Bummed the 2020 season is over? These unique 2021 nonconference showdowns will get you fired up
Let me be the first say I’m sad that 2020 is over.
Obviously, I’m referring to the 2020 college football season. After the longest offseason we’ve ever had, the season flew by. Here’s hoping that happens in a less crazy 2021 offseason.
The good news is that the nonconference slate — remember that’s where 2 teams that aren’t in the same conference play football against each other — is stacked. Like, really stacked. Maybe it just feels especially good because when you don’t get nonconference football for an entire season, you miss it. A lot.
For those of you who watch “The Office,” my mood on nonconference games is like when Pam is pregnant and she’s been at home on maternity leave. When she gets invited to happy hour, she can’t contain her excitement. “Stanley is gonna be there?!”
Fear not, football friends. We’ve got these games to look forward to when nonconference play returns.
(I didn’t include any of the annual rivalry games like Florida-Florida State or Iowa-Iowa State because while those are worth looking forward to, those are a given in non-pandemic years. I also didn’t include Notre Dame against any regular opponent like USC or any ACC opponent.)
Sept. 4, 2021
The headliner — Georgia vs. Clemson in Charlotte
Also excellent — Alabama vs. Miami in Atlanta, LSU vs. Florida State in New Orleans, Ole Miss vs. Louisville in Atlanta, Boise State at UCF, Louisiana at Texas
My word, that opening weekend is stacked. We casually open the season with what could be a top-3 showdown reminiscent of the Florida State-Alabama opener in Atlanta in 2017. Georgia and Clemson will both be popular picks to win the national title with their former 5-star quarterbacks and battle-tested defenses. The only way that one would be any better would be if it were being played at one of those campuses.
That’s the theme of this opening weekend. This will be one of the last times in which we see so many quality neutral-site games to kick off the year.
The buzz of Alabama-Miami could depend largely on D’Eriq King’s return from a torn ACL. LSU and Florida State might not be a fair fight in Year 2 of the Mike Norvell era, but with all that the Tigers return on both sides of the ball, an opener in the Superdome will be must-see.
The 3 under-the-radar games will be Lane Kiffin’s Year 2 debut with a possible Top 25 Ole Miss team against Louisville in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Weekend, a huge Group of 5 showdown with Boise State and UCF and, of course, we get the debut of Steve Sarkisian at Texas. He’ll face a possible preseason Top 25 Louisiana squad led by fellow former Nick Saban disciple, Billy Napier. Ask Iowa State about opening with the Ragin’ Cajuns. That’s no gimme.
Sept. 11, 2021
The headliner — Oregon at Ohio State
Also excellent — Texas at Arkansas, Texas A&M at Colorado
So remember how COVID prevented us from getting Ohio State-Oregon in 2020? Fortunately for us, that’s what we’ll get in 2021. Granted, it won’t be with Justin Fields and a whole bunch of those key Buckeye contributors. Still, C.J. Stroud against Kayvon Thibodeaux, AKA the potential No. 1 overall pick in 2022, should be a juicy matchup. This could be a battle of top-15 teams in Week 2, which is never a bad thing.
Go figure that Sarkisian will have to wait a whole 2 weeks into 2021 before he makes his SEC return. He’ll go to a place where he coached in 2020, too. Arkansas got a ton of key senior returnees, including leading tackler Grant Morgan. The Hogs will be a popular pick to take another step in 2021. Facing arguably the best play-caller in the sport will be a fantastic chess match for Barry Odom and Co.
The team that Texas beat in the bowl game, Colorado, will face another team from the Lone Star state. The Aggies could start in the top 10, and against a Buffaloes team who actually cracked the Top 25 after a 4-0 start, it could be a better game than what preseason rankings will indicate. Despite what some said about A&M’s style of play in 2020, Jimbo Fisher’s squad is fun, especially if it has that 3-headed monster at tailback fully healthy for the start of 2021.
Sept. 18, 2021
The headliner — Cincinnati at Indiana
Also excellent — Auburn at Penn State, Oklahoma at Nebraska (Sept. 17), Oklahoma State at Boise State
Yeah, I said it. Cincinnati at Indiana is your headliner.
Both teams could easily start inside the top 15 after both finished there. Both return their starting quarterbacks, and even though both lost key defensive coordinators, they each have head coaches who were national coach of the year candidates. That’s a win. Michael Penix Jr. vs. Desmond Ridder is quietly one of the top quarterback matchups of the year, especially with Big Ten Receiver of the Year Ty Fryfogle returning for the Hoosiers.
The rest of the slate is excellent from coast-to-coast. The timing of Auburn-Penn State could’ve been better with the Tigers going through Year 1 with Bryan Harsin. Still, with Derek Mason on his sidelines trying to stop James Franklin’s offense (it’s really Mike Yurcich’s offense now), this will be a rematch of former Vanderbilt coaches. If that doesn’t make you want to tune in, nothing will!
The 2 teams from the Sooner State have intriguing road matchups that they can ill afford to lose. Spencer Rattler will be an even bigger household name by the time that rolls around. The former Big 8 rivals might not quite be squaring off in a 1970s clash of top-10 teams, but even a down Nebraska team still sells out Memorial Stadium and produces be a fantastic atmosphere. Boise State hosting a Power 5 team is always worth watching, even if 2021 isn’t a prototypical Boise State year in the post-Harsin era.
Sept. 25, 2021
The headliner — Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame in Chicago
Also excellent — Mizzou at Boston College
Because the Chicago Bears didn’t see into the future at the start of the 21st century and design a stadium with a retractable roof, we don’t get as many unique events at Soldier Field as we should. Consider that all the more reason to appreciate a true neutral site game between the Badgers and Irish. The plot thickened when Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan transferred to Notre Dame this offseason. Add in the fact that this could be a battle of top-15 teams and it wouldn’t be a surprise if College GameDay made a rare trip to the Windy City.
Mizzou-Boston College won’t turn any heads. I know. Both teams were halfway decent squads in 2020. But this is quietly a solid matchup between a pair of Year 2 coaches who specialize on different sides of the ball. Eli Drinkwitz and Jeff Hafley are both young coaches who surprised a lot of people with how they hung around with the conference’s best in Year 1. They could certainly be in the “better than the experts predict” category in 2021.
Oct. 2, 2021
The headliner — Cincinnati at Notre Dame
Also excellent — None
The Marcus Freeman Bowl!
Freeman spurned LSU and switched sidelines to join forces with Brian Kelly, who is ironically enough, a former Cincinnati coach. We’ve got paths intersecting and worlds colliding all over the place. There’s another reason why this game will be worth national viewing. If Cincinnati can get past a respected Indiana team in that aforementioned showdown in Bloomington, there’s going to be buzz about the Bearcats having the most favorable Playoff path of any Group of 5 team yet.
Think about it. Cincinnati, with Ridder back, seems likely to start ranked higher than any Group of 5 team in the Playoff era. Tom Herman’s 2016 Houston squad holds that title at No. 15 in the preseason Top 25. People forget that team beat No. 3 Oklahoma in the opener and was ranked No. 6 in the AP Top 25 after the first week of the season. Cincinnati could follow a similar path with a win against Indiana en route to an unbeaten September. That could make this a game of unbeaten top-10 teams with Playoff hopes on the line.
There will be a strong national push for the Bearcats to buck the system. Outside of South Bend, who wouldn’t want to see a Group of 5 team put together an unbeaten start worthy of a top-5 ranking in mid-October? Sign me up for that.
Nov. 6, 2021
The headliner — Liberty vs. Ole Miss
Also excellent — None
If Hugh Freeze’s Ole Miss reunion isn’t circled on your calendar, buddy, I don’t think we can be friends.