mix.
25. Marshall vs. West Virginia
2014 was a special football season in the state of West Virginia. Marshall finished 13-1 and won the Conference USA title, while West Virginia qualified for the Liberty Bowl following a bounce-back season. But it was missing one thing: a Marshall-West Virginia matchup.
The state’s FBS football programs have met only 12 times in their history and haven’t met since 2012, with no current plans to renew the rivalry (West Virginia leads the series 12-0). While Marshall could be a bit down after losing standout quarterback Rakeem Cato, this would be a series that could galvanize the state of West Virginia if both sides could find a way to play it.
24. Minnesota vs. Washington
Minnesota vs. Washington seems like an unlikely matchup, but it could be an interesting clash between two teams trying to take the next step forward in their respective leagues. Jerry Kill has taken the Gophers from downtrodden status into a solid Big Ten contender. In 2014, Minnesota won eight games and was in contention for a Big Ten West title until the final weekend.
Chris Petersen’s Washington debut was up and down, and the Huskies surely want to be better than 8-6. That’ll be a challenge after losing several key players, including linebacker/running back Shaq Thompson and defensive tackle Danny Shelton, to the NFL. Even without standout tailback David Cobb, Minnesota would give UW a solid early-season challenge.
23. Penn State vs. South Carolina
In his long, illustrious career, Steve Spurrier has faced off only once with Penn State. That came in the 1998 Citrus Bowl, a 21-6 Florida victory. Although Big Ten games are rare on SEC regular-season schedules, this would be a perfect opportunity for two very different football cultures to meet outside of a bowl game.
South Carolina is coming off a disappointing 7-6 season following a trio of 11-win seasons, and the Gamecocks are trying to reload both offensively and defensively. Penn State is building following the NCAA’s easing of the sanctions connected to the Jerry Sandusky scandal, with a 7-6 record as a step forward.
It’d be an interesting test for standout quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who struggled in 2014 behind an inexperienced offensive line.
22. Memphis vs. Tennessee
In 2014, the Volunteer State featured a 10-win team coached by one of the nation’s up-and-coming coaches and, on the other end, a seven-win team that found its way into a bowl for the first time since 2010. If you weren’t paying attention, you might be surprised that the 10-win team was Memphis and the seven-win team was Tennessee.
That said, both programs are on their way up. Memphis’ Justin Fuente is one of the nation’s top young coaches, while Butch Jones played 23 Vol freshmen last fall and signed an impressive recruiting class that will only make UT better.
Memphis is 1-22 all time against Tennessee, with the only win coming in 1996. The teams haven’t played since 2010, but with both programs on the way up, 2015 would be a perfect time to renew the cross-state rivalry.
21. Cincinnati vs. Texas Tech
Two years ago, Tommy Tuberville surprised many by abruptly leaving Texas Tech to take over at Cincinnati. The Red Raiders were happy with their hire of young coach Kliff Kingsbury, but Kingsbury’s Lubbock honeymoon might be over following an ugly 4-8 campaign in 2014.
Meanwhile, Tubs tied for a share of the AAC championship following a 9-4 season in the Queen City. What better way to show the locals what they’re missing out on than to return for a visit with standout quarterback Gunner Kiel? The Cincinnati sideline might need extra security, but it’d be more than worth it if this matchup came to fruition.
20. Duke vs. Stanford
The NCAA likes to remind you that its players are “student-athletes,” and while the money and scandal that too often surround college football makes you forget it, these two programs are reminders that you can win and educate players.
Stanford won back-to-back Pac-12 titles in 2012-13 and is one of the nation’s most respected programs, while David Cutcliffe has built a downtrodden Duke team into a winner, fashioning consecutive nine-win seasons. Both teams are looking to take a step forward in 2015, and a “Brain Bowl” would be a fun way to start the season.
19. Oregon State vs. Wisconsin
On the surface, you might wonder why this would be a meaningful game. Two words: Gary Andersen. After just two seasons at Wisconsin, Andersen bolted back to the West Coast and Oregon State last fall, making what looked like a less-than-lateral move and leaving Badger fans stunned.
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez made a solid hire in luring Madison native and Pitt coach Paul Chryst back home, but there would be few juicier games on the national slate than Andersen facing his old team. Wisconsin isn’t afraid of big-time home-and-home series, and this would be particularly fun.
18. BYU vs. Utah
While it might go under the national radar, BYU and Utah are two teams and fanbases that just don’t like each other. Utah leads the series 57-34-1, but the series is taking a brief break due to the Utes’ move to the Pac-12 Conference.
The teams haven’t played since 2013 and are slated to play again beginning in 2016, but even a three-year break is too long for such a heated rivalry. Utah owns a four-game winning streak in the rivalry dating back to 2010, and you’d better believe that the Cougars are eager to face off with the Utes and regain bragging rights.
17. Mississippi State vs. Oklahoma State
Mississippi State and Oklahoma State both had impressive runs in their own way in 2014. The Bulldogs emerged from SEC West mediocrity for a breakthrough season that saw them spend nearly a month as the nation’s No. 1 team and make the Orange Bowl.
A young Oklahoma State team had its ups and downs but finished on a high, beating Oklahoma to make a bowl and taking a Cactus Bowl win over Washington to end the season. Both teams should be Top 25 teams entering 2015, and a quarterback battle pitting Heisman Trophy candidate Dak Prescott and up-and-coming sophomore Mason Rudolph with a pair of potent offenses would be compelling early-season television.
16. Pitt vs. West Virginia
The Backyard Brawl was traditionally one of the most intense but underrated rivalries in college football. Separated by only 75 miles of Interstate 79 spanning Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Pitt and West Virginia played blue-collar, Eastern football that was traditionally hard-nosed and meaningful.
In 2007, 4-7 Pitt upset No. 2 West Virginia 13-9 in Morgantown, keeping the Mountaineers out of the BCS national title game. Two years later, WVU upset then-No. 9 Pitt 19-16 on a last-second field goal. The series ended when West Virginia left the Big East for the Big 12, with the Mountaineers winning the final game 21-20 in 2011. Pitt leads the rivalry 61-40-3, but WVU has won three consecutive meetings.
Seeing the two programs match up again would be truly special for those in the mid-Atlantic region, and you can bet they'd have plenty of hatred saved up for one another once they got on the field together.
15. Kansas State vs. Ole Miss
Ole Miss and Kansas State are coming off nine-win seasons, but both teams ended 2014 with disappointment. The Rebels suffered an ugly Peach Bowl loss to TCU, while Kansas State lost the Alamo Bowl to UCLA and never broke through against the Big 12’s top tier.
Both teams will be replacing their starting quarterbacks this fall, but both return enough talent to be Top 25-worthy, to be certain. This would be a defense-fueled matchup, but one that would be fun to watch, much like Auburn-Kansas State was a year ago.
14. Arizona State vs. Boise State
Boise State isn’t a Power Five program, but the Broncos have done an impressive job of making their way into college football’s upper echelon regardless. Last season, Boise State didn’t miss a beat following coach Chris Petersen’s departure to Washington, winning the Mountain West and upsetting Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl.
Arizona State is becoming a Pac-12 power under Todd Graham’s watch, with consecutive 10-win seasons. This would be a natural game for both teams, although Boise State must replace its starting offensive backfield from 2014, with Grant Hedrick graduated and tailback Jay Ajayi gone to the NFL. Boise State would love another opportunity to prove itself against the Pac-12.
13. Florida vs. Miami
Florida and Miami are traditional college football powers who share fertile territory in the Sunshine State, but they don’t play often enough. Both programs face off against Florida State yearly, but their own meetings are less frequent.
Miami leads the series 29-26, but the teams have met only six times since 1987 due to scheduling difficulties. Miami won the teams’ last meeting in 2013, and no future games are scheduled. With Miami coming off a 6-7 season under Al Golden and Florida trying to regain its roar under Jim McElwain, it’d be a natural matchup, especially seeing Florida’s tough defense go against Miami’s offense and ACC Rookie of the Year Brad Kaaya.
12. Arizona vs. Michigan
Several years ago, the Big Ten and Pac-12 kicked around a scheduling arrangement that would have pitted the leagues in yearly nonconference play. It never came to fruition, which is too bad, because this would have been a juicy matchup.
Following a disastrous Michigan tenure, Rich Rodriguez has resurrected his career at Arizona, leading the Wildcats to a 2014 Pac-12 South title. The Wolverines don’t really care, though, after hiring Jim Harbaugh as the program’s savior.
Seeing Harbaugh and Rich Rod match wits on the sidelines would be really fun, although the Wildcats would have the clear personnel edge with quarterback Anu Solomon and linebacker Scooby Wright, among others, on the field.
11. Arkansas vs. Louisville
Need we say more? That’s what we thought.
Petrino is one of the more polarizing coaches in college football, and this matchup would pitt a pair of programs that he left in surprising fashion—one of which he currently coaches.
Petrino built Louisville into a nationally prominent program before heading to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, and following a surprising departure from Atlanta, he did the same at Arkansas before being derailed by a motorcycle crash that exposed an affair with a female subordinate.
It’s a fascinating game on the field, matching Petrino’s improving Louisville team against Bret Bielema’s powerful Arkansas offense, but seeing Petrino return to Fayetteville would be worth the price of admission alone.
10. Missouri vs. Nebraska
This was once an underrated Big 8/Big 12 rivalry before both teams decamped to other leagues, with Missouri heading to the SEC and Nebraska to the Big Ten. While Nebraska was the 800-pound gorilla of the Big 12 North, Missouri has fared much better in its new home, winning back-to-back SEC East titles. Meanwhile, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini was fired after failing to restore the Huskers to their 1990s national-power level.
Missouri fans are probably still bitter about the “Flea Kicker,” the kicked-ball touchdown that Nebraska receiver Matt Davidson caught to extend a classic 1997 game that NU won 45-38 in overtime. The Tigers are arguably in better position nationally as Mike Riley takes over at Nebraska. A neutral-site game, perhaps at Arrowhead Stadium, would be a natural fit for both programs.
9. Auburn vs. Georgia Tech
Auburn-Georgia Tech was once one of college football’s most constant rivalries. The two schools sit less than two hours apart on Interstate 85 and met every year except two from 1902-87. But the teams have met only twice since then, a home-and-home series that Georgia Tech swept in 2003 and 2005.
A series was set for 2017-18, but it was cancelled in 2010 and has not been rescheduled. Ken Sugiura of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that talks are ongoing to renew the series.
The teams share a border and recruiting territory, and playing a home-and-home would be a natural for fans, an extension of both teams’ rivalry with the University of Georgia. With Georgia Tech coming off a 10-win season capped by an Orange Bowl win and Auburn expected to be improved from an 8-5 year, the clash between flexbone and hurry-up no-huddle offenses would be fascinating to watch.
8. Texas vs. Texas A&M
This one is obvious. When Texas A&M moved to the Southeastern Conference following the 2011 season, it cut off one of the nation’s best rivalries, tinged with bitterness over Texas’ status as a Big 12 alpha dog and its partnership with ESPN to create the Longhorn Network. Although chatter about the rivalry has persisted, there are no signs it’ll be renewed anytime soon.
The 2014 Texas Bowl was a perfect opportunity to match the two, but instead, Arkansas stepped in to whip Charlie Strong’s Longhorns. Both programs had strong 2015 recruiting classes, and although A&M would likely be favored, a neutral-site opener, say, in Houston, would be a fascinating game.
7. LSU vs. Oklahoma
Oklahoma-LSU is a natural rivalry. The two states are only a few miles of Arkansas-Texas border from being neighbors, and over the past 15 years, they’ve been two of college football’s biggest powers, combining for a trio of national championships. They share recruiting territories and are both their state’s flagship universities.
They’ve actually signed to play a home-and-home series, but last September, they agreed to delay it from 2018-19 to 2027-28. That’s too long. An 18-year-old freshman who’ll play in the 2027 game is currently six years old. Why not get together this fall? While both teams have shaky quarterback situations, it’d feature an incredible matchup of tailbacks in LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine, not to mention the spectre of Les Miles and Bob Stoops matching wits.
It won’t happen, but it should.
6. Alabama vs. Clemson
The last time Clemson and Alabama met, the teams were in very different places. Entering the 2008 season opener, Clemson was in the preseason Top 10, while Alabama was trying to regain its footing under Nick Saban’s watch.
That night in the Georgia Dome was a beginning for Alabama and the beginning of the end for Tommy Bowden at Clemson. Alabama announced its return to the national scene with a powerful 34-10 rout, and Bowden was done at Clemson less than two months later.
Seven years later, Clemson is a rising power under Alabama native and former Crimson Tide player and assistant Dabo Swinney, with four consecutive 10-win seasons. Alabama and Saban own a trio of national titles. It’d be fun to see how far the programs have progressed in what would likely be a Top 10 or Top 15 preseason matchup. Swinney and quarterback Deshaun Watson wouldn’t shy away from it, and neither would Saban.
It’d be a fascinating clash, for certain.
5. Florida State vs. Georgia
Florida State and Georgia share a border. They share recruiting territory. Tallahassee sits only minutes from the Georgia state line. But while Georgia’s rivalry with Florida is one of college football’s best, the Bulldogs have no on-field relationship with Florida State. The teams have met only 11 times in their history, with UGA holding a 6-4-1 lead. The teams have not met since 2003, when Georgia beat FSU 26-13 in the Sugar Bowl.
With the ACC and the SEC both trying to upgrade their nonconference schedules (both leagues have passed a mandate to play at least one Power Five school in nonconference play), a UGA-FSU rivalry would be great for college football.
Mark Richt spent 14 years as FSU’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach before taking the UGA job in 2000, and he hired Jeremy Pruitt away from FSU in 2014 to become his new defensive coordinator. Both teams will be breaking in new quarterbacks, but both feature potent offenses, and this would be a must-watch game for any college football fan.
4. TCU vs. UCLA
TCU had the biggest bounce-back season in 2014. The Horned Frogs recovered from a 4-8 2013, installing the Air Raid offense and going 12-1, whipping Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl. Quarterback Trevone Boykin stretches the field in a number of ways and will enter 2015 as a prime Heisman candidate. But TCU’s best nonconference game is against Big Ten foe Minnesota.
Enter UCLA, which isn’t afraid to play the nation’s best teams early on. The Bruins lose quarterback Brett Hundley but return 18 starters from a 10-win team that was backloaded with 50 underclassmen. It’d be delicious fun watching talented linebacker Myles Jack chase Boykin around the turf, and a real challenge for the Horned Frogs.
3. Ohio State vs. Notre Dame
Notre Dame was once like a de facto Big Ten member. The Fighting Irish had Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue on their schedule regularly and even fit in Northwestern and Indiana on occasion. No longer. This fall, the Irish have no Big Ten teams on their slate, thanks to their scheduling arrangement, which places five ACC teams on their yearly schedule.
That’s too bad. Despite an up-and-down 2014, the Irish’s stock is rising. Brian Kelly returns 19 starters for 2015. And a perfect Big Ten matchup would be facing off against defending national champion Ohio State. The teams have not played since the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, a 34-20 Ohio State win, although they have a home-and-home scheduled for 2022-23.
The Buckeyes had a breakthrough 2014 campaign, and even with uncertainty at quarterback, they have talent and depth across the roster. Oh, and did we mention that Urban Meyer just hired Notre Dame running backs coach Tony Alford to his staff? In 2004, Meyer spurned the Irish for Florida, but he called Notre Dame his "dream job" to Chicago radio station WQAM in 2008. Beginning the season against Notre Dame would be must-see TV.
2. Michigan State vs. Southern California
Over the past two years, Michigan State has emerged as a national power. The Spartans are a combined 23-3, with a pair of losses to Oregon and one to Ohio State their only defeats. Meanwhile, Southern California is finding its way back from NCAA probation. The Trojans had a solid debut season under Steve Sarkisian.
While the team suffered serious NFL draft losses, including defensive end Leonard Williams and wideout Nelson Agholor, Sarkisian signed an impressive 24-man class, and the Trojans will be one of the nation’s best teams this preseason.
This game would feature a great quarterback battle between Michigan State’s Connor Cook and USC’s Cody Kessler—a truly great Big Ten-Pac -12 clash.
1. Baylor vs. Oregon
Both Baylor and Oregon ended their season in AT&T Stadium, but neither ended its season the way it would have preferred. Baylor missed the College Football Playoff and blew a 20-point fourth-quarter lead in the Cotton Bowl, falling to Michigan State. Oregon made the College Football Playoff title game but was muscled around by Ohio State in a surprising rout.
This fall, both teams will be retooling a bit around new quarterbacks, with Bryce Petty and Marcus Mariota gone to the NFL, but both will still possess two of the nation’s more potent offensive attacks. If they met again in North Texas, it’d be an extremely fun game to watch, bursting with storylines on both sides.