It is about time to start packing up the tailgate as the start of the college football season is only days away. Big 12 teams are beginning their preparations for non-conference opponents as preseason practice winds down. The majority of the non-conference games are cupcakes, but there are a handful of games that every fan of the conference should watch.
Below we rank the top five non-conference games to watch in 2018, giving some details on each of the matchups.
1) No. 7 Oklahoma vs FAU (9/1)
From the outside looking in, this is not a game that most Big 12 football fans would have circled on their calendars. Vegas also seems to think there’s merit to that, as the line has been holding steady at 21 points in favor of the Sooners since it opened. However, when we talked about Oklahoma’s schedule earlier this offseason, we thought that line was a bit high.
FAU is no run-of-the-mill Group of Five team. The Owls ended 2017 on a 10-game win streak, scoring an average of 46 points per game in that stretch. With a lot returning on defense, if head coach Lane Kiffin can make the offense gel with some talented transfers, FAU could be a Top 25 kind of team this year. And Lane Kiffin knows some offense.
Even though they get the Owls in Norman, the Sooners could find that this opening contest is more of a test than what most pundits would predict. This will be Oklahoma’s first game with a new starter at quarterback in three years, and the debut of their next signal caller could turn out to be surprisingly interesting.
2) No. 16 TCU vs No. 5 Ohio State (9/15)
Of all the Big 12 non-conference games in 2018, this one probably holds the most potential for improving the conference’s perception on a national level. Last year, the Sooners bolted into the College Football Playoff conversation when Mayfield planted the Sooners flag at midfield in Columbus, OH. Gary Patterson’s group probably hopes that by knocking off the Buckeyes, the same thing can happen for them.
Despite whatever off-the-field questions Urban Meyer might be facing, he’s built a team that consistently plays at a championship-level. Even though this game is being played in Arlington – right in the Horned Frogs’ back yard, in other words – the historical dominance of the Buckeyes justifies them as the favorite here.
No one should count out the Frogs, though. TCU has been recruiting ever closer to the level that Ohio State does on the regular. If the Horned Frogs somehow get overlooked, they could overachieve.
Whether that will happen largely depends on the play of the Ohio State defensive line, which could give new starting quarterback Shawn Robinson, a Texas high school standout, fits with their pass rush. If Robinson can have success against the Buckeyes, though, look for him to shoot up Heisman lists.
3) No. 23 Texas vs No. 15 USC (9/15)
This is a matchup between two traditional blue bloods who both have serious questions headed into 2018. In spite of how good USC has been under head coach Clay Helton – 22-6 over two years – there’s a feeling in Los Angeles that he should be achieving more.
That feeling is shared by fans on the 40 acres, who were just happy that their team finished 2017 above .500 for the first time since the Mack Brown era. However, many expect more from head coach Tom Herman. While it is true that a lot of money has been moving Texas’ way the past few weeks in Vegas, is that a sign of a burnt orange rejuvenation?
A win for Herman and the Longhorns could certainly go a long way towards doing just that, but they square off against a Trojan squad that won their conference championship in 2017. That’s no small ask, but considering the offensive playmakers USC lost from a year ago, keep your eye on this game.
4) No. 22 Boise State at Oklahoma State (9/15)
Both of these teams will likely to roll into this game undefeated, so whether or not they are in the Top 25 at the end of the year, this mid-September game will be a matchup of two ranked opponents. With all the offensive firepower Oklahoma State lost last season, no one is thinking that the Pokes will just dominate a game at home against a Group of Five opponent.
Boise State, though, is no average Group of Five team. As good as the Broncos usually are, they return a ton of experience and production this year, making them potentially dangerous. Quarterback Brett Rypien is a senior quarterback who came on late last season and threw for almost 3,000 yards in 2017.
Neither offense will likely be particularly lethal, but both have weapons. Both teams also should play some decent defense in this game, so this will more than likely be a close contest in Boone Pickens Stadium, with perception on the line for each squad.
5) No. 18 Mississippi State at Kansas State (9/8)
If you like rooting for the Big 12 to drawn out those annoying “S-E-C! S-E-C!” chants by winning non-conference matchups, this is a game to tune into. Bill Snyder’s Wildcats have a great offensive line, depth at running back, and are generally well-coached all around. If this is a year where Kansas State will be a nine-to-ten win team, they’ll show it in this early game.
Of course, Mississippi State will be a test for the Wildcats. Their quarterback, Nick Fitzgerald, is a signal caller after Snyder’s own heart – he weighs 230 pounds and is almost six-and-a-half feet tall, making him a bruising runner. Make no mistake, though, Fitzgerald can air it out when needed, and he proved that when he threw for over 1,700 yards in 2017.
The fact that this game is in Manhattan is a definite boon for Kansas State, however, who will hope to capitalize off their home field advantage in order to pull of the upset. Pay attention to this game, because if the Wildcats can keep things close – and they usually do – Kansas State might be able to catapult themselves into the Top 25 with a surprise victory at home.