Ten best early non-conference games of 2015 CFB season
By Daniel Ledbetter
The first week of college football is always amazing. All of the preseason prognostication comes to an end and we finally get a chance to see what teams got. The quarterback battle is never really settled until someone takes the first snap. The optimism of a coaching or coordinator change can be completely dashed by halftime. The emotion and momentum of a college football game moves so fast that it’s really unlike any other sport. Those highs and lows are amplified so much more when preseason expectations meet in-season realities.
The upcoming 2015 college football schedule has blessed us with many early season games that should peak national and regional interest. A recent trend of playing in kickoff classics has added a much-welcomed element to the first week of the season. With the College Football Playoff now in full swing, teams are more likely to schedule difficult games in the early going due to the importance of strength of schedule. As a result, after the first two weeks of the season, some teams will be sitting pretty with impressive non-conference wins while others will be digging themselves out of a hole. It’s a high risk, high reward situation.
In anticipation of the start of the 2015 season, we have ranked the best non-conference college football games from the first month of the season.
Best Early Season Non-Conference College Football Games
1. Alabama vs Wisconsin, Sept. 5 (Cowboys Kickoff Classic, Arlington, TX)
Alabama has demonstrated a consistent willingness to play in these tough openers, while Wisconsin showed they could stand in there with the big boys of the SEC when they took LSU to the wire last year. Both teams have a little rebuilding to do after the NFL Draft, but still have very good teams. It’s always tricky when younger starters have to step up without any tune-up games against cupcakes to ease them into the flow. Bama will be starting a new quarterback, one that has not even been determined at this point, and Wisconsin will have to replace star running back Melvin Gordon and will be welcoming new head coach Paul Chryst into the mix. It may not be the highest scoring affair at the end of the day, but I would expect a very competitive and well-executed football game.
2. Oregon at Michigan State, Sept. 12
Last year, this game started out as everything it was billed to be, but by the end it had turned into a blowout loss for the Spartans. It was always going to be tough for their offense to keep up with eventual Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, though. Mariota has since departed for the NFL, while Michigan State returns quarterback Conner Cook, giving them some continuity on offense. Oregon will continue to run its no-huddle spread attack, so Michigan State’s defense will still be tasked with slowing the Ducks down, or risk getting worn out for a second year in a row. The Spartans will get home field this go around, which should help disrupt Oregon’s flow with crowd noice. Whoever wins this should be firmly planted in the top 10, possibly even the top five, and have a nice win on their resume come playoff selection time.
3. Texas at Notre Dame, Sept. 5
What makes this matchup so intriguing is how bad both teams need the win. Notre Dame’s 2014 season imploded after losing to FSU and they desperately need a good start to build on the momentum of a bowl win against LSU to finish last year. Texas is coming off of a rough rebuilding year during Charlie Strong’s debut. You don’t get too many rebuilding years at Texas, though, and he’d by wise to turn this team around sooner rather than later. A win against a traditional football power to open the season would really help ease tensions with the fan base.
4. Texas A&M vs Arizona State, Sept. 5 (Texas Kickoff Classic, Houston)
If you are going to watch this game, I hope you like touchdowns, because offense is what these teams do, averaging over 32 points per game each last season. There is a really nice slate of games to open on September 5th but this one could turn out to be the most entertaining with that kind of scoring. Texas A&M started off hot last year but really cooled after issues with QB Kenny Hill arose, both in his on-field play and off the field. Highly-touted, but young quarterback Kyle Allen will look to learn from his mistakes last season and get the team back on track and into the SEC title conversation.
5. Oklahoma at Tennessee, Sept. 12
Both of these teams are looking to make a push for BCS contention this year and will meet in Knoxville just two weeks into the season. Oklahoma has an overhauled offensive staff after a hugely disappointing 2014. The Volunteers are optimistic about their team, but that’s a story we’ve heard before. Who wins this game, and the manner in which they do it, should reveal a lot about each team moving forward.
6. Ohio State at Virginia Tech, Sept. 7
Quick, who was the only team the Buckeyes lost to last year? The Virginia Tech Hokies, by 14, and at home. Ouch. Ohio State’s year seemed done before it even started after losing incumbent starter Braxton Miller to injury before the season and then this game in week two. As we know now, that was not the case. Unfortunately for Virginia Tech, the Hokies’ season took a drastically different turn after that game. Ohio State looks primed for a national title repeat with a hugely talented group returning and three starting quarterbacks to choose from. Can the Hokies pull off another upset? The game is in Blacksburg and scheduled for primetime. It’s never easy winning in Lane Stadium at night, especially not on the opening weekend.
7. Auburn vs Louisville, Sept. 5 (Chick-fil-a Kickoff Classic, Atlanta)
Auburn is looking to rebuild a little this year with a new quarterback and new defensive coordinator in Will Muschamp. It will be interesting to see if the defensive guru can turn this unit around against the Cardinals who are entering their second year with offensive-minded Bobby Petrino as head coach. If Auburn can scrape together anything near what Muschamp got out of the Gators on defense and couple that with Gus Malzahn’s offense, the Tigers will be really dangerous. This non-conference opener should give us a good idea as to whether it’s all coming together in Auburn or not.
8. Nebraska at Miami, Sept. 19
Would this have been a little more intriguing in the 80s? Of course. But it’s definitely a better matchup than it would have been five years ago. Miami lost a lot of steam down the stretch after losing a squeaker to FSU last season, but showed flashes of promise during that game with young quarterback Brad Kayaa at the helm. The Hurricanes will also be looking to avenge a loss to Nebraska last year in Lincoln. Nebraska, who also faltered down the stretch last year, is looking to build on a decent showing last year under new head coach Mike Riley, who replaced Bo Pelini in what many considered a controversial move by the Huskers. Both teams could really use a win here.
9. North Carolina vs South Carolina, Sept. 3 (Charlotte, NC)
The South Carolina Thursday night opener has become a staple of college football. Both the Gamecocks and Tar Heels hovered around .500 last year, so they aren’t entering the season with realistic playoff aspirations, but the game is intriguing nonetheless. SEC vs ACC always gets fans of the conferences excited because neither wants to lose a single game to the other.
10. Michigan at Utah, Sept. 3
The most intriguing aspect of this game is that it is Jim Harbaugh’s first as head coach. Utah beat Michigan last year in Ann Arbor and now the Wolverines have to open the season against them in Utah. It won’t be an easy first test for a coach and a team looking to start fresh following a few rough years.
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