Conference rivalry games definitely have a special aura around them, but there is always something invigorating about two unfamiliar top teams butting heads in the regular season. With an unbelievable lineup of non-conference games on the docket for the 2016 season, here are 10 that you will want to make sure your attention is turned to.
Note: Rankings reflect the USA TODAY preseason coaches poll
No. 3 Oklahoma at No. 13 Houston, Sept. 3 at 12 p.m. ET
No. 6 LSU vs. Wisconsin, Sept. 3 at 3:30 p.m. ET (Green Bay, Wisconsin)
Wisconsin fell just short of the top 25 in the preseason coaches poll, but don’t sleep on the Badgers to put up a good fight against LSU. The game is technically in a neutral site at Lambeau Field, but it’s pretty obvious that it will still be a home crowd for the Badgers, who make their home only about 1,000 miles closer to Green Bay than the Tigers’ turf in Baton Rouge. Wisconsin has lost its season-opening neutral-site game against the SEC each of the last two years (LSU in 2014, Alabama in 2015), but fought hard in both. Plus, hey, Leonard Fournette will be carrying the ball against last year’s fourth-best rushing defense.
No. 16 Georgia vs. No. 20 North Carolina, Sept. 3 at 5:30 p.m. ET (Atlanta)
This game might be a little under the radar amid the bevy of other intriguing Week 1 matchups, but don’t sleep on it. It should be a fun matchup of offense vs. defense, with North Carolina’s No. 9 offense in 2015 squaring off with the Bulldogs’ No. 8 defense. Like the LSU-Wisconsin matchup, the neutral site of the Georgia Dome should certainly lean heavily one way, but expect a good number of fans to make the six-hour drive from Chapel Hill to Atlanta, as well.
No. 17 USC vs. No. 1 Alabama, Sept. 3 at 8 p.m. ET (Arlington, Texas)
If there’s one contest to pick out as the “game of the week” of the opening Saturday, this is it, with Alabama beginning its quest to defend its national championship against a resurgent Trojan program. Clay Helton gets quite an assignment in his first game as USC’s head coach, but it is a Crimson Tide squad that is working in a lot of new talent (albeit some extremely talented talent). It also doesn’t help Helton that a starting quarterback still hasn’t been named, though it seems likely that redshirt junior Max Browne will get the nod.
No. 12 Mississippi vs. No. 4 Florida State, Sept. 5 at 8 p.m. ET (Orlando, Florida)
Rounding out the first week is a Labor Day Monday matchup between two well-balanced squads. After facing much criticism for having a soft non-conference schedule last season, the Seminoles waste no time taking on a big challenge in the Citrus Bowl. The deciding factor of this game might be to watch how Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly fares against a very good Florida State secondary.
No. 10 Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech, Sept. 10 at 8 p.m. ET (Bristol, Tennessee)
In a much quieter Week 2, this matchup stands out as the only one you will want to make sure you’re tuned in to. On paper, it’s not quite a marquee contest, but there is one good reason you will want to tune in — or, rather, around 150,000 reasons. This game, which will be played at the Bristol Motor Speedway, is expected to shatter the single-game attendance record of 115,109 at Michigan Stadium. That alone, plus the novelty of a game being played at a motor track, will make this game one that will be worth the watch.
No. 11 Michigan State at No. 9 Notre Dame, Sept. 17 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Things pick back up in a huge way the following Saturday night with a couple of games featuring top Big Ten teams looking to make a major statement for the conference against a top 10 foe. The Spartans impressed a lot of people last year with an early-season victory against then-No. 7 Oregon, and they will look to do the same against a Fighting Irish team that feels like it is finally in position to reclaim its past glory. Interestingly enough, both teams have tight ongoing quarterback battles as they head into the season.
No. 5 Ohio State at No. 3 Oklahoma, Sept. 17 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Then, simultaneously, this monster of a game will be happening. It’s the first of a home-and-home series between the two programs that haven’t met since 1983. Baker Mayfield vs. J.T. Barrett. Oklahoma’s top-notch offense against Ohio State’s top-notch defense. The Buckeyes, despite having only six returning starters, believe they can be a College Football Playoff contender, and this game should be a major blow to the hopes of the loser, and an elevation near the top of the polls for the winner.
No. 7 Stanford at No. 9 Notre Dame, Oct. 15 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Conference play really gets rolling in Weeks 4 and 5, leaving only a handful of intriguing non-conference games later in the season. Of course, when you’re Notre Dame and aren’t part of a conference, every game is a non-conference one. The Fighting Irish cannot be accused of having a weak schedule, as they play their annual matchup with Stanford. Last season’s edition, if you recall, was an absolute classic, with Kevin Hogan leading the Cardinal down the field to set up a time-expiring field goal just 30 seconds after Notre Dame’s 88-yard drive took the lead. The teams have traded wins and losses since 2012, leaving this year’s game as Notre Dame’s turn to answer.
No. 9 Notre Dame at No. 17 USC, Nov. 26 (Time TBD)
Finally, the list comes to an end with the last week of the regular season and another Notre Dame vs. Pac-12 matchup. It’s hard to say where exactly these teams will be by late November, but this game could have some big ramifications, possibly even affecting one of the team’s hopes of landing a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. The recent games in this series haven’t been quite as entertaining as those of Notre Dame-Stanford, but it should still be fun, and it will be interesting to see where Helton can take his squad.