The non-conference schedule will have more meaning than ever as the College Football Playoff era continues. As we head into the 2016 season, that transformation has not taken full effect.
This is true despite the SEC scheduling powerhouses such as Chattanooga, Alcorn State, Texas State, Presbyterian, Nicholls State, Austin Peay, Delaware State, Wofford, Prairie View, and Tennessee State.
All joking aside, college football fans can savor a lot of non-conference games with powerful meaning behind them. In week three, the first two teams to sneak into the playoffs with a number four ranking will meet in Norman as J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes of Ohio State square off against Baker Mayfield and the Oklahoma Sooners.
In week one, Florida State and Ole Miss will battle in Orlando. USC and Alabama will meet in the Jerry Jones Dome. Notre Dame will take on the likes of Texas, Michigan State, Stanford, and USC this season.
While those games are getting their due before the start of the season, plenty of non-conference games are being severely underrated as we move toward the dog days of summer before fall camp.
Here are five underappreciated non-conference games to keep an eye on in 2016:
5. Week Two — Northern Illinois vs. South Florida
One of the favorites in the MAC versus a rising power in the AAC. A top-level passing attack against the one of the best rushing offenses in college football.
Northern Illinois starting quarterback Drew Hare often gets lost in the shuffle of great college football quarterbacks. In three of the nine games the senior signal caller started and finished in 2015, Hare completed 75 percent or more of his passes and garnered 350 or more yards in the air, including a 91-percent completion rate against Ball State.
His top receiver, Kenny Golladay, returns as well after a season in which he averaged 15 yards per catch and collected 1,129 receiving yards.
USF will try to build upon a 2015 season in which it finished 10th in the nation in rushing offense. Sophomore running back Marlon Mack is one of the most underrated rushers at one of the strongest position groups in college football. He averaged nearly seven yards per carry last season and dominated defensive lines alongside quarterback Quinton Flowers, who rushed for nearly 1,000 yards as a sophomore.
This could be a very fun game and a strategic chess match in the realms of time of possession and passing execution.
4. Week Six — BYU vs. Michigan State
You can throw away the importance of stats and numbers in this game. I’m just watching to see who pulls off the fourth-quarter miracle in a non-conference beauty which features two teams that combined to win seven games in the final minute of the fourth quarter in 2015.
Can Michigan State outdo the botched punt return against Michigan or the conference-winning touchdown against Iowa… or the last-second field goal that handed Ohio State its first regular-season conference loss in the Urban Meyer era?
Can “Miracle” Tanner Mangum throw a Hail Mary pass with more meaning than his tosses against Boise State and Nebraska? Can BYU score 21 straight points in the fourth quarter, as it did against Cincinnati to win?
If you erase a blowout loss to Michigan, BYU’s margin of error in its other three losses last season was 12 points.
Michigan State’s only loss during the regular season was by one point to Nebraska. The Spartans played in seven games in which the score differential was seven points or fewer.
3. Week One — UCLA vs. Texas A&M
Doesn’t every college football fan want to jump into the Josh Rosen hot tub time machine to find out if he has evolved as a quarterback heading into 2016? The sophomore flashed greatness a year ago and will have a better grasp of the offense around him.
Meanwhile in Aggie Land, Kevin Sumlin is doing all he can to put a stop to the quarterback carousel. The wedge that hopes to stop the spinning is transfer Trevor Knight, who is hoping he can stop his own downward spiral on the field while at Oklahoma.
Either way, one program will leave this game with a win and momentum to put its recent struggles in the rearview mirror, while the other still has to figure out what it’s going to take to get back to the level fans expect their program to attain.
2. Week Two — Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech
This is an early favorite, a “hiding in the weeds” matchup that could hold a lot meaning for the 2016 season.
Tennessee has caught fire in the media as a potential surprise playoff team. The problem is that the Vols have a lot to prove after going 0-28 against top-10 teams over the last nine seasons.
They will host Florida two weeks later — a team they haven’t beaten in 11 seasons.
People might be writing off Virginia Tech, but the Hokies have a lot of offensive weapons and a quarterback in Jerod Evans that could potentially fit very well in Justin Fuente’s pass-happy offense.
This game will be held in Bristol… on the NASCAR short track, not Connecticut.
If Tennessee loses this game, it’ll need to answer a lot of questions heading into the SEC schedule. On the flip side, Virginia Tech will be ahead of schedule in its launch of the Fuente era.
The Vols ought to take this game: Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, and head coach Butch Jones should have a distinct advantage on paper.
Jones has gone 3-1 in non-conference play in each of his first three seasons at Tennessee. He has yet to beat a power-five team and boasts wins over Utah State, Bowling Green, Arkansas State, Austin Peay, Western Kentucky, Southern Alabama, Chattanooga, Western Carolina, and North Texas.
1. Week One — Houston vs. Oklahoma
Does it get any better than this non-conference affair to start the season? It might seem silly to mark this game as underrated, but there hasn’t been much talk about how great this game could be, and how much of a factor it could play in launching the first “Group of Five” team into the College Football Playoff.
For Tom Herman and Greg Ward, this is an opportunity of all opportunities. Houston could gain a huge strength-of-schedule boost against the defending champion of the conference it hopes to join in 2017. For Oklahoma, there is no benefit in beating Houston beyond building momentum for another top non-conference showdown with Ohio State in week three.
Herman’s legend as a head coach continues to grow every day: He continues to recruit, win, and call out rivals for being okay with winning just seven games a year. Can you imagine the ammunition the Houston ball coach would have in Texas if his school is the one to beat Oklahoma?
On the flip side, Oklahoma continues to prove over the last several years that it belongs in the top echelon of college football. Herman and company will have a tough time trying to stop the OU rushing attack, which is led by Samaje Perine, who has rushed for over 3,000 yards and scored 37 times in his first two seasons.
The Houston defense gave up just 3.18 yards per carry on the ground in 2015 and allowed just 109 rushing yards per game, the eighth-best total in the country last season.