Although we are still six months away from the start of the college football season, it is time to start planning ahead. This gives us, as die hard fans more than enough time to contrive our best excuse as to why we can’t make it to that wedding. In part one of this two-part series, we will take a look at the ten best non-conference games of the upcoming college football season.
The sport of college football is often criticized because many teams choose to schedule FCS (formerly known as 1-AA) opponents over top-tier teams, coming from BCS conferences. As fans, we want to watch exciting matchups every week. With the new and improved playoff format approaching quickly, teams are scrambling to replace future MAC opponents with those from the Big-12 or SEC, to beef up their non-conference schedules in an attempt to impress the selection committee. There won’t be any room in a 12 game schedule for Oregon to open the season against Nicholls State or for Johnny Manziel to pad his Heisman stats the following week against Sam Houston State.
There is a colossal difference between playing an FCS opponent and playing a weak team from a BCS conference. As an Ohio State fan, I will be the first to admit that this year’s non-conference schedule is weak, to say the least. What people fail to realize is that these games are generally scheduled several years in advance. Take California for example. Throughout the last decade, California has cracked the top 25 almost every year and has been ranked inside the top 10 at some point, in five of those ten seasons (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2009). When devising future schedules, Ohio State athletic director, Gene Smith, had absolutely no way of predicting that in 2012 Cal would finish the season with a 3-9 record and fail to make a bowl game.
With that being said, let’s take a look at the top 10 non-conference matchups of the upcoming college football season, starting with number 10.
10. Tennessee @ Oregon – 9.14.13
Autzen Stadium – Eugene, Oregon
This game is intriguing on so many levels. Both teams are starting a new chapter with two first year head coaches. Tennessee fans couldn’t be happier with the decision to fire head coach, Derek Dooley, who finished his 3 years at UT 15-21 overall and a dismal 4-19 in the SEC. Fans bleeding green and yellow, or whatever other colors they decide to put together this year, are still heartsick over losing the best coach their school has ever seen to the NFL. Most interesting to me is how the Vols are going to stop this dynamic Oregon offense. Oregon shouldn’t lose much firepower as the majority of their offense is returning, highlighted by redshirt sophomore quarterback, Marcus Mariota. Mariota finished the season with 2,677 yards through the air and an additional 752 on the ground. Don’t expect much to change as offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich will take over as head coach. The Ducks averaged over 49 points per game last season while Tennessee gave up nearly 36. This Tennessee defense figures to improve, but will it be enough to shut down the Oregon Ducks? I think Oregon wins this game handily.
Coming off of a six point loss in Pasadena last year, Nebraska is seeking revenge against the Bruins of UCLA. To say that the Big Ten is horrendous against the PAC 12 on the road would be a drastic understatement. Since 2000, the Big Ten is 6-21 when traveling out west to take on a Pac 12 foe (not including the PAC 12’s newest two members). This is a must win, not only for the Big 10, but for Cornhusker head coach Bo Pelini as well. If Pelini has another mediocre season in Lincoln this year, expect the Big Red faithful to come calling for his head. With the starting quarterbacks of both teams returning, I expect this game to be a shootout, with Nebraska pulling out a close one at home.
8.) LSU v. TCU – 8.31.13
Cowboy’s Stadium – Arlington, Texas
The 2013 college football season will start out with a bang as three of the top ten non-conference matchups take place this week. We can only hope that this “Cowboy’s Classic” will be more entertaining than last year’s, when Michigan failed to take the field against Alabama and was brutally punished by a score of 41-14. As much as I enjoy watching that team up north get embarrassed, I’m looking forward to watching a closer game. Both TCU and LSU seem to reload more often than rebuild. No matter how many players these two teams lose, they always come back and compete for a conference championship the following year. TCU received a wake up call last season after leaving the Mountain West for the Big 12. Head coach Gary Patterson soon realized that they couldn’t sneak into a BCS game anymore, as they are no longer in a mid-major conference. With 18 LSU players entering this year’s NFL draft, reloading will be easier said than done. I fully expect LSU and head coach Les Miles to head back to Baton Rouge with a win in a low scoring game.
7.) Alabama v. Virginia Tech – 8.31.13
Georgia Dome – Atlanta, GA
This game won’t be as close as the others, but watching the reigning National Champions in an early season, marquee matchup is enough to put this game at #7. Like LSU, Alabama reloads year after year. Despite losing a 1,000 yard rusher in running back Eddie Lacy, Tide fans might have received a blessing in disguise. Lacy’s backup, T.J. Yeldon, is a dynamic ball carrier that, barring serious injury, will be in New York for a Heisman Trophy presentation within the next two years. Alabama is my favorite to win the National Championship again this year and if they don’t make it to Pasadena it will be because of their offensive line. It’s nearly impossible to replace three first round draft picks along the offensive line, but if anyone can do it, it’s head coach Nick Saban. Virginia Tech is coming off one of their worst seasons under head coach Frank Beamer and the Hokies will struggle to find success as long they have Logan Thomas at quarterback. Alabama will win in another Week 1 blowout.
6.) Oklahoma @ Notre Dame – 9.28.13
Notre Dame Stadium – South Bend, Indiana
Based on several writers’ early preseason predictions, I don’t think Notre Dame is getting enough credit. Returning a starting quarterback and a coaching staff in its entirety, Notre Dame should rank somewhere around #5 nationally. Oklahoma on the other hand isn’t so lucky. They will struggle early while attempting to replace quarterback Landry Jones, along with some key offensive lineman. I fully expect The Irish to send the Sooners back to Norman with their tails between their legs.
5.) Notre Dame @ Michigan – 9.7.13
Michigan Stadium – Ann Arbor, Michigan
This game has massive implications for both teams, but more so for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. If Notre Dame wins this game they will be in a great position to run the table and make it to their season finale against Stanford undefeated and playing for another National Championship berth. Michigan is coming off of a disappointing 8-5 season and figures to improve in Brady Hoke’s third season with the Wolverines. Michigan will get the win at home in another sloppy game between the two schools.
4.) Clemson @ South Carolina – 11.30.13
Williams-Brice Stadium – Columbia, South Carolina
Despite Clemson debunking my prediction last year of them winning the ACC, I am picking the Tigers again in 2013. Head coach Dabo Swinney has the staff and players in place to win the conference. Swinney has somehow managed to keep offensive coordinator Chad Morris in Clemson for another season, to run a high-powered offense led by quarterback Tajh Boyd, an early Heisman front-runner. South Carolina should be strong as well this year, returning starting quarterback Connor Shaw and the heart and soul of this team, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. There is a strong possibility that Clemson could come into this game undefeated and I don’t expect that to change in Columbia as Clemson will leave with a win.
3.) Georgia @ Clemson – 8.31.13
Memorial Stadium – Clemson, South Carolina
For those of you who love a classic shootout, this will be your type of game. Georgia returns nine starters from an offense that averaged just under 38 points per game last season. As mentioned previously, Clemson’s offense should thrive under Morris in his third season with the Tigers. The Bulldogs will struggle on defense as they have to replace three potential first round draft picks from their 2012 squad. This game could go either way but I’m picking the Tigers early, in a very high scoring game.
2.) Florida State @ Florida – 11.30.13
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium – Gainesville, Florida
Over the last decade, we haven’t seen too many great games in this rivalry. The average point differential since 2002 has been over 18 points. It seems that when one of the teams was having a great year, the other was average at best. Both coaches have their programs back on top, and this year’s game should be reflective of that. Jimbo Fisher had to replace most of his coaching staff this past year. Assuming he made all the right hires, Florida State and Clemson should compete for the ACC in 2013. Despite losing several top-tier players to the NFL draft, Florida State could easily run the table up until this point, provided they get past Clemson in week 8. Regardless of what they do in the ACC, Florida State is going to leave “The Swamp” with a loss, as Florida’s defense will prove to be too much.
1.) Notre Dame @ Stanford – 11.30.13
Stanford Stadium – Palo Alto, California
This traditional matchup is as old school as it gets. These two teams first met in 1925 and have produced countless legends ever since. Although the rivalry temporarily lost its flare with both teams falling off the national stage, this year’s game is set up to be among the best the series has ever seen. Cardinal head coach David Shaw, is one of the best in the business and will be a favorite to hoist the crystal at the end of the 2013 season. Don’t be shocked if both teams come into this game undefeated. Unfortunately for Notre Dame fans, this bout will be reminiscent of the 1990 matchup in which Stanford upset the #1 ranked Fighting Irish. Look for the same result in 2013.