Best Neutral-Site Games for 2016 College Football Season

Justin Ferguson@@JFergusonBRCFB National AnalystApril 7, 2016

Best Neutral-Site Games for 2016 College Football Season

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    Bristol Motor Speedway
    Bristol Motor SpeedwayWade Payne/Associated Press

    Whether you view them as a necessary evil or a fun growing tradition in college football, neutral-site games are bigger than ever before.

    More and more powerhouses across the country are meeting up at NFL stadiums or other monstrous venues to square off in early-season showdowns that command plenty of eyeballs and revenue. 

    But the concept of a neutral-site game isn't new by any stretch. Some historic rivalry games between bitter foes have been contested at off-campus sites for years now, and they always seem to provide atmospheres unlike any other.

    In 2016, college football's jam-packed opening weekend will nearly reach double digits in neutral-site games, returning to familiar sites such as AT&T Stadium and the Georgia Dome. Other games will start new trends elsewhere, including a historic NFL stadium and, a week later, a NASCAR race track.

    Here are the 10 best neutral-site games coming our way in the 2016 season, listed in order by date. Tell us which ones you're looking forward to the most in the comments below. 

Alabama vs. USC

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    Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin
    Alabama offensive coordinator Lane KiffinHarry How/Getty Images

    Date: September 3

    Location: Arlington, Texas (AT&T Stadium)

    Any matchup between two historic powerhouses such as Alabama and USC is always going to be huge. Putting it inside the country's most famous football stadium makes it even bigger. Throwing it on arguably the best opening weekend in college football history makes it even more of a spectacle.

    And we haven't even gotten to the Lane Kiffin storyline yet.

    This year's Cowboys Classic at AT&T Stadium, aka "Jerry World," will pit USC against one of its former head coaches—Kiffin, currently the offensive coordinator of defending national champion Alabama. Clay Helton, who was an assistant under Kiffin at USC, will open his first season as the permanent head coach of the Trojans.

    The game should be highly entertaining, as both proud programs will be breaking in new quarterbacks and key players along their respective defensive fronts. The superstar matchup between Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley and USC cornerbacks Iman Marshall and Adoree' Jackson will be worth the price of admission.

    The Tide will look to get a huge win to kick off a title defense, while the Trojans will eye a signature upset victory over Kiffin and under Helton. The excitement levels for this one will only get bigger as the fall approaches.

Georgia vs. North Carolina

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    Georgia HC Kirby Smart
    Georgia HC Kirby Smart247Sports

    Date: September 3

    Location: Atlanta (Georgia Dome)

    Kirby Smart is bringing a wealth of defensive knowledge and success to his first head coaching job at his alma mater of Georgia. Judging by last season, he'll need it, as his Bulldogs will square off against North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.

    Last year, North Carolina averaged more yards per play than any other team in college football, and it returns seven starters from that uptempo attack. New starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky could be a better fit for Larry Fedora's system alongside the likes of running back Elijah Hood and wide receiver Ryan Switzer than the departed Marquise Williams.

    Of course, Georgia will have some major offensive firepower of its own if Nick Chubb can stay on track in his recovery from last year's season-ending knee injury. The Bulldogs, who could start a brand-new quarterback in this opener, also have their entire secondary—which ranked No. 1 in pass defense last season—back for 2016.

    The crowd at the Kickoff Classic, which is traditionally between an SEC team and an ACC team, will most likely be pro-Georgia. It'll be a flip from last year's opener for North Carolina, which dropped a bizarre game to South Carolina on the first Thursday night of the season in Charlotte.

    Both teams are good dark-horse picks for their respective conference titles, and grabbing a huge win over a major Power Five opponent would go a long way in 2016. This has the potential to be the most fun game of opening weekend.

Houston vs. Oklahoma

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    Houston QB Greg Ward Jr.
    Houston QB Greg Ward Jr.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Date: September 3

    Location: Houston (NRG Stadium)

    This matchup already had a lot of intrigue when it was originally announced in 2014, as a Big 12 powerhouse looks to play a rising mid-major away from home in an NFL stadium—and then 2015 happened.

    Now, the game will pit the defending Big 12 champion and a College Football Playoff semifinalist from last year against the defending AAC champion fresh off a New Year's Six bowl victory over Florida State.

    Houston vs. Oklahoma will feature Bob Stoops, one of the longest-tenured coaches in major college football, going up against one of the game's rising coaching stars in Tom Herman. It will be preseason Heisman contender Baker Mayfield against Greg Ward Jr., another dual-threat star quarterback. It will be two defenses that had strong 2015 seasons but have had to reload at several major positions.

    The scoreboard operator at NRG Stadium could be quite busy, considering the success of each team's respective offensive scheme—Lincoln Riley's Air Raid at Oklahoma and Herman's smashmouth spread option at Houston.

    Both teams are expected to contend for the New Year's Six in 2016, and the winner could have a huge win to add to a potential playoff resume. Is this where Houston takes the major step forward as a regional power, or will it be where Oklahoma kick-starts another run toward the CFP?

LSU vs. Wisconsin

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    LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda
    LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda247Sports

    Date: September 3

    Location: Green Bay, Wisconsin (Lambeau Field)

    Let's just call this matchup the Dave Aranda Bowl, where the brand-new LSU defensive coordinator gets to match up against his old team inside one of football's most storied venues. 

    Aranda rose to fame over the last several seasons in coaching circles with the work he did at Wisconsin, transforming underrated recruits into top-10 defenses inside the challenging Big Ten. This offseason, he made a big-money move to SEC country, where he'll look to fashion LSU into a championship-caliber defense.

    Wisconsin will look to prove it can still play excellent defense after the departure of Aranda as it matches up against LSU superstar running back Leonard Fournette. A key storyline heading into this game will be the Bayou Bengals' passing attack, as quarterback Brandon Harris has experienced pieces around him and huge pressure to elevate his game up after a so-so 2015.

    While the Badgers return a lot of familiar faces on defense, the challenge will be replacing the quarterback to lead the run-heavy, ball-control offense. The offensive line should be strong as always, as Wisconsin looks to have a much better season opener against an SEC opponent than what it had in Texas last year against Alabama. 

    The Badgers should have the closest thing to a home-field advantage in a neutral-site game. With the Aranda dynamic rolling and the historic backdrop of Lambeau Field behind it, this will easily be one of the most anticipated contests of Week 1.

Florida State vs. Ole Miss

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    Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
    Florida State RB Dalvin CookMelina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: September 5

    Location: Orlando, Florida (Citrus Bowl Stadium)

    The first weekend of the college football season won't officially end until Labor Day, when Florida State travels down the road to Orlando to face Ole Miss at the Citrus Bowl. 

    Florida State won 10 games in a "rebuilding" year and will now eye another shot at the ACC and national titles with a roster that is filled with experience. Dalvin Cook will headline a backfield that could have a new starting quarterback. The receivers and offensive lines return plenty of established names, and the defense has more than enough talent to compensate for its losses in the offseason.

    Ole Miss will look to get over the hump in the SEC West behind an explosive offensive attack led by quarterback Chad Kelly. The major names from the Rebels' vaunted 2013 recruiting class are now off to the NFL, but Ole Miss has an exciting mix of young and seasoned talent for the 2016 campaign. 

    By knocking off Alabama in the last two seasons, Ole Miss has proved it can beat the best of the best in college football on any given Saturday. Florida State has been one of the most consistent programs of the last several years, challenging for championships and pumping in loaded recruiting classes.

    The clash of styles on both sides of the ball between these two Southeastern recruiting giants should be a blast, and it'll have a stage to itself on the first Monday of September. This is the type of game that can kick-start an exciting run, and the Seminoles and Rebels should feel confident about the direction they're heading in this neutral-site showdown. 

Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech

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    WADE PAYNE/Associated Press

    Date: September 10

    Location: Bristol, Tennessee (Bristol Motor Speedway)

    Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech in Week 2 isn't the sexiest neutral-site matchup on paper, although the Volunteers will be early in their quest for a huge 2016 season and the Hokies will be playing their first big game under new head coach Justin Fuente.

    But what makes this one stand out from the rest is the location—a NASCAR speedway.

    In 2013, Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee announced what it's calling the "biggest ever" college football game between the two regional giants. A football field will be placed in the infield at Bristol, which has a capacity of 160,000 spectators on race day. Bristol estimates 150,000 fans will be at the game, shattering previous college football records.

    According to Virginia Tech's website, this matchup almost happened nearly 20 years ago, but a lack of Tennessee interest, scheduling conflicts and some logistical issues kept it from becoming a reality. But now in an age where neutral-site games are becoming the early-season norm in college football, the Battle at Bristol will be underway this year.

    The unique venue for the event should be an incredible setting for another SEC vs. ACC matchup that could be the perfect launching pad for a strong campaign. For Tennessee, which should be favored inside its home state, it'll be a stiff test ahead of what will be a tough early-season stretch that includes Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama. 

Arkansas vs. Texas A&M

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    Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk (center)
    Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk (center)Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Date: September 24

    Location: Arlington, Texas (AT&T Stadium)

    Since re-establishing their rivalry in 2009, Arkansas and Texas A&M have played in Arlington, Texas, five of seven times. After a quick home-and-home agreement in 2012 and 2013—right after the Aggies joined the SEC—the two rivals moved back to Arlington and AT&T Stadium.

    The move to "Jerry World" has made for plenty of on-field excitement, as each of the last two victories by Texas A&M has come in overtime. Texas A&M has won all four of the meetings since the teams joined the same conference, but the last two have gone down to the wire.

    This year, both teams will be early in their seasons of transition, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Arkansas will have a new top quarterback and running back in its ground-and-pound attack, while Texas A&M will be looking for continuity at signal-caller after the transfer turmoil of the last two years.

    The Razorbacks and the Aggies might have different approaches to offensive football, but they can light opponents up through the air, finishing third and fourth, respectively, in the conference in passing yards per game a season ago.

    This neutral-site game is a great early litmus test for the SEC West, and the series has had a flair for the dramatic in each of the last two seasons. The Southwest Classic has plenty of potential to provide some more fireworks this September.

Oklahoma vs. Texas

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    Texas QB Jerrod Heard (right)
    Texas QB Jerrod Heard (right)LM Otero/Associated Press

    Date: October 8

    Location: Dallas (Cotton Bowl Stadium)

    And now for the rivalry series that doesn't always stick to the script. 

    In the last five meetings alone, the Red River Showdown has seen ranked Oklahoma teams drop 55 and 63 points on ranked Texas teams in back-to-back seasons. Then, Texas stunned Oklahoma in 2013, came close to pulling off another upset in 2014 and grabbed another surprise win in 2015. In all three of those years, OU was a Top 15 program, while Texas was unranked.

    Last year, Texas jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, rushed for 313 yards in the entire game and hung on for dear life. The win was a huge boost for the embattled Charlie Strong, but the upset didn't prove to be fatal for Oklahoma, as the Sooners would go on to win the Big 12 and make the College Football Playoff.

    "The Red River Showdown has been played 110 times and has a history of upsets and surprising results," the Associated Press report (via ESPN.com) from last year's game reads. "Texas is now 6-2 since 1989 against Oklahoma when it is unranked and the Sooners are ranked."

    So, even though Oklahoma will be a preseason national title contender and Texas will be gunning more for a solid bowl season, that doesn't mean we should pencil in this game as a win for the Sooners. The Longhorns have recent history on their side in one of the sport's best rivalries.

Florida vs. Georgia

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    Florida WR Antonio Callaway (right)
    Florida WR Antonio Callaway (right)John Raoux/Associated Press

    Date: October 29

    Location: Jacksonville, Florida (EverBank Field)

    Almost as unpredictable as the Oklahoma-Texas series, the Florida-Georgia rivalry is a neutral-site showdown that always commands plenty of attention in the SEC and around the college football world. How could you keep your eyes off a game with the famous nickname of the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party"?

    After Georgia reeled off three straight close wins over Florida from 2011 to 2013, the Gators spun the series around with a surprising upset in 2014 and a convincing 24-point thrashing of the Bulldogs last season. 

    Georgia will look to regain momentum against its close SEC East rival and defending division champion under Kirby Smart, who was the defensive coordinator at Alabama when Florida head coach Jim McElwain commanded the Tide offense from 2008 to 2011. Now, these two Nick Saban disciples are set to build on an already great rivalry in Jacksonville's EverBank Field.

    "They both will have plenty of success as college football coaches, and Florida head coach Jim McElwain already tasted it with the 10-win season and SEC East title in 2015," Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee wrote.

    Both programs could field first-year starters at quarterback in this matchup, and they each boast top-tier talent on the defensive side of the ball—especially in the secondary. This could be a major swing game in the race for a shot at the SEC Championship Game in December.

Army vs. Navy

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    2015 Army-Navy Game
    2015 Army-Navy GameMatt Slocum/Associated Press

    Date: December 10

    Location: Baltimore (M&T Bank Stadium)

    The rivalry game that gets its own unique stage after conference championship weekend, the legendary Army-Navy matchup is headed to Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium this season.

    Although this game doesn't have national championship or even conference championship implications, it still stands as a must-see rivalry because of the sights and sounds on the field and in the stands. The traditions and the old-school style of option football at the Army-Navy game make it a timeless classic.

    Navy is riding a 14-game winning streak in the series over Army, but this could be the year the Black Knights snap their drought. Army returns twice as many starters (16) as Navy (eight), which will have to replace record-breaking quarterback Keenan Reynolds. 

    Four of the last five games in this series, including last year's heartbreaking, turnover-filled loss for Army, have been decided by a single possession. The gap is shrinking in this rivalry series, and the Midshipmen don't have the dominant hold they once enjoyed in the 2000s.

    But even if the game doesn't provide the same amount of drama as it has in the last few seasons, there's no question that the Army-Navy game is one of the best sights in college football. No matter how the two programs are doing in the win-loss column, this is the perfect way to wrap up the regular season.

    Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.

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