Which non-conference games will have the biggest impact on the College Football Playoff? Glad you asked.
Here are the five best non-conference games between two Power 5 teams for the 2019 season. The projected point spreads are provided by The Action Network’s Collin Wilson.
No. 1 – Notre Dame at Georgia, Sept. 21
Projected point spread: Georgia -10.5
The last time Notre Dame faced a team from the South, it wasn’t pretty (Clemson 30, Notre Dame 3 in last year’s Cotton Bowl). This game, pitting a pair of top 10 teams, will have huge College Football Playoff implications. While a loss won’t eliminate the loser from playoff contention, they would likely have to run the table the rest of the way since we’ve never had a two-loss team in the five-year history of the playoff.
Last year, Notre Dame’s defense surrendered its fewest yards since the 2012 team that reached the BCS title game. Six starters return off that unit, which will be tested by quarterback Jake Fromm and running back D’Andre Swift. The Bulldogs return 15 starters, 11 of which were freshmen or sophomores last season.
Notre Dame’s offense made huge strides when Ian Book replaced Brandon Wimbush as starting quarterback four weeks into last season. The Irish averaged 37 points a contest over their final nine games until Clemson held Notre Dame to three points.
This is a rematch of the 2017 contest in South Bend, won by Georgia 20-19 (in Fromm’s second career start, while Wimbush attempted a career-high 40 passes) on its way to reaching the College Football Playoff championship game. This will be Georgia’s biggest home non-conference contest since hosting Clemson between the hedges to open the 2014 season.
No. 2 – LSU at Texas, Sept. 7
Projected point spread: LSU -8
This contest will determine if either of these teams is a contender or pretender for the College Football Playoff. Both teams should enter the game ranked in the top 10 or 15 after ending last year with dominating bowl wins. LSU, minus nine starters on defense, defeated UCF 40-32 in the Fiesta Bowl, while Texas downed Georgia 28-21 in the Sugar Bowl.
LSU quarterback Joe Burrow looks to carry over his strong 2018 finish into 2019. In his final four games last season, he threw for 10 touchdowns and only one interception as the Tigers averaged nearly 500 yards a contest. Burrow will face a Texas defense that was decimated by graduation as the Longhorns have the lowest production percentage returning of any Power 5 team, according to SBNation’s Bill Connelly.
Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger will line up against what is historically one of the most athletic defenses in the country and this fall should be no different for LSU, even with the loss of impact players Devin White and Greedy Williams.
The Tigers, with 16 returning starters, have played at the SEC’s toughest venues, but this will be their first true road non-conference game against a ranked opponent since winning at West Virginia in 2011. LSU will be the first SEC visitor in Austin since 2013 when Ole Miss beat UT 44-23.
The Tigers are projected to be an eight-point favorite, but that plays right into Texas coach Tom Herman’s wheelhouse. As a head coach at Houston and Texas, Herman’s teams have been an underdog 15 times and pulled off the upset in 10 of those contests.
No. 3 – Texas A&M at Clemson, Sept. 7
Projected point spread: Clemson -20.5
Texas A&M is expected to be a preseason top 10 team – at worst ranked no lower than No. 15 – yet the Aggies are projected to be nearly a three-touchdown underdog at Clemson.
The Tigers are simply that good.
But last year in College Station, Texas A&M nearly pulled off the upset as a 12.5-point underdog, losing 28-26. Two weeks later, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney made the decision to replace Kelly Bryant with freshman Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers never looked back. In Lawrence’s final 10 games as a starter, he had 21 touchdowns and only two interceptions as Clemson averaged 542 yards and 47.4 points per game in that span.
Even with the large point spread, this could be Clemson’s toughest test in the regular season. Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies exceeded expectations last season and have a solid nucleus that’s expected to improve even more in 2019. The key will be quarterback Kellen Mond. Last year against Clemson, Mond threw for a career-high 430 yards and three touchdowns as the Aggies rolled up 501 yards on offense, the second-most Clemson allowed last season.
If Clemson doesn’t stumble against the Aggies, then the Tigers will be in great position for a fifth consecutive berth in the College Football Playoff. The Tigers also look to continue their domination against SEC teams, having won eight of the last nine meetings.
No. 4 – Auburn vs. Oregon in Arlington, Texas, Aug. 31
Projected point spread: Auburn -1.5
Of my top five non-conference games, this one – a rematch of the 2011 BCS National Championship Game won by Auburn 22-19 – has the most fascinating storylines.
For Auburn, this is viewed as a pivotal year for coach Gus Malzahn – actually when is it not a pivotal year on the Plains? He took over the play-calling duties in last year’s 63-14 Music City Bowl rout of Purdue, and he’ll continue calling plays this season as he tries to quiet the doubters that point to his 17-15 SEC record over the past four years. It also doesn’t help that in that span, Malzahn is the only active coach who started the preseason twice with top 10 teams and finished the year unranked.
Auburn enters the spring with a three-man battle at quarterback between incoming freshman Bo Nix, junior Malik Willis and redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood to replace Jarrett Stidham. Whoever wins the job will face a new defensive coordinator as Oregon cut ties with defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt last week.
The Ducks, however, return virtually intact on offense, with 10 returning starters, including quarterback Justin Herbert. A big victory by the Ducks and an impressive showing by Herbert could make the senior a leading Heisman contender right out of the gate.
No. 5 – Florida vs. Miami in Orlando, Aug. 31
Projected point spread: Florida -8.5
The Manny Diaz era at Miami begins in Orlando against Florida, with the Hurricanes hoping to return to the success they enjoyed in late 2016/early ’17 when the “U” won 15 consecutive games. Since that winning streak ended, though, the Hurricanes hit a big-time slump. They are only 7-9 in their last 16 games, including 4-9 against Power 5 opponents, highlighted by a 35-3 shellacking from Wisconsin in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Florida comes off an impressive rout of Michigan 41-15 in the Peach Bowl. The Gators look to build on last year’s surprising season under first-year coach Dan Mullen.
This game will have a big impact on recruiting in the Sunshine State between these programs that met annually between 1944-1987. Since the series ended, the Gators and Hurricanes have met only six times, the most recent in 2013.
An ironic side note to this contest: when Mullen was at Mississippi State, he interviewed for the Miami job that ultimately went to Mark Richt. Not to mention the fact that Diaz was Mullen’s defensive coordinator at Mississippi State in 2010 and ’15.