The first year of the College Football Playoff emphasized the importance of nonconference games. The playoff’s selection committee spent plenty of time scrutinizing teams’ out-of-conference schedules. For a while, it even looked like TCU’s nonconference win over Minnesota was going to get the Horned Frogs into the playoff over Baylor.
The overall message from last season was clear: If coaches want to win championships in the playoff era, they’d better schedule—and win—big games outside of their leagues.
Most teams are still in the middle of spring practice, so it’s far too early to accurately handicap the nonconference games in store for 2015. But it’s never too early to start circling dates on the calendar, so here are 10 nonconference games, listed chronologically, to watch for in 2015.
Washington at Boise State, Sept. 4
The storyline for this one should be easy to recognize: It’s Chris Petersen’s first return to Boise since he left after the 2013 season to take over the Huskies. Petersen spent eight seasons with the Broncos and went 8-6 in his first season in Seattle.
Now he’ll return to his old stomping grounds to face a Boise State squad returning 16 starters and fresh off a 38-30 win over Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. Washington has plenty of big names to replace on defense after losing Danny Shelton, Hau'oli Kikaha and Shaq Thompson to the NFL draft.
Auburn vs. Louisville, Sept. 5, (Atlanta)
The Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in the Georgia Dome shouldn’t disappoint fans of X’s and O’s. It matches Auburn’s offense, which finished 10th nationally in yards per play (6.71) last season, with a Louisville defense that ranked 11th in yards allowed per play (4.75). We’ll learn a bit about Auburn’s defense, as well. The Tigers brought in ex-Florida head coach Will Muschamp to revamp a unit that gave up 26.7 points per game last fall.
Alabama vs. Wisconsin, Sept. 5 (Dallas)
Things went pretty well for Wisconsin last time it took the field against an SEC team. The Badgers beat Auburn, 34-31, in overtime to win the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day. Now Paul Chryst opens his tenure at Wisconsin against an Alabama team that reached the College Football Playoff last season. Both rosters will be missing Heisman Trophy runner-ups from a year ago: Wisconsin won’t have running back Melvin Gordon, and the Crimson Tide won’t have wide receiver Amari Cooper.
Arizona State vs. Texas A&M, Sept. 5 (Houston)
Coach Todd Graham’s program tied a school record in 2014 with its third straight 10-win campaign. The Sun Devils ended the year with the No. 3 offense in the Pac-12, scoring 36.9 points per game. How will this year’s attack, which returns seven starters, handle a Texas A&M defense being rebuilt by new coordinator John Chavis? The Aggies ranked 97th nationally in yards allowed per play (5.91) last fall and will have to take a big step forward to handle Arizona State.
Texas at Notre Dame, Sept. 5
The Longhorns are probably ready to forget the end to the 2014 season. That’s when they managed a mere two rushing yards and 59 total yards in a 31-7 loss to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl. Texas loses the bulk of one of the Big 12’s best defenses, but it does bring back eight starters on offense, including quarterback Tyrone Swoopes and all five offensive linemen. A strong win in South Bend could be just the opener coach Charlie Strong needs in his second season in Austin.
Ohio State at Virginia Tech, Sept. 7
The Hokies were the only team to beat Ohio State last year. It didn’t cost the Buckeyes in the end, as Urban Meyer and company went on to win the national championship. But surely Ohio State will want revenge when it ventures to Blacksburg for a Monday night opener. The Buckeyes bring back most of last year’s roster, including all three star quarterbacks, receiver Michael Thomas and defensive end Joey Bosa. The Hokies should be one of the ACC’s most experienced teams with 16 returning starters.
Oklahoma at Tennessee, Sept. 12
For the first time in a while, Tennessee enters the season with expectations. The Volunteers bring back a league-high 18 starters after winning their first bowl game since 2008. They could off some proof to the hype with a critical victory against Oklahoma in Neyland Stadium. The Sooners got the best of Tennessee last September in a 34-10 win in Norman, but they finished the season with their worst record (8-5) since ‘09. Can a team that returns quarterback Trevor Knight and 12 other starters bounce back with a tough road win early in the schedule?
Oregon at Michigan State, Sept. 12
This was one of the best nonconference matchups in 2014, and the rematch should be just as good. The Ducks staged a second-half rally last year in a 46-27 win in Eugene and went on to reach the national title game. The meeting is in East Lansing this time around, and Oregon won’t have Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota at quarterback. But the Spartans’ vaunted defensive coordinator, Pat Narduzzi, is now the head coach at Pittsburgh, and Michigan State’s secondary has big holes to fill after the departures of Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond. Connor Cook and company will look to make a big statement for the Big Ten in this one.
BYU at UCLA, Sept. 19
The Bruins entered last season as a trendy pick to win the Pac-12 and compete for a playoff berth, but they weren’t able to live up to expectations and lost three conference games. Still, UCLA won 10 games and beat Kansas State 40-35 in the Alamo Bowl. Now the Bruins lose longtime quarterback Brett Hundley but return 18 other starters, including every offensive starter except Hundley. They’ll get an early test against BYU, which brings back electric quarterback Taysom Hill as the leader of a veteran group. The Cougars have wins over Texas, Virginia and Georgia Tech in the last two years.
USC at Notre Dame, Oct. 17
The Trojans ended the 2014 season with a lot of momentum, hammering Notre Dame 49-14 before topping Nebraska 45-42 in the Holiday Bowl. Thanks to strong recruiting and a stocked cupboard of returning starters, USC enters this season with a lot of hype. Quarterback Cody Kessler is back after completing 70 percent of his passes and throwing for 39 touchdowns with only five picks. This year’s playing of the rivalry takes Kessler and USC to South Bend to face an Irish squad that returns 19 starters, tied for the second-most in the country.