Sports, Thrill of Victory

College football’s 25 most intriguing out-of-conference games for 2014

College football kicks off in a week, and it’s highlighted by a number of great games involving teams from different conferences. There are also many of these games later in the year that will be worth watching, and after looking at the entire college football slate, I’ve selected my 25 most intriguing games that fall under that description.

What went into my selection? My primary criteria was that I was looking for a competitive game, but other things went into consideration. For instance, a rivalry game gets a bit of a boost in my rankings, and the timing of a particular game; opening games are particularly interesting, because it’s our first look at each team. There were also other things with certain match ups that caught my eye and rather than lay them out here, I’ll give those reasons when I discuss those particular games.

Anyway, here’s my top 25, in order from most- to least-intriguing.

    1. Michigan St, at Oregon, Sept. 6: Not only might this match the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions, but it’s also a chance to see what might be one of the nation’s top-five offenses (Oregon) against a top-five defense. It would be hard to get much more interesting than that.
    2. Auburn at Kansas St., Sept. 18: Nobody could stop coach Gus Malzahn’s offense last year, and it’ll be interesting to see, with an off-season to look at film and prepare, if opponents have better luck with Auburn this season. Auburn’s third game not only features a road trip to a Top-25 Kansas State team, but that bunch is also led by Bill Snyder, one of the best tacticians in college football history. This Thursday night tilt is one you don’t want to miss.
    3. LSU vs. Wisconsin, Aug. 30 in Houston: LSU lost a boatload of talent, but it seems we say that every year and coach Les Miles just keeps re-loading and turning the Tigers into a top-15 team, anyway. Speaking of sustained excellence, Wisconsin has averaged 9.6 wins over the last decade, and though the Badgers lost a huge chunk of their defense, they’re most people’s favorite to win the Big Ten West. Through in the fact that it’s the debut of LSU running back Leonard Fournette, the nation’s top-rated recruit, and this is another one you don’t want to miss.
    4. Clemson at Georgia, Aug. 30: Another opening-game special, we’ll get our first look at Georgia’s powerful offense under the guidance of first-time starter Hutson Mason at quarterback, and, of course, the return of a slew of offensive stars who were hurt for UGA a year ago. On the other side, Clemson lost most of its offense but it still has coordinator Chad Morris, one of the best in the land, which is why the Tigers are in most people’s top 20, anyway.
    5. South Carolina at Clemson, Nov. 29: Carolina’s unprecedented five-game winning streak in the series is on the line when the Gamecocks head to Death Valley in one of the country’s top rivalry games.
    6. UCLA vs. Texas, Sept. 13 in Arlington, Texas: In terms of competitive games, a number of contests on the list will top this one as some think Texas, which doesn’t seem to have typical Texas talent, could struggle in Year 1 of the Charlie Strong era. But Strong has gotten results as a head coach and he’s a defensive whiz, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Longhorns handle Heisman Trophy candidate Brett Hundley in front of what could be 100,000-plus fans at Jerry’s World.
    7. Stanford vs. Notre Dame, Oct. 4: We still don’t know what the toll on Notre Dame’s roster will be from the recent academic scandal, and this ranking assumes that most of the Irish’s key players will be participating by that point of the season. Even if not, this one could be a big hurdle for the Cardinal given that it’s on the road.
    8. Miami at Nebraska, Sept. 20: Admittedly, this game gets some bonus points because of the history of the schools more so than the state of the current teams. Even so, a sold-out Memorial Stadium will be rocking for what used to be an annual rivalry. The teams haven’t played since Miami beat the Cornhuskers for the 2001 national title.
    9. Notre Dame at Southern Cal, Nov. 29: Speaking of rivalries, here’s one that’s been played every year since 1926, excepting three seasons where the game wasn’t played during World War II. Both squads are preseason top 20 squads, to boot.
    10. Penn St. vs. Central Florida, Aug. 30 in Dublin, Ireland: Coach James Franklin makes his debut as Nittany Lions coach against a UCF squad that, if it can replace quarterback Blake Bortles, should good again.
    11. Louisville at Notre Dame, Nov. 22: The first game in history between the two teams should be a good one, as both teams could be ranked in the top 20 at this point of the year.
    12. Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 6: Another annual rivalry game, the last five meetings between these teams have been decided by a touchdown, on average. UM coach Brady Hoke could use a win here if he hopes to keep his job.
    13. Virginia Tech at Ohio St., Sept.  6: While Tech may have slipped a bit in recent years, one thing that coach Frank Beamer always knows how to do is field a good defense, and a low-scoring game would seem to make the possibility of an upset that much greater. With OSU’s Braxton Miller now out, this one gets a whole lot more interesting.
    14. Iowa at Pitt, Sept. 20: No Power Five team in the country may have an easier slate this year than Iowa, which could be 10-0 without breaking much of a sweat heading into a huge Nov. 22 home game with Wisconsin… that is, unless it gets tripped up in a road trip to the east against the Panthers, a team that should be Iowa’s toughest test until that point.
    15. Notre Dame at Arizona St.: The Fighting Irish’s defense should have its hands full with dual-threat quarterback Taylor Kelly, who gets lost in the shuffle of all those great Pac-12 players but is nonetheless one of America’s best at his position.
    16. Georgia Tech at Georgia: The Yellow Jackets are a bit of a mystery and certainly aren’t as good as Georgia, but any time you play a triple-option attack like Tech runs, that evens the scales a bit. Tech, which has been to 17-straight bowls, lost in double-overtime to the Bulldogs a year ago.
    17. North Carolina at Notre Dame, Oct. 11: Under quarterback Marquise Williams, the Tar Heels’ high-scoring offense should have the horses to push the Irish in South Bend.
    18. BYU at Texas, Sept. 6: BYU rushed for an astounding 550 yards in a 41-20 pounding of the Longhorns last year, something you can bet won’t happen again. How much the Longhorns can slow Taysom Hill, one of the nation’s best dual-threat quarterbacks, is up for debate, however.
East Carolina's Shane Carden

East Carolina’s Shane Carden

  1. North Carolina at East Carolina, Sept. 20: Yes, that’s right, the Tar Heels will be making that rare trip to ECU, which issued a 55-31 smack-down to UNC a year ago. If you like offense, you’ll love this game: the teams combined to average 74.9 points a game last season.
  2. Utah St. at Tennessee, Aug. 31: Vol fans are certainly excited about Butch Jones and the re-building job he’s doing, but there may be some speed bumps this year as UT is the only team in the country without a returning starter on the offensive or defensive lines. The Vols may also have some trouble with Aggie quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who has thrown 56 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions for his career and averages 4.6 yards per rush. Oh, and the Aggies have also won 20 games the last two seasons while giving up an average of just 16.3 points over that span.
  3. Central Florida at Missouri, Sept. 13: This could be the first real test for Missouri, which lost the bulk of its starters from a year ago but is ranked in the AP Top 25, anyway.
  4. Notre Dame at Florida St., Oct. 18: Outside of Notre Dame fans, I don’t know of anyone picking an upset here. However, this should be one of the three toughest regular-season challenges the Seminoles face in their march towards defending their national title.
  5. Boise St. vs. Ole Miss, Aug. 28 in Atlanta: This unusual Thursday-night game will be interesting for two reasons: Ole Miss hasn’t entered a season with this much hype in years, and it’ll be the debut game for Boise coach Bryan Harsin.
  6. Florida St. at Oklahoma St., Aug. 30, in Arlington, Texas: Here’s another game nobody expects the ‘Noles to lose, as OSU, having lost 28 seniors, won’t be as tough as it has been in recent years. But do the Cowboys have what it takes to make it interesting for a while? They’ll certainly have the home field advantage at Jerry’s World.
  7. Florida at Florida St., Nov. 29: Here’s yet-another game that nobody thinks FSU will lose, and it could get lopsided as I don’t think Florida’s going to be nearly as good as folks are supposing. But I might be wrong, and how can you leave one of the nation’s more epic rivalries off the list, anyway?