With just under 100 days until kickoff, it's time to look ahead to the best non-conference games of the 2015 season. Most of these occur in September before the conference schedule heats up, but they carry even more importance in this new Playoff era. With strength of schedule as one of the Committee's criteria, extra emphasis is placed on a challenging non-conference slate. This list is filled with annual rivalries and random matchups between heavyweight programs:
#1 Oregon AT Michigan State, Week 2
The Spartans held a 27-18 lead in the 3rd quarter, but Marcus Mariota’s crafty third-and-long conversion sparked a comeback win and the final 28 points for Oregon. This is the vintage offense vs. defense matchup, and remains so despite the departures of Mariota and MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. This game will alter the Playoff picture in early September, and will vault the winning QB into the national spotlight (Connor Cook or EWU-transfer Vernon Adams).
#2 Alabama vs. Wisconsin, Week 1 (Dallas)
We are familiar with Nick Saban’s drive as a perfectionist. That fire is stoked after a season-ending loss, such as the Tide’s Playoff loss to Ohio State. That anger will be thrown at the Big Ten’s Wisconsin Badgers, as Alabama aims for revenge. It’s Paul Chryst’s debut here, and what a test he has in front of him.
#3 Georgia AT Georgia Tech, Week 14
Rivalry Week is busy, but the game of the day – and perhaps the season – came in the form of “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.” Georgia scored with 18 seconds left to go up 24-21, but a botched kickoff gave Tech enough field to eventually hit a 53-yard field goal. Tech scored first in overtime, but the extra point was blocked. Only after an interception on UGA’s possession was this crazy one put to rest. This came after 5 years of the state being painted red and black. Expect more drama, and of course, more hate.
#4 Texas AT Notre Dame, Week 1
This one has it all. Anytime the sport’s bluebloods schedule home-and-home series, you can expect something special. This is year two in the Charlie Strong era, and the debut saw a (6-7) Longhorns squad earn just 57 yards in the 31-7 Texas Bowl loss. Meanwhile expectations are sky high in South Bend (as they usually are), with 17 starters returning. We will learn plenty about both teams in this primetime opener.
#5 Army vs. Navy, Week 15 (Philadelphia)
This matchup transcends the sport, and belongs in its own category of Americana. However, the non-conference list would not be complete without it, and the top 5 is fitting. Navy has won 13 straight; the freshman players were just 4 years old when Army last “sang second.” Philadelphia will again be home to old-fashioned football and the triple option.
#6 Ohio State AT Virginia Tech, Week 1
The most popular two-word phrase in any TCU fan’s vocabulary last December? VIRGINIA TECH. Buckeye critics pointed to this early-season loss to a mediocre Hokie team as the reason to exclude them from the Playoff. Cardale Jones and company made three distinct arguments to close the season as they earned the 2014 National Championship. Urban Meyer will have his champs refocused for this Labor Day special, and it’s hard to imagine a repeat of last September.
#7 USC AT Notre Dame, Week 7
Wedged in the middle of the season, this matchup could have serious Playoff implications. USC might be the favorite in the Pac-12 South, while Notre Dame can factor into the Playoff discussion, even with one loss. Think of this as essentially an elimination game in mid-October.
#8 Clemson AT South Carolina, Week 14
Is there a rivalry as bitter as this one? Often overlooked by Ohio State – Michigan, and Alabama – Auburn, this one belongs in the discussion for most passionate and hate-filled rivalry in the game. After winning five straight, South Carolina lost control last November, and Clemson again reigns as state champs. Can Steve Spurrier bounce back after a disappointing 7-6 season, and can Clemson live up to the rising expectations?
#9 Oklahoma AT Tennessee, Week 2
Much like the Notre Dame – Texas matchup, this one just feels special. Factor in the rebuilding job by Butch Jones at Tennessee, and this one is filled with hype. Many feel Tennessee is ready to turn the corner and return to the conference’s elite. Meanwhile, Oklahoma enters 2015 with less steam after a demoralizing 40-6 loss in the Russell Athletic Bowl, and a recent quarterback controversy. Seeing Neyland Stadium at its best never gets old.
#10 Michigan AT Utah, Week 1
The much-anticipated debut of the Jim Harbaugh era takes place on opening night in Rice-Eccles Stadium, far from the friendly confines of the Big House. Harbaugh, the former UM quarterback, now takes the keys to the program after the previous two coaches have failed to meet expectations. He faces a tough, gritty Utah team that is strong up front and will feed Devontae Booker the ball 30+ times. Utah excelled in close games last season, and will be a difficult opening test for Harbaugh.
#11 Florida State AT Florida, Week 14
Gone is Jameis Winston. But Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson enters the FSU backfield and looks to lead the Noles to its 5th win over Florida in the last 6 years. The Gators gave a physical fight last November, and nearly ended FSU’s 27-game win streak. Jim McElwain steps in at UF, and The Swamp will be ready to cause potential Playoff havoc in the season finale.
#12 Arizona State vs. Texas A&M, Week 1 (Houston)
The school’s first meeting will take place on opening weekend in Reliant Stadium. Both teams have been known for their high-octane offenses recently, but this offseason Texas A&M added former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis who looks to fix a defense that finished 77th in scoring defense (96th in 2013). Todd Graham’s high-speed offense will test the progress here.
#13 Nebraska AT Miami, Week 3
These two storied programs have an intertwined history, from the 2-point attempt in the 1984 Orange Bowl, to Tom Osborne’s first title in the 1995 Orange Bowl, and as recent as the 2001 Hurricanes’ exclamation mark to an all-time dominant season. Last September, Nebraska won round one of this home-and-home, thanks in part to a workhorse performance by Ameer Abdullah. He is gone, and so is the Pelini staff. A new-look Husker team heads down to South Beach for yet another matchup with the Canes.
#14 Louisville vs. Auburn, Week 1 (Atlanta)
Louisville had the 2nd most drafted players in the 2015 NFL Draft, but expect Bobby Petrino to have the Cardinals primed for this opener. Auburn signed another top-notch recruiting class, but they also reeled in perhaps the biggest recruit in the land: defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. This is one to keep an eye on, and we should learn a great deal about both squads.
#15 BYU AT Nebraska, Week 1
The debut of the Mike Riley era is no easy task, as the physical BYU Cougars come to Lincoln. Taysom Hill is one of the most electric quarterbacks in the nation, and poses the threat to score from any point on the field. The Blackshirts have struggled with mobile quarterbacks recently, and have especially struggled with power rushing attacks (see: Wisconsin). This will be a quick measuring stick of the Riley staff’s progress.
#16 TCU AT Minnesota, Week 1
A game that wasn’t on the national radar last September proved to be one of TCU’s biggest arguments for a Playoff bid. TCU beat Minnesota 30-7, their only common opponent with Ohio State. This season the matchup is on opening night, and TCU figures to open the season in the Top 4 amidst serious Playoff talks. This is the first chance to prove that last season’s 12-1 run was no fluke.
#17 Notre Dame AT Clemson, Week 5
Notre Dame’s gauntlet continues, and this trip to Death Valley will be one of their toughest tests. Deshaun Watson, recovering from injury, looks to be perhaps the biggest breakout star in the country this fall after showing Clemson fans glimpses of brilliance in his freshman season. Dabo Swinney must rebuild the nation’s #3 defense, but still this matchup could hold Playoff implications.
#18 BYU AT Michigan, Week 4
Late September will feature a rematch of the 1984 Holiday Bowl, the game in which BYU secured its only National Championship. They are the last non-Power5 team to win the title. With a noticeably rigorous schedule, can BYU enter Playoff talks this fall? This will be the last hurdle of a brutal 4-game opening slate (AT Nebraska, Boise State, AT UCLA, AT Michigan). Meanwhile, Michigan completes its challenging non-conference schedule with another West Coast test.
#19 Boise State AT BYU, Week 2
The Group of Five title might be on the line, even in early September. Boise State was the class of the non-AQ conferences last season, and with Taysom Hill back it appears that BYU will be one of the strongest as well. As mentioned, this is yet another test in BYU’s gauntlet of a schedule.
#20 Iowa AT Iowa State, Week 2
Don’t sleep on this one. Often overlooked, this rivalry is one of the more passionate in the country. You can also throw out the previous season’s results and the current expectations here. Iowa State looks to defend the Cy-Hawk Trophy, and it’s the Cyclones who have been state champs 3 of the last 4 seasons.
#21 Washington AT Boise State, Week 1
Chris Petersen makes his return to the blue turf in Boise, after achieving an untouchable 92-12 record in eight seasons as the Broncos head coach. His debut at Washington was an 8-6 campaign, and he looks to build on that despite a tough road opener. Boise State is fresh off of a Fiesta Bowl victory, similar to the one that Petersen won in 2007 that helped put the program, and school, on the map.
#22 Notre Dame vs. Boston College, Week 13 (Fenway Park)
The Holy War returns after a 2-season hiatus, but this time Fenway Park will host the battle. This baseball cathedral has more recently hosted the Pope than a football game, as this will be the first since 1968. If Notre Dame can navigate its difficult schedule, this game can have playoff implications. Seeing football played in front of the Green Monster is reason enough to tune in. But don’t forget how the Addazio-led Eagles shocked the nation last season in their upset over #9 USC.
#23 Texas Tech vs. Arkansas, Week 3
This old Southwestern Conference rivalry returns after last season’s 49-28 blowout. Arkansas ran all over the Tech defense, and given the Hogs late-season surge, look for more of the same here in round two.
#24 South Carolina vs. North Carolina, Week 1 (Charlotte)
The Carolinas are up for grabs on this opening night showdown. Both teams finished the regular season 6-6, but saw different results in their bowls.
#25 BYU AT UCLA, Week 3
Yes, each of BYU’s first four matchups made the list. As one of just three FBS independents, BYU’s games are all technically non-conference, and most are quite intriguing. For UCLA it is life after Brett Hundley, and they must figure out how to slow the elusive Taysom Hill on the other side of the ball. UCLA opens with Virginia, but this will be its first true test of 2015.