Ranking the top 15 non-conference college football games in 2021

·7-min read

We're less than a month away from the start of the college football season. 

Last year, many of the marquee non-conference games were wiped from the schedule because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Entering 2021, plenty of big-time matchups are back on the slate. 

Below are the 15 non-conference games we're most looking forward to, omitting the traditional rivalry games we see every year. 

(All odds via BetMGM. Odds not available for every game.)

15. Virginia Tech at West Virginia (Sept. 18)

This used to be a yearly affair, including when VT and WVU were members of the Big East. However, the two have faced off only once since 2005, and that was a neutral site game at an NFL stadium. This time, the Hokies will travel to Morgantown in an intriguing early-season matchup. While WVU seems to be trending in the right direction under Neal Brown, there are plenty of questions surrounding Justin Fuente’s job status in Blacksburg.

14. Louisiana at Texas (Sept. 4)

Texas better not overlook the Ragin’ Cajuns. The Steve Sarkisian era will kick off at home against Louisiana, a team that has a 21-4 record over the past two seasons. ULL went into Ames and beat Iowa State to open the 2020 season and it has every intention on doing the same to the Longhorns in Austin.

13. Nebraska at Oklahoma (Sept. 18)

These longtime rivals from their Big Eight and Big 12 days will reunite for the first time since 2010. Oklahoma is on its way out of the Big 12 to the SEC. Before that plays out, though, the Sooners have legitimate national title aspirations under Lincoln Riley. Nebraska, 12-20 in three years under Scott Frost, would just like to play in a bowl game. This game might not be close, but it will at least be nostalgic to see these two back on the field together.

Point spread: Oklahoma -19.5

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 30: Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Spencer Rattler (7) passes during the Goodyear Cotton Bowl between Florida and Oklahoma on December 30, 2020 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. (Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler threw for 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2020. (Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

12. Boise State at UCF (Sept. 2)

There are a few fun matchups on the Thursday of Week 1, but this is the best one. It’s two of the top G5 programs in the country in a primetime environment making their debuts with new head coaches. For UCF, it’s Gus Malzahn taking over after his time at Auburn. For Boise State, it’s Andy Avalos returning to his alma mater following Bryan Harsin’s departure to, coincidentally, Auburn. This will be a fun one.

Point spread: UCF -3.5

11. Cincinnati at Indiana (Sept. 18)

These programs were two of the bigger stories in college football last year. Cincinnati went undefeated (before losing to Georgia in the Peach Bowl), but was kept well on the outside looking in for College Football Playoff consideration. Indiana, meanwhile, was one of the better teams in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers upset Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin and took Ohio State to the wire. Can IU replicate that success in 2021?

10. LSU at UCLA (Sept. 4)

Following an unbelievable run in 2019, LSU fell back down to earth in 2020. And it fell hard, finishing 5-5. The Tigers open 2021 by traveling cross-country to Los Angeles to face a UCLA program that seems to be finally showing signs of life under Chip Kelly. The Bruins went 3-4 last year, but those four losses came by a combined 15 points.

Point spread: LSU -4.5

9. Oklahoma State at Boise State (Sept. 18)

Boise State hasn’t hosted a Power Five opponent on the blue turf since Virginia visited in 2017. The Broncos lost that matchup, but Boise typically handles itself quite well in these matchups. BSU beat Washington State in 2016, Washington in 2015, Oregon State in 2010 and Oregon in 2009. Though the two teams faced off in 2018, Oklahoma State will actually become the first (and maybe the last depending upon this next batch of realignment) Big 12 member to make the trip to Boise.

8. Liberty at Ole Miss (Nov. 6)

Hugh Freeze is set to make his triumphant return to Oxford. Freeze’s tenure at Ole Miss went up in flames, but he has resurfaced at Liberty and has an 18-6 record in two years. The Flames went 10-1 last year, and should present quite a test for the Rebels, who are feeling good entering Year 2 under Lane Kiffin. This game also presents an exciting QB matchup: Liberty’s Malik Willis vs. Ole Miss’ Matt Corral.

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 21: Head coach Hugh Freeze of the Liberty Flames celebrates with his team after defeating the Georgia Southern Eagles in the 2019 Cure Bowl at Exploria Stadium on December 21, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)
Hugh Freeze was the head coach at Ole Miss for five seasons before landing at Liberty. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

7. Auburn at Penn State (Sept. 18)

It’s always fun to see a prominent program from another conference play in an environment like Beaver Stadium. It’s a transition year for Auburn with new coach Bryan Harsin, and this will be his first test as Tigers head coach. Penn State is coming off a disappointing 2020 season but still boasts one of the Big Ten’s most-talented rosters. This should be a fun one.

Point spread: Penn State -7.5

6. Cincinnati at Notre Dame (Oct. 2)

This is a tremendous opportunity for Cincinnati. The Bearcats went undefeated in the regular season and won the AAC last fall, but were down at No. 8 when the final CFP rankings came out. It will almost certainly take expansion for a Group of Five team to reach the playoff, but trips to both Indiana and Notre Dame will provide Cincy with potentially excellent resume boosts.

Point spread: Notre Dame -3.5

5. Alabama vs. Miami (Sept. 4)

Fresh off an undefeated, national championship season, Alabama opens 2021 in Atlanta against Miami. The game will mark the first career start for Bryce Young while the Hurricanes counter with D’Eriq King, who is returning from a knee injury suffered in last year’s bowl game. Alabama typically cruises in these early-season neutral site games, but perhaps Miami will put up a legitimate fight.

Point spread: Alabama -17.5

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 01: Bryce Young #9 of the Alabama Crimson Tide warms up before the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl football game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at AT&T Stadium on January 01, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. The Alabama Crimson Tide defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 31-14. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
Bryce Young is entering his first season as Alabama's starting quarterback. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

4. Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin (Sept. 25)

Here’s a game that could have an old-school, smash-mouth feel to it. The fact that it’s being played at Soldier Field in Chicago only adds to that feeling. Another added element in this matchup is Jack Coan. Coan was the starter at Wisconsin, but missed 2020 due to a foot injury. That opened the door for Graham Mertz to take the reins for the Badgers and ultimately led to Coan’s transfer. He landed at Notre Dame, where he is considered the frontrunner to pick up where Ian Book left off.

Point spread: Wisconsin -1.5

3. Washington at Michigan (Sept. 11)

Michigan gets a big test early in its seventh season under Jim Harbaugh. Things were rough for the Wolverines last year, but an early season win in a marquee matchup would be a positive development for a program that could use a jolt of energy. Washington, meanwhile, is entering its second season under Jimmy Lake. There’s a lot of talent on the UW roster, especially on defense, and the Huskies are one of the favorites to win the Pac-12.

Point spread: Michigan -1.5

2. Oregon at Ohio State (Sept. 11)

Mario Cristobal has been stockpiling talent at Oregon, and now he’ll have the chance to showcase that talent on a huge stage in Columbus against the mighty Buckeyes. Oregon is the current betting favorite in the Pac-12 and Ohio State has won four consecutive Big Ten titles. The biggest question surrounding OSU is the QB battle. With No. 1 recruit Quinn Ewers skipping his senior year of high school, there are now four contenders for the job with C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller generally considered the frontrunners.

Point spread: Ohio State -10

1. Georgia vs. Clemson (Sept. 4)

Two national title contenders facing off in Week 1? Yes, please. With Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne off to the NFL, Clemson is working in some new faces on offense, including QB D.J. Uiagalelei. Uiagalelei got a brief taste of the spotlight last year against Notre Dame, but now he’s got the reins of the Tigers offense. On the Georgia side, JT Daniels’ presence really helped open up what has long been an uninspiring offense. Will we see that from the start in 2021?

Point spread: Clemson -4

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