Two-time defending champion Oregon ventures to Columbus to face Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State
The pandemic-impacted 2020 season resulted in across-the-board cancellations of non-conference games for the Pac-12. While the peculiar circumstances of last fall deprived fans of such matchups as Oregon and a Trey Lance-led North Dakota State, 2021 more than makes up for it with a loaded out-of-league slate for the Pac.
A pair of trips into Big Ten country highlights the docket, while an SEC opponent takes a rare trip to the West Coast to open the season. These matchups and more shape an outstanding schedule.
Most Intriguing Non-Conference Games of 2021 by Power 5 Conference: ACC I Big 12 I Big Ten I Pac-12 I SEC
10. Cal at TCU, Sept. 11
Cal and TCU met at the end of the 2018 season in a Cheez-It Bowl matchup that gained immediate infamy among the college football social media bubble. The Horned Frogs survived a 10-7 defensive struggle that included an astounding nine combined turnovers.
While this reference may not sell the rematch as "intriguing," outside of maybe morbid curiosity, the Golden Bears and Horned Frogs are well-coached teams with talented defenses and enough potential to shake up the power structure in their respective conferences during the 2021 campaign.
9. Stanford vs. Kansas State (Arlington, Texas), Sept. 4
Stanford routinely takes on one of the most arduous schedules in college football season-after-after, but 2021 is particularly noteworthy for the Cardinal playing nothing but Power 5 competition. The gauntlet begins opening week against Kansas State in the Cowboys Classic.
K-State head coach Chris Klieman employs an approach similar to that of Stanford's David Shaw, relying on defensive prowess and physicality up front to dictate tone. The similarities in style will make for an interesting first test of a Stanford team that quietly had a strong bounce-back in 2020.
8. Stanford vs. Notre Dame, Nov. 27
Book-ending its 12-game Power 5 schedule is Stanford's every-other-year home date against Notre Dame. The Cardinal's trip out to South Bend was scratched last season due to the pandemic.
Notre Dame won the last two matchups for its first winning streak in the series since claiming seven straight from 2002 through 2008. Coming off a trip to the College Football Playoff and an impressive showing in its ACC gap-year, Notre Dame figures to again be in the hunt in 2021. Depending on how Stanford builds off its strong 2020, this regular-season finale could be much higher in terms of intrigue potential.
7. Colorado vs. Minnesota, Sept. 18
Colorado takes on a daunting schedule in 2021, drawing both of the Pac-12 North favorites (Oregon and Washington) in cross-divisional play and taking on 11 Power 5 opponents overall. The Buffaloes' non-conference slate pits against teams from both the SEC (spoiler alert) and Big Ten, the latter with Minnesota paying a visit to Boulder.
The Golden Gophers enjoyed the kind of breakout season in 2019 that, after a promising first campaign under Karl Dorrell, Colorado seeks in 2021. Jumping into Pac-12 play coming off a win over a quality Minnesota bunch would make for an excellent starting point.
6. Utah at BYU, Sept. 11
The bitter, in-state rivalry between Utah and BYU has been all Utes of late. Utah's 2019 win marked nine straight in the series, and 14 of 17 since 2002. BYU heads into 2021 off of an impressive 2020, however, and the rivalry is the second of five opportunities the Cougars have to make a statement against Pac-12 Conference competition in the season to come.
5. Colorado vs. Texas A&M (Denver), Sept. 11
Former Big 12 counterparts face off for the first time since 2009, when Colorado won a 35-34 thriller in Boulder. Texas A&M returns to the Rocky Mountains for a not-really-neutral-site matchup with the Buffaloes, harboring legitimate playoff aspirations in 2021.
With a considerable amount of talent returning from a team that went into the final weekend of the shortened Pac-12 season in contention for the division, this ostensible home game against a likely preseason Top 10 opponent will offer a glimpse into just how good the 2021 Buffs might be.
4. UCLA vs. LSU, Sept. 4
When he last coached a game in Los Angeles, Ed Orgeron's interim tenure at USC ended with a 35-14 thud against UCLA. Since resurfacing at LSU, Orgeron won a national championship. His return to L.A. pits Orgeron's new team against a much different UCLA program than the one he faced in November 2013.
Chip Kelly embarks on a pivotal season with yet another challenging schedule, which has been the M.O. in his time with the Bruins. UCLA has underwhelmed in Kelly's first three seasons despite glimpses of potential. Drawing an LSU team that underwent some struggles of its own in 2020 could be the kind of turning-point game the Bruins need to ignite the Kelly era.
3. USC at Notre Dame, Oct. 23
For some historical context on just how odd 2020 was, Notre Dame played in a conference for the first time ever, and the Fighting Irish's rivalry with USC was on hiatus for the first time since World War II. As the 100-year anniversary of the series looms later this decade, the two sides renew hostilities in 2021.
The Trojans head to Notre Dame this year on a three-game losing streak and losing four of five overall against the Fighting Irish.
2. Washington at Michigan, Sept. 11
Michigan was scheduled to visit Montlake in the pandemic-impacted 2020 season. While that awesome matchup did not come to fruition, getting the Ann Arbor leg of an all-too-rare marquee home-and-home is a worthwhile consolation.
Washington's loaded defense in Year 2 under Jimmy Lake could be College Football Playoff-worthy but must navigate the treacherous environment of the Big House.
1. Oregon at Ohio State, Sept. 11
Oregon's 2020 non-conference schedule was among the most anticipated in college football, in part because of the scheduled Ohio State visit to Autzen. COVID-19 deprived us of that showdown between reigning conference champions, but 2021 makes up for it. Oregon's on its way to Columbus in a wildly important contest both for the Ducks' playoff aspirations and the perception of the Pac-12.
While the Ducks' 2020 Pac-12 championship comes with some... contention, we'll call it, the reality is this remains the banner-carrier for the league until proven otherwise.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.