The 10 best non-conference games for the upcoming college football schedule

The 2022 college football season leaps into September with a run of non-conference games with major postseason implications involving nearly every team in the preseason USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll.

Even during an era when unbeaten regular seasons have become less and less common, these non-league games promise to shake up the College Football Playoff race before the end of the year's opening month.

There are so many options that the games that just missed the cut for the best of non-conference play include some of the biggest matchups and rivalries in the Football Bowl Subdivision, including:

West Virginia at Pittsburgh, Sept. 1
Florida State vs. LSU, Sept. 4 (in New Orleans)
Penn State at Auburn, Sept. 17
Notre Dame at Southern California, Nov. 26

In chronological order, these are the non-conference games you can't afford to miss during the 2022 season.

Oregon vs. Georgia, Sept. 3 (Atlanta)
It'll be a reunion along the sidelines for new Oregon coach Dan Lanning, the Georgia defensive coordinator during last year's championship run. That the Bulldogs will play close to home is one obvious edge, as is their nearly unmatched talent level — even if the depth chart has been reworked after an exodus of starters to the NFL. The Ducks will counter with former Auburn quarterback Bo Nix, a terrific front seven, and what may be the best overall defense in the Pac-12.

Notre Dame at Ohio State, Sept. 3
This may end up as one of the biggest games of the regular season inside and out of conference play. From Ohio State's perspective, a win could be a launching pad back to the top of the Big Ten and to the program's first national championship since 2014. For Notre Dame, a loss wouldn't deal a fatal blow to any College Football Playoff hopes but would leave the Fighting Irish with no room for error just one week into the year. The opener is doubly notable for being the first regular-season appearance of new Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman.

Cincinnati at Arkansas, Sept. 3
Cincinnati is expected to take a step back after a memorable 2021 season; among other losses, the Bearcats need to replace quarterback Desmond Ridder and cornerback Ahmad Gardner. Upsetting the Razorbacks would erase any thought that the Bearcats will hand over the American and the top spot of the Group of Five to Houston, Central Florida, or the best teams from the Mountain West.

Utah at Florida, Sept. 3
This is a bellwether game for Utes, a legitimate playoff contender, and for the broader Pac-12, which more so than any other Power Five league could use the goodwill that would come from a road win deep in SEC country. While Utah may enter the opener favored by a field goal or more, the Gators could benefit from the element of surprise and heightened emotion in coach Billy Napier's debut.

Alabama at Texas, Sept. 10
Fresh off a losing season under second-year coach Steve Sarkisian, the Longhorns and heralded quarterback Quinn Ewers will look to validate some predictable preseason hype — they're one of just four teams to earn a first-place vote in the preseason Top 25 — against the premier program in the country. How do you beat Alabama? It'll take a perfect performance to unseat the Tide from atop the Coaches Poll.

Houston at Texas Tech, Sept. 10
Wins against Texas-San Antonio in the opener and at Texas Tech a week later could the Cougars on track for a magical regular season, given what comes next. Houston closes soon-conference play at home against Kansas before embarking into an American schedule that misses fellow preseason favorites Cincinnati and Central Florida. Don't forget that Houston lost only twice last season, to the Bearcats in the conference title game and to the Red Raiders in the opener.

Baylor at Brigham Young, Sept. 10
This early preview of future Big 12 rivals — BYU is one of four teams joining the conference in 2023 — carries huge weight for Baylor, which is taking aim at the playoff and can't afford a slip-up outside of the league play. After getting warmed up in the opener against Albany, this will be a major road test for the Bears and sophomore quarterback Blake Shapen, a first-year starter. A win for the Cougars could set them up for New Year's Six contentions or more.

Oklahoma at Nebraska, Sept. 17
This reunion of former Big 8 and Big 12 rivals could be a make-or-break moment for embattled Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost, especially if his team again falls flat in the season opener against Northwestern. With a nasty November ahead — Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa — sitting at 2-2 at the end of September could make it very difficult for Nebraska to win enough games to ensure Frost's job security. For the Sooners, this old-school rivalry is the first marquee game for new coach Brent Venables. Games like this are important to establishing a winning atmosphere, especially for a program with a turbulent offseason.

Miami at Texas A&M, Sept. 17
Projected romps against Bethune-Cookman and Southern Mississippi to open the regular season could help the Hurricanes get up to speed under new coach Mario Cristobal just in time for this major road test in College Station. Will momentum and superb sophomore quarterback Tyler Van Dyke be enough to lift the Hurricanes to a monumental upset? While a win would vault Miami deep into the Top 25, a loss could tarnish the Aggies' season even before getting into a merciless SEC slate.

Clemson at Notre Dame, Nov. 5
After two memorable meetings in 2020, these two national powers reunite for a late-season matchup that could easily send the loser hurtling out of College Football Playoff contention and boost the winner into a permanent spot in the top four. One thing of note: While both teams will be coming off a game against Syracuse, the Tigers will have an extra week to prepare for the Irish. They'll also remember losing to the Fighting Irish in the same venue two years ago.

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