In the College Football Playoff era who you schedule in the non-conference is arguably just as important as how strong your conference is. Non-conference games have become a major factor in the selection process and teams that test themselves against the best will be rewarded. With that said, which non-conference match-ups are you looking forward to the most in 2016? Here’s a list of the top out of conference games to circle on your calendar.
*Note: I decided not to include annual non-conference rivalries (i.e. Florida State/Florida, Notre Dame/USC, Georgia/Georgia Tech, etc.)
Arkansas at TCU
After struggling to transition from the Mountain West to the Big 12, TCU went 11-14 in its first two seasons in the Big 12, the Horned Frogs have returned to national prominence with just three total losses the last two seasons. The Horned Frogs enter 2016 a little under the radar and will be breaking in a new quarterback after star QB Trevone Boykin graduated.
Meanwhile Arkansas is hoping to breakout under head coach Bret Bielema, now in his fourth season with the program. The Razorbacks went 8-5 in 2015 just two seasons after going winnless in the SEC.
This is an intriguing match-up because of the contrast of offensive styles. TCU features a high-octane spread attack, while Arkansas is going to try and pound it out on the ground and wear down defenses. The two schools also will be renewing an old Southwest Conference rivalry.
UCLA at Texas A&M
UCLA and Texas A&M kick off the 2016 campaign in a game featuring two teams that started off hot in 2015, but fell off in the 2nd half of last season.
The Bruins return sophomore QB Josh Rosen who threw for 3,670 yards and 23 touchdowns as a true freshman last season. The Aggies on the other hand, will have a new starting quarterback after Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen both left the program this off-season. Former Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight will step in as the presumed starter this season.
Knight started 10 games for the Sooners in an up and down 2014 and later lost the starting gig to Baker Mayfield last season. It should be a thrilling environment in College Station when these two under the radar playoff contenders kick off the new season.
Georgia vs North Carolina
It’s the beginning of a new era for Georgia football after 15 seasons under Mark Richt. Richt decided it was time to move on as he became the head man at Miami, meanwhile the Bulldogs hired former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart as its new head coach. All eyes this off-season have been on running back Nick Chubb, who before a season-ending knee injury looked every bit as one of the best backs in the country.
His status for the start of the season is still up in the air.
The Smart-era begins with a showdown in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against an up and coming North Carolina squad. The Tar Heels ripped off 11 straight wins after a season-opening loss to South Carolina before losing to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. Despite losing starting QB Marquise Williams, UNC returns 7 starters on offense and should be one of more explosive offenses in the country.
If the Tar Heels can improve defensively they could be right back in the thick of the ACC championship chase.
Tennessee vs Virginia Tech
A game between the Hokies and Volunteers at Bristol Motor Speedway is expected to shatter the previous attendance record of 115,009 fans during a 2013 game at Michigan Stadium between the Wolverines and Fighting Irish.
The “Battle at Bristol” on September 10 has already sold out its allotment of 150,000 tickets.
Tennessee was a popular pick last season to win the SEC East, but three losses by a combined 10 points derailed their SEC Championship hopes. The Vols return senior duel-threat QB Joshua Dobbs and under the direction of head coach Butch Jones they should be in the mix for the SEC East once again.
Meanwhile at Virginia Tech it’s a new era of Hokie football as new head coach Justin Fuente, previously the head man at Memphis, takes over for legendary head coach Frank Beamer who retired after 29 seasons with the program.
LSU vs Wisconsin
For the first time in 33 years a college football game will be played at legendary Lambeau Field when LSU and Wisconsin meet in Green Bay to open the season on September 3rd.
The two schools last met in 2014 at NRG Stadium in Houston where the Tigers came away with a 28-24 victory. LSU began last season 7-0 before losing 3 of their last 5 games. The Tigers will be highly-ranked again this season and feature one of the best halfbacks in the country in junior Leonard Fournette.
The Badgers are hoping to ride the momentum of a 10-win campaign in 2015, but face a daunting conference schedule with road games against Michigan, Michigan State, and Iowa, as well as a home game against Ohio State.
Opening the season against LSU will be a major test for Bucky.
Alabama vs USC
The defending national champions will open the season against another college football blue blood in USC at AT&T Stadium.
Last season Alabama, led by Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, lost just one game to Ole Miss. The Crimson Tide should be in the mix for the national title once again, despite having to break in new starters on both sides of the ball.
The Trojans enter 2016 under new head coach Clay Helton after firing Steve Sarkisian mid-season last year. USC is undoubtedly talented, but has failed to reach expectations the last few seasons. Facing the defending champs at Jerry World will be a tremendous test for the Trojans.
Michigan State at Notre Dame
After a two-year hiatus, Michigan State and Notre Dame will renew their rivalry in 2016.
The defending Big Ten champions will come into South Bend with a new starting quarterback and a young group of receivers and what should be an improved defense all around. Meanwhile the Irish return a majority of their team, including both starting quarterbacks Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer.
The two schools have played some thrilling games including a 2013 match-up where Notre Dame edged the Spartans by a score of 17-13. This year will also mark the 50th anniversary of the “Game of the Century” when Notre Dame and MSU, ranked No. 1 and 2 at the time, played to a 10-10 tie.
Houston vs Oklahoma
Houston burst onto the scene in 2015, winning 13 games under first-year head coach Tom Herman. The Cougars capped off a marvelous season with a win over Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. This year the Cougars are one of the very few teams outside the Power-5 that could contend for spot in the College Football Playoff.
However if they are to receive a berth in the playoff, Houston will have to defeat a Oklahoma team that also figures to be in the mix for the National Championship in 2016.
The Sooners, led by Heisman finalist at QB Baker Mayfield, had one of the most potent offenses last season. The defending Big 12 champs return their starting QB and several other starters from a team that earned a spot in the playoff before losing to Clemson in the national semifinal.
Although this will technically be a “neutral-site” game, you can expect plenty of Cougar fans to make the short trip to NRG Stadium for what should be a high-scoring affair.
Florida State vs Ole Miss
What better way to cap off the opening weekend of the college football season than this doozy of a match-up on Labor Day?
Florida State features one of the best halfbacks in the country in Dalvin Cook, who should be in the mix for the Heisman when this season is said and done. The Seminoles are looking to bounce-back from somewhat of a down season for their standards as they went 10-3 last year.
Meanwhile Ole Miss, led by returning starting QB Chad Kelly, are looking to compete for not only an SEC Championship but possibly a berth in the College Football Playoff. The Rebels were the only team that came away victorious against defending national champ Alabama last season, and if not for a wild 53-52 overtime loss to Arkansas late in the season, they could have very well been in the SEC Championship.
Expect some fireworks when these two schools meet in Orlando.
Ohio State at Oklahoma
Yes that’s right. The Sooners have two of most intriguing non-conference games in 2016 and all within the first three weeks of the season.
After opening the season against an up and coming Houston squad, Oklahoma hosts Ohio State just two weeks later for what should be one of the most talked about match-ups of the entire season. The fact that this is the first installment of a scheduled home-and-home series between the powerhouse programs makes it even better.
The Buckeyes entered last season as the defending champs and favorites to win it all, but a late-season loss to eventual Big Ten champion Michigan State would derail their hopes for a repeat. Ohio State would salvage their season with a victory over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
However this team is hungry to return to the College Football Playoff as they return senior quarterback J.T. Barrett who after sharing the reps with Cardale Jones, seized the starting role late in the season.
If you’re a college football fan, this game is a must-watch.