There are plenty of games every year that are worth looking forward to in the college football season. Conference games bring rivalries and high stakes at the end of the season. Here are the best conference games in college football in 2021.
10. UCF Knights at Cincinnati Bearcats (Oct. 16)
The two best teams (along with Memphis) in the AAC over the last several seasons are meeting up. If things play out well for the conference, this could be the biggest game in AAC history.
UCF has 14 returning starters from a team that went 6-4 last season. Dillon Gabriel will lead the offense again from the quarterback position. He is poised to put up big numbers, especially with the team returning five starters on the offensive line and Ryan O’Keefe and Jaylon Robinson at the wide receiver position. The offense ranked eighth in the country last season and should be able to do similarly this year. The defense was below average, but they bring back six starters on that side of the ball.
The Bearcats will have CFP hopes if they get to this point of the season undefeated. If they lose to Notre Dame or Indiana they may still be in play for a New Year’s Six Bowl slot after earning that honor for the group of five conference schools last year. Between quarterback Desmond Ridder, tight end Josh Whyle, edge rusher Myjai Sanders and cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, the team is loaded with future NFL players. Ridder and the offense ranked 17th in the country last season, while the defense ranked eighth. There is plenty of reason to believe that those numbers can be matched this season.
This will be Cincinnati’s biggest test of the season in their conference. A win could lead them to being the first group of five team to crash the CFP. A loss could lead them to missing out on even being in the New Year’s Six Bowl games.
9. Penn State Nittany Lions at Ohio State Buckeyes (Oct. 30)
Although Penn State had a rough season in 2020, there is reason to think that things could be better in 2021. They will be one of Ohio State’s toughest matchups.
For the Nittany Lions, they return nine starters on offense, including quarterback Sean Clifford. Clifford will need to be more consistent, but he will have some help with most of his top receivers back for this season, including star wideout Jahan Dotson. They were an average offense last year, but if they can stay healthy at the running back position, that could vastly improve. Their defense returns six starters and were also an average unit, ranking 55th in scoring last season.
Ohio State will have their eyes on competing to make another CFP appearance. They only return 11 starters, but the Buckeyes reload. Getting wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson back will be huge to help the new projected starter at quarterback C.J. Stroud. The offense ranked 11th last season and is only expected to take a slight dip without Justin Fields under center. On defense, the Buckeyes were decent overall in 2020, ranking 43rd in scoring, but did struggle giving up big plays. With three starters from the secondary back and some good experience back on the defensive line, that may not be as big of an issue in 2021.
If Penn State has bounced back, they could give Ohio State a good game like they have in past years.
8. Ohio State Buckeyes at Indiana Hoosiers (Oct. 23)
The other tough test on the Buckeyes schedule will be against the Indiana Hoosiers, a team they squeaked by last season.
Indiana took Ohio State to the wire in 2020 and if they were to beat Ohio State this would be the year to do it. The Buckeyes will be getting a new quarterback, which could create problems. The defense gave up big plays, so they’ll have to keep Indiana contained. Ohio State has a lot of talent, but they need to get some good experience early in the season.
For the Hoosiers, they’ll need quarterback Michael Penix back healthy. He has suffered a couple of knee injuries over his career, but should be back to full force by this game. With he and 16 other returning starters, both the offense and defense can be good. Penix will have five returning starters on the offensive line, and pass catchers Ty Fryfogle and Peyton Hendershot back to help out. The defense ranked 19th in scoring last season and with almost everyone back, could be improved.
While “The Game” will get a lot of hype for the Buckeyes, as it should, the bigger tests lie in other teams in the Big Ten this season.
7. Oklahoma Sooners at Oklahoma State Cowboys (Nov. 27)
One of the few true rivalries on this list is Bedlam. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State both could be playing for a lot this season.
The Sooners missed out on the CFP last season, but they bring back quarterback Spencer Rattler, who could end up winning the Heisman and being the no. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. He’ll have Marvin Mims, an excellent wide receiver to target, and three returning starters on the offensive line. They ranked sixth as a scoring offense last year and could improve on that. The defense ranked 29th as a scoring defense and return key players in nose tackle Perrion Winfrey, linebacker Nick Bonitto and safety Delarrin Turner-Yell.
Oklahoma State brings back just five starters on offense. This includes quarterback Spencer Sanders, who now has two years of experience under his belt. Three offensive linemen return and will have to help LD Brown, who is set to take over at running back. The defense ranked 34th last season, but they return eight starters, including several players at every level of the unit. An improvement would greatly help this team.
The last game of the season could produce some drama. Both teams are capable of being with no or few losses at this point of the season and this game could shake the national landscape up.
6. Miami Hurricanes at North Carolina Tar Heels (Oct. 16)
Who could challenge Clemson in the ACC? Miami and North Carolina are the favorites to do so. Neither plays Clemson in the regular season, but the winner of this could face them in the ACC Championship.
D’Eriq King coming back for another season of college football really boosts the Hurricanes. The record-setting dual-threat quarterback played well until suffering a knee-injury in the Cheez-It Bowl. He should be back by the start of the season and will have eight other starters back, including left tackle Zion Nelson and tight end Will Mallory. Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo, also brings experience to the offense at wide receiver. The defense ranked 57th in scoring and will be relying on star safety Bubba Bolden to lead the team this year.
This will be a quarterback matchup to watch, as Sam Howell already has plenty of first round buzz surrounding his name. He’ll have seven other returning starters, including five back on the offensive line. They’ll need new wide receivers to step up, but Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler will help out at the running back position. The Tar Heel defense ranked 65th in scoring, but return seven starters.
With Clemson not playing a tough conference schedule, this game will decide a lot for the ACC.
5. Oregon Ducks at Washington Huskies (Nov. 6)
Oregon and Washington have a good rivalry and this year the winner could go on to win the Pac-12.
The Ducks return nine starters on offense. Most importantly they bring back five offensive line starters and most of their production out of the backfield and at the wide receiver position. They’ll need Anthony Brown, the former Boston College Eagle, to be effective with both his feet and his arm. Defensively, they’ll have a premier pass rusher in Kayvon Thibodeaux, who can absolutely ruin games. There are six other starters back on defense from a unit that ranked 59th in the country.
Washington won three of their four games last season and will look to improve on that this season. Dylan Morris will be back at quarterback and will have his whole offensive line returning. Tight end Cade Otton will provide a nice mismatch, but other playmakers will need to step up. Five defenders return to the starting lineup, which mostly comes from their linebacking core and secondary.
The winner of this game may not only win the Pac-12, but may also sneak into the CFP.
4. Iowa State Cyclones at Oklahoma Sooners (Nov. 20)
In a rematch of last year’s Big 12 Championship Game, the Cyclones and Sooners are set for another big matchup.
The job that Matt Campbell has done at Iowa State can’t be understated. They were able to win the Fiesta Bowl last season and now should have their sights on competing for the CFP. Iowa State returns 18 starters from last year, including star offensive weapons in quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall and tight end Charlie Kolar. To go along with them, the offensive line is back from last year. The defense impressively ranked 25th in an offense-happy Big 12. With nine returning starters on that side of the ball, the Cyclones should improve.
As mentioned, Oklahoma will be looking to get back to the CFP behind the arm of Rattler. They have plenty of talent to get the job done, but two of their three toughest games of the season come in the last two weeks. They play Texas earlier in the year, as is tradition, but then they get Iowa State and Oklahoma State back to back, which could cause problems. The Sooners are more than capable of running the table or finishing the season with one loss, but things could be tough near the end of the year.
If things go like last season, Oklahoma and Iowa State could face each other twice in three weeks with a matchup in the Big 12 Championship.
3. Alabama Crimson Tide at Florida Gators (Sep. 18)
With a lot of talent turning over in Tuscaloosa, this may be a year that Alabama could drop a conference game and Florida poses an early challenge.
Alabama returns just three starters on the offensive side of the ball from their National Championship team. Two are on the offensive line, who will need new players to step up at the three other spots. John Metchie III is a great target and will have to help new starting quarterback Bryce Young. Young is a dual-threat who can bring some dynamic play to the Alabama offense that wasn’t there a year ago. While there is a lot to replace on the offensive side of the ball, the defense brings back seven returning starters. Between defensive lineman LaBryan Ray, linebacker Will Anderson, cornerback Josh Jobe and safety Jordan Battle, it feels like some of the players have been there forever. They were 13th in the country last season and may improve with so much returning experience.
Florida will bring back just nine starters from their team that made the Cotton Bowl last season. The good news is that three starters return on the offensive line. Dameon Pierce brings experience back at the running back position. At quarterback, Emory Jones got experience last season and will have to be good with his arm and legs to help the offense this season, as he’ll need to find new weapons to use. The defense has a few standouts in defensive ends Zachary Carter and Brenton Cox, linebacker Ventrell Miller and cornerback Kaiir Elam. The unit was average as a whole in 2020, but there is some serious talent to be utilized.
When Alabama is getting their quarterback some reps with new starters on offense, Florida may be able to make this a game.
2. Georgia Bulldogs vs. Florida Gators (Oct. 30)
The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is a great rivalry that will likely decide the SEC East again.
Georgia brings back 11 starters from a team that won the Peach Bowl last season. Quarterback JT Daniels really helped improve the offense when he was inserted into the lineup. He will have most of his offensive line back, but will be without George Pickens, who is out for the season with an injury. Running back Zamir White, wide receivers Jermaine Burton and Kearis Jackson and tight end Darnell Washington will all be huge factors at the skill positions. Only four defenders are back, but Georgia reloads on that side of the ball. Nose tackle Jordan Davis, linebacker Nakobe Dean and safety Lewis Cine will all make huge impacts. They ranked 16th in scoring defense and will need other players to step up to match that this season.
This game will likely be bigger for Florida than Georgia. The Gators may already be coming into this game with an SEC loss to Alabama. Up to this point of the season, Georgia’s biggest game will have been a nonconference clash with Clemson. With a young team, Florida may be up to speed enough at this point of the season to win the game and take a lead in the SEC East. Jones will need to have a huge day at quarterback for the Gators to come away with the win.
It seems like Florida and Georgia are always battling it out for the SEC East lead and this year looks no different.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide at Texas A&M Aggies (Oct. 9)
Alabama and Texas A&M have had some classic matchups in the past and their game this season may produce an instant classic.
The Crimson Tide will have played several games up to this point of the season and have some experience for their young players under their belt. Their defense will be tough on Texas A&M, but they’ll need Young to help move the offense, which could be tough on the road. It will be really tough for Alabama to run the table with road trips at Florida and Texas A&M, but the Crimson Tide have the talent and coaching to do so.
Texas A&M brings back a lot of talent from the 2020 squad. They return six starters on offense including star running back Isaiah Spiller and tight end Jalen Wydermyer. Their problem may come from having four new starters on the offensive line and a new quarterback under center. Haynes King is the frontrunner to take over at quarterback, but it won’t be easy filling in for four-year starter Kellen Mond. The defense can really take a step forward this season after ranking 28th last year. They return nine starters. Defensive end DeMarvin Leal has a chance to be very disruptive. They’ll need the defense to be at its best against Alabama.
Texas A&M has a lot of talent, but the question marks about the offensive line and quarterback may hold them back. If they can figure those things out before this game, they could take Alabama to the wire.
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