When the College Football Playoff was first announced, many believed that the use of a committee would help foster a host of high profile non-conference matchups in the sport. If you buy into that line of thinking, consider the 2016 college football season the fruit of that labor.
Opening week is loaded with blockbuster games and the state of Texas alone may play host to the biggest weekend of college football games ever — and that’s not really over-the-top hyperbole either given some of the names involved. You want blue bloods playing other blue bloods? You got it. Looking for Playoff contenders facing off against other final four-caliber teams? Check and check. In short, the 2016 season is a bit of nirvana for the college football fan looking for some great games outside of the conference schedule.
With that in mind, here is a list of the top 25 non-conference games of the season across the country.
1. Ohio State at Oklahoma (Sept. 17)
These two schools claim 15 national titles between them and feature two of the greatest coaches in the sport in Urban Meyer and Bob Stoops. From a historical perspective, this meeting of blue bloods is about as good as they come but it’s made even juicier by the fact that each is a top-six team in 2016 and favorites to make it into the College Football Playoff. Don’t forget about the significant Heisman Trophy implications in this one either with quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Baker Mayfield.
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2. Florida State vs. Ole Miss (Orlando, Fla, — Sept. 5)
Florida State has become a trendy national champion pick over the summer and the Seminoles will be put to the test right away in this meeting of top-10 teams in Orlando. Jimbo Fisher’s squad has the talent advantage given all the young players they return but are breaking in a new quarterback. Hugh Freeze gets the benefit of having veteran signal-caller Chad Kelly lead the Rebels onto the field but has his hands full when it comes to a thin linebacker corps trying to contain Heisman contender Dalvin Cook.
3. UCLA at Texas A&M (Sept. 3)
Call it a battle of sleeping giants under the warm Texas sun in what might be Week 1’s most intriguing non-conference matchup. UCLA was picked by the media to win the Pac-12 South this season and have been undergoing an offensive transformation to suit the talents of star quarterback Josh Rosen. The Aggies are entering a new era with former Bruins offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and transfer QB Trevor Knight but they might have a trump card on defense in the potential No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick next year, Myles Garrett.
4. Oklahoma vs. Houston (Houston — Sept. 3)
Can a non-Power Five program ever crash the College Football Playoff? We asked a similar question with Boise State for years but Houston might have the best shot of any outsider in 2016 thanks to a strong non-conference slate. It won’t be easy for head coach Tom Herman and star quarterback Greg Ward Jr. however, with a top-six team to open the year in Oklahoma. Get past the Sooners however, and the hype train for the Cougars will be stratospheric.
5. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 26)
One of the few late-season matchups on this list could have significant postseason stakes for both teams. This could be the final major hurdle for a Playoff spot for Florida State and Florida head coach Jim McElwain is hoping that things go much better in this rivalry game than they did last year. The fact that the Seminoles had state champion rings made last year will no doubt be brought up in the lead up to this game.
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6. Alabama vs. USC (Arlington, Texas — Sept. 3)
When it comes to a meeting of all-time historical powers in the sport — 24 national titles between the two — it will be hard to top the eighth meeting between Alabama and USC. Nick Saban is obviously coming off another national championship and will be back in the familiar confines of AT&T Stadium looking to show once again that the Tide are contenders for another in 2016. USC has some talented players like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson but face a tough road to another Pac-12 title and their early schedule does new head coach Clay Helton no favors.
7. Virginia Tech vs. Tennessee (Bristol, Tenn. — Sept. 10)
Butch Jones has steadily re-built Tennessee to the point where expectations are sky high around Knoxville and anything less than an SEC East title in 2016 will be a disappointment. There’s a reason for that but quarterback Joshusa Dobbs and end Derek Barnett shouldn’t expect an easy first game at all against the Hokies with new head coach Justin Fuente sporting a solid group of returnees and veteran defensive coordinator Bud Foster. The fact that this game is at Bristol Motor Speedway and could be in front of as many as 160,000 fans should make for a bonkers atmosphere and unique setup.
8. Wisconsin vs. LSU (Green Bay, Wis. — Sept. 3)
Few programs went through as much drama last season as LSU did and off-the-field events have drawn plenty of attention to the football team’s place in the Baton Rouge community. All those headlines obscure the fact that the Tigers are loaded with talent though and could be primed to dethrone Alabama in the SEC and make a run at the Playoff. This will be the first tough test Wisconsin has in a brutal schedule as the Badgers face an uphill climb in 2016 but they should be able to draw on a bit of magic that will likely come from playing in the storied venue of Lambeau Field.
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9. Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 15)
This has been one of the most competitive rivalry games in the country over the past five years and has delivered some classics as a result. The two have annually faced off with huge postseason implications at stake and the past four meetings have all come down to a one score. Expect much of the same again this year when the two meet in South Bend in what should be a big game for Cardinal all-purpose dynamo Christian McCaffrey’s Heisman hopes.
10. Louisville at Houston (Nov. 17)
If you like high-flying offenses and dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks, this game is for you. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson was a big part of the Cardinals’ strong close to 2015 when they won six of their final seven and has enough talent to develop into one of the ACC’s best behind center. Houston’s Greg Ward Jr. is a big reason why the Cougars are being talked about as a team that could crash the final four and, at the minimum, this game could have big implications for the team making a New Year’s Six bowl.
11. Clemson at Auburn (Sept. 3)
If this were on another weekend, it would probably get more attention but a host of other high-profile matchups have pushed this down the list a bit. Still, it’s hard to argue with watching a loaded Clemson squad looking to get back to the national title game and a showcase for the arm (and legs) of terrific quarterback Deshuan Watson. There’s plenty of intrigue on the other side too, even if Auburn isn’t a top-25 team to begin the season as Gus Malzhan looks to bounce back from a very disappointing 2015. Keep an eye out for defensive end Carl Lawson in particular as he faces off against top tackles Mitch Hyatt and Jake Fruhmorgen.
12. Notre Dame at Texas (Sept. 4)
Two of the top three winningest programs of all time will hook up once again in Austin for yet another incredible opening weekend contest. Last year, Notre Dame thoroughly embarrassed Texas and helped set the tone for another disappointing season under Charlie Strong. The Longhorns’ head coach seems to be firmly on the hot seat and a big win in the opener would no doubt cool things off considerably, especially when you consider Notre Dame will start the year off in the top 10 and has two very good quarterbacks to flummox the Horns with.
13. Washington State at Boise State (Sept. 3)
This Pacific Northwest special has the potential to be the most entertaining game of the year. Boise State sports the productive backfield of Brett Rypien and Jeremy McNichols and will no doubt have a full bag of trick plays at the ready. Mike Leach’s Cougars love to throw it around and why wouldn’t they with a quarterback like Luke Falk posting video game numbers every week. The Broncos could run the table if they can capture a win in this big-time home game while Wazzu has an early chance to show the nation that last year’s nine-win outing was no fluke.
14. Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 26)
The greatest intersectional rivalry in the country checks in a little lower on this list in 2016 than in past years but that’s more about other matchups being so good as opposed to this one slacking off. Both squads are top 25-caliber and the special nature of this game always adds to the atmosphere in the air at the Coliseum. Given the stakes that usually accompany this meeting, don’t be surprised if a potential New Year’s Six bowl bid is on the line either.
15. Oregon at Nebraska (Sept. 17)
Oregon is plenty familiar with Mike Riley dating back to the head coach’s days at Civil War rival Oregon State but the two will face off in a new locale for this non-conference matchup. The Ducks are fairly overshadowed in the Pac-12 this season for once but they still have plenty of talent on offense and recently brought in former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke to re-tool the defense. Nebraska had about as unlucky a year as one could have in 2015 and are hoping to reverse fortunes in a big way with a statement in this game from Tommy Armstrong and company.
16. Michigan State at Notre Dame (Sep. 17)
There’s a little luster lost in this rivalry game with Michigan State having to replace so many starters from last year’s Big Ten title team but this still figures to be an incredible matchup in a series that has given everybody some memorable moments. Notre Dame harbors Playoff hopes once again and has a ton of skill position talent that the Spartans must contain while also figuring out their own quarterback situation moving forward.
17. Arkansas at TCU (Sept. 10)
This non-conference game is going a bit under the radar given all of the other great ones going on in the state of Texas during September but it shouldn’t. Both of the former Southwest Conference teams will find themselves in the top 25 polls during the year and both are hoping they have an answer at quarterback that can handle this kind of test early on. Arkansas’ run game against Gary Patterson’s tough Horned Frogs defense should be reason enough to tune in.
18. BYU at Utah (Sept. 10)
The Holy War between Utah and BYU is among the most hotly contested rivalries in the country and the regular season version of the game returns for the first time in three years. The two are very familiar with each other having just played in a Las Vegas Bowl that was as wild as one can imagine given the locale. New Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake will have his hands full in the first big test of his career as BYU looks to put an end to Utah’s five-game winning streak.
19. Miami at Notre Dame (Oct. 29)
Those of a certain age remember fondly when these two powerhouses waged for a few seasons what was mockingly described as a battle between “Catholics and Convicts.” While no national titles will be on the line when the pair hooks up again, the trip to South Bend will nevertheless be fascinating to watch for Hurricanes fans pining to take a step forward with a big win under new head coach Mark Richt. Quarterback Brad Kaaya will be a handful for a young Irish defense to contain, while an aggressive Hurricanes squad will look to slow down a high-powered Fighting Irish offense led by RB Tarean Folston and WR Torii Hunter Jr on its home turf. Don’t be surprised if a shootout develops under the watchful eyes of Touchdown Jesus.
20. Georgia vs. North Carolina (Atlanta — Sept. 3)
Normally, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game is the must-watch contest of Week 1. This year’s matchup at the Georgia Dome doesn’t quite rise to that level but it still should be as entertaining and interesting as it has been in years past. Many local fans are no doubt going to turn out to see the start of the Kirby Smart era at Georgia but the new head coach won’t have an easy opener with questions all over his two-deep. On the opposite sideline, the Tar Heels’ Larry Fedora is hoping to continue the momentum from last year’s 11-win campaign and would love for nothing more than to spoil Smart’s debut.
21. Penn State at Pitt (Sept. 10)
Penn State is finally at a full 85 scholarships in 2016 and has high expectations going into James Franklin’s third season in Happy Valley. The team will be breaking in a new quarterback after Christian Hackenberg’s departure to the NFL but luckily they’ll be able to lean on the terrific Saquon Barkley in the backfield. A hard-nosed Pitt team returns 16 starters, however, and gets back former ACC Player of the Year James Conner after he battled cancer over the past year.
22. Kansas State at Stanford (Sept. 2)
Two of the most respected head coaches in the game will square off in Palo Alto, Calif., to open the year in a matchup that should give us a glimpse at what we can expect from both teams in 2016. Bill Snyder battled a ton of injuries last year and still managed to make it to a bowl game but nothing will be as difficult for the savvy old veteran as containing dynamite Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey. It’s a good thing David Shaw’s Cardinal team has the impressive young tailback too considering the team is breaking in a new quarterback against an underrated Wildcats defense.
23. Texas Tech at Arizona State (Sept. 10)
Do you like shootouts? If so, this game might be one for you. Kliff Kingsbury’s Red Raiders have one of the best quarterbacks in the country in the dynamic Patrick Mahomes but a victory in this contest might have to come down to if Tech’s defense can show improvement from last season. Todd Graham will no doubt be excited for this non-conference game in order to feature his typical blitz-happy defense and a slightly new look to his “high-octane” offense.
24. Texas at Cal (Sept. 17)
While the opener against Notre Dame likely won’t cause anybody to change their minds about Texas should the Longhorns lose, this game against Cal could be described as a bit of a referendum on Charlie Strong and whether he can win a big non-conference game while in Austin. UT will be sporting a new-look spread offense to go along with a defense that has some impressive playmakers like linebacker Malik Jefferson. Cal surprised last year behind No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick Jared Goff and his replacement is somebody who knows the burnt orange quite well in former Texas Tech signal-caller Davis Webb.
25. UCLA at BYU (Sept. 17)
UCLA fans would rather forget what happened the last time they traveled to Provo (a 59-0 shellacking in favor of BYU) but things are quite different this time around starting with the coaches on the sideline. This will be new head coach Kalani Sitake’s second straight game against a Pac-12 opponent and he will no doubt be hoping that the home opener will be a bit of a house of horrors for the Bruins like it once was. If nothing else, this should be a terrific matchup between quarterbacks, with Josh Rosen in the powder blues and either Tanner Mangum or Taysom Hill under center for the Cougars.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)