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Top 30 Non-Conference Games to Watch in 2014

Michigan State Spartans

Clemson outlasted Georgia in Death Valley late on a Saturday night on the first weekend of action to open the 2013 college football season. UCLA overcame a 21-point, first-half deficit to beat Nebraska in Lincoln. Miami upset Florida, signifying the beginning of the end for the 2013 Gators. Notre Dame played epic games with Stanford, USC, Michigan, Oklahoma, Michigan State and Arizona State. And speaking of the Sun Devils, no one will forget what happened at the end of the Wisconsin game (the clock may still be ticking).

Every year, college football delivers delicious non-conference appetizers before league play opens up across the nation. As the College Football Playoff era begins in 2014, the value and importance of non-conference games have escalated exponentially.

At season’s end, there will be a host of one- and two-loss teams who believe they have earned the right to compete in the postseason. Yet, not all one-loss teams are created equally and a huge way to compare teams from totally different regions could eventually come down to non-conference scheduling. Who did you play out of your league? How did you perform out of your league?

A marquee non-conference win could (and likely will) be the difference between playing for a national championship or getting relegated to a glorified exhibition game (people call these bowl games).

Here are the most important, most anticipated, must-see non-conference games of the 2014 season:

1. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6)

It cannot be overstated what a win for Michigan State in this game would mean for the Big Ten. So Oregon cannot overlook the rebuilt Sparty defense early in the year or the Ducks could be knocked out of playoff contention by Week 2. The schematic chess match between Marcus Mariota and Mark Dantonio's defense should be fascinating to watch. It's a classic Big Ten-Pac-12, offense-defense showdown that should feature two top 10 teams. It should be the best non-conference game of the year regardless of conference.

2. Notre Dame at Florida State (Oct. 18)

Florida State’s toughest regular season test in 2014 may come from the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame has the talent, gets its signal-caller back under center and could be on a roll by mid-October. Few games in the nation will feature two more powerful brands with more at stake than when Brian Kelly brings his team south to Tallahassee. Very few teams have what it takes to challenge the defending champs but Notre Dame is definitely one of them. These two have met seven times with FSU taking five games, including the last two meetings in 2003 and '11.

3. Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 4)

This historic rivalry has been elevated in recent years after a memorable overtime goal-line stand for Notre Dame in 2012 and a physical 27-20 victory for Stanford a year ago. Only four times have both teams been ranked at the time of the meeting (28 total games) and three of those have come in the last three years. A fourth straight meeting of two ranked teams is likely to happen again this year and a playoff berth could be on the line this time around.

4. South Carolina at Clemson (Nov. 29)

As far as deeply entrenched rivalries and overall importance of the game to the national landscape go, it's hard to argue the Palmetto State season finale won't be one the biggest non-conference games in the league. Carolina and Steve Spurrier are eyeing an SEC East title and possible playoff berth, so a loss to the Tigers for the first time since 2008 would be crippling to those hopes. If the Tigers' offense develops quickly, this could be another top-15 matchup.

5. LSU vs. Wisconsin (Aug. 30, Houston)

From a pure entertainment standpoint, the Tigers-Badgers semi-neutral field battle in Houston might be the one to watch in '14. This game will feature what should be two equally matched opponents, both of whom are expecting to compete for division titles in their respective leagues. The winner is buoyed right out of the gate with a top 20 win, the loser may be out of the national title picture after just 60 minutes of football. LSU and Wisconsin feature two of the best power running games in the land and this game will be a throwback showcase for both.

6. Texas vs. UCLA (Sept. 13, Arlington)

UCLA has Pac-12 South Division title hopes and possibly more as Brett Hundley enters his third season under center. Texas will be three weeks into the Charlie Strong Era in Austin and will provide a nasty early-season test for the Bruins on a “neutral field” in Dallas. The Longhorns will be a much more disciplined and focused team under the new regime and both teams have outside chances at landing a spot the college football playoffs. An early-season slip up must be avoided for both programs.

7. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 29)

This was a blowout a year ago but Florida expects to be much improved and the historic Sunshine State rivalry could hold national championship implications for the Seminoles. Florida may have the best roster of any team Florida State will face in the 2014 regular season so fans should expect a much closer bout this time around — as long as the Gators' coaching staff is still intact by season's end.

8. Auburn at Kansas State (Sept. 18)

Gus Malzahn's offense led by Nick Marshall, four returning offensive line starters and a deep receiving corps faces Bill Snyder's defensive wizardry on the road on a Thursday night. Both teams will have extra time to prepare for the primetime mid-week meeting and both will be contenders for their respective conference championships. From a coaching standpoint, it doesn't get much better than Malzahn vs. Snyder.

9. Clemson at Georgia (Aug. 30)

Last year's meeting was an epic offensive showdown that featured elite playmakers and provided a memorable experience for everyone. This year, Clemson's defense is its strength while Georgia returns nine starters on D. With two new quarterbacks for both teams, expect a sloppier performance from both offenses in the first week of the season — which could be equally as entertaining. Each team has an outside shot at playoff contention so this season-opening meeting is monumental for both teams.

10. Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 29)

The battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh will take place for the 86th time in 2014 with both teams eyeing a trip to the postseason. The Irish lead the series 45-35-5 — including the vacated 2005 USC victory — and Notre Dame has won two straight and three out of four overall. Both teams enter the season ranked in the top 15 and by season’s end, each could be positioned to play for a national championship. Which means, only one is likely to get that chance once they meet on the final weekend of the regular season.

11. Army vs. Navy (Dec. 13, Baltimore)

It has no bearing on the national landscape and neither team plays a “conference” schedule, but the annual bout between Army and Navy has to be recognized. The two have met 114 times with Navy holding a 58-49-7 edge in the all-time series, including a 12-game winning streak. There is a reason this game stands alone on its own weekend (Week 16, technically) and attending this patriotic and emotional contest should be on every fan’s sports bucket list.

12. Notre Dame at Arizona State (Nov. 8)

It’s not a traditional rivalry like USC or Stanford but a visit from Notre Dame in early November is must-see TV for all college football fans. The Irish beat the Sun Devils 37-34 a year ago in Arlington, giving Notre Dame a perfect record in three total meetings with Arizona State. Todd Graham’s defense is going through a major overhaul this offseason but should be settling in by the time Brian Kelly’s offense gets to Tempe. Expect fireworks from both sides.

13. Michigan at Notre Dame (Sept. 6)

There is rich history and tradition between these two programs, and with the game going the way of the dodo bird, this meeting has more meaning. These two teams are breaking in three new coordinators, most importantly, Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. He will be pitted against new Irish defensive mind Brian VanGorder as both units have questions entering the season. A win for Brady Hoke entering Big Ten play can’t be overvalued, while a victory for Brian Kelly could place Notre Dame into playoff contention.

14. BYU at Texas (Sept. 6)

A revenge opportunity for the Burnt Orange players and a chance for Charlie Strong to land his first big win as the head coach. Especially, the way quarterback Taysom Hill and the Cougars abused the Longhorns' rushing defense a year ago. Hill is going to be even better this year so stopping that ground attack is still going to be a tall order. This Texas team will be more physical and more fundamentally sound this fall and the game is on the 40 Acres. No matter what happens, though, this is appointment viewing early in the year.

15. Boise State vs. Ole Miss (Aug. 28, Atlanta)

The sneaky good matchup in Atlanta features two rising stars on the sidelines in Hugh Freeze and Bryan Harsin. Both offenses should be electric on the fast track in the Georgia Dome and both teams think of themselves as conference contenders. The quarterback play for both teams will be fascinating to watch.

16. Miami at Nebraska (Sept. 20)

From an intrigue standpoint, few non-conference games in college football will feature two more powerful brands than this Week 4 meeting in Lincoln. These two have met in multiple national title situations, including four Orange Bowls and three national title games. The last two meetings were a Miami beatdown in the BCS title game in 2001 and a Nebraska national championship-clinching win in the 1995 Orange Bowl. And, of course, who could forget the 1984 Orange Bowl and the most infamous two-point conversion attempt in college football history.

17. Virginia Tech at Ohio State (Sept. 6)

The Hokies will once again have an elite defense led by well-respected coordinator Bud Foster. This is the reason Virginia Tech is the front-runner to win the Coastal Division and face Florida State in the ACC title game. Ohio State is a top playoff contender and is breaking in a new offensive line, so facing the Hokies' defensive line is a great early measuring stick for Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes will be a clear favorite in this game and a decisive win could give OSU a critical non-conference win over a quality opponent.

18. Louisville at Notre Dame (Nov. 22)

Bobby Petrino has a few marquee showdowns on his schedule this fall and the biggest one might be a trip to South Bend in late November. The meeting will mark the first time in history that these two programs have ever met despite being just four hours apart. The matching of offensive wits between Petrino and Brian Kelly will be a thing to behold and must-see TV.

19. Florida State vs. Oklahoma State (Aug. 30, Arlington)

Oklahoma State won the Big 12 title in 2011 and was one drive away from a second conference crown a year ago (they also smoked the Baylor Bears at home). However, with massive departures, the Pokes are in rebuilding mode and playing the defending national champs in Week 1 is a recipe for disaster. Still, any time two big programs get together in the season opener in Jerry’s World it’s something the nation needs to watch.

20. North Carolina at Notre Dame (Oct.11)

Much like Louisville and Florida State, North Carolina has a shot at a headline-making, non-conference win if it can go into South Bend and pull the upset. The Tar Heels may not have the same talent as the Seminoles or the coaching of the Cardinals, but North Carolina should be fairly competitive in mid-October. The Heels are 2-16 all-time against the Irish but won the last meeting 29-24 in Chapel Hill in 2008.

21. Georgia Tech at Georgia (Nov. 29)

Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate featured one of the most thrilling finishes of 2013 (unfortunately for Tech). The Jackets coughed up a 20-point lead and eventually lost in double overtime. Paul Johnson has one win in six tries against the Dawgs, as Tech has lost 12 of 13 against their in-state rival. A season-ending win over Georgia cannot be undervalued for Johnson and could knock UGA out of playoff contention.

22. Northwestern at Notre Dame (Nov. 15)

From a regional standpoint, this game has tremendous intrigue. The Irish have dominated the Wildcats, winning 37 of 47 total meetings. That said, the last time these two met was a historic 17-15 win for the Wildcats in 1995 — a win that propelled the traditional Big Ten doormat into a historic Rose Bowl season. Pat Fitzgerald’s squad should be much improved, especially by the middle of November.

23. BYU at Boise State (Oct. 24)

These two Western powers have only met four times in history, including a 37-20 Cougars win last year in Provo. It was the first loss for Boise State against BYU. This season's meeting in late October also serves as the third consecutive year these two programs have met. New Broncos head coach Bryan Harsin will be in the middle of his first Mountain West season and Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill will be looking to build a potential Heisman Trophy resume with a great road performance. This game will feature more shades of blue than any one football game should possess.

24. Kentucky at Louisville (Nov. 29)

Mark Stoops is making Kentucky more relevant every day and his team should be at its best by season's end. Bobby Petrino will be wrapping up his first season back in Louisville. With in-state recruiting battles growing more fierce by the day, the Wildcats-Cardinals matchup just gets that much more intriguing.

25. Iowa at Pitt (Sept. 20)

Pitt is going to be one of the most improved teams in the ACC this year and will give Iowa all it can handle at home in Week 4. The Hawkeyes are spying a run at a Big Ten West Division title and Paul Chryst is very familiar with Kirk Ferentz from his time at Wisconsin. This would be a huge win for a team on the rise against a quality foe at home.

26. Tennessee at Oklahoma (Sept. 13)

It may not be all that close of a game but any time two major power brands like the Vols and Sooners get together, it's must-see TV. Trevor Knight and Oklahoma enter the year thinking Big 12 championship and postseason bid. Butch Jones and Tennessee are slowly working their way out of the worst slump in program history. There is a lot on the line for both coaches and both teams.

27. Minnesota at TCU (Sept. 13)

Jerry Kill and Gary Patterson are two of the most well respected coaches in the game today. Minnesota is coming off an eight-win season and wants to prove it can sustain some level of success, while TCU is projected to be a much better team in 2014. This game may not look like a great matchup on paper but by season’s end, one of these two teams will have a really good non-conference win.

28. Iowa State at Iowa (Sept. 13)

This is a passionate in-state rivalry that has been played 61 times (Iowa leads 41-20). The Hawkeyes won easily in Ames a year ago but lost 9-6 the last time these two met in Iowa City (2012). This game has seen high-scoring overtime affairs (44-41 in 2011) and low-scoring defensive battles. Fans never really know what they are going to see when these two get together.

29. Arkansas at Texas Tech (Sept. 13)

Fans in Lubbock and Fayetteville may learn all they need to know about the both teams in Week 3. Should Bret Bielema's team play well in Lubbock or even pull the upset, then Arkansas could be a much bigger factor in the SEC than expected. If not and Kliff Kingsbury out tempos the Razorbacks, it could signal a long year for Pig Sooie and a sign of things to come for Tech. The old Southwest Conference ties make this one of the more intriguing matchups of the year.

30. Nebraska at Fresno State (Sept. 13)

The week before Nebraska welcomes Miami to Memorial Stadium, Bo Pelini will have to take his team on a long road trip to Southern California. Fresno State is breaking in a new quarterback but is still considered one of the best teams in the Mountain West. Pelini needs to be sure his squad doesn’t look ahead to the Hurricanes or the Bulldogs will jump up and bite him