Tuesday, I listed my top non-conference games between Power 5 teams. Today, I have my top five non-conference games involving a non-Power 5 team. The projected point spreads provided by The Action Network’s Collin Wilson.
No. 1 – Army at Michigan, Sept. 7
Projected point spread: Michigan -28
The last time Army was at least a four-touchdown underdog was last year at Oklahoma. Yet, the Black Knights nearly pulled off the upset, extending the Sooners to overtime while holding OU to a season-low in points (28) and yards (355) by playing keep-away from Oklahoma’s explosive offense. OU survived 28-21.
The Black Knights invade Ann Arbor in Week 2 and face a Michigan team whose defense literally fell apart at the end of last season, allowing 103 points combined in blowout losses to Ohio State and Florida. Michigan’s defense has to replace six starters, including impact players Devin Bush, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich.
Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. – the first player in program history with more than 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards passing in a season – returns along with seven offensive starters.
Based on Army’s near-upset in Norman last year and the Black Knights’ 70-point outburst against Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl, there’s no chance Michigan will overlook Army. But if Army somehow knocks off Michigan, the Black Knights could make a serious run at finishing 13-0 with a schedule that features 10 non-Power 5 teams and two FCS opponents.
No. 2 – Stanford at UCF, Sept. 14
Projected point spread: Stanford -3
When I mentioned in my Pre-Spring Top 25 countdown that this was UCF’s biggest home game in school history, I received a lot of Twitter blowback from UCF fans (imagine that?) disputing my opinion. Here’s my reasoning: even though UCF has hosted higher-ranked teams (South Carolina 2013, Miami ’09 and Texas ’07), the result of those contests largely didn’t impact UCF’s bowl destination and reputation like a win against Stanford would.
A knock against UCF – and other Group of 5 teams – is the overall lack of physicality in the interior lines compared with Power 5 teams. Under David Shaw, Stanford is known for its punishing style of play. Even though Stanford likely won’t enter this game ranked in the Top 25, it is a formidable opponent led by K.J. Costello, one of the nation’s most underrated quarterbacks.
A UCF victory would carry a lot of weight with the College Football Playoff selection committee as far as the Knights’ strength of schedule and New Year’s 6 bowl hopes – especially if they don’t go undefeated in the American. It also would make a huge statement about UCF’s overall program after a loss in the Fiesta Bowl 40-32 to an LSU team missing nine defensive starters.
No. 3 – Boise State vs. Florida State in Jacksonville, Aug. 31
Projected point spread: Florida State -5.5
While the Mountain West will have bigger-profile non-conference opponents (Utah State at LSU, Fresno State at USC, New Mexico at Notre Dame, Nevada at Oregon and Hawaii at Washington), Boise State’s neutral-site matchup with Florida State presents the league with a big opportunity on national television to knock off what will be a desperate Power 5 opponent in Florida State.
The Seminoles are coming off a 5-7 season that ended their 36-year bowl streak. Additionally, two weeks ago, FSU dismissed quarterback Deondre Francois, leaving sophomore James Blackman as the only quarterback on their roster with starting experience.
Boise State enters the spring trying to find a replacement for four-year starter Brett Rypien. Chase Cord was expected to be Rypien’s replacement, but he tore his ACL last year and is not projected to be ready until fall camp. In the spring, Boise State will look at four other candidates as Rypien’s replacement.
The Broncos will benefit from an offensive line that returns all five starters. Defensively, seven starters are back for the Broncos, who are expected to be the team to beat in the Mountain West. Boise State looks to improve on its 6-5 record in its last 11 games against Power 5 opponents dating back to 2014.
No. 4 – Houston vs. Washington State at Houston, Sept. 13
Projected point spread: Washington State -14
The first meeting as head coaches between long-time friends Mike Leach and Dana Holgorsen makes the list just for the pure entertainment of the press conferences leading up to kickoff. The relationship goes back nearly 30 years when Holgorsen was recruited by Leach and Hal Mumme to Iowa Wesleyan, where Holgorsen played wide receiver in 1991-92. After that, Holgorsen’s first coaching job was as an assistant with Leach at Valdosta State from 1993-95. They would reunite at Texas Tech in 2000 for eight seasons when Leach was hired as head coach. In 2008, Holgorsen went to Houston as offensive coordinator.
Holgorsen is now back in Houston after his eight-year stint at West Virginia. Washington State, under Leach, has led the nation in passing three of the past five seasons. Holgorsen has joked with me that Leach has kicked him out of the “Air Raid” family because Holgorsen’s offenses emphasize the running game more than Leach.
Washington State will continue to air it out this fall, even with the departure of quarterback Gardner Minshew. Eastern Washington grad transfer Gage Gubrud is a leading candidate to replace Minshew. Gubrud started 28 games at EWU, throwing for 9,984 career yards and 87 touchdowns. Although the game will be played in Houston, it’s technically a neutral site contest at NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans.
No. 5 – Houston at Oklahoma, Aug. 31
Projected point spread: Oklahoma -30.5
Houston makes this list twice and hopefully before Holgorsen agreed to take the Houston job, he glanced at the Cougars’ schedule. Besides playing Washington State in Week 3, the Cougars open the Holgorsen era at Big 12-favorite Oklahoma.
Houston will get the first look at quarterback Jalen Hurts’ debut with the Sooners.
With Holgorsen and eight returning starters on offense, the Cougars will put up a lot of points. Houston quarterback D’Eriq King, who led the American Conference in total offense last year, suffered a torn meniscus late last season, but is expected to be ready to go by fall camp.
Defensively, the Cougars have to replace a ton – including lineman Ed Oliver – and return only four starters. Holgorsen certainly will be familiar with the Sooners, having faced them his final seven years at West Virginia. Holgorsen was 0-7 against OU with three of the losses by less than 10 points, including last year’s 59-56 thriller in Morgantown.