17 nonconference games that could shape the 2019 Playoff race
Is your pulse back into double digits yet, Florida fans?
After the Week 0 tussle against Miami, the Gators, ranked No. 8 in the preseason Associated Press poll, salvaged a win and kept the SEC from getting a bit of egg on its face in the nonconference portion of the schedule.
It’s always fun to debate which conference is better than another and especially how the Power 5 leagues rate against each other. Of course last year we had to factor in Notre Dame, which ran the table until running into Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
This year, we don’t have a ton of great chances to see a Power 5 giant face another. But we have enough to whet the appetite and most of them come in the next few weeks.
Which nonconference games have the potential to shape the CFP race? Let’s take a look:
The stars align
Auburn vs. Oregon (Aug. 31, Arlington, Texas): Hey Tigers fans, how are you feeling? Justin Herbert is a preseason All-American candidate and perhaps the best quarterback you’ll face until the Iron Bowl. The Ducks return not only their highly regarded senior QB but pretty much their entire starting offense from last season. Of course Auburn returns a lot of talent on defense as well, so this one should be an entertaining opener.
Texas A&M at Clemson (Sept. 7): Last season’s meeting was the smallest winning margin for Clemson’s undefeated national title team (only in the thriller against Syracuse were the Tigers threatened again). The Aggies get another shot at making noise on the national scene before their SEC West gauntlet begins. Assuming A&M wallops Texas State in the opener, Jimbo Fisher’s bunch will be on a 5-game winning streak.
LSU at Texas (Sept. 7): This is the type of nonconference matchup America craves. Some programs that usually line up at least 1 good out-of-league foe each year failed to do so in 2019 (come on, Ohio State, you can’t do better than Cincinnati?), but LSU and Texas are stepping up. These programs share mutual recruiting ground, raising the stakes. The Longhorns return very little on defense; LSU returns most of its O-line.
Notre Dame at Georgia (Sept. 21): They met in South Bend in 2017, with the Bulldogs prevailing 20-19 in Jake Fromm’s 1st start. Now the Fighting Irish visit Athens more settled at quarterback than they have been in a while with Ian Book. Odd fact: These teams have only met twice; in 1980 the Dawgs clinched a national title by topping Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. Their next title game appearance was 2017 when beating the Irish again was a key step.
Notre Dame at Michigan (Oct. 26): This is the other matchup with the Fighting Irish facing a preseason Top 10 team in the AP poll. And both games are on the road. This on-again, off-again rivalry is off again for the near future after this season.
The Wolverines are at Wisconsin in Week 3 so don’t rule out the possibility that both teams will enter this game with 1 loss, meaning the loser would be done for in terms of the College Football Playoff.
You can throw out the record books
Pitt at Penn State (Sept. 14): This is another off-and-on rivalry; these in-state foes met annually from 1935-1992, but this year’s game marks the end of a 4-year agreement. PSU can’t afford a stumble this early, either for itself or for the Big Ten’s reputation.
USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 12): This is an old-school rivalry that still looks old school. The Fighting Irish have won 6 of the past 9 after losing 8 in a row to the Trojans from 2002-09. How hot will Clay Helton’s seat be by October?
Florida State at Florida (Nov. 30): If the Gators are ever going to slam the hammer down on the Seminoles and leave no doubt who is the king of the Sunshine State, it’s now. Willie Taggart’s program is in a bit of a mess and the Gators, sloppy opener against Miami aside, are on the rise. Florida hasn’t won 2 in a row since Tebow left.
Clemson at South Carolina (Nov. 30): At least Jake Bentley made this one interesting last year by passing for a school-record 510 yards against the Tigers. The bad news for the Gamecocks was that they still lost 56-35 at Clemson, which has won 5 in a row in this series.
Banana peel potential
Cincinnati at Ohio State (Sept. 7): The Big Ten rarely appears on this list. Blame the athletic directors who make the schedules, blame the 9-game conference schedule. Whatever. A league with no CFP appearance since 2016 gets very few chances to impress and no margin for error.
Army at Michigan (Sept. 7): See above. Michigan absolutely cannot afford to stumble and Army creates all sorts of opportunities to do so. It’s a cliche to suggest that Army is a very disciplined team, but it’s true, and the Black Knights are dangerous, too. Ask Oklahoma.
Washington at BYU (Sept. 21): Again, like the Big Ten, the Pac-12 has very few chances to impress (at least the Pac-12 has Oregon-Auburn to look forward to) and a lot of chances to become a punchline. The Huskies, conference champs in 2 of the past 3 seasons, have a tricky test in Provo.
Utah State at LSU (Oct. 5): Utah who??? We hear you, Tigers fans. Calm down, LSU will probably win and win by a decent margin. Probably. But Utah State is coming off on an 11-win season and is one of the better Group of 5 programs at the moment. Rather like Troy’s profile in 2017, no?
On the fringe but still interesting
Houston at Oklahoma (Sept. 1): Think this is a reach? The Cougars won this same matchup to open the 2016 season.
Much like its American Athletic Conference brethren UCF (see next entry), Houston has a chance to make a huge nonconference statement early.
Stanford at UCF (Sept. 14): Can Stanford make a run in the Pac-12? Don’t count out David Shaw’s bunch. But this is UCF’s chance to shine and represent the Group of 5, with a rare Power 5 team visiting Orlando. Admittedly, this likely affects the New Year’s 6 race more than the CFP.
Virginia Tech at Notre Dame (Nov. 2): The Hokies are looking to regain their spot near the top of the ACC after a 6-7 mark last year, their first losing season since 1992. If Notre Dame can get to this game undefeated, it will be in good shape to run the table. Unless ….
Notre Dame at Stanford (Nov. 30): …Yep, 1 more road test awaits the Fighting Irish in the season finale in Palo Alto. This rivalry has been sneaky fun — these programs have met in 22 consecutive seasons and 13 of those games have been settled by one score.