The first weekend without college football since last August is now upon us, which begins the toughest part of any college football fan’s year: the long wait until the next season is played.
With the conclusion of the College Football Playoff national championship game, it will take just under eight months until we see actual competition again on the field. Opening weekend is over 220 days away. Still, thinking about all of next season’s games is a great way to get through this long offseason. While next season’s opening weekend has nothing on what we kicked off 2016 with, Week 2 of the 2017 campaign looks pretty darn tempting.
This is supposed to be a list of the 20 games that we should be looking forward to next fall. It’s not intended to be just a list of non-conference games, but it’s a lot harder to anticipate the best late-season games than early-season matchups. By the time November rolls around, the season can be entirely different than we expect. And while sometimes expected Playoff play-in games actually turn out that way (think this year’s Ohio State-Michigan game), sometimes hyped early-season games just don’t pan out that way. (For example, by the time Ohio State vs. Michigan State rolled around, the Spartans were eliminated from bowl contention.)
We could say that we’re excited about Alabama’s game against LSU in November — and neither of those teams will pull a Michigan State and have seven losses by then — but it’s not so unlikely that both teams will have two losses and be out of Playoff contention by then.
So this list is high on early-season non-conference games, but only by virtue of those games being first on the schedule, before the shine has had time to come off. Teams that we’re overlooking now can always surprise us during the year — no one saw Colorado coming this season — and teams expected to be really good might disappoint. There are some late-season games listed here, but only those where it seems very likely that the game will still be relevant to the season. Again, this isn’t about prioritizing non-conference games over conference games. It’s all anticipating early-season games, and it just happens to be that most of those matchups are non-conference battles.
Also, every major rivalry game is a game to look forward to. We all know that Rivalry Week comes at the end of the season and we can’t wait for it. Therefore, unless there is a significantly compelling reason to do so — like if a game is as highly anticipated as last season’s Ohio State-Michigan game was — rivalry games won’t be on this list. Also, because of the Big 12’s new “Conference Championship Game,” it’s impossible to really look forward to any conference matchups there. After all, we can’t really look forward to the game between the conference’s two best teams because we know to expect a rematch of that game in December.
Please keep in mind that some conferences have not yet set the dates for their conference games. We know which games will be played, but we don’t know on which dates they will all be played yet.
Top 20 College Football Games to Look Forward to Next Season
20. Sept. 2: Wyoming at Iowa
We’ll start off this list with a game that is not quite on most people’s radars. Craig Bohl has very quietly done a tremendous job improving the Wyoming program, and he now has an extremely talented returning quarterback in Josh Allen, along with solid starters across the board. Wyoming may be on the way to competing for Mountain West titles and New Year’s Six bowls, and the trip to Iowa to start the season will be an excellent test of that. Also, it will tell us a lot about an Iowa team that is coming off a decent, but disappointing season and is losing a lot of talent.
19. Sept. 2: Temple at Notre Dame
Temple has to break in a new coach after Matt Rhule left for Baylor. The Owls are talented and, unlike most good Group of 5 teams, tries to line up as a power football team. The Owls are coming off an AAC championship and this game will be a good measure of if they can do it with a new coach. Notre Dame, meanwhile, is coming off Brian Kelly’s worst season. Temple is a quality opponent and this will be a good litmus test of how the Irish will look in 2017.
18. Sept. 4: Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech (in Atlanta)
This is the Labor Day game, so it will command the attention of the entire country. Butch Jones has yet to win an SEC East title, but there might be less national hype coming into 2017 than there was in 2016. Tennessee started off this year’s campaign by almost losing to Appalachian State on Thursday night. The opponent will be tougher next season, as Georgia Tech went a very quiet 9-4 this year. Paul Johnson’s teams are always an enigma, so it will be good to get an early read on how competitive the Yellow Jackets will be in 2017.
17. Sept. 2: West Virginia vs. Virginia Tech (in Landover, Maryland)
This will likely be a battle between ranked teams to open the season. Justin Fuente had a good first year in Blacksburg, and expectations will only be higher in Year 2. West Virginia, meanwhile, might be coming off the most under-appreciated 10-win season in power conference history. This opening game should provide a good look at both teams.
16. Sept. 9: Minnesota at Oregon State
P.J. Fleck brings his boat-rowing to Minnesota (assuming Western Michigan doesn’t get vindictive about not giving up the trademark on that phrase), and the schedule for the Gophers is pretty clear. Even without quarterback Mitch Leidner — who Minnesota fans on Twitter are shockingly not sad to see leave — Minnesota should be expected to start next season 7-0. Oregon State is not a particularly tough opponent, but the first trip against a Power 5 school in a hostile environment will tell us a lot about what we need to know about Fleck’s Gophers.
15. Sept. 2: LSU vs. BYU (in Houston, Texas)
Ed Orgeron’s non-interim head coaching career will get off to an interesting start against BYU. The Cougars have talent across the board and an exciting new coach who had a bit of a disappointing first season. These teams match up well and it will be one of our first opportunities to see if LSU will finally be able to challenge Alabama for supremacy in the SEC West.
14. Date TBA: Wyoming at Boise State
This game could be a major bust, but is definitely one to look forward to. Wyoming’s trajectory is in a very good direction and Boise State is loaded with talent. Each team plays enough tough non-conference games that this might not be a major showdown by the time it rolls around. But this game also has a legitimate chance of determining the Group of 5’s New Year’s Six participant.
13. Sept. 9: Nebraska at Oregon
Oregon is coming off its worst season in a decade and has a new head coach to try and reverse that trend. Nebraska, meanwhile, has to find a way to replace its best quarterback since Tommie Frazier. Both teams have real potential in 2017, but will also have major challenges to overcome. An early-season battle in Eugene will give us a real look at which of these teams, if either of them, can be a factor in 2017.
12. Sept. 16: Oklahoma State at Pittsburgh
These two teams played a classic game this year, which included an extended lightning delay. That alone should have us looking forward to 2017’s rematch. Pitt’s defense was shockingly porous under renowned defensive-minded coach Pat Narduzzi, but the Panthers still managed to beat two Top 5 teams on the season, including eventual national champion Clemson. A game against an explosive Oklahoma State offense will tell us whether Pitt is moving forward in 2017 or whether the Panthers will struggle in the ACC.
11. Sept. 9: Pittsburgh at Penn State
It’s another blockbuster non-conference game for the Panthers, which more than makes up for the fact that Pitt has a shockingly easy cross-divisional schedule in the ACC, drawing N.C. State and Syracuse from the Atlantic Division. Penn State, meanwhile, returns a ton of talent from an explosive offense and is the preseason favorite to be Ohio State’s biggest challenge in the Big Ten East Division. Penn State will want revenge for last year’s loss, and this early game will tell us whether James Franklin’s 2016 success was just a matter of lucky circumstances or is here to stay.
10. Sept. 16: Florida at Tennessee
The SEC East has been one of the worst divisions in the Power 5 for the past few years, but the division is still loaded with talent and good coaches. Tennessee and Florida are two strong teams, and this early game will determine the pecking order in the division for the early portion of the season. Jim McElwain really took off in his third year at Colorado State, so what will his third season at Florida have in store? On the other side of the field, a loss — which will lead to Tennessee being really behind the 8-ball in the SEC East race — will put Butch Jones on the hot seat.
9. Date TBA: Temple at South Florida
I wanted to put USF somewhere on this list, because USF is definitely a team that we get excited about watching. USF has a good new coach and one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. Trust me, there will be some serious Heisman buzz for Quinton Flowers before 2017 is over. The Bulls don’t play any good teams in the non-conference this year, so the choice was between the Temple and Tulsa games as ones to look forward to. USF will be a very good team this coming season, and a New Year’s Six bid is not unlikely. Even if the Bulls suffer an upset or two, though, make sure to watch them in 2017.
8. Date TBA: Miami (Fla.) at Florida State
Florida State is on this list three times, and all of these are in the best eight. Not only should the Seminoles — even without Dalvin Cook — be one of the nation’s best teams in 2017, but they play several high-profile games as well. Mark Richt had a fine year with Miami in 2016, but he was brought in to win championships, not win nine games a year. This rivalry game against Florida State, whenever it turns out to be, will tell us whether The U is close to being back on top of the college football world.
7. Sept. 16: Texas at USC
Charlie Strong was not particularly successful as a coach at Texas, but he did a fine job recruiting. The cupboard is loaded for new coach Tom Herman, who has already proven that his team gets up big-time for big games and that he can do a lot very early. He took Houston to the Peach Bowl in his first season. In his first season at Texas, he will get a shot at a Top 5-10 USC team in Week 3.
6. Sept. 9: Auburn at Clemson
Auburn will have a little bit of hype coming into 2017, but it’s hard to get too excited about any SEC team not named Alabama. Auburn has talent, but just lost their offensive coordinator. Clemson, meanwhile, is coming off a national championship, but will have to replace the best quarterback in school history, along with several key defensive players. This will be our chance to see just how well Dabo Swinney can reload or if he’ll be stuck with a rebuilding year.
5. Sept. 2: Michigan vs. Florida (in Arlington, Texas)
It’s the first time the Gators will leave the state for a non-conference game since 1991. That alone should make this exciting. This is also a matchup of two very good coaches in Year 3 of their respective tenures. Michigan has to replace basically its entire defense, which was the bedrock of the Wolverines’ success the past two years under Harbaugh. Predictions for Michigan this season will range from being a Playoff contender to being a mediocre fringe Top 25 team. This opening game in JerryWorld will tell us which of those two is closer to being right.
4. Oct. 28: Penn State at Ohio State
Like I said in the intro, it’s really hard to look forward right now to games this late in the season. First of all, Penn State plays Michigan the week before. It’s entirely possible that the Nittany Lions enter this game with two or three losses, which could really take the luster off this matchup. Still, it’s hard not to be excited about this game, which will involve two preseason Top 10 teams who will be expected to compete for the Big Ten crown. It’s not quite November, but it’s likely that this game will set the stage for how the selection committee will look at the Playoff front-runners.
3. Date TBA: Florida State at Clemson
We don’t yet know when in the season it will be, but this should be the game that determines the ACC. Yes, Lamar Jackson is back at Louisville and will still be explosive, but the Cardinals’ end to the season makes it very difficult to look forward to any of their 2017 games. Sure, Louisville eviscerated Florida State in 2016, but it would be surprising to see that again. These two should be the class of the ACC, and the winner of this game very likely has an inside track to the Playoff.
2. Sept. 9: Oklahoma at Ohio State
A Week 2 matchup of preseason Top 5-10 teams? What more could anyone ask for? (Well, maybe the No. 1 game on this list.) Ohio State dominated the game in Norman last season, and the Sooners travel to Columbus to try and return the favor. Quarterback Baker Mayfield returns to lead one of the country’s highest-powered offenses. J.T. Barrett regressed in 2016, but Kevin Wilson will be the new offensive coordinator to try and unlock the potential that Barrett has always shown. Just like this past season, this game could very well create a Playoff opportunity for the winner.
1. Sept. 2: Florida State vs Alabama (in Atlanta)
What more could we want than a Week 2 matchup of Top 5-10 teams? How about a Week 1 matchup of Top 5 teams? In fact, Alabama and Florida State could very well be the top two preseason teams going into next season — maybe Top 3, with Ohio State in between them. This will be one of the most-hyped opening week games we’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s impossible not to be excited for it already. The anticipation for this game will probably start building in February, and hopefully looking forward to it will make this long offseason feel like a short wait.