Ranking College Football's Best Weeknight Games of 2016 Season

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistJuly 12, 2016

Ranking College Football's Best Weeknight Games of 2016 Season

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    Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

    College football isn't just about all-day Saturday binges. A real diehard fan has to be prepared to take in the action on almost a nightly basis thanks to the proliferation of weeknight games.

    The 2016 regular-season schedule will feature college games on every night of the week, starting with the opening slate that runs from Thursday through Monday and into October and November when Tuesday and Wednesday games help us bridge the gap between one Saturday and another.

    Many of these weeknight games were pulled from the weekend to put a bigger spotlight on them, giving them the attention they deserve. We're going one step further by ranking the 20 best of this lot, chosen and ranked based on the matchup, the timing and the importance to each participant's overall season.

20. California vs. Hawaii (in Sydney, Australia)

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    Loren Orr/Getty Images

    When: Friday, Aug. 26

    In the grand scheme of things, California and Hawaii isn't close to one of the best matchups of the 2016 season or even among those played on weeknights. But since we will not have had real, honest-to-goodness football in more than six months, this unofficial kickoff classic will feel like the biggest game ever when it happens.

    Who cares that it will be starting at 10 p.m. ET or that it's being played in a rugby stadium on the other side of the world. It's college football, and that's all that will matter.

    The game itself could be fun, too, considering the amount of newness for these teams. Cal will be debuting a new quarterback, likely Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb in place of No. 1 draft pick Jared Goff, as well as a new coordinator in former Texas A&M play-caller Jake Spavital. Hawaii has a new head coach in Nick Rolovich, a former Rainbow Warriors quarterback.

19. Colorado vs. Colorado State (in Denver)

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    When: Friday, Sept. 2

    Known as the Rocky Mountain Showdown, this battle between Colorado's two biggest FBS schools rarely gets the kind of attention that other rivalry games draw. Part of this is because it's not a conference game, but also because it's held early in the season and rarely at the same time each year.

    Getting it onto the opening Friday of the year, though, should help with exposure and shine a light on a pair of programs hoping for big things in 2016.

    Colorado hasn't had a winning record since 2005, with head coach Mike MacIntyre entering this season on the hot seat by virtue of a 10-27 overall record and a 2-25 mark in Pac-12 play. Colorado State heads into Mike Bobo's second year having won seven games in 2015 and looking to compete in the Mountain West Conference.

    Colorado holds a 63-22-2 edge in the series, winning last year's game 27-24 in overtime.

18. Kansas State at Stanford

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    When: Friday, Sept. 2

    Bill Snyder is in the College Football Hall of Fame, the product of decades' worth of success at Kansas State. David Shaw might someday join him if he continues what he's accomplished at Stanford in his first five seasons. Having them square off during the first week of the 2016 season will be like watching two chess grandmasters matching moves and defenses.

    K-State went 6-7 last year, falling to Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl for Snyder's first losing record since 2005. That was supposed to be the end of his coaching career, but then he came out of retirement to coach the Wildcats in 2009 and has averaged better than eight wins since his return.

    Stanford was 12-2 in 2015, winners of the Pac-12 title and its second Rose Bowl (and third appearance) in the last four years. Christian McCaffrey carried the Cardinal, and he set the FBS single-season all-purpose-yardage record and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting.

17. North Carolina at Duke

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    When: Thursday, Nov. 10

    The last time Duke hosted a Thursday night game it was in November 2014, when visiting North Carolina rolled into Wallace Wade Stadium and left with a 45-20 win. Before going, though, the Tar Heels reportedly spray-painted walls and floors in the visiting locker room and had to pay $27,000 to cover the damage.

    UNC has won two straight in the series and scored a 66-31 home win last November that helped it claim the ACC's Coastal Division title. The Tar Heels and Blue Devils should both be in contention for the division crown this fall, and each will be heading into this contest on short rest having played the previous Saturday.

    Duke is in the midst of its best four-year run in school history, winning 33 games, including the Pinstripe Bowl in December—the program's first bowl victory since 1961. UNC went 11-3 last year and won 11 consecutive games at one point, but it lost to Clemson in the ACC final and then to Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

16. Miami (Florida) at Virginia Tech

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    When: Thursday, Oct. 20

    Two of the four ACC schools led by new coaches, Miami and Virginia Tech have played 12 times since each moved from the Big East to the ACC. Tech has won seven of those games but only one in the last four, falling 30-6 at home to Miami in October 2014.

    New Miami head coach Mark Richt comes to the Hurricanes after 15 seasons at Georgia, where he never was part of a regular-season weeknight game. First-year Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente had three weeknight contests at Memphis just in 2015, winning all three during an 8-0 start that helped him land the Hokies job.

    With the ACC's Coastal Division once again wide open and without a clear favorite, this midseason weeknight clash will go a long way toward determining who represents this side of the league in the conference title game in Charlotte in December.

15. Nebraska at Iowa

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    Matthew Holst/Getty Images

    When: Friday, Nov. 25

    Iowa's surprise run to the Big Ten West Division title and an unbeaten regular season required overcoming one final hurdle last November, that being a win at Nebraska. It wasn't easy, but the Hawkeyes managed the 28-20 victory for their second consecutive victory in Lincoln.

    This fall, a repeat division crown might come down to beating the Cornhuskers at home, where Iowa hasn't defeated Nebraska since 1981.

    Part of the slate of post-Thanksgiving Friday games, this one has been decided by eight or fewer points in three of the last four years. Nebraska's 37-34 overtime win at Iowa in 2014 was fueled by a pair of Kenny Bell touchdown catches, the last coming in OT.

14. Appalachian State at Georgia Southern

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    Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

    When: Thursday, Oct. 27

    The FBS ranks have swelled from 119 teams in 2007 to 128 this year, with UAB returning to action and Coastal Carolina coming up from FCS next season. Two of the most recent arrivals have a long history together having both been part of the Southern Conference and thus will forever be linked at this highest level.

    Entering their third year of FBS play, the series is split at a game apiece, with each team winning at home. Appalachian State has won four of the last five overall dating back to their FCS days.

    Along with defending champion Arkansas State, these are the other top contenders to win the Sun Belt title.

13. Mississippi State at BYU

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    Michael Chang/Getty Images

    When: Friday, Oct. 14

    BYU desperately wants to get back into a conference after spending time as an independent program since 2011, but to do so requires showing it's worth being added. One of the best ways the Cougars can do that is by scheduling as many quality opponents as possible and preferably beating some.

    Mississippi State is one of six power-conference teams BYU faces in the first seven weeks of the season—but one of just two (along with UCLA) that comes to Provo. This will be only six days after the Cougars play at Michigan State and a week before they take on Boise State, after starting the year against Arizona, Utah, UCLA, West Virginia and Toledo.

    This game continues MSU's trend of being one of the few SEC teams willing to play nonconference road games on a regular basis, albeit against non-power schools. The Bulldogs also play at Massachusetts and in previous seasons visited Southern Mississippi and South Alabama.

12. Arizona State at Arizona

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    When: Friday, Nov. 25

    The Duel in the Desert is an underrated rivalry game, one that tends to be highly contested and isn't always won by the higher-ranked team. And with the Pac-12 South Division again quite balanced and even, it could serve as a de facto title game on the final Friday of the regular season.

    Both Arizona and Arizona State are experiencing an unprecedented stretch of sustained success, as each team has made bowl games in four consecutive seasons. ASU dipped to 6-7 last year, though, a victim of an aggressive defense that racked up the sacks and tackles for losses but also gave up a ton of big plays.

    Expect plenty of points, too. The last four contests have averaged 80 points apiece.

11. San Diego State at Utah State

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    Kent Horner/Getty Images

    When: Friday, Oct. 28

    The Mountain West isn't a particularly deep league, but there are some strong teams at the top. You have to start that conversation with San Diego State, which ran the table in the league in 2015 and won every game by at least 14 points.

    The Aztecs are the overwhelming favorites in the West Division, while Utah State is among a handful of contenders for the Mountain Division that will likely come down to who beats who and where. That means getting SDSU at home in a key crossover game is huge for the Aggies, who are working on a streak of five straight bowl appearances.

    SDSU, which features the FBS active rushing leader in Donnel Pumphrey, is getting plenty of weeknight TV exposure this season. This will be its third straight Friday night game following a trip to Fresno State and a visit from San Jose State.

10. Georgia Southern at Arkansas State

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    When: Wednesday, Oct. 5

    The second of two major weeknight Sun Belt clashes on our list, this will be one of three weeknight games for defending league champion Arkansas State but the only one at home. The Red Wolves have won 26 of their last 30 at Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro, with their only loss there last year coming to Missouri.

    That was during a 1-3 start that was followed by eight straight wins, all in Sun Belt play, to claim Arkansas State's third league title in five years.

    Georgia Southern would have won the Sun Belt in 2014 had it been eligible, but as a first-year FBS program, the Eagles' 8-0 record in the league didn't count. Last year, they were 6-2 in the league and 9-4 overall, beating Bowling Green in the GoDaddy Bowl for their first-ever bowl victory.

9. USC at Utah

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    When: Friday, Sept. 23

    Utah was 6-0 and had risen to 17th in the country when it made a midseason trip to USC last year. It returned to Salt Lake City with a 42-24 loss—its fourth loss in five tries against the Trojans since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.

    The only win in that run? In 2014 at home, when Kaelin Clay caught a one-yard touchdown pass from Travis Wilson with eight seconds left.

    USC used that 2015 victory to propel itself to the South Division title under interim coach Clay Helton, who got the permanent job at the end of the regular season but then lost games to Stanford and Wisconsin to end 2015. The Trojans head into this season staring at a possible three-game skid. They open against Alabama, but all of September is hard with their other games against Utah State and at Stanford, that last one coming six days before visiting the Utes.

8. Northern Illinois vs. Toledo (in Chicago)

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    When: Wednesday, Nov. 9

    No list of the best weeknight games in college football would be complete without a little #MACtion. After all, it's the Mid-American league that helps turn the sport into a nearly weeklong event in November by showcasing its teams on various Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

    Northern Illinois has won the last six MAC West Division titles, all of which came about thanks to weeknight wins over Toledo. Four of the last five have been decided by seven or fewer points, though, including last November's road win that saw the Huskies rally for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:59 left.

    To make this year's game even more special, it's being played at U.S. Cellular Field, normally the home of Major League Baseball's Chicago White Sox.

7. South Florida at Temple

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    Cliff McBride/Getty Images

    When: Friday, Oct. 21

    Temple won the American Athletic Conference's East Division in 2015 en route to a school-record 10 wins. The Owls started 7-0 and were cruising to the division crown with a 5-0 start before running into a buzzsaw in the form of South Florida.

    The Bulls erupted for 44 points and 556 yards against a Temple defense that allowed 20.1 points and 337 yards per game overall. That result served as a coming-out party of sorts for USF, a team that jumped from 4-8 to 2014 to 8-5 last season and returns 14 starters, including quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack.

    Temple only has 12 starters back, but that includes quarterback P.J. Walker and running back Jahad Thomas. It's still considered the East Division favorite until someone knocks it from that perch.

6. BYU at Boise State

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    When: Thursday, Oct. 20

    Boise State and BYU have never been in the same conference together, with the former effectively taking the latter's place in the Mountain West in 2011 when BYU chose to go independent. Yet the Broncos and Cougars have forged a pretty strong rivalry the last few years, having split the last four games with the home team winning each time.

    Last year's game in Provo saw BYU freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum pull off his second straight last-second comeback, as he threw a long touchdown pass in the final minute a week after his Hail Mary TD gave the Cougars a win at Nebraska. It was the first of four losses in 2015 for Boise, which is tied for the second-most defeats this century. The Broncos won the Fiesta Bowl the previous year.

    Boise figures to be a perennial contender for being the "Group of Five" entrant in a New Year's Six bowl game, as it was in 2014, and winning major games like this will help.

5. LSU at Texas A&M

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    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    When: Thursday, Nov. 24

    Texas A&M and Thanksgiving used to go together like turkey and stuffing, but then the Aggies moved to the SEC, and playing football on the holiday stopped being a tradition. This will be A&M's second T-Day game since 2012, the other coming at home against LSU in 2014.

    That 2014 battle, a 23-17 loss to the Tigers, was part of a second-half swoon that saw A&M finish 8-5 after starting 5-0. Last year, the Aggies began 5-0 again and finished with another 8-5 mark that included a 19-7 loss at LSU.

    Adding to the intrigue of this year's battle is the tenuous ground that each team's head coach is standing on. A&M's Kevin Sumlin is still trying to replicate the success he had at the start of his tenure, timed with the program's move to the SEC, while LSU's Les Miles appeared to be on the way out last November before getting a last-second reprieve that wasn't finalized until midway through that home finale win over the Aggies.

4. TCU at Texas

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    When: Friday, Nov. 25

    Head coach Charlie Strong's critical third season at Texas begins with a huge home game against Notre Dame, one that could go a long way toward determining whether he's in charge of the program beyond 2016. The regular season ends with another big matchup, and if things aren't going well heading into Thanksgiving weekend, it could be his final game.

    After playing on Turkey Day each of the previous three years—and losing the last two, including to TCU in 2014—the Longhorns get a Friday slot this time. But that doesn't lessen the importance of this game, which comes against a TCU squad that has quickly surpassed the Longhorns in terms of in-state prowess and Big 12 performance.

    The Horned Frogs, winners of 23 games the last two seasons, have won three of four over Texas since joining the Big 12, including the last two by a combined score of 98-17. They won 48-10 in Austin on Thanksgiving 2014 and followed that up with a 50-7 blowout at home last October.

3. Stanford at Washington

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    When: Friday, Sept. 30

    Stanford is the defending Pac-12 champs, having won the league three of the last four years, but a large number of departing starters has the Cardinal uncertain about being able to repeat. Yes, they have Christian McCaffrey, but most other key players this season will be in the spotlight for the first time, and the Cardinal will be the hunted throughout a schedule loaded with tough road games.

    One of the first of those difficult away clashes will be in Seattle, where Stanford will be taking on a rising Washington team that's young but dangerous and has its own Pac-12 title aspirations.

    Washington could begin this season with its highest preseason ranking since at least 2003 after winning its final three games last year. That was with a true freshman at quarterback (Jake Browning) and running back (Myles Gaskin) but also with an accomplished coach (Chris Petersen) who's just getting started.

    Stanford has won seven of eight over the Huskies, with the lone setback coming in September 2012—also on a Thursday—when it lost 17-13 in Seattle.

2. Florida State vs. Ole Miss (in Orlando)

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    Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

    When: Monday, Sept. 5

    The beauty of the college football season starting a week before the NFL means that opening slate can be spread over the entire weekend and not just focused on Saturday. And because it's Labor Day weekend, that includes putting a high-profile matchup on that Monday night.

    Last year, it was Ohio State traveling to Virginia Tech to begin its national title defense. This time around, we get one of the many top-tier neutral-site games on that Monday, with Florida State and Ole Miss squaring off in Camping World Stadium (formerly the Citrus Bowl) to wrap up Week 1.

    Orlando has entered the neutral-site landscape previously dominated by Arlington, Atlanta and Charlotte, with this the first of three scheduled games in the next four years. It's a great one to get things started with, because both the Seminoles and Rebels have both league and national title hopes for 2016.

    FSU figures to have a considerable home-field advantage playing in its own state and where it drew nearly 50,000 for its spring game in April. But Ole Miss has experience winning big games in hostile territory, having knocked off eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa last year.

1. Louisville at Houston

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    Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

    When: Thursday, Nov. 17

    When Houston stole a 34-31 win at Louisville last September, there was no way of knowing at the time how big their rematch would be. But after Houston finished off a 13-1 season with a victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl and Louisville rebounded from an 0-3 start to go 8-5, it was clear each squad had big things in store for 2016.

    This could include College Football Playoff hopes, depending on what happens for each team earlier in the season. But when they meet in an oddly timed (but perfectly played) nonconference tilt, they could each be in need of a marquee win to boost their resumes.

    Houston has this and its season opener against Oklahoma to build a playoff push, while Louisville has to deal with Clemson and Florida State just to win its own division in the ACC. The Cardinals will have faced the Seminoles on Sept. 17 and the Tigers on Oct. 1 and will be heading to Houston after facing the softest part of their schedule (at Virginia, at Boston College, Wake Forest).

    All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All statistics provided by CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.