The 2020 NCAA College Football season was a hectic, crazy, and ultimately anti-climactic thrill ride. While it was nice to have football back in any form, the absence of non-conference matchups due to the COVID-19 pandemic was one of the biggest disappointments of the CFB schedule.
Luckily, this year should (hopefully) give us some highly anticipated matchups we didn't get a chance to see in 2020. After a year-long debate over conference favoritism and where the sport's power truly lies, these games should go a long way in crowning next year's national champion. Here are GMTM's seven best non- conference matchups to watch in 2021.
*All rankings and statistics courtesy of College Football at Sports Reference.com
Alabama vs. Miami - September 4, 2021 in Atlanta, GA
Getting us started are the defending national champions, who should be locked and loaded for yet another title run. After walloping Ohio State in the championship game, it's fair to wonder if there is any way to stop the juggernaut that is Nick Saban's Crimson Tide. On the bright side for opposing teams, most of the key players from a record-setting offense will be leaving Tuscaloosa, albeit replaced by yet another top-tier recruiting class.
Miami landed at 22nd on the final AP Poll, a decent but slightly disappointing 8-3 season, considering they were dominated in two ACC losses to ranked Clemson and North Carolina. Luckily for head coach Manny Diaz, the Hurricanes return a boatload of starters from an already potent offense, including dynamic quarterback D'Eriq King, assuming he is healthy.
This opening weekend showdown should be an early litmus test for Alabama's defense. If there is one thing that can confuse Saban's teams, it is a dual-threat quarterback such as King. It will be interesting to see if Miami can give the Tide a fight to open up the season.
Clemson vs. Georgia - September 4, 2021 in Charlotte, NC
Like Alabama, Clemson will be losing many familiar faces to the NFL Draft, namely Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne. Luckily for the Tigers, D.J. Uiagalelei looks to be the real deal after two impressive starts against Boston College and Notre Dame last season. On defense, linebacker James Sklaski returns, as well as star freshmen Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy on the defensive line, setting up what could be an even better unit in 2021. Despite their disappointing playoff loss, Dabo Swinney's crew should once again be heavy favorites to win the ACC.
A little further south lie the Georgia Bulldogs, who found a rhythm on offense when J.T. Daniels was inserted into the starting lineup, culminating in a Peach Bowl win over Cincinnati. Daniels, a transfer from USC with sky-high expectations, gets to face off against his old high-school foe in Uiagalelei, a unique twist to this renewed rivalry. Additionally, Kirby Smart's team brings in the nation's third-best recruiting class. The winner of this potential top-5 matchup will have an inside track to the CFP, even though it wouldn't be surprising to see these two meet up again in the postseason.
Oregon at Ohio State - September 11, 2021
Looking to rebound after their title-game humiliation, Ohio State is set to make yet another appearance in the final four next season, thanks to a standard Top-5 recruiting class from head coach Ryan Day and company. Still, the loss of Justin Fields at quarterback is a definite blow to the club's championship aspirations. Growing pains at the position for four-star freshman C.J. Stroud are likely, but this roster is still stacked at every spot on the field.
If any team on OSU's schedule is going to take advantage of early-season struggles, it's likely to be Oregon. After "winning" the Pac-12 with a 4-3 record, head coach Mario Cristobal turns in his best recruiting class, ranked 6th in the nation. Starting quarterback Tyler Shough returns, but he faces stiff competition from a crowded quarterback room, including senior Anthony Brown and four-star freshmen Jay Butterfield and Robby Ashford.
With both squads facing questions at quarterback, while still projecting as favorites in their respective conferences, this game should answer a ton of questions about the direction of both programs. The Shoe should be rocking for this marquee West meets North matchup.
Nebraska at Oklahoma - September 18, 2021
Two of college football's blue bloods reignite a rivalry that has been dormant for over a decade. The Oklahoma Sooners showed tons of progress down the stretch in 2020, capped off with a 55-20 drubbing of the Florida Gators in the Cotton Bowl. With star quarterback Spencer Rattler poised to be the next Heisman winner in Norman, head coach Lincoln Riley's team enters the season as a trendy CFP pick, especially in a depleted Big 12 that offers little competition.
Things couldn't be more different for Scott Frost's Nebraska Cornhuskers, who have been largely irrelevant ever since joining the Big 10. A once dominant program has now spent two decades ranked outside of the AP top ten to end the season, a worrying trend that the former UCF coach has not been able to fix. Even if the results haven't been there, the Nebraska alum has managed to regain some respectability on the recruiting trail with two consecutive top-20 classes that will eventually pay dividends.
Now, Nebraska faces off against old Big Eight nemesis Oklahoma for the first time since the classic 2010 Big 12 championship. Both teams have a lot the line, with Oklahoma trying to prove their worth to the CFP committee while the Huskers attempt to show that they are finally 'back'. Regardless, seeing these two on the field once again, as it should be every season, is a welcome sight for all fans of college football.
Auburn at Penn State - September 18, 2021
For the first time in school history, Auburn will face off against a Big 10 team in the regular season. After firing Gus Malzahn, former Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin is tasked with turning around the struggling Tigers. Even though his play regressed in 2020, returning quarterback Bo Nix should benefit from Harsin's reputation as a QB developer, as well as the presence of star running back Tank Bigsby. Following an Alabama title, War Eagle fans will be itching for a return to prominence in 2021.
If you thought Auburn was a let-down last year, check out Penn State. Considered to be a real threat to Ohio State's Big 10 crown in the preseason, James Franklin's group went a disappointing 4-5. Bringing in Mike Yurcich to take over offensive coordinator duties, the Nittany Lions hope that they can re-establish themselves as perennial contenders in the Big 10 West. Solid recruiting classes in recent seasons, plus a 4-0 finish to the season, give Happy Valley fans a reason for some optimism.
While there are other matchups between teams that looked much better last season, this may be the most intriguing game on our list. After a pair of tumultuous years in 2020, it's hard to project how either of these two will look next season. Whichever coach loses this game will have plenty of questions to answer about the future of their program.
Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin - September 25, 2021 in Chicago
It was another solid year for Brian Kelly's Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who managed to slip into the fourth CFP slot before getting handled by Alabama, continuing a worrying string of New Years Six bowl losses. Now, the nation's fifth-ranked team has major holes to fill on both sides of the ball, including the loss of senior quarterback Ian Book and key pieces on the offensive and defensive lines. To counteract Book's departure, Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan will likely be tasked with taking down his former team.
Wisconsin had an up-and-down year in the shortened Big 10, finishing 4-3 with a bowl win over Wake Forest. However, there are plenty of reasons for the Badgers to get excited about 2021. Head coach Paul Chryst brings in arguably the best recruiting class to hit Madison in decades, ranked 16th in the nation. Additionally, former 4-star QB Graham Mertz returns for his sophomore year, as well as all four starters from a talented linebacker corps.
Nothing screams old-time college football like two iconic Midwest programs facing off in the Windy City. Although we missed out on seeing these two at Lambeau Field in Green Bay this past season, a slugfest at Soldier Field is a terrific consolation prize.
Cincinatti at Notre Dame - October 2, 2021
There will be no rest for weary Notre Dame after facing Wisconsin, as the Fighting Irish will welcome the underrated Group of 5 Cincinnati Bearcats to South Bend. For Cincy, this game will give head coach Luke Fickell's team a chance to exact revenge on a CFP committee that penalized the Bearcats for a weak schedule despite their perfect season. The fact that they go up against Notre Dame, the team that took said final spot in the playoffs, only makes this matchup juicier.
Returning quarterback Desmond Ridder has the potential to give the Irish fits on defense, and they'll need to game plan accordingly. Former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman bolted to Notre Dame this offseason, setting up an intriguing chess match with his old boss Fickell. A win here would be a major stepping stone in Cincinnati's attempt to gain respect, while the Irish will likely need this one to keep their own playoff hopes alive.
Other 2021 games worth watching:
- Louisiana at Texas (Sept. 4, 2021)
- Iowa at Iowa St. (Sept. 11, 2021)
- Texas at Arkansas (Sept. 11, 2021)
- Washington at Michigan (Sept. 11, 2021)
- Michigan St. at Miami (Sept. 18, 2021)
- Cincinnati at Indiana (Sept. 18, 2021)