There are plenty of games every year that are worth looking forward to in the college football season. Specifically, nonconference games can have a lot of hype to them. Here are the best nonconference games in college football in 2021.
10. Auburn Tigers at Penn State Nittany Lions (Sep 18)
Two teams with disappointing results from last season, but hope for this season will meet on the third Saturday of September.
Auburn has a new coach in Bryan Harsin, who will be coaching in his first big game against the Nittany Lions. He has an experienced quarterback in Bo Nix, who needs to show improvement this season. The Tigers also have one of the best talented running backs in college football in sophomore Tank Bigsby to go along with five returning starters along the offensive line. The defense has solid players at every level, including safety Smoke Monday.
The Nittany Lions decided to keep James Franklin despite the bad season in 2020. Quarterback Sean Clifford returns with eight other starters on their offense. Jahan Dotson will be able to make plays at the wide receiver position, especially with left tackle Rasheed Walker giving Clifford ample time to throw the ball. Six starters return on defense for Penn State with Joey Porter Jr. being a player to watch at the corner position.
This game features a big opportunity for improvement over last year for both teams and the crowd at Beaver Stadium will create a crazy atmosphere.
9. Cincinnati Bearcats at Indiana Hoosiers (Sep 18)
Two of the better teams from the 2020 season will meet up early in the 2021 season.
Cincinnati went undefeated during the regular season, but lost to Georgia in the Peach Bowl. They have plenty of returning talent including: Quarterback Desmond Ridder, tight end Josh Whyle, wide receiver Alec Pierce, edge rusher Myjai Sanders, cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and other corner Coby Bryant. All of those players have a chance to play on Sundays. The focus for this team will be high after not getting a chance at the College Football Playoff last season.
Last season, Indiana only lost to Ohio State in the regular season. They return 17 starters from that team. The Hoosiers will hope that Michael Penix is fully recovered from his torn ACL, which was the second injury like that of his career. If they get him going and have the defense that allowed just 20.2 points per game with nine starters returning play well, Indiana can create some more havoc in the Big Ten.
These teams may not have a lot of great football history, but they both will have high expectations going into the season.
8. Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs Wisconsin Badgers (Sep 25)
*Game at Soldier Field
These two teams were supposed to meet in 2020 at Lambeau Field, but now will meet in 2021. For two historic teams this will be a very physical game.
Notre Dame made the CFP last season, but so much of that team is gone. Quarterback Ian Book graduated and four offensive linemen moved on to the next level. The Fighting Irish do return seven defensive starters and will be led by do-it-all safety Kyle Hamilton. They’ll need their defense to keep them in games while their offense gets things figured out. To add to the intrigue of this game, quarterback Jack Coan may get snaps for the Fighting Irish after playing the last few seasons at Wisconsin.
The Badgers had a rough 2020 season, but are looking to improve in 2021. They return seven starters on offense and eight on defense. As always, Wisconsin will try to establish the run and win at the line of scrimmage. If that fails, Graham Mertz will need to make some big time throws.
With a lot of question marks for both of these teams, this game will be a good test.
7. USC Trojans at Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Oct 23)
A rivalry game that could have high stakes this year is always worthy of making this list.
USC lost just one game last season and it happened to be the Pac-12 Championship Game. They bring back 16 starters including quarterback Kedon Slovis. Slovis will be in charge of operating the air raid attack, while edge rusher Drake Jackson will wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. The Trojans will hope to play in the Pac-12 Championship again this season.
As mentioned, Notre Dame has a lot to figure out this season. The good news is that this game is at home and is later in the season, which will allow their players to get some experience. It will be interesting to see if Hamilton can make some big plays against Slovis to turn the tide of the game.
6. Iowa Hawkeys at Iowa State Cyclones (Sep 11)
The battle for the Cy-Hawk Trophy has just become better and better in recent years.
Iowa returns 13 starters from a team that won six straight to end the season in 2020. After quarterback Spencer Petras settled down, the team played much better at the end of the year. Running back Tyler Goodson can put defenders on skates and has big-play potential. The defense ranked sixth in the country last season and specifically brings back a lot of experience on the back end. They’ll be in the running for the Big Ten West this season.
The Cyclones have been a completely different program under Matt Campbell. Last season, they were able to go to the Fiesta Bowl and beat Oregon. With quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall and tight end Charlie Kolar back for another season, the offense could have a really big year. The defense was also solid last year and returns nine starters.
With both teams hoping to qualify for the respective conference championship games this season, this game could mean a lot more than it has in past years.
5. North Carolina Tar Heels at Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Oct 30)
Last year, Notre Dame was able to escape, but this year the game may have UNC as the favorites.
North Carolina has really risen to prominence under Mack Brown. They made the Orange Bowl last season and have plenty of talent they were able to tap into. Quarterback Sam Howell will hope to win some games and help his draft stock. He’ll be joined by seven other returning starters, including five players on the offensive line. Their defense was average last season, but they do return seven starters.
With 12 non-conference games to fill (with five taken up by ACC opponents), the Fighting Irish usually make a few appearances on these lists. Watching Hamilton go up against another good offense will be fun, but so too will be seeing how running back Kyren Williams plays. If he can be effective, the unsure quarterback situation will become a little easier for Notre Dame.
4. Cincinnati Bearcats at Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Oct 2)
Brian Kelly takes on his former team in this game. It is also the former team of Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.
As mentioned, the Bearcats will be looking to crash the CFP. In order to do so, they need to run the table. If they get past Indiana, they will have a bye week to prepare for the Fighting Irish. With a veteran-led team, Cincinnati should be able to prepare well for Notre Dame. Their defense could create problems for a young Notre Dame offense.
It may seem a little weird, but this could be a trap game for Notre Dame if they don’t take Cincinnati seriously. Why wouldn’t they be prepared for Cincinnati? They will play them the week after Wisconsin and the week before Virginia Tech. The Bearcats may be more focused in this one and if Notre Dame hasn’t found their quarterback by this game, this could very easily end up in a loss.
3. Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Miami Hurricanes (Sep 4)
For those that think Alabama has struggled against mobile quarterbacks in the past, this game might be one to take note of.
As usual, the Crimson Tide are expected to be one of the best teams in the country. They do have a lot to figure out though, mainly on the offensive side of the ball. Bryce Young will take over at quarterback. He’ll only have three returning starters to work with, including left tackle Evan Neal and wide receiver John Metchie, The offense will need to figure things out on the fly against Miami. Their defense has seven returning starters and should be one of the best in the country. Watching them go up against Miami’s offense will be a treat.
D’Eriq King is expected to be ready for the season-opener against Alabama. The dynamic dual-threat quarterback will have plenty of help on offense. Wide receiver Charleston Rambo and tight end Will Mallory are really good players and so too is left tackle Zion Nelson. They had an average defense last season and return five starters. Safety Bubba Bolden will be asked to make some big plays in this game to keep Miami competitive.
If anyone is going to challenge Clemson in the ACC other than North Carolina, it is Miami. This will be a good test for them.
2. Oregon Ducks at Ohio State Buckeyes (Sep 11)
The Buckeyes and Ducks have met in some big games in the past. It looks like this one could be another classic.
Oregon has 16 returning starters this year after they won the Pac-12 Championship in 2020. Their headlining player is edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, who is in the running to be the top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Besides him, Oregon has experience on all levels of the defense and offense as well. Five returning starters are back on the offensive line. Running backs C.J. Verdell and Travis Dye both showed flashes of being great ball-carriers, while the receivers are talented as well. The Ducks will have a new quarterback under center, whether that is Boston College transfer Anthony Brown or a freshman.
The Buckeyes only return 11 starters, but they are one of the very few programs who reload rather than rebuild. C.J. Stroud is expected to take over the quarterback position. He’ll have experienced playmakers to utilize in running back Master Teague, wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson and tight end Jeremy Ruckert. Three offensive linemen also return. The defense gave up some big plays in 2020, but they return five starters and have plenty of pro potential to work with.
The winner of the Ohio State-Oregon game will likely be one of the early frontrunners to make the CFP (other than Clemson and Alabama).
1. Clemson Tigers vs. Georgia Bulldogs (Sep 4)
*Game in Charlotte, North Carolina
Clemson’s biggest test will come early this season. Can Georgia pull off the upset?
The Tigers will have a new quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who filled in well for Trevor Lawrence last season. He is very talented and will have wide receiver Justyn Ross, along with an experienced offensive line in front of him. Their defense was top 20 in the country last season and brings back nine starters. The defensive unit will have to step up big, while Uiagalelei gets familiarized with his new playmakers.
Georgia is never short on talent. They return 11 starters, but have plenty of players who have had the chance to play over the last few seasons. The offense improved with the addition of quarterback J.T. Daniels to the starting lineup. Running back Zamir White will help, but the loss of George Pickens for the season at wide receiver will hurt. While the defense only returns four starters, they have some very good players. Defensive tackle Jordan Davis, Linebacker Nakobe Dean and safety Lewis Cine all look like they’ll have big years.
It will take a lot for Georgia to take down Clemson. If they can, the CFP might have a little bit of a different feel this season.
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