As usual, Labor Day weekend signals the beginning of the college football season. This year in particular, the slate of non-conference games is especially compelling. Even in the weeks following opening weekend, exciting non-conference matchups with playoff implications remain. Below, in descending order, I have ranked the Top 10 must-watch non-conference games.
10. Houston vs Arizona
12:00 ABC (9/8) Houston, TX
This matchup is interesting purely because of the matchup between Ed Oliver, Houston’ DT, and Khalil Tate, Arizona’s QB. Both players enter the season as legitimate Heisman candidates, making this contest must-watch TV. For the second half of last season, Tate was college football’s most electric offensive player. Oliver, a potential top NFL draft pick next spring, is hoping to shut down Tate just like he shut down Lamar Jackson and Louisville in 2016.
9. Oklahoma State vs (22) Boise State
3:30 TBD (9/15) Stillwater, OK
Boise State has continued to trend nicely under Bryan Harsin, and 2018 may be the Broncos’ breakout year. With a reliable man under center, Brett Rypien, Boise State is capable of running the table and earning a New Year Six Bowl bid. Although Oklahoma State will likely be considered the favorite in this matchup, the losses of Mason Rudolph and James Washington may limit the explosiveness that we have become accustomed to seeing out of Mike Gundy’s offense.
8. NC State vs (17) West Virginia
3:30 TBD (9/15) Raleigh, NC
Will Grier seems to be the sexy pick when it comes to preseason Heisman predictions, resulting in West Virginia as a popular dark horse selection. Sure, I expect Grier and star wideout David Sills V to have brilliant seasons, but I don’t expect the Mountaineers to make a run at the College Football Playoff. On the other hand, the Wolfpack, coming off their best season under Dave Doeren, may be one of the most underrated teams in the country. NC State has a pretty good quarterback too, Ryan Finley, who is arguably the best in the ACC. NFL scouts will be flocking to Raleigh to catch Grier vs Finley.
7. (7) Oklahoma vs FAU
12:00 FOX (9/1) Norman, OK
FAU might be the most fascinating 21-point underdog that we will see all year. Lane Kiffin and the Owls posted a surprising 10-win season in 2017 and will have a chance to have an even better encore in 2018. Although Kyler Murray is an extremely talented signal caller, he isn’t Baker Mayfield, and FAU are capable of startling the Sooners in week one of the post-Mayfield era.
6. (25) LSU vs (8) Miami
7:30 ABC (9/2) Arlington, TX
Although the Canes fizzled down the stretch last season following their 10-0 start, Mark Richt and co. have enough returning talent, in addition to a top 10 recruiting class, to be even better this time around. Miami struggled away from home last season, and a neutral site contest with an SEC foe will grant the Hurricanes a chance to prove that that won’t be the case this year. LSU, on the other hand, is in a more precarious position entering the season. The Tigers, especially Ed Orgeron, are desperately hoping that Joe Burrow is the long-awaited savior at the quarterback position. If not, considering a pair of QBs just left the program, Orgeron’s seat will continue to heat up.
5. (16) TCU vs (5) Ohio State
8:00 ABC (9/15) Arlington, TX
After a pair of snoozers to kick off the season, this meeting with TCU in Arlington will indicate if Urban Meyer’s absence has any real effect on the Buckeyes. Like Ohio State, TCU will be turning to a sophomore quarterback to lead the team this year. In only the fourth start of his career, Shawn Robinson will be given the daunting task of managing Ohio State’s vaunted defense. It won’t take long to find out whether the Horned Frogs are real contenders for the Big 12 title.
4. (23) Texas vs (15) USC
8:00 FOX (9/15) Austin, TX
Like the 2006 national championship game, last year’s rematch in LA was a classic, with the Trojans getting revenge in double overtime. Now that Texas has determined that Sam Ehlinger will be QB1, the Longhorns can expect to take a leap forward in Tom Herman’s second season. Meanwhile, the Darnold-less Trojans have turned to a true freshman at quarterback, JT Daniels. Daniels, who reclassified into the class of 2018, should be entering his senior year of high school. Given that Daniels is as young as a college quarterback can be, it will be interesting to see how he handles the big stage.
3. Texas A&M vs (2) Clemson
7:00 ESPN (9/8) College Station, TX
In his first season in College Station, Jimbo Fisher will face a familiar foe in his second game. Fisher’s Aggies are not yet nearly as talented as the Tigers, but Texas A&M’s massive home field advantage could play a factor in the outcome of the game. To hang around with Clemson, Texas A&M must rely upon the raucous 12th Man of over 100,000 fans and hope that Clemson struggles with the hostile atmosphere. After all, the Aggies managed to stick around with Alabama at Kyle Field last season, only losing by a single touchdown.
2. (9) Auburn vs (6) Washington
3:30 ABC (9/1) Atlanta, GA
This opening weekend Pac 12-SEC clash will be a pivotal game for the Pac 12’s playoff hopes. Washington is considered the heavy favorite to capture the Pac 12 crown and a colossal non-conference victory would put the Huskies in pole position to make a second CFP appearance. A loss to Auburn would severely hinder the Pac 12’s playoff chances. Conversely, an Auburn victory would vault the Tigers into the playoff conversation. This contest will also feature two of college football’s most talented quarterbacks: Washington’s Jake Browning and Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham.
1. (12) Notre Dame vs (14) Michigan
7:30 NBC (9/1) South Bend, IN
As these two storied rivals meet again for the first time since 2014, both programs find themselves in similar positions. As if the pressure of competing in a rivalry game wasn’t enough for a head coach, both Brian Kelly and Jim Harbaugh are facing crucial seasons that may dictate their futures at their respective programs. This game will also mark Shea Patterson’s debut in the maize and blue. With ESPN’s College Gameday in town, the spotlight will be on this matchup as the 2018 college football season kicks off.