The 25 Best Nonconference Clashes on the 2016 College Football ScheduleJanuary 25, 2016
The 25 Best Nonconference Clashes on the 2016 College Football Schedule
In the College Football Playoff era, scheduling is increasingly important. As Baylor and TCU found out in 2014, a glossy resume means little when it is loaded with wins over weak non-Power Five foes. Power Five schools have upgraded their schedules, moving toward having at least one, if not two marquee nonconference games on their slate.
That’s great news for you, the college football fan. Meaningful games are far more fun to watch than a Power Five team motoring through an overmatched FCS or Sun Belt foe. Those games are still on the schedules, of course, but having big-time games that shape the playoff picture are crucial to the season. Here is a look at the top 25 nonconference games that are on deck for 2016.
25. Texas Tech at Arizona State
Do you like points? Do you like passing? Boy, do we have a game for you. Arizona State and Texas Tech feature two of the nation’s more potent offenses. The Sun Devils slipped to 6-7 in 2015 but still averaged 289.1 passing yards per game, No. 22 nationally.
Texas Tech features one of the nation’s most prolific passers in Patrick Mahomes. Last fall, Mahomes threw for 4,653 yards with 36 touchdowns against 15 interceptions, finishing fourth nationally in passing yardage.
The Red Raiders visit Sun Devil Stadium Sept. 10, and expect points aplenty. Defense is not either team’s strong suit, but this will be a fun contest to watch.
24. BYU vs. Arizona
BYU and its fans absorbed a surprise when longtime coach Bronco Mendenhall took the Virginia job, leaving the Cougars to search for a new leader. They found one in Oregon State defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake.
Sitake has a big stage for his first impression: University of Phoenix Stadium for a season-opening game against Arizona. The Wildcats hope to rebound after slipping from a 10-win season to 7-6 in 2015. Quarterback Anu Solomon is an excellent dual-threat passer, and he’ll give BYU’s solid defense a serious challenge early on.
23. Texas at Cal
A year ago, Texas-Cal put together one of the season’s wildest games. The Longhorns were on the verge of erasing a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit behind Jerrod Heard, needing only an extra point to force overtime. But Texas missed the extra point, and Cal survived with a wild 45-44 victory.
On Sept. 17, Texas returns the favor by visiting the Bears. Cal will be without prolific quarterback Jared Goff, who declared for the NFL draft but hopes to build on a strong 8-5 2015 season. Charlie Strong is surely feeling the heat in Austin after beginning his UT tenure with consecutive losing seasons. Beating the Bears would get a crucial 2016 season headed in the right direction.
22. Georgia Tech at Georgia
In the state of Georgia, there’s one post-Thanksgiving tradition that galvanizes the state: Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate. That’s what Georgians call the Georgia-Georgia Tech football rivalry. The teams have been facing off on the gridiron since 1893, with Georgia holding a 65-40-1 edge.
Georgia has dominated the series in recent years, winning 13 of the last 15 meetings. This year’s game will have a new storyline. It’ll be Kirby Smart’s first meeting with Tech as UGA head coach. The Bulldogs hope to take a step forward after firing Mark Richt following 15 largely good, but not great seasons.
Paul Johnson and the Yellow Jackets are hoping to rebound from an ugly 3-9 season that came as a surprise following 2014’s 11-win campaign. If the Jackets and Justin Thomas get their act together, the season’s final regular-season game will be for more than mere state pride.
21. Washington State at Boise State
Washington State enjoyed a turnaround season in 2015. Mike Leach’s Cougars finished 9-4, capping the season with a Sun Bowl win over Miami, and they did so with a prolific passing offense. Luke Falk threw for 4,561 yards and finished fifth nationally in passing yardage. He still has room to develop, too.
He and the Cougars will get a strong road test on Sept. 10 at Boise State. BSU quarterback Brett Rypien threw for 3,353 yards with 20 touchdowns against eight interceptions and showed solid poise. Boise is one of the best “Group of Five” programs and should give the Cougars everything they want as they prepare for the Pac-12 slate.
20. UCLA at BYU
As one of only three FBS independent programs, BYU schedules aggressively in hopes of capturing the nation’s attention. This is the case again this season; the Cougars open up the season against Arizona, Utah, UCLA and West Virginia, in that order.
The Bruins come to Provo, Utah, on Sept. 17 on the back end of a home-and-home series that had a very entertaining beginning last fall. The Bruins and quarterback Josh Rosen scored a late touchdown and pulled out a 24-23 win, and this meeting should be entertaining as well.
UCLA will return 14 starters, nine on defense, and Rosen, who showed flashes of greatness last fall, should be even better with a year’s experience. BYU will be led by quarterback Tanner Mangum, who stepped in as an injury replacement and threw 23 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. If the Cougars hope to make a run at the College Football Playoff, these are the kind of games they have to win.
19. Miami at Notre Dame
Miami-Notre Dame has been an infrequent, but high-profile series. The teams have only met 25 times, with Notre Dame holding a 17-7-1 edge. Their meetings from 1987-90 were contentious, with some dubbing them “Catholics vs. Convicts.” They’ve only met twice since, with Notre Dame winning 33-17 in the 2010 Sun Bowl and whipping Miami 41-3 in 2012 at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
The Irish’s scheduling alliance with the ACC brings Miami back on the schedule this fall; the Hurricanes will visit South Bend on Oct. 29. Miami has new hope under newly hired coach Mark Richt, who hopes to capture South Florida’s fancy with an offense led by talented quarterback Brad Kaaya.
Miami hopes Richt can recapture its former glory, and beating the Irish on the road would certainly wake up some of those echoes.
18. BYU at Michigan State
BYU’s independent status leads to some interesting stops on its schedule. Last year, the Cougars wound up at Michigan and had an ugly day, losing 31-0, by far the most lopsided defeat in a 9-4 season.
This fall, BYU returns to the state of Michigan and hopes for much better results. It’ll take on Michigan State Oct. 8 in East Lansing.
By then, the defending Big Ten champs and returning College Football Playoff qualifiers will have had some time to find their footing and identify a starting quarterback following Connor Cook’s graduation. Michigan State’s defense returns six starters but should be nasty again, led by star lineman Malik McDowell. It’ll be a big challenge for BYU and quarterback Tanner Mangum.
17. Notre Dame at Texas
The opening weekend of 2016 brings us another interesting intersectional matchup when Notre Dame visits Texas, completing a high-profile home-and-home series. The Fighting Irish will be looking to prove that 2015’s 10-3 season wasn’t an aberration, and it’ll be interesting to see how Brian Kelly handles his quarterback situation between returning starter Malik Zaire (whose 2015 season ended in mid-September due to a broken ankle) and DeShone Kizer, who performed very well in leading the Irish to the Fiesta Bowl.
Meanwhile, Charlie Strong hopes this meeting with the Irish goes far better than the 2015 season opener, a 38-3 Notre Dame rout in South Bend. That set the tone for a disappointing 5-7 season, and Strong enters his third year in Austin needing to show measurable improvement. That starts with doing so against the Irish.
16. Arkansas at TCU
Bret Bielema is building something at Arkansas. Bielema has the Razorbacks headed in the right direction following a pair of winning seasons, both of which were capped by bowl wins over Big 12 foes.
The Razorbacks hope for more in 2016, and early-season success (something they didn’t enjoy in 2014 or 2015) will be crucial. That makes games like Sept. 10’s visit to TCU very important.
Arkansas will have a whole new offensive backfield, and the Horned Frogs will have a new starting quarterback (likely Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill) following Trevone Boykin’s graduation. It’ll be an excellent early-season measuring stick for both programs and a clash of styles between Arkansas’ physical approach and TCU’s fast-paced, high-flying offense.
15. Virginia Tech at Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s recent scheduling alliance with the ACC gets between four and five ACC foes on its schedule annually. That boxes out some old rivalries but also creates new opportunities. The Irish’s trip to Clemson was one of the best games of 2015, and now, another ACC power finds its way onto the schedule.
Virginia Tech has never played Notre Dame, but the Hokies will make their initial appearance on the slate on Nov. 19, when they visit South Bend. VT slipped somewhat in Frank Beamer’s final seasons, but new coach Justin Fuente brings a fast-paced offense and a new energy. The Hokies will be ACC Coastal contenders again this season and could provide a serious test for the Irish defense.
14. Oregon at Nebraska
Mike Riley didn’t exactly make a strong first impression in his first season as Nebraska head coach. The Cornhuskers lost a series of close games and finished 6-7 even after a Foster Farms Bowl win over UCLA. Riley will certainly be feeling the need for progress in his second year at the Huskers’ helm, and he has a great early chance to get fans’ attention when Oregon visits on Sept. 17.
The Ducks will return 11 starters but need to improve a defense that struggled to stop foes last season. This will also be expected of starting quarterback Dakota Prukop’s first FBS road start, and he’ll have a tough environment at Memorial Stadium.
13. UCLA at Texas A&M
Sometimes, things have a way of working out perfectly. Noel Mazzone knows the feeling. Recently, Mazzone jumped from UCLA to Texas A&M, hoping to right the Aggies’ listing ship on offense following a pair of high-profile quarterback transfers and the departure of offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.
Of course, his first game as Aggies’ OC is against the Bruins. Of course. On Sept. 3, UCLA comes to Kyle Field for a crucial season opener against A&M.
Mazzone will unveil his offense, and Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight will likely be under center. UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen will be fired up to show Mazzone how much he’s progressed. The Mazzone storyline is juicy, but this should be an exciting game with plenty of points scored on both sides.
12. Clemson at Auburn
Clemson has been called “Auburn with a lake,” so it’s only natural that the two Southern Tigers have begun hooking up on a regular basis. Clemson and Auburn met three times from 2010-12, with Auburn kick-starting its national title run by beating Clemson in overtime before the South Carolina version of the Tigers came back to win the next two meetings.
They’ve signed for another home-and-home series, which begins at Auburn on Sept. 3. It’s full of intriguing storylines. Clemson hopes to build on its incredible 14-1 2015 season, which ended with a national title-game loss to Alabama. Auburn hopes to rebound from a highly disappointing 7-6 season.
Both teams play hurry-up, no-huddle offense, and Clemson is led by the nation’s top quarterback in Deshaun Watson, who became the first college player ever to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season as a sophomore. Clemson has some holes to fill on defense following multiple NFL draft departures, and Auburn has its third defensive coordinator in as many seasons in Kevin Steele. Steele, of course, spent three seasons as Clemson’s DC. His final game? The infamous 2012 Orange Bowl, which featured West Virginia’s 70-33 curb stomp of the Tigers.
Nice to see you, Kevin! This will be one of the marquee games of the opening weekend and the nonconference schedule as a whole.
11. Georgia vs. North Carolina
Georgia and North Carolina share a small border along Georgia’s northeast edge, but the neighboring flagship universities haven’t seen much of each other lately on the football field. Georgia leads the series 16-12-2, but the teams haven’t met since 1971.
That changes on Sept. 3. The Bulldogs and Tar Heels will kick off the season with an intriguing matchup in the Georgia Dome. North Carolina was significantly improved in 2015, going from 6-7 to 11-3 with an ACC Coastal Division title. The Tar Heels will return 14 starters, and backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky is set to take over for departed Marquise Williams.
Georgia is looking to take the next step after firing longtime coach Mark Richt and hiring Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. He needs more consistent quarterback play, but getting a healthy Nick Chubb back would be a big boost to the offense. Either way, this will be a fun kickoff to the season.
10. Florida State at Florida
The ACC and SEC have multiple nonconference rivalries that take place on the final Saturday of the regular season, and they’re always meaningful. Florida-Florida State is one of the best. The Sunshine State rivals just don’t like each other, and they get together every year to hash out their differences.
Florida State has dominated the rivalry in recent years, winning five of the last six games, including an ugly 27-2 victory last November. Jim McElwain wants greater success against his rival, but he must sort out an uncertain quarterback situation led by Treon Harris. Florida State is coming off a 10-3 season, but with 17 starters returning, including all 11 on offense, this could be a game with College Football Playoff implications.
9. Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech
Tennessee and Virginia Tech are football neighbors, but they’ve been infrequent gridiron combatants. The teams have only met eight times in their history, and only twice since 1937, with the last meeting a 37-14 VT whipping in the 2009 Peach Bowl.
That will change this fall, and in a big (and we do mean big) way. On Sept. 10, the teams will meet at Bristol Motor Speedway for what is being dubbed the “Battle At Bristol.” Bristol Motor Speedway will be transformed into a football stadium, and a gigantic crowd is expected. BMS will have an expected capacity of 150,000, and if the Hokies and Vols even come close to filling it up, it’ll smash the previous college football attendance record of 115,509, set by Michigan-Notre Dame in September 2013.
Speedway Motorsports president Marcus Smith says he hopes this is only the first big non-racing event at Bristol.
"I want it to happen,” he told USA Today's Mike Hembree. “I think other universities are going to want it to happen because this will be the preeminent venue to play a game. It will break every record. This venue will be renowned as the single greatest sporting venue in the world."
Both teams are intriguing as well. Tennessee is coming off consecutive winning seasons under coach Butch Jones, and Justin Fuente will be coaching his second game as VT head coach. For many reasons, this will be a fascinating meeting under the lights in Bristol.
8. Florida State vs. Ole Miss
Recently, the Labor Day evening time slot has become a showcase for one of the opening weekend’s most intriguing college football games. And Florida State-Ole Miss is certainly that. The Seminoles and Rebels will meet in the revamped Citrus Bowl in Orlando, a neutral site that should tilt heavily toward Florida State.
Ole Miss finished 2015 strong with a Sugar Bowl rout of Oklahoma State, and while Hugh Freeze’s team will be without NFL departures Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche, it will have one of the nation’s top returning quarterbacks in Chad Kelly, who threw for 4,042 yards and 31 touchdowns in his first season in Oxford.
Florida State returns 17 starters and should be ready to challenge for another College Football Playoff berth. Tailback Dalvin Cook is one of the nation’s most explosive players and will be ready to kick-start his Heisman Trophy campaign against the Rebels defense.
7. Notre Dame at Southern California
Notre Dame-Southern California is one of the nation’s best rivalries, but it has lost a bit of its luster in recent seasons. The Fighting Irish have won four of the last six meetings, but we haven’t seen a matchup with both teams in the Top 25 since 2009.
USC’s serious NCAA probation and some Notre Dame struggles have both played a role in that slide, but this season should be different. The Irish are coming off a 10-3 season and should be highly ranked despite returning just 10 starters. Brian Kelly will have to sort out his quarterback situation between Malik Zaire (whose 2015 ended with a broken ankle) and backup DeShone Kizer, who led the team ably the rest of the way.
Southern California will begin its first season with Clay Helton as head coach, and the Trojans will return 14 starters, including do-everything cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, one of America’s most versatile players. With the game set for Nov. 26 in Los Angeles, it could have a major effect on the College Football Playoff picture.
6. Houston vs. Oklahoma
One of the nation’s best stories in 2015 was Houston’s revival under first-year coach Tom Herman. Herman turned an underachieving team into a power, leading the Cougars to a 13-1 record and a Peach Bowl win over Florida State. Herman returns 12 starters, including star quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who accounted for 3,936 yards of total offense and 38 total touchdowns.
The next step for the Cougars? Challenge for a College Football Playoff berth. They should begin the season in the Top 10 and have an excellent opportunity when Oklahoma visits NRG Stadium for the season opener on Sept. 3.
The Sooners went from 8-5 to a College Football Playoff team in 2015, thanks to the offensive jolt that quarterback Baker Mayfield provided. They’ll return 14 starters, including Mayfield and backfield duo Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.
To have any shot at a playoff berth, Houston must beat Oklahoma. It’ll be a tremendous environment, and Herman will have the Cougars ready for their moment in the spotlight.
5. Michigan State at Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s recent scheduling alliance with the ACC has created some interesting matchups, but it has come at a cost. Some of the Irish’s longstanding series against Big Ten foes have been cast aside or, at the very least, played less frequently. That includes Michigan State. The Irish and Spartans have met 77 times, with Notre Dame holding a 48-28-1 lead, but not since 2013.
Once a yearly series, we’ll now have to settle for more infrequent meetings. One of those comes on Sept. 17, when the Spartans travel to South Bend. Michigan State has lost its last three meetings with the Irish but has broken through as a nationally relevant team, winning the Big Ten and making the College Football Playoff in 2015.
The Spartans will have their hands full early on, as they’ll return only three offensive starters and must replace veteran quarterback Connor Cook. A visit to Notre Dame will be an excellent gauge of how far they have to go.
4. LSU vs. Wisconsin
Under Les Miles’ watch, LSU isn’t afraid to play early-season marquee games, and this season is no exception. The Tigers will begin the season in a huge matchup, traveling north to face off against Wisconsin. While it’s technically a neutral-site game, it will be played at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, tilting the environment heavily toward Wisconsin.
The Badgers won 10 games again last season in Paul Chryst’s first season and boast a talented, stingy defense. Miles is feeling the heat at LSU, but he’ll have at least one more season with tailback Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 1,953 yards in just 12 games last season.
Fournette’s first collegiate game came against the Badgers two years ago in Houston, and he’s developed significantly since then. LSU needs to start 2016 strong, and Miles will lean heavily on Fournette in PackerLand.
3. Stanford at Notre Dame
While Notre Dame-Southern California gets more attention nationally, another Pac-12-Irish rivalry has been much better recently. The teams have met every season since 1988, and in each of the last five seasons, it’s been a Top 25 matchup. Each of the last four games have been decided by a touchdown or less, including Stanford’s 38-36 win last season, which was clinched on a final-play field goal.
Both teams could enter the Oct. 15 faceoff in South Bend as College Football Playoff contenders.
Stanford returns 11 starters, but one of them is do-everything tailback Christian McCaffrey, the Heisman Trophy runner-up and returning national all-purpose-yardage leader. Beating the Irish on the road would be a huge feather in David Shaw’s playoff resume, for certain.
2. Alabama vs. Southern California
Alabama and Southern California are two of college football’s most storied programs, but they’ve rarely crossed paths on the football field. Alabama holds a 5-2 edge over the Trojans, and the teams haven’t met since the Tide’s 24-3 win in the 1985 Aloha Bowl. Fans don’t remember that meeting, but the Trojans’ 42-21 whipping of Alabama in 1970 is credited with prompting integration at Alabama and across the South.
The Tide and Trojans will meet again in the season opener Sept. 3 at North Texas’ AT&T Stadium, a game that should attract more than its fair share of hype. The Tide will begin defense of its fourth national title under Nick Saban, while USC hopes to build a new tradition under new coach Clay Helton.
Alabama will return 11 starters but must replace starting quarterback Jake Coker, Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Derrick Henry and monstrous defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, among others. But Saban, as always, has recruited well and will be prepared.
The Trojans return 14 starters, and this will be an excellent chance for Helton to make a good first impression as full-time coach before a large national audience.
1. Ohio State at Oklahoma
Oklahoma and Ohio State are two of college football’s most tradition-rich, storied programs. But the powers have a scant history together on the football field. They’ve met only twice, with the last meeting coming in 1983, a 24-14 Ohio State victory.
The push to improve schedules pushed them together, however. The teams will hold a home-and-home series over the next two seasons, with the first meeting coming Sept. 17 at Oklahoma. This should be one of the very best non-conference games of the season. Ohio State just missed an opportunity to defend its 2014 national title with a 12-1 season, while Oklahoma made the College Football Playoff before falling to Clemson.
Both teams are led by talented passers who can move well in Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield. And while Ohio State will have some major holes to fill following NFL draft departures, including defensive end Joey Bosa and tailback Ezekiel Elliott, Urban Meyer has recruited well and will have talent ready to go.
This will be a major early barometer for the College Football Playoff picture, and you won’t want to miss it.