The top 20 non-conference college football games to look forward to in 2017

Florida State QB Deondre Francois is the best returning quarterback in the ACC. (Getty)
Florida State QB Deondre Francois is the best returning quarterback in the ACC. (Getty)

With July around the corner, college football media days are almost here. And media days serve as the unofficial kickoff to the season. The offseason is almost over!

To help pass the time until the football season gets going on Aug. 26, we’re looking at the top 20 non-conference games of the 2017 season. But there’s a caveat to this list. We didn’t include rivalry games. We wanted to focus on games that aren’t likely to happen again for a while or those that don’t happen every year that have a level of intrigue to them.

Let’s go.

20. Western Michigan at USC – Sept. 2 (Week 1): Western Michigan’s first game following the departure of P.J. Fleck is a doozy. Even with Fleck and (what seemed like) 100-game starting QB Zach Terrell out of the picture, WMU, now coached by Tim Lester, is still one of the most-talented teams in the MAC (Joe Flacco’s brother is the QB now!). But Lester’s first test is against USC and Heisman contender Sam Darnold. We’re willing to bet the Broncos won’t have repeat undefeated seasons.

Lane Kiffin is back as a head coach for the first time since 2013. (Getty)
Lane Kiffin is back as a head coach for the first time since 2013. (Getty)

19. Navy at Florida Atlantic – Friday, Sept. 1 (Week 1): New Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin has a pretty stiff test in his first game as a head coach since he was fired at USC. Kiffin has a lot of pieces to work with on offense, but he may be looking for a new No. 1 wide receiver after Kalib Woods’ arrest on assault charges. Navy meanwhile will have Zach Abey back at quarterback with a full offseason of practices under his belt. Abey got thrust into the starting lineup at the end of the season in 2016 after Will Worth’s knee injury.

18. Baylor at Duke – Sept. 16 (Week 3): Matt Rhule’s tenure will begin with Baylor’s usual cupcake opponents (sorry, Liberty and UTSA), but BU’s Week 3 trip to Duke will be the program’s first regular season non-conference game against a Power 5 opponent since it opened up at Wake Forest in 2009. After an offseason that gave the program *some* stability, the Duke game will be the country’s first look at the new-look Bears against some good competition. On the other side, Duke is looking to rebound after an injury-riddled four-win season. The Blue Devils played in bowl games the previous four years.

[More college football from Yahoo Sports: Dr. Saturday’s top 20 games of 2016]

17. Ole Miss at Cal – Sept. 16 (Week 3): The Rebels aren’t going to a bowl game at the end of 2017 because of self-imposed sanctions. But the Week 3 road trip will go a long way to figuring out if that bowl ban is a moot point or an actual punishment. For the Bears, it’s the first big game of new coach Justin Wilcox’s tenure. Unless Wilcox works immediate wonders with the Cal defense, this game could be a shootout.

South Florida will be without Willie Taggart after his move to Oregon. (Getty)
New Oregon coach Willie Taggart spent the past four seasons at South Florida. (Getty)

16. Nebraska at Oregon – Sept. 9 (Week 2): This is a big one for two teams looking to climb the standings in their respective conferences. For Oregon, it’s the first test for the team and new coach Willie Taggart, who hopes to execute a quick turnaround for the Ducks following a disastrous 4-8 record in 2016. Meanwhile, year two under Mike Riley for the Huskers resulted in the Bo Pelini special: 9-4. A Week 2 win at Autzen Stadium could set the tone for the Huskers’ 2017 campaign and be a huge confidence booster for QB Tanner Lee, a Tulane transfer.

15. NC State vs. South Carolina (in Charlotte) – Sept. 2 (Week 1): Both the Wolfpack and Gamecocks went to bowls in 2016 and are likely to do so again in 2017. But South Carolina’s bowl hopes could hinge on this opening-week matchup. With Clemson on the schedule, the Gamecocks could easily go 2-2 in the non-conference with a loss to NC State. That would mean a 4-4 SEC record would be necessary to get to a postseason game.

14. Wyoming at Iowa – Sept. 2 (Week 1): Folks who pay attention to the NFL Draft know the name Josh Allen. If you’re unfamiliar, this will be your first glimpse at the Wyoming quarterback, who is slated by some to be the top quarterback prospect in the nation. He led the Cowboys to a division title last year and will play a Big Ten West opponent on the road for the second year in a row. Last year didn’t go so well as Allen threw five interceptions in a 52-17 loss at Nebraska. He’ll hope to fare better against an Iowa defense with a stud at linebacker in Josey Jewell.

Can TCU QB Kenny Hill bounce back in 2017? (Getty)
Can TCU QB Kenny Hill bounce back in 2017? (Getty)

13. TCU at Arkansas – Sept. 9 (Week 2): The 2016 version of this game made our top 20 games of last season. And with good reason. But last year’s game was an early-season appetizer for a main course that was largely unfulfilling for both teams. TCU needs some serious improvement on offense in 2017 while Arkansas has to fix a rushing defense that was gashed by SEC West foes last season.

12. BYU vs. LSU (in Houston) – Sept. 2 (Week 1): LSU gets to debut its shiny, new offense on a national stage against what should be another solid BYU team. Ed Orgeron is now running the show in Baton Rouge and swiped Matt Canada from Pitt to be his offensive coordinator. Things should be a bit more dynamic than the Les Miles/Cam Cameron years even though quarterback isn’t exactly a position of strength. But hey, at least there’s Derrius Guice! Good luck with this, Cougars:

11. Boise State at Washington State – Sept. 9 (Week 2): Boise State beat the Cougars in 2016 as Washington State got off to an 0-2 start. Things turned around from there as Wazzu had a chance to play in the Pac-12 title game the last week of the season. Both teams return their very good quarterbacks in Luke Falk (WSU) and Brett Rypien. But each quarterback will be looking for new playmakers.

Mason Rudolph and Oklahoma State may have the best offense in the country. (Getty)
Mason Rudolph and Oklahoma State may have the best offense in the country. (Getty)

10. Oklahoma State at Pittsburgh – Sept. 16 (Week 3): Oklahoma State is getting a lot of summer buzz as a potential sleeper candidate to make the College Football Playoff. The Cowboys’ trip north to Pittsburgh presents the biggest test of their non-conference slate. Last year, the teams played a ridiculous game in Stillwater, combining for 1,167 yards of offense in what ended up being a 45-38 Oklahoma State win. The Cowboys are loaded once again on offense and Pitt will likely roll out USC transfer Max Browne as its starting quarterback. Buckle up.

[More college football from Yahoo Sports: Dr. Saturday’s still-too-early Top 25]

9. Tennessee at Georgia Tech – Monday, Sept. 4 (Week 1): Did you know that both teams finished with identical 9-4 records in 2016? Each will have a new quarterback in Week 1 after the departures of Josh Dobbs (UT) and Justin Thomas (GT). A Georgia Tech win could increase pressure on Tennessee coach Butch Jones, who is searching for his third-straight nine-win season in a land of massive expectations.

8. West Virginia vs. Virginia Tech (Landover, Maryland) – Sunday, Sept. 3 (Week 1): Before Tennessee and Georgia Tech extend opening weekend into Monday night, this old Big East rivalry is one of two Sunday night contests. These two teams used to play a lot, but haven’t gone head-to-head since 2005. Not only is this a rekindling of a rivalry, it’ll be QB Will Grier’s first game at West Virginia and his first overall since Oct. 10, 2015 when he still played for Florida. Two days later, he was issued a one-year suspension.

Josh Rosen missed a large part of the 2016 season. (Getty)
Josh Rosen missed a large part of the 2016 season. (Getty)

7. Texas A&M at UCLA – Sunday, Sept. 3 (Week 1): The Bruins’ visit to College Station was a fun one in 2016 — though Texas A&M won. It was one of the few games where quarterback Josh Rosen was fully healthy in 2016 and we didn’t know the extent of the awfulness of UCLA’s run game so early in the season last year. As Rosen returns with a new offensive coordinator in 2017, Texas A&M has to replace quarterback Trevor Knight and looks for a No. 2 wide receiver behind Christian Kirk. Oh, and there’s that intrigue incited by A&M’s athletic director saying earlier this offseason that Aggie coach Kevin Sumlin has to win now. This one kicks off at the same time at Virginia Tech-West Virginia, 7:30 p.m. ET, so you’ll need to have a second screen handy.

6. Texas at USC – Sept. 16 (Week 3): What would get the “Texas is back!” hype train rolling more than a win over Pac-12 favorite USC? It certainly won’t be easy for Tom Herman and company. USC, with Sam Darnold at quarterback and a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, looks like it has a chance to be one of the top teams in the country. The Trojans are still riding the wave of their dramatic come-from-behind Rose Bowl victory over Penn State. That win was USC’s ninth straight after starting the year 1-3.

Texas is looking for Herman to execute a quick turnaround after back-to-back five-win seasons under Charlie Strong. Herman is inheriting a talented roster while doing everything he can to inject his own flavor on the program. He’s trying to give the Longhorns their swagger back. This game could really be a confidence booster.

Oh, and another cool aspect of this one? It’s the first time the Longhorns and Trojans square off since the classic 2006 BCS National Championship game.

5. Georgia at Notre Dame – Sept. 9 (Week 2): In case you missed it: Notre Dame went 4-8 in 2016. It was kind of astounding considering the team’s level of talent, but it happened. What would be better to rid the Irish of its 2016 stench than a big win over an upper echelon SEC team like Georgia? And for Georgia, which went 8-5 in Kirby Smart’s first year, playing — and succeeding — in a big environment like South Bend could be one heck of a confidence boost for the Bulldogs, led by second-year quarterback Jacob Eason.

RB Nick Chubb is back for his senior season at Georgia. (AP)
RB Nick Chubb is back for his senior season at Georgia. (AP)

4. Michigan vs. Florida (Arlington, Texas) – Sept. 2 (Week 1): The last time these two teams met was brutal. The Wolverines smashed the Gators 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl after the 2015 season. The sequel should be a lot better, especially with the addition of graduate transfer Malik Zaire to Florida’s offense. While Zaire didn’t light the world on fire at Notre Dame — and was unseated by Deshone Kizer — he’s the best quarterback option the Gators have had since Will Grier. And Florida was undefeated in 2015 until Grier got suspended.

3. Auburn at Clemson – Sept. 9 (Week 2): The defending national champions threw Auburn’s offense for a loop last year. The Tigers, in an apparent attempt to try to keep Clemson guessing, kept rotating quarterbacks in the hopes of finding a spark against a nasty Clemson defensive front. It didn’t work.

If his spring practice performance is any indication, Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham should be the undisputed starter for this game. Clemson, meanwhile, is the team searching for an heir apparent to Deshaun Watson. Whoever coach Dabo Swinney picks to start at QB among Kelly Bryant, Hunter Johnson and Zerrick Cooper won’t likely have to deal with a rotation anything like Auburn tried a year ago.

2. Oklahoma at Ohio State – Sept. 9 (Week 2): The Nos. 4 and 5 teams in our early Top 25 rankings square off in Columbus in a rematch of what ended up being a blowout last year. The Buckeyes marched into Norman and emerged with a convincing 45-24 victory. This year, with Lincoln Riley now running the show as head coach, the Sooners hope to return the favor in a game between two College Football Playoff contenders. The Sooners lost a lot on offense, but still have Heisman finalist Baker Mayfield leading the way at quarterback.

On the other side, Ohio State is looking to bounce back in a big way following an embarrassing showing against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. OSU was shut out in that one and have since added ex-Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator. Can he revamp J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes’ lackluster passing attack? This game against the Sooners could go a long way while also padding a CFP résumé.

Alabama QB Jalen Hurts will be working with his third offensive coordinator in three games in Week 1. (Getty)
Alabama QB Jalen Hurts will be working with his third offensive coordinator in three games in Week 1. (Getty)

1. Florida State vs. Alabama (Atlanta) – Sept. 2 (Week 1): This game has a legitimate chance to be the first College Football Playoff game that’s a regular-season rematch. And we probably have the CFP to thank for this game becoming a reality.

With four spots up for grabs in the playoff, teams don’t feel like they have to be undefeated at the end of the season to sniff a title shot. And with the way that the CFP committee evaluates strength of schedule, the loser of this game isn’t likely to take much of a rankings hit in October, even if the game is a blowout. Look at how USC rebounded in the rankings after losing big to the Tide a year ago and starting the season 1-2.

Each team is the favorite in its respective conference and both return their starting quarterbacks. Florida State’s Deondre Francois is the undisputed starter — and his team’s defense should be one of the best in the country — while Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts may not be that much ahead of freshman Tua Tagovailoa, even if he’s not in the middle of a quarterback competition.

Hurts should be a better passer in 2017 than he was a year ago and he’s working with new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who is installing some concepts from the New England Patriots at Alabama. We can’t wait for this game. And it should be a lot better than that Alabama-USC game that kicked off 2016.

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