The College Football Playoff Selection Committee has talked about strength of schedule playing an important role in their final rankings and teams are really paying attention on that front judging by the burgeoning number of terrific non-conference matchups. Last season brought us one of the greatest slates ever across the country and 2017 isn’t much different with numerous blockbuster games ahead.
Whether it’s neutral site wonders to kick off the year or the second edition of a compelling home-and-home between blue bloods, the non-conference schedule in college football is bound to get you fired up for another fantastic season. Here are the best of the best from coast-to-coast to keep an eye on before conference play determines league titles across the sport.
1. Florida State vs. Alabama (Sept. 2 — Atlanta)
We may not see a clash this good until the College Football Playoff rolls around on New Year’s as a pair of preseason top-five teams kick the year off in style. While NFL scouts will be drooling over all the talent on each sidelines, there’s plenty for everybody with the opening of the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and a meeting of Jimbo Fisher against his old boss Nick Saban. Each coach has a few national title rings already and the outcome of this one could go a long way in getting either another.
2. Oklahoma at Ohio State (Sept. 9)
Only a handful of programs can claim as many wins and trophies as these two blue bloods can at the end of the day. Last year’s epic matchup turned out to be a runaway for the Buckeyes and was a big factor in them getting to the Fiesta Bowl as part of the final four. The same could be said again in 2017 for either side, as well as playing a pivotal role in sending quarterbacks J.T. Barrett or Baker Mayfield to New York for the Heisman ceremony. Don’t discount the impact beating Urban Meyer could have for the young Lincoln Riley so early in his career either.
3. Texas at USC (Sept. 16)
Who could forget the last time these two schools played just up the 110 at the Rose Bowl over a decade ago, with Vince Young sashaying to the end zone to put a dagger in the Trojans’ potential title three-peat. The faces on both sides have changed a lot in the ensuing years but this is still a matchup filled with tons of talent, including a superstar quarterback and numerous dynamic defenders. This may be a regular season meeting but something says we could see Tom Herman and Clay Helton squaring off again down the road as well.
4. Auburn at Clemson (Sept. 9)
After a pair of warmups in the opening week, all eyes in the South will turn to this meeting of teams who each harbor hopes of capturing yet another conference title and making it back into the national title race. The quarterback matchup will be the focus for many given the transfer of former Baylor star Jarrett Stidham to the Plains and how a trio of talented prospects goes about replacing the best signal-caller in Clemson history. Only one set of Tigers will rule supreme at the end of the day but this game will be quite the tone-setter for both programs.
5. Boise State at Washington State (Sept. 9)
The bid for the Group of 5 slot in the New Year’s Six seems particularly wide open this season and a familiar face could make a big early statement by knocking off a Pac-12 foe on the road. This Cougars squad is no pushover and is as well-equipped as any to win the North division thanks to their aerial attack and strong defense. The quarterback battle between potential first-round picks Luke Falk and Brett Rypien plays a big part in making this a juicy matchup between Pacific Northwest rivals.
6. Georgia at Notre Dame (Sept. 9)
This might be the most difficult ticket in the country to get considering the amount of interest there is in the Irish taking on an SEC opponent in the regular season for the first time in a dozen years. While Notre Dame is coming off a disastrous 2016 season, this will be its first big test with a revamped coaching staff and host of new starters on both sides of the ball. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are looking to enter the playoff discussion with a big road win to prove they’re a legitimate threat in the SEC. The last time these two programs met, Georgia edged out Notre Dame in the 1981 Sugar Bowl to capture a national title and things are just as intriguing this time around.
7. Florida State at Florida (Nov. 25)
The battle for the Sunshine State has been a little streaky as of late, with the Seminoles winning six of the past seven meetings following a six-game winning streak by the Gators. Despite the sometimes lopsided scores, this is an incredibly fierce and chippy rivalry that pits plenty of former high school teammates against each other at the end of every regular season. Each side could win their respective divisions once again so it will shock nobody if this one has serious playoff implications for both teams.
8. Stanford at San Diego State (Sept. 16)
The relative small fan bases from these two schools may cause many outside the state of California to overlook this one but that’s an oversight we’re here to correct. The Aztecs are an impressive 22-6 the past two seasons and that includes a pair of Mountain West titles to boot. Their NorCal opponents have some recent hardware of their own and are hoping to begin another run of dominance out West with this non-conference outing. The only bummer about this meeting is it came a season too late to see Christian McCaffrey vs. Donnell Pumphrey.
9. Michigan vs. Florida (Sept. 2 — Arlington)
At this point, just about every Jim Harbaugh game has turned into a must-see but it’s really the case when he’s running smack dab into a program like back-to-back SEC East champ Florida. Each side is entering a bit of a rebuilding year given the NFL talent that will be watching on from training camps across the country but there’s still plenty of future first-rounders who will wind up starting at AT&T Stadium. The Gators rarely venture out of the Southeast for non-conference play so seeing them as far west as Texas will be an equally nice treat.
10. TCU at Arkansas (Sept. 9)
These two old SWC rivals are doing their best to keep memories alive of their old league but their meeting last year was much more reminiscent of a Wild West WAC shootout given the way they traded the lead late in the game. Each returns a pretty good quarterback who will be the focal point of the offense but don’t sleep on all the speedy skill position players involved in this one.
11. Utah at BYU (Sept. 16)
Fans outside the state have little idea at how intense this rivalry is 365 days of the year but make no mistake, this is one of the nastiest battles in all of college football every fall. The aptly named Holy War is not only a hard-fought outing but also one that typically has a bizarre play or three that will be discussed ad nauseam in the Salt Lake City area for years to come. While the two stingy defenses have controlled the outcome in recent meetings, be prepared to see a new-look Utes offense face off against electrifying Cougars QB Tanner Mangum in this year’s edition.
12. Texas A&M at UCLA (Sept. 3)
Coming off a pair of disappointing seasons, the Aggies will make a rare trip west to take on the Bruins in a game where the losing head coach will be firmly on a seat that is scorching hot. The two teams staged a fun one back in College Station last year and it wouldn’t be too surprising to see another out at the prestigious Rose Bowl this time around. Keep an eye on UCLA QB Josh Rosen, who will make his return to action after suffering a nasty shoulder injury and will be fully intent on living up to his first-round billing against John Chavis’ defense.
13. Pitt at Penn State (Sept. 9)
The return of this interstate rivalry was welcomed by many both inside and outside the region — doubly so when the two put on a thriller last season as the Nittany Lions’ incredible fourth-quarter comeback came up just short. That will only fuel the return of the Panthers into the not-so-happy confines of Happy Valley as the defending Big Ten champs look to avenge the loss and capture a home victory over Pitt for the first time since 1999.
14. Notre Dame at Miami (Nov. 11)
Fans of a certain age will instantly recall the “Catholics vs. Convicts” days between these two schools as they went at it with the national title on the line in several cases. Things have cooled off considerably since then as each tries to make it back atop the college football mountain but this should still be a pivotal game late in the season for both sides. The Irish haven’t been back to South Beach since they were hammered in the BCS championship game and haven’t played Miami in South Florida since 1989, adding even more interest in this year’s rare meeting.
15. Navy at FAU (Sept.1)
Oh come on, you have to be a Tennessee fan (or USC fan… or an Alabama fan…) to not be interested in the head coaching debut of Lane Kiffin at FAU. Even better news is this combines Kiffin on the sidelines with the triple option of Navy on the field.
16. Wisconsin at BYU (Sept. 16)
The Badgers’ schedule this season is playing a big role in why they are the favorite to capture the Big Ten West crown yet again but this non-conference trip to Provo is one of the most difficult games on the slate for Paul Chryst’s squad. Expect heavy doses of the run game against a pair of stiff defenses before the quarterbacks try to open things up downfield in the second half.
17. USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 21)
The greatest intersectional rivalry in the country remains a must-see game regardless what side you claim allegiance to (if any). This year’s annual late October meeting may serve as added fuel for a Sam Darnold Heisman Trophy push as well as play a big role in getting the Trojans to the playoff if they live up to their preseason billing. The Irish may be coming off one of their worst seasons in a long time but that doesn’t matter a ton in this rivalry game given their history and the home team has won each of the past four matchups.
18. BYU vs. LSU (Sept. 2 — Houston)
While this game would be far, far more interesting to see either fan base travel to the other, this meeting in Houston is not a bad way to begin the year for both the Tigers and the Cougars. Ed Orgeron’s squad has high hopes of making a run at a conference title and we’ll be able to see just how close they are to their SEC West rivals when Matt Canada’s new-look offense takes the field against a good defense. The flip side is BYU would love to garner some big-time national respect and knocking LSU off in AT&T Stadium is a surefire way to do so.
19. Notre Dame at Stanford (Nov. 25)
The past five meetings between these two have been decided by a touchdown or less and more often than not caused a significant shift at the top of the polls late in the season. While Stanford enters 2017 with significantly higher expectations than its rivals from South Bend, that hasn’t been a major factor between the lines when these two have met with their current coaches in charge. So load up on Thanksgiving leftovers and plunk yourself down for this one.
20. Louisville vs. Purdue (Sept. 2 — Indianapolis)
Throw out your past perceptions of Purdue because things are a bit different for the program with former Louisville QB Jeff Brohm running the show. He’s bringing in a much more fun style of offense to West Lafayette and will get the benefit of coaching a quarterback that threw for more than 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. Unfortunately for Purdue, the team’s defense will still have to corral the defending Heisman Trophy winner in Lamar Jackson, who just might be even better in 2017 than he was a year ago. Scary thought and one you should tune in to see live.
21. Oklahoma State at Pitt (Sept. 16)
Mason Rudolph threw for more than 500 yards the last time these two teams met in Stillwater and given the holes in Pat Narduzzi’s defense early in 2017, may well exceed that number by the third quarter. This is a nice road test for the Cowboys though and it will be interesting to see them try to contain a new-look Panthers offense built around former five-star and USC QB Max Browne.
22. Arizona State at Texas Tech (Sept. 16)
When these two teams met out in Tempe last September, all they did was combine for 123 points and more than 1,200 yards of total offense. Tailback Kalen Ballage tied an NCAA record with eight — count ‘em, eight — touchdowns too. Neither defense will be all that improved from a year ago so expect a similar shootout in West Texas.
23. Nebraska at Oregon (Sept. 9)
While Oregon’s trip to Nebraska last season was the beginning of the end of the Ducks’ season (and their coaching staff as it turned out), this year’s meeting in Eugene could be the start of something for the winner on either side. This will be Willie Taggart’s first big test in charge of the program while former Oregon State coach Mike Riley makes his return to the state hoping to get a victory in order to cool off his seat with the Cornhuskers’ fan base. A pair of strong-armed quarterbacks and flashy run games will play a big role in determining the outcome of this lovely Big Ten/Pac-12 battle.
24. UCLA at Memphis (Sept. 16)
Mike Norvell will be one talked about name on the coaching carousel this offseason if he can keep things going at Memphis following an impressive debut in 2016. The wide-open Tigers offense should be licking its chops to face the Bruins’ defense at home and the QB matchup in this one (senior Riley Ferguson vs. UCLA’s Josh Rosen) will get fans as excited as the NFL scouts.
25. Oregon at Wyoming (Sept. 16)
The schedule Willie Taggart inherits is not for the faint of heart as he tries to rebuild the Ducks and doubly so when factoring in the lackluster defense trying to face a potential No. 1 pick at quarterback in the Cowboys’ Josh Allen. Oregon has a pretty good signal-caller of their own in youngster Justin Herbert and the hard-nosed pedigree of both head coaches should make this one a fun little non-conference showdown between regional rivals.
— 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.