Over the coming days, we will have some fun ranking the top 10 non-conference games in the 2020 Big 12 football season. Of course, we have no clue what the 2020 college football season is going to look like and how the schedule is going to play out, but as we approach the dog days of summer, let’s long for some cooler weather, cold beer and pigskin and look forward to these 10 non-conference games as we count them down from No. 10 to No. 1!
No. 10: Oklahoma at Army
This might seem like an odd choice since the game is likely to open up as a multi-touchdown spread, but remember, Army almost pulled off an incredible upset against Kyler Murray’s Sooners back in 2018. Granted, Army went 11-2 in 2018 and then went 5-8 in 2019, but it’s always special playing one of the military academies. ALSO, this game is on the road. And if you want to appreciate one of the coolest college football experiences in America, watching a football game at Army on the Hudson River is quintessential Americana.
What’s also interesting is Jeff Monken’s unique offense is one that you can prepare for all week in practice,but until you see it in person, you’re never really fully prepared. The Sooners learned that two seasons ago. And don’t forget, OU is likely to be working in a new QB in Spencer Rattler, so a redshirt freshman QB on the road early in the season can be a recipe for something interesting to happen.
Regardless, I think OU ends up getting a big win, as Army loses a lot of players on both sides of the ball, but the nostalgia of this kind of game and the pageantry around playing at Army makes this a fun one for any college football fan.
No. 9: Kansas vs. Boston College
This may be the only Kansas game on this list but how often do other power five programs look for revenge against in Kansas in football? Well, Texas needed it before and so will Texas Tech this season but there is one team who truly needs it. That is of course Boston College. Going into their matchup last season, Kansas was fresh off an embarrassing defeat against Coastal Carolina and nobody saw what was going to happen just a week later on the road.
The Jayhawks were down 17-7 after the first quarter and after that, Kansas went on to outscore the Eagles 41-7 in the final three quarters to win 48-24. What was even more embarrassing for Boston College besides the fact that Kansas rushed for over 320 yards was that their defeat snapped Kansas power five road losing streak. Before the Jayhawks win against Boston College, Kansas lost 48 straight road games against power five opponents.
Boston College has a new head coach in Jeff Haley who previously was the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State. Even with a new head coach, the Eagles will still feature a run heavy offense with an experienced offensive line and yet another big, bruising running back in David Bailey who stands at 6’1 240 pounds.
Meanwhile Kansas will have to replace quarterback Carter Stanley but return superstar running back Pooka Williams Jr. and three of their top four wideouts return as well. However, the defense still is a big concern with ten of their top seventeen tacklers gone from a season ago. Perhaps the biggest need on the defensive side is the defensive line as they lose three of their four starters from last year.
I think this will be an interesting matchup and by far their best non-conference matchup. While they do play Baylor the week before, how will Kansas respond? This could be that make or break game to find out what the Jayhawks are capable of for the 2020 season.
No. 8: Texas Tech vs. Arizona
The Texas Tech Red Raiders host the Arizona Wildcats once season after going to Tuscon and losing 28-14, which also happened to be the last game that quarterback Alan Bowman played in for the Red Raiders last year.
Arizona got off to a 4-1 start last season before finishing 4-8 on the season. The Wildcats go from Khalil Tate at QB and officially usher in the Grant Gunnell era. On the other side, Kevin Sumlin has hired former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads to take over the defense and try and turn around a unit that finished 11th in the Pac-12 against the rush and pass, and dead-last in scoring defense.
So for the Red Raiders, this means getting a look at Alan Bowman’s offense (or could it be Maverick McIvor’s) against its first Power 5 competition that struggled mightily last season. Also, we’ll get to see how Tech’s defense has improved against Kevin Sumlin’s offense, which despite some turnover, returns a lot of talent, especially at the wide receiver position.
This will be a telling game for Matt Wells to try and determine where this program is in Year 2. The game is at home and it’s the kind of match up against an average Power 5 opponent that if Tech is serious about winning some of those close games they missed out on last season, and taking a step forward, while reaching a bowl game, it’s just about as big of a “must-win” as a program can have in the non-conference.
No. 7: TCU vs. SMU
If you told me one year ago I’d have this game on the Top 10 list for 2020, I would not have believed you. But after how last season’s game went, with SMU pulling off the upset against the Horned Frogs, it’s worth putting on the list in a good spot.
Don’t forget, SMU head coach Sonny Dykes was hired away from TCU, where he had a brief stint as an assistant.
Last season’s game was a stunner that went down to the wire as SMU won the Iron Skillet for the first time since 2011 with a 41-38 win. Shane Buechele is back at quarterback for the Mustangs after the program reached double-digit wins for the first time since 1984. And he has plenty of weapons, led by another former Big 12 player, West Virginia transfer Reggie Roberson. This will be a great early-season challenge for Gary Patterson’s defense.
Meantime, the offense needs to show its clicking well beyond where it was last season. Jerry Kill takes over as the defacto head coach of the offense and if they can’t move the ball against an SMU defense that allowed over 33 points per game and is replacing some key pieces and has depth issues, then that could be a bad sign of what’s to come this fall in Fort Worth.
However, if TCU is going to get back to being a program pushing or hitting the double-digit win mark themselves, then this is the kind of game Gary Patterson has to put back into the win column. Based on how SMU played last year, the loss was maybe not as bad as it appeared to be at the time. But Gary Patterson, Max Duggan and company need to beat the SMU’s of the world to convince us they can possibly be a darkhorse contender in the Big 12 Conference in 2020.
No. 6: Kansas State vs. Vanderbilt
As Kansas State fans will recall, the 2017 road loss to Vanderbilt (14-7) was an ugly one that at the time was a sign that maybe the season wasn’t going to go as planned (however the Wildcats did have a nice late-season push).
But this game will be telling for several reasons. First off, while it’s not Oklahoma vs. LSU, it’s still the Big 12 vs. the SEC, which always has implications worth watching. Vanderbilt finished last in the SEC last season, so for Kansas State, which should be at least a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big 12, a loss would give the SEC crowd plenty to crow about if one of its bottom feeders handles a solid Big 12 team on the road.
But for Kansas State, it’ll be the first chance we get to see what the new offensive line looks like against decent competition (sorry Buffalo and North Dakota), or at least Power 5 competition.
Vandy brings in new coordinators on both sides of the ball under Derek Mason with Todd Fitch (Louisiana Tech) on offense and Ted Roof (Appalachian State) on defense. Also, they are looking for an answer at quarterback and lost a ton of production at the skill positions while also needing to turn over the offensive line.
It’s very early, but this is a game that Kansas State should win, if it’s going to keep its momentum from last season, Chris Klieman’s first in Manhattan. It will at least give us a glimpse into how we should categorize Kansas State in 2020: a team that can surprise top-tier programs like it did last season or one that will take a step back as it replenishes lines on both sides of the ball.
No. 5: West Virginia vs. Florida State
West Virginia is hoping for better results in Year 2 under Neal Brown, while Florida State moved on from the failed Willie Taggart experiment and is on to Mike Norvell, the former Memphis coach who went 38-15 with the Tigers and was known for an explosive offense.
Florida State does have James Blackmon at quarterback, which is a good place for a new head coach to be in terms of returning talent at the most important position. He has started 23 games and already ranks among the school’s all-time leaders in passing yards (5,079) and touchdowns (41), but has also thrown 23 interceptions. Meantime, Florida State is moving away from the failed 3-4 experiment back to a 4-3, and the line is anchored by preseason All-American Marvin Wilson.
For West Virginia, this game will not be an easy one as it will take place at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and will likely feature far more Florida State fans (assuming fans are allowed to attend the game).
But we will get a good look into Jarret Doege’s comfort level at QB, although he still may be in a QB race with Austin Kendall, and what kind of offensive weapons he has to work with. Defensively, the Stills brothers lead the way for the Mountaineers and seeing them go up against a great offensive mind in Norvell with some of the best talent in the Power 5 (despite the results not being there) will at least be an early indication of the competitiveness we can expect from Neal Brown’s program as it gets going into Year 2.
No. 4: Baylor vs. Ole Miss
The Baylor Bears kick off the Dave Aranda era on a Sunday at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas against a rebuilding Ole Miss team lead by none other than freakin’ Lane Kiffin. I mean seriously, college football fans, what more can you ask for?
There are so many fascinating storylines around this game. What does the Baylor defense look like under Aranda? How comfortable is Charlie Brewer at QB after losing some key pieces?
Then you’ve got Kiffin bringing his unique brand and high-powered offense to the Rebels where they have starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee returning after leading the SEC in rushing yards per game, but he was terrible as a passer.
The lack of spring practice hurts all college teams, but especially those new head coaches. That is the case for both of these teams, which makes the game that much more intriguing. Oh, and since it is the season opener, it will literally be the first time either team is playing a meaningful snap. I’ll say leave it here for this game: So… much… potential!
No. 3: Tennessee at Oklahoma
The last time these two programs met up was in Baker Mayfield’s first road game as a Sooner back in 2015. Heading into the fourth quarter, Oklahoma was down 17-3 on the road in Knoxville and Baker made himself into a household name in the fourth quarter as he tied up the game at seventeen before eventually winning it in double overtime to stun the crowd.
Tennessee is still in a rebuilding mode under head coach Jeremy Pruitt, but they do bring back two important things on offense. They have an experienced quarterback in Jarrett Guarantano and a very solid offensive line returning. Where they will struggle is at receiver where there is a lack of proven playmakers there. On defense, the Vols will be good up front but will have some question marks in the secondary which could be key for Oklahoma to take advantage of.
As for Oklahoma, they have weapons just about everywhere and should be much better up front than last season. However, the biggest question mark is by far the quarterback spot as they break in new starting quarterback Spencer Rattler. The talent around him is there but it is time for him to step into the spotlight. I do expect the Sooners to maybe take a small step back on defense with the losses of Kenneth Murray and Neville Gallimore but do not count out an Alex Grinch coached defense.
This will be a big test for both teams early in the season as Tennessee is trying to take that next step into becoming a solid program and Oklahoma is trying to keep their playoff streak alive. Not only I this a big test for the Sooners but the Big 12 as Oklahoma has won the previous five conference title games to represent the Big 12. Oklahoma appears to be on paper the best team the conference has to offer and a slip up here, could be a huge blow not only for the Sooners but the conference when it comes playoff time.
No. 2: Iowa State at Iowa
You already know what this game means in the state of Iowa. The battle for the Cy-Hawk is a heated one and is a very underrated rivalry in college football. Iowa State lost in a heartbreaking manner last season due to a special team’s mistake and if that was not bad enough, last year’s loss made it five straight losses for the Cyclones. This is a crucial game early in the season and as always, bragging rights for an entire year is on the line.
The Hawkeyes will be breaking in a new quarterback this season with likely starter Spencer Petras, but he will have to battle incoming freshman Duece Hoagan. No matter who the quarterback is, they will have some experienced receivers with them as both Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Tyrone Tracy return as well as two tight ends in Sam LaPorta and Shaun Beyer. Of course, Iowa returns nearly all their offensive line as well, but this offense as always will have to rely on a strong running game to help out the new signal caller. The defense will have plenty of new faces after an outstanding 2019 as they will be replacing a ton of key starters from a season ago. I expect this side of the ball to take step back this season.
Iowa State will also need some new faces to step up, especially on offense. Sure, starting quarterback Brock Purdy is back who is a top quarterback in the Big 12 but they will need some new passing targets to emerge. Of course, star tight end Charlie Kolar returns but receiver Deshaunte Jones is gone and Tarique Milton, Sean Shaw and incoming JUCO wide out Xavier Hutchinson need to take it to another level this season for this passing game to become deadly. Keep in mind, emerging running back Breece Hall will be improved this season but with plenty of new starters needed on the line, there is no question that the offensive line could hold this offense back a little bit.
The Cyclones will have to replace Ray Lima and Jamahi Johnson up front on the defense, but the good news is that star pass rusher JaQuan Bailey returns after spending last season mostly injured. As this defense will be replacing some pieces up front, this linebacker core should be solid for 2020. Mike Rose and O’Rien Vance are a good duo and should be a key strength for this defense. In the back, safety Greg Eisworth will lead a much more experienced group as Iowa State returns quite a few players in the secondary.
No. 1: Texas vs. LSU
It was an epic game last year and we can only hope for a sliver of that kind of excitement again this year in Austin.
LSU won last year’s game and went on to go undefeated and win the National Championship, but so much of that team is gone, most notably QB Joe Burrow, who was the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, along with key coaching pieces like Dave Aranda, the defensive coordinator who is now the head coach of the Baylor Bears.
Regardless, LSU will be considered a top-notch SEC team. They reload. They don’t rebuild. For Texas, it’s a huge season for Tom Herman to prove he is the guy who can lead Texas back to being a consistent Big 12 Title contender and a College Football Playoff contender and that the 2018 season where Texas went to the Conference Title game was not a fluke.
Texas should have the upper hand in this game with the far more experienced quarterback, more returning pieces and the home-field advantage, but LSU has the Natty swag going on. No matter what, it’s not just the best non-conference game in the Big 12 this season, it might be the best non-conference game in the country.
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