The college football non-conference world has really gone through some drastic changes over the last few years. With conference hopping becoming so prevalent, some traditional late-season rivalries have now been relegated to non-conference games like Pitt-Penn State, Nebraska-Colorado and Texas-Texas A&M.
And you’d figure with a 12th game added to the schedule a few years ago it would lead to more great intersectional games in September. But sadly no, instead we get the usual array of Power 5 vs. FCS games or that odd November weekend when teams like Liberty, The Citadel and Tennessee-Chattanooga get fed to the wolves of the SEC. It’s depressing, people.
This year doesn’t have the panache of last year’s self-proclaimed “Best Opening Weekend Ever.” But there are going to be a handful of good matchups. The remainder of the season sees very few really intriguing non-conference games, to be honest. But we have managed to cull a few in here to put together this list of the best non-conference games in 2018. Just know it was pretty tough to find 25 to assign a blue ribbon label on. But here we go...
1. Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 1
Not just the crowning jewel of the opening weekend, this game could be the top non-conference game of the season (well, obviously, thus the No. 1 ranking here). Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson will make his much-ballyhooed debut in the winged helmet for fiery head coach Jim Harbaugh. He’ll be facing a defense that returns nine starters and should be the best for the Golden Domers since 2012. Both teams play rigorous schedules, so a win here is fairly important for staying in the College Football Playoff conversation all season long.
2. Washington vs. Auburn, Sept. 1 (Atlanta)
We get waaaaaay too few of these Pac 12-SEC matchups, so let’s enjoy this one while we can. Last we saw of the Tigers they were getting bested by UCF in the Sugar Bowl. Man alive, they’ve gotta be chompin’ at the bit to get back on the field against a quality opponent to get that taste out of their mouths. Though the two defenses were fourth and ninth nationally in yards per play last year (and lots of starters/depth return for both), the fun thing to watch will be the Jake Browning/Jarrett Stidham showdown at QB.
3. Stanford at Notre Dame, Sept. 29
The Cardinal join the Fighting Irish in playing one of the toughest slates in the FBS. But it’s their combination of an experienced/skillful O-line and having Bryce Love (above, right), the Heisman runner-up, returning for his senior season that is hard to bet against. Even though this Irish defense should be decidedly nastier, nobody lines it up and runs it right at you the way the Cardinal do. This is a great showdown of two very experienced teams, but SU will have a trip to Oregon preceding this game. Not an easy back-to-back.
4. Clemson at Texas A&M, Sept. 8
After the Aggies imploded so badly at UCLA to open last season, you know they want to make amends and get off on the right foot for this season. Here’s their chance. This could also be one hell of a coming out party for new A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher (though the Aggies actually open with FCS opponent Northwestern State but that shouldn’t count). But let’s be clear, this is Clemson. The team that has eight defensive starters back from the second-stingiest unit in the country. They held Auburn and Alabama to a combined 378 yards last year. This team loves to put the squash on SEC offenses.
5. Ohio State vs. TCU, Sept. 15 (Arlington, Texas)
The Big 12 has been clamoring for more respect the last few years and if they’re going to get it, a win in this game for the Horned Frogs could go a long way in earning it. TCU had 42 sacks as a team last season and will match up against one of the best O-lines in the country in Ohio State. It will be interesting to see if OSU super-backs Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins (both ran for 1,000-plus yards as freshmen) can get some lanes and be difference-makers against Gary Patterson’s aggressive defense.
6. Notre Dame at USC, Nov. 24
Let’s reiterate here, Notre Dame beat USC 49-14 last year. That was the easiest win for the Irish in the history of this storied series. This game comes at the end of the season, so who knows if they’ll both be fighting for a playoff spot or not. But by this time, super-frosh JT Daniels could be at QB and will have the Men of Troy looking for a revenge W. Having four seniors across the offensive line will be a huge key to the USC season. Can the Trojans keep their record within striking distance of a playoff spot?
7. USC at Texas, Sept. 15
These two old-school powers never seem to disappoint us. Whether it was the 2005 national title game (quite possibly the best game in title history) or whether it was last year’s double-OT thriller in Tinseltown where the Trojans edged the Longhorns 27-24. UT lost so many close games last year it was ridiculous (four by less than a TD), but will return the QB tandem of Sam Ehlinger and Shane Buechele and adds the No. 3-ranked recruiting class. If the O-line can stay healthy this year the Horns should reach double digits in wins.
8. South Carolina at Clemson, Nov. 24
After some subpar years, Will Muschamp could just have the Gamecocks ready to be a contender again in the SEC wars. In last year’s Palmetto Showdown, South Carolina barely managed more than 200 yards of offense against that relentless Tiger defense in the 34-10 blowout. Having a junior-senior-heavy defense will make a difference in 2018 as their offense will be put in better field position. If the Gamecocks can get by Georgia on Sept. 8, this late-season game takes on an even bigger meaning.
9. Miami vs. LSU, Sept. 2 (Arlington, Texas)
You almost get the feeling that this is a season-determiner for both programs, especially the Tigers, who will be missing a ton of talent from last year’s somewhat disappointing 9-4 squad. They also will have the least experienced team in the SEC this year, so an early loss here could shake the confidence tree for the Tigers. Miami won its first 10 games a year ago but lost its last three. The Hurricane defense was 12th nationally in yards per play and will be hell-bent against this youthful Tiger offense, which could be led by Ohio State transfer QB Joe Burrow.
10. Louisville vs. Alabama, Sept. 1 (Orlando, Fla.)
Too bad Lamar Jackson couldn’t stick around one more season. This game could’ve been a lot more intriguing with the Cardinal’s magic man. Then again, I’m burying the lede here, perhaps the most interesting facet of this game will be simply who shows up under center for the Crimson Tide on their first play of the season. The Jalen Hurts/Tua Tagovailoa quarterback controversy will only pick up steam after this first play is played, regardless who is at the controls.
11. Florida State at Notre Dame, Nov. 10
Having Deondre Francois back from injury should be a difference-maker for the Seminoles as they’ll need his ball-control offense to allow the youthful defense to come around. Only four starters return to their post on that side of the ball for FSU and six of the top seven tacklers have hit the bricks for 2018, so they will need to improve as the season goes on. Good thing this game isn’t in September because by the time they head to South Bend the Seminoles could be ready to prove a point.
12. FAU at Oklahoma, Sept. 1
Lots to talk about on this one, for sure. First off, this will be the first time the Sooners take the field without Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield so all the pressure falls onto baseball/football hyper-talent Kyler Murray, who got some spot duty last season. Secondly, you have to wonder what Lane Kiffin will have up his sleeve to spring on the Sooners' defense. You know he wants to win this game to put a stamp of legitimacy on his program. I’m thinking he pulls out all the stops here in Norman. Fun twist: FAU’s expected starting quarterback Chris Robison is a transfer from OU.
13. Florida at Florida State, Nov. 24
Always one of the best rivalries in college football, even if they both went through some struggles last year. Although their defense returns just four starters, look for FSU to possibly be one of the surprise teams in 2018, especially if Deondre Francois returns to form offensively. The Gators went just 4-7 last year but have 19 starters and 53 lettermen returning this season. Both head coaches are newbies to their respective sidelines this season in Dan Mullen and Willie Taggert, so both will be looking to make a big splash nationally. A win here could push FSU to the playoff and UofF to a top-10 finish… if all things go right.
14. Boise State at Oklahoma State, Sept. 15
Boyyyyy, do the Broncos love these types of games. This is a chance to add another Power 5 scalp to their collection, and this year they’ve got a legit shot at making it happen with QB Brett Rypien, RB Alexander Mattison and that high-octane offense. The Cowboys lost a few key engine parts from their offense. But whoever the new starting QB is (it’s up for grabs but fifth-year senior Taylor Cornelius is a favorite), he will have 1,500-yard rusher Justice Hill and returning receivers Jalen McCleskey (50 catches) and Dillon Stoner (44 catches) around him.
15. Mississippi State at Kansas State, Sept. 8
Yes, don’t blink. This really is Bill Snyder going out of his comfort zone and playing a tough non-conference game. And yes, against a FBS opponent too. Bonus! The last time an SEC bully came to the Little Apple was No. 5-ranked Auburn in 2014 and the Wildcats nearly pulled the upset in losing 20-14. They have a lot of weapons back with eight starters returning on offense but that Bulldog defense was 10th in the country a year ago and also returns eight starters.
16. West Virginia at NC State, Sept. 15
Will Grier took over the controls for the Mountaineers last year and immediately threw for 300-plus yards in eight of the first nine games before being injured vs. Texas. With the Wolfpack returning just three starters on defense, including an all new front six, he might be licking his chops. But keep an eye on NC State senior QB Ryan Finley and his top targets Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers, who combined for 132 catches last year. And you know how sometimes a good offense is the best defense? Both teams have that.
17. Penn State at Pittsburgh, Sept. 8
Not really sure what we’re going to get from these two teams this year, but this sure will be one of the more entertaining games of September. These two former rivals (well, I guess their rivalry will never die, it’s just that they don’t play each other every year like in the good ole days) are trending in different directions but don’t overlook the Panthers here. Pat Narduzzi should have his best defense in his four seasons. Meanwhile the Nittany Lions, though they have more talent, return just three starters on defense.
18. Iowa State at Iowa, Sept. 8
Odd to see this rivalry game so high up in the ranks but these two teams are legit bowl teams and dark horses in their respective conferences. (Granted, exTREME dark horses at that.). The winner of the CyHawk Trophy has been decided by no more than a touchdown in five of the last seven years. Both teams won eight games last year and return a lot of key components, including QBs Kyle Kempt and Nate Stanley respectively. This is a springboard game for the winner.
19. UCLA at Oklahoma, Sept. 8
Poor Sooners. They’ve got their hands full with opposing coaches wanting to come out and get a signature win in September. This time it’ll be the weak after FAU visits as Chip Kelly hangs up his ESPN microphone and pressed suit and takes over the Bruins. What will he have in store for OU? Hard to say. My guess is he’ll hold back a sizable bag of tricks for this game. Of course, not having Josh Rosen at the controls is a problem so look for a whole new offensive approach from the Boys of Westwood.
20. Ole Miss vs. Texas Tech, Sept. 1 (Houston)
Expect some fireworks. No I mean a lot of fireworks. These two offenses should have no problem moving the ball. But the Tech defense does return 10 starters and should be the best in the Kliff Kingsbury era. Rebel senior QB Jordan Ta’amu actually had a better quarterback rating than Shea Patterson, who transferred to Michigan, so look for the Rebel offense to maintain its status. The big difference could be how good the experienced Tech D will be.
21. Michigan State at Arizona State, Sept. 8
Call this the Darryl Rodgers Memorial. The late coach who passed away in July was at the helm of both of these programs at one point, in East Lansing from 1976-79 and in Tempe from 1980-84. Both teams return dynamic quarterbacks in Brian Lewerke and Manny Wilkins and have a host of receiving threats to break games open. But this year’s Spartan squad is one of the most experienced teams in the country and you know how well Mark Dantonio does with an experienced defense. They won’t be afraid to go to ASU and win a game on a hot desert night.
22. San Diego State at Stanford, Aug. 31
This one goes a little bit off the radar, but don’t sleep on the Aztecs, who could be the best Group of 5 team in the country. Plus, last year, SDSU hung a 20-17 upset on the Cardinal, sending them out of the national rankings. They are one of just three programs to have 10 wins in each of the last three seasons. Losing Rashaad Penny, who finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting, will be tough by now it’s Juwan Washington’s turn to tear up opposing defenses. He and QB Christian Chapman will operate behind five returning starters on the O-line. Don’t be shocked if the Aztecs pull off another upset.
23. UCF at North Carolina, Sept. 15
The defending “national champions” will have their work cut out for them early as they’ll face what should be a very improved Power 5 team on the road and will want to prove last year was no fluke. There are lots of pieces missing, including mastermind Scott Frost who is at Nebraska now. But McKenzie Milton is still the quarterback and will have plenty of weapons back in the fold. The fact that the UCF defense was a hindrance at times may rear its ugly head here as UNC looks to make amends for a 3-9 season a year ago. Both teams have lots to prove.
24. Duke at Northwestern, Sept. 8
Yes, I just wrote that. All hail the smart boys as they face off in this early-season Geek Bowl. But if you recall, both programs went bowling last year and both return enough talent to make a nice trap door weekend for some other ranked teams. But Duke has two things going for itself here, one, the Devils beat Northwestern 41-17, holding 10 of their 13 drives to 15 yards or less. And two, they also return eight starters from a defense that was 21st in FBS. NU’s Clayton Thorson and Co. will have to really play smart, error-free football to pull this one out.
25. Army vs. Navy, Dec. 8 (Philadelphia)
Oh come on, who DOESN’T love this end-of-season classic between the two military academies? The cold weather. The marching entrances. The grind-it-out offenses. The singing of the alma maters. The tears, etc., etc. This is American pageantry at its best. The bonus is that both of these teams are coming off of winning seasons and the Black Knights have won the last two meetings by a total of five points. Before that, Navy had won 13 straight dating back to 2002. This game is like that extra little treat you get between regular season play and the bowl games. And we love every bite.
-- Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.