Ranking The 17 Best Nonconference Games of 2017

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Fewer than two months remain until the 2017 college football season kicks off. The Open Man’s Preview Listapalooza transitions into a Rankapalooza!

Fans and pundits alike often lament the imbalance and other imperfections of nonconference play. Why do some Power Five teams go without scheduling a single Power Five opponent? Why don’t the leagues have uniformity in the number of conference/nonconference games played? Why do so many SEC teams play paycheck games in late November?

And yet, the 2017 slate demonstrates that, despite its flaws, the nonconference season provides plenty of entertainment. Paring this list down to just 17 was a chore.

17. Wyoming at Iowa

Week 1: Saturday, Sept. 2

Craig Bohl showed off quite a knack for upsetting big-name competition in his time at North Dakota State. While Bohl’s Bison made their bones with national championships — winning three straight before Bohl left for Wyoming — NDSU gained national prominence when it kicked off 2013 with a win at Kansas State.

2016 marked Wyoming’s arrival under Bohl. The Cowboys won the MWC Mountain Division and hosted the conference championship. For an encore, they return quarterback Josh Allen, perhaps the fastest rising star in all of college football.

While Wyoming’s home date two weeks later against Oregon deserves consideration, this is the contest that sets the tone. Allen’s meteoric ascent could kick into hyperspeed with an upset of Iowa.

16. BYU vs. LSU

Week 1: in Houston Saturday, Sept. 2, at 9 p.m. ET

Baton Rouge’s proximity to Houston — a mere four-hour drive — will give this neutral site affair more of a home-game feel for LSU. But BYU has its own distinct advantage ahead of the 2017 Texas Kickoff Classic. The Cougars start the season a week earlier against Portland State, giving second-year head coach Kalani Sitake a head-start in pinpointing and ironing out some kinks.

That’s your storyline for this Week 1 clash. LSU has the talent edge, most notably with Heisman Trophy contender Derris Guice returning to the Tiger backfield. However, that Week 0 experience might have BYU sharper.

The Cougars boast an impressive defense, having allowed just 19.4 points per game a season ago. Sitake’s one of the game’s more astute defensive minds.

15. BOISE state at washington state

Week 2: Saturday, Sept. 9, at 10:30 p.m. ET 

Last season’s matchup went to the wire, with host Boise State surviving in a 31-28 win. The return match sends the Broncos to Martin Stadium, where Washington State has been prone to nonconference losses of late. The Cougars have September home losses to FCS opponents each of the last two seasons.

Despite those September stumbles, the last two Washington State teams combined for 17 wins. This year’s Cougar roster looks like the best Mike Leach has had in his time on the Palouse. Avoiding an early-season loss isn’t necessary for Washington State’s realistic pursuit of a Pac-12 championship, but the Cougars can’t give up nonconference losses if they’re to be surprise Playoff contenders.

Boise State, meanwhile, has been great against the Pac-12 in recent years. The Broncos have wins over Arizona, Washington, Washington State and Oregon State in Bryan Harsin’s tenure as head coach.

14. Oklahoma State at Pitt

Week 3: Saturday, Sept. 16, at 12 p.m. ET

One week after another high-profile nonconference game (more on that in a moment), Pitt follows up against the trendy pick to win this year’s Big 12 championship.

Enthusiasts of high-scoring contests should set a reminder for this one; Mike Gundy’s always-potent Cowboys offense is coming off a 38.6-point-per-game campaign and returns quarterback Mason Rudolph along with top receiving targets, James Washington and Jalen McCleskey.

Pitt’s prolific offense was a revelation a season ago. The Panthers finished 10th in the nation in points per game (40.9) and return a host of potential skill-position stars in Quadree Henderson, Qadree Ollison and Jester Weah. Should USC transfer quarterback Max Browne settle in — and having seen him up close for the last few seasons, I believe he can — Pitt’s an intriguing dark horse. This matchup will reveal a lot about both teams.

13. Texas A&M at UCLA

Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 3

Can a Week 1 nonconference game really be deemed must-win? Really? Given the circumstances, yes: Week 1 is a must-win for both Texas A&M and UCLA.

These are two programs that appeared on the precipice of breaking into college football’s upper echelon just a few seasons ago. Both have been en vogue Playoff picks at various times since the system’s inception, but each have fallen short of such lofty expectations. As a result, head coaches Kevin Sumlin and Jim Mora are now popular names on the hot-seat circuit.

The opener sets the tone for both winner and loser. After finishing 4-8 last season, UCLA needs a positive cornerstone on which to build. The Bruins nearly beat A&M in College Station in 2016, despite Josh Rosen playing a bad game. Should the former 5-star recruit return from shoulder injury with a big performance, expect the since-hushed Heisman talk to renew. A home loss for a UCLA team that’s struggled in the Rose Bowl under Mora would significantly heat up the head coach’s seat.

12. Notre Dame at Stanford

Week 13: Saturday, Nov. 25

Possible implications for this cross-country rivalry range from potential College Football Playoff positioning, to this perhaps being Brian Kelly’s swan song at Notre Dame. This ranking is contingent on these variables.

The last time Notre Dame visited Stanford produced one of the most exciting games of that season, with the Cardinal’s last-second field goal thwarting the Fighting Irish’s Playoff aspirations.

11. Texas at USC

Week 3: Saturday, Sept. 16, at 3:30 p.m. ET

Almost 12 years after squaring off in what may well be the greatest college football game ever played, Texas-USC gets a rematch. It goes without saying the 2017 installment lacks the same gravity of their 2006 Rose Bowl Game encounter, but there are still some considerable stakes at play.

USC embarks on 2017 a favorite in the Pac-12, and considered a College Football Playoff contender. Recent Trojan teams have not done well with such lofty expectations, and were often exposed in the first month of the season with September losses to Stanford in 2012 and 2015, and Boston College in 2014.

The Cardinal visit the Coliseum the week before Texas comes to L.A. That contest could either have the Trojans flying high and ripe for a trap, or in early desperation mode. And while the Longhorns have a new head coach — former Houston head man and Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman — Texas is loaded with experienced playmakers.

For Texas, this Week 3 date is a prime opportunity to launch the Herman era.

10. Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia

Week 1: in Landover, Maryland, Sunday, Sept. 3, at 8 p.m. ET

Though I’m luke-warm on neutral-site games, the restoration of a regional rivalry in nonconference play gives me the same gleam in the eye I imagine Dana Holgorsen gets when he sees a fully-stocked Red Bull fridge.

Holgo’s energy-drink offense has been consistently good throughout his tenure in Morgantown. However, in an ironic twist, long-stagnant Virginia Tech actually outpaced the Mountaineers by almost four points per game in 2016.

Credit second-year Hokies head coach Justin Fuente, the man responsible for transforming previously moribund Memphis. Fuente’s uptempo offensive approach injected a new energy into Hokie football, resulting in a 2016 ACC Championship Game appearance.

Virginia Tech could be a contender in the ACC again this season, but the Hokies face questions. So, too, does West Virginia — that seems to be the norm in Morgantown.

Week 1 won’t definitively answer those questions, but will provide profound insight.

9. Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech

Week 1: in Atlanta, Monday, Sept. 4, at 8 p.m. ET

Georgia Tech’s been a pest to its former home conference recently. The Yellow Jackets concluded 2016 with back-to-back wins over SEC foes, beating Georgia to cap the regular season and Kentucky a month later in the Music City Bowl.

Since 2014, the Yellow Jackets’ games against the SEC just mean more, evidenced by a 4-1 record in such affairs.

More than conference pride is at stake for Tennessee on Labor Day night. After failing to win the SEC East each of the last two seasons, and losing a considerable portion of last season’s talent-rich roster, Butch Jones needs to start 2017 on a positive note. Otherwise, the calls for change in Knoxville will start early (with absurd Jon Gruden rumors to follow).

8. Stanford at San Diego State

Week 3: Saturday, Sept. 16, at 3:30 p.m. ET

For San Diego State, hosting a likely Top 25 team and a program firmly entrenched in college football’s top tier for the last decade is an opportunity Group of Five members rarely see.  Two years ago, San Diego State head coach Rocky Long said Power Five programs were “afraid” to play road games against opponents from the Group of Five conferences.

This is a chance for a State squad with a stout defense and one of the most electrifying ball-carriers in college football to strike more fear into the hearts of Power Fives.

Critics of college football’s Power Five glass ceiling should take particular interest in this one. Not only is Stanford going into Group of Five territory, but the Cardinal face a State program that has won two straight Mountain West Conference championships and 22 games over the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

Should the Aztecs win a week earlier at Arizona State — a very real possibility — State’s stakes will be astronomically high. This could be the nationally relevant nonconference game San Diego State was meant to host in 1992 when Miami came to town, but that lost its luster when Heisman Trophy finalist Marshall Faulk sat out with an injury.

7. Georgia at Notre Dame

Week 2: Saturday, Sept. 9, at 4:30 p.m. ET

The proliferation of high-profile nonconference games moving to neutral sites has made a pairing like this all the more special. Two historic college football programs getting together in one of the most hallowed grounds of the sport — this is the essence of college football.

Both Georgia and Notre Dame face eager expectation ahead of 2017. Georgia’s a popular pick to win the wide-open (and, of late, wholly unimpressive) SEC East. Kirby Smart was hired to lead the Bulldogs to victory in the big games critics lamented Mark Richt’s teams were flaccid in. This qualifies as one such big game.

Though Notre Dame went 4-8 a season ago, cranking up the heat on Brian Kelly significantly, the Fighting Irish return enough to have a strong rebound. Whether they do so may hinge on their performance against Georgia.

6. Notre Dame at Miami

Week 11: Saturday, Nov. 11, Time TBA 

From a matchup with Mark Richt’s former team, to a showdown with his current, Notre Dame’s 2017 schedule is heavy on high-profile games. Not even included in this list are dates against historic rivals Michigan State, USC and Navy.

Miami isn’t a historic rival to the Fighting Irish, BUT…you may have heard once or twice that Miami and Notre Dame played a really high-profile game in the 1980s. You might also know that this game had a nickname. It’s a pretty popular part of college football lore and has zero relevance on this meeting. Still, expect it to get some play ahead of their 2017 encounter.

Old slogans aside, Notre Dame and Miami are two of the more intriguing dark-horse contenders in the 2017 field. Richt’s first season at his alma mater showed promise at 9-4. The Hurricanes are loaded with veterans, and the replacement of quarterback Brad Kaaya should be smoothed over by this juncture in the season, making this a potential Playoff audition for the ‘Canes.

5. Pitt at Penn State

Week 2: Saturday, Sept. 9, at 3:30 p.m. ET

Penn State went on one of the most impressive runs in college football a season ago, ripping off nine straight wins en route to the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl Game. Before that, however, the Nittany Lions gave up 52 points in a loss to regional rival Pitt.

The bragging rights last September’s Panther win gave Pitt underscores the value in this nonconference rivalry, though it’s headed into uncertainty beyond 2025.

Equally as uncertain? How the Panthers match up with the likely preseason Top 10 Nittany Lions. The South Point sportsbook has Penn State as a staggering 19-point favorite. It’s not long ago Penn State teams struggled to score 19 points total, let alone win by that margin.

However, James Franklin’s transformation of Nittany Lion became clear over the course of 2016. With Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley back in the fold, Penn State can put up big points once more. But then, so can Pitt.

4. Michigan vs. Florida

Week 1: in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Sept. 2, at 3:30 p.m. ET

Since its inception, the Cowboys Classic has typically headlined the first Saturday of the College Football Playoff season. Michigan-Florida is indeed a matchup worthy of main-event status, even if it lacks the prime-time billing previous Week 1 games in Arlington have garnered.

Jim Harbaugh’s been the talk of college football from the moment he accepted the head-coaching position at his alma mater. I credit the constant buzz following Harbaugh for somewhat harsh evaluations of his success. The Wolverines went 10-3 in each of his first two campaigns, but the lack of a divisional title looms as an oft-cited source of criticism.

Undergoing considerable roster change — with just five total starters returning, Michigan’s the single least-experienced team in college football — Harbaugh’s squad faces an uphill climb to that elusive title.

Meanwhile, Florida’s Jim McElwain has a divisional title in each of his first two seasons leading the Gators. His first SEC East-winning campaign ended with a thud, courtesy of Jim Harbaugh and Michigan. However, this Florida team should be more competitive than the 2015 edition — especially if Malik Zaire finds the magic that had the nation buzzing about him at one time during his Notre Dame tenure.

3. Auburn at Clemson

Week 2: Saturday, Sept. 9, 7 p.m. ET

A home-and-home, nonconference, regional rivalry: THIS is what college football needs to be producing more of in September.

Clemson’s run to the national championship began last season with a surprisingly tense visit to Jordan-Hare Stadium, where the Tigers escaped with a 19-13 win. It was Clemson’s lowest point output of the season.

That impressive opening marked the beginning of a thoroughly up-and-down campaign for Auburn. The Tigers scored an invitation to the Sugar Bowl despite an 8-4 record, and were subsequently drubbed by Oklahoma.

Gauging hot-seat status in the SEC is an inexact and unpredictable endeavor. Is Gus Malzahn on one just a few years after a BCS championship narrowly escaped his team? Probably best for him to not leave it to chance.

Auburn needs a big year out of Jarrett Stidham. His performance against an excellent Clemson defense will be telling.

2. Oklahoma at Ohio State

Week 2: Saturday, Sept. 9, at 8 p.m. ET

Ohio State’s thorough deconstruction of Oklahoma last September in Norman was one of the more shocking results in 2016. The Sooners were coming off a College Football Playoff appearance, with several key players back — among them 2016 Heisman finalist and 2017 returnee, Baker Mayfield.

Despite his outstanding play each of the last two seasons, Mayfield struggled mightily against the Buckeyes (17-of-32 passing, two interceptions). That has to loom large for the senior, in his last season chasing the big prizes that have alluded him.

For new Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley, this is the first of many measuring-stick moments. Riley replaces Bob Stoops, known as Big Game Bob for Oklahoma’s performance in high-profile contests. It doesn’t get much more high-profile than invading the Horseshoe to face off with Urban Meyer, the only coach in college football who anyone can reasonably arguable is on the same level as Nick Saban.

This Ohio State team may be the most talented Meyer’s had in his time coaching the Buckeyes. Considering they’re just seasons removed from a national championship, that’s hefty praise.

1. Alabama vs. Florida State

Week 1: in Atlanta, Saturday, Sept. 2, at 8 p.m. ET

In my Watchability Ratings for the full ESPN/ABC Week 1 slate, I bestowed six-star status on this showdown of college football titans. The bar’s set impossibly high, especially considering Nick Saban-coached teams 1. win season openers by an average of __ since __ and 2. Saban’s undefeated against former assistants. However, it’s Florida State and Jimbo Fisher’s chance to defy precedent that makes this the undisputed best game of the 2017 nonconference slate.

The Seminoles are built in such a way as to stand toe-to-toe with Alabama. The two teams mirror each other in many key areas, starting on defense. These are arguably the two best defensive rosters in the nation, featuring proven playmakers like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James, as well as breakout candidates Christian Miller and Josh Sweat.

Both teams also feature young and exciting quarterbacks — either of whom could contend for the Heisman. Dual-threat playmakers Jalen Hurts and Deondre Francois taking the reins of their respective offenses marked dramatic departures for both programs, but they were tasked with running the show specifically for these types of games.