Ranking the top 20 non-conference college football games in 2020

Sam Cooper
·10 min read

Believe it or not, we are currently less than two months away from the scheduled start of the college football season. There is, of course, the very real possibility the games could get delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look ahead to some of the very best games on the early-season slate.

Here are the top 20 non-conference games we’re looking forward to.

20. Miami at Michigan State (Sept. 26)

Miami lost a bunch of close games in a rocky first season with Manny Diaz as head coach. Quarterback play has been a lingering issue for the Hurricanes, and Diaz hopes Houston transfer D’Eriq King will be a big upgrade. Miami’s first road test of 2020 will be a trip to Michigan State, which is entering Year 1 under Mel Tucker, who takes over for the retired Mark Dantonio.

19. TCU at Cal (Sept. 5)

Not only will this game be a rematch of the infamous 2018 Cheez-It Bowl, it could be an early-season look at two under-the-radar contenders in their respective conferences. TCU is coming off a rare losing season, but should finally have some stability at QB with sophomore Max Duggan. Cal has a third-year starter at QB in Chase Garbers. The Golden Bears were 7-0 in games in which Garbers played more than a half. When he was out with injuries, Cal was a much different team. He’s one of the more underrated players in the country.

18. Memphis at Purdue (Sept. 12)

Memphis was the top Group of Five team in the country last fall and returns an abundance of skill on offense, including running back Kenneth Gainwell and receiver Damonte Coxie. That skill will be matched on the other side by Purdue’s two star wideouts: Rondale Moore and David Bell. Week 2 has some really strong matchups, but this one could end up being one of the more entertaining ones.

17. West Virginia vs. Florida State (Sept. 5)

This year’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff game in Atlanta features two programs with young coaches aiming to move up the ranks in their respective conferences. This game will mark the debut of Mike Norvell at FSU, which is coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since the 1970s. On the other side, West Virginia is entering Year 2 under Neal Brown after going 5-7 in 2019.

16. Baylor vs. Ole Miss (Sun, Sept. 6)

Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss debut will come in the spotlight via a prime-time Sunday night game against Baylor at NRG Stadium in Houston. Baylor, coming off a Big 12 runner-up season in 2019, also has a first-year coach with Dave Aranda. Aranda, who won a national title as LSU’s defensive coordinator, replaces Matt Rhule, who left Waco for the Carolina Panthers.

Lane Kiffin responds to reporters questions at a news conference, after being introduced to Mississippi fans as their new NCAA college football coach, at The Pavilion, a multipurpose arena on the campus in Oxford, Miss., Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. Kiffin was previously, the football coach for three years at Florida Atlantic. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Lane Kiffin is entering his first season as head coach at Ole Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

15. Cincinnati at Nebraska (Sept. 26)

Luke Fickell has quickly built Cincinnati into one of the best Group of Five programs in the country. The Bearcats knocked off UCLA the last two seasons, and will get the chance to beat another Power Five team when they travel to Nebraska. Nebraska is just 9-15 in two seasons under Scott Frost. Cincinnati will provide a tough early-season test for the Huskers.

14. Appalachian State at Wisconsin (Sept. 19)

App State is on to its third head coach in three seasons, but don’t expect it to drop down from the elite tier of Group of Five programs. The first month of Shawn Clark’s head-coaching tenure includes back-to-back road trips to play Power Five opponents — first Wake Forest and then a Sept. 19 trip to Camp Randall Stadium to play Wisconsin. App State took Penn State to OT two years ago and beat North Carolina last year. The Badgers better be ready to play.

13. Florida State at Boise State (Sept. 19)

Florida State is heading across the country to play on Boise State’s famous blue turf for the first time. It will be the second part of a home-and-home series for the two programs. Last fall, Boise overcame a 31-13 deficit en route to a 36-31 upset victory in Tallahassee — a game that marked the beginning of the end for Willie Taggart at FSU.

Florida State defense tries to block a field goal by Boise State place kicker Eric Sachse, right, in second the half of an NCAA college football game in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. Boise State defeated Florida State 36-31. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)
Florida State lost to Boise State 36-31 last season. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)

12. Virginia vs. Georgia (Mon, Sept. 7)

As has become somewhat of a tradition, Week 1 will extend to Labor Day — this year with Virginia and Georgia kicking off in Atlanta. This will mark the debut of what is expected to be a revamped offense for the Bulldogs with Todd Monken in place as offensive coordinator. It will also mark the debut of new UGA quarterback Jamie Newman, a hyped transfer from Wake Forest. Virginia loses Bryce Perkins, one of the sport’s more unheralded stars of the past few seasons, but will likely replace him at QB with Keytaon Thompson, an exciting graduate transfer from Mississippi State.

11. North Dakota State at Oregon (Sept. 5)

The most dominant FCS program traveling to Autzen Stadium to face Oregon? Yes, please. North Dakota State has won a ridiculous eight of the last nine FCS national titles and will present a tricky opener for Oregon, a team with College Football Playoff aspirations that will be breaking in a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator in Joe Moorhead.

10. North Carolina at UCF (Fri, Sept. 4)

The North Carolina hype is real and our first look at the 2020 Tar Heels will come on the road at UCF. Mack Brown started his second stint in Chapel Hill by landing a stud quarterback in Sam Howell and now he is recruiting at an impressively high level. Will it translate onto the field? UCF is a combined 22-4 in its first two seasons under Josh Heupel and is expected to be one of the better Group of Five programs in the country yet again.

9. Penn State at Virginia Tech (Sept. 12)

Penn State has won 11 games in three of its last four seasons, but has yet to reach the College Football Playoff under James Franklin. A trip to Blacksburg will present a tough early-season test for the Nittany Lions — and a potential résumé booster. Virginia Tech, now in its fifth season under Justin Fuente, is looking to get back to the top of the ACC Coastal after consecutive up-and-down years.

8. Auburn vs. North Carolina (Sept. 12)

While UNC will be tested by UCF in Week 1, Auburn gets a tune-up game against FCS Alcorn State before facing the Tar Heels in Atlanta. While North Carolina will get the chance to showcase itself on a big stage, Auburn will get to show the ascendance of Bo Nix in what will surely be another pressure-filled season for Gus Malzahn.

7. Michigan at Washington (Sept. 5)

Jim Harbaugh opens his sixth season at Michigan with a cross-country road trip to Washington, and will have to break in a new quarterback in the process. UW will have a new starting quarterback, too. And it will also be the head-coaching debut of Jimmy Lake, who is sliding into the main chair following six seasons as an assistant under the now-retired Chris Petersen.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, center, prepares to lead his team on to the Michigan Stadium field before an NCAA college football game against Michigan State in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, center, prepares to lead his team on to the Michigan Stadium field against Michigan State in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Nov. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

6. Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame (Oct. 3)

Wisconsin has a tough early-season stretch (Indiana, App State, Michigan, Minnesota) that includes a showdown against Notre Dame at Lambeau Field, the historic home of the Green Bay Packers. Wisconsin, which has to replace star running back Jonathan Taylor, upset LSU at Lambeau in 2016 and will look for another marquee victory in Green Bay, this time against the Irish. These two programs have not played each other since 1964.

5. Tennessee at Oklahoma (Sept. 12)

After some rocky moments, Tennessee appears to be trending upwards entering Year 3 under Jeremy Pruitt. Is contending for an SEC East title realistic? An early-season showdown against Oklahoma will provide quite a litmus test for the Vols. For Oklahoma, this game will be the first prime-time moment for new starter Spencer Rattler, who has big shoes to fill at quarterback following in the footsteps of Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts.

4. Clemson at Notre Dame (Nov. 7)

Clemson will make just its second trip to South Bend (the first was back in 1979) when it takes on Notre Dame in early November. The Tigers trounced the Irish in the College Football Playoff two years ago, and this is a Week 10 matchup that could have CFP implications. Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne are two of college football’s biggest stars, but this also has the looks of one of the deepest Notre Dame teams in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence looks for a receiver during the first half of the team's Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football playoff semifinal against Ohio State on Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Trevor Lawrence is back at Clemson for his junior season. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

3. USC vs. Alabama (Sept. 5)

We’ll get our first glimpse of the post-Tua era for Alabama against USC at AT&T Stadium in Texas. Will it be Mac Jones returning at quarterback for the Tide, or will it be heralded true freshman Bryce Young? On the other side, USC made some big strides on offense last fall with Kedon Slovis running Graham Harrell’s system. But can the Trojans finally re-emerge as one of the better programs in the country? Facing Alabama will let us know what kind of team Clay Helton has in 2020.

2. Texas at LSU (Sept. 12)

The 2019 LSU-Texas game in Austin was one of the most entertaining games of the year and proved to be a sign of things to come for Joe Burrow and the high-flying Tigers offense. This year, it will be Texas traveling to Baton Rouge for the return trip. While the defending national champions will be plugging in some new players (including a new starting QB), Texas returns 16 starters and has a senior at quarterback in Sam Ehlinger. Will 2020 be the year Tom Herman’s program breaks through?

1. Ohio State at Oregon (Sept. 12)

Ryan Day will take his mighty Buckeyes across the country to Autzen Stadium for a game between two likely preseason top 10 teams that could have College Football Playoff implications. Ohio State and Oregon are considered favorites in their respective conferences, so whoever wins gets a nice early-season résumé boost. OSU star QB Justin Fields gets a tough matchup against Oregon’s stalwart defense, while the Ducks will be working in a new starting QB operating in what should be an exciting upgrade in the offensive system with Joe Moorhead as coordinator.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields (1) during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game against Clemson, Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri).
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields (1) during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl against Clemson on Dec. 28, 2019, in Glendale, Arizona. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri).

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