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13 non-conference games to look forward to in 2021

The 2020 season came to an end on Monday night, and we're all extremely lucky it happened. The season very nearly died before it began, and we should all be grateful that outcome was avoided.

But we can also admit it was a shell of itself. Little to no crowds, nearly every game in flux right until kickoff, and no non-conference schedule to speak of. The game was still there, but much of the pageantry that makes college football special was on hiatus.

That hiatus will (hopefully!) return in 2021. The upcoming campaign will be, without hyperbole, the most anticipated college football season in the sport's history, complete with blockbuster non-conference games.

Here are 13 we're especially looking forward to. (Rankings based on Stewart Mandel's preseason top 25.)

13. No. 17 Florida at USF (Sept. 11)

This game is notable not for competitive reasons -- Florida will roll -- but for the fact it's being played in the first place. Florida has played all of seven games in its history versus the Florida Alphabet (USF, UCF, FAU, FIU), each and every one of them in Gainesville. Until now.

12. No. 9 LSU at UCLA (Sept. 4)

LSU's first game with new coordinators on both sides of the ball happens to be its first trip to LA in a generation. The Tigers have played in Los Angeles once before, a 1984 trip to USC, but they've never played UCLA. The Bruins showed signs of life for the first time under Chip Kelly in their brief 2020 season, while Ed Orgeron will need to show the LSU faithful that 2020 was the aberration, not 2019.

11. No. 10 Notre Dame at Florida State (Sept. 5)

Notre Dame's third trip to Tallahassee will be the third time they arrive undefeated. The first saw No. 6 Notre Dame move to 8-0 with a win over No. 11 Florida State in 2002, and the second saw No. 2 Florida State push its winning streak to 23 with a 31-27 win over No. 5, 6-0 Notre Dame in 2014. This one won't have quite the same stakes, but it's a great opportunity for Notre Dame to show it's still a contender to reach the Playoff and for FSU to show signs of progress under Mike Norvell.

10. No. 18 Washington at Michigan (Sept. 11)

COVID robbed us of seeing Michigan in Seattle, but we still get to see the back end of this home-and-home. Washington won the Pac-12 North with a 3-1 record in 2020, and they open 2021 with Montana. For all intents and purposes, the Jimmy Lake era begins in earnest here.

9. Auburn at No. 21 Penn State (Sept. 18)

The Bryan Harsin era technically begins the week prior versus Akron, but it begins in practice in Happy Valley. Perhaps no team had its 2020 expectations dashed quite as ruthlessly as Penn State, who began the year hoping to build on an 11-2 season in 2019 and instead started 0-5. Nothing would wash the taste out of Nittany Nation's mouths like a win over the SEC. These powers have met twice previously, and never on campus.

8. No. 19 Texas at Arkansas (Sept. 11)

The same situation applies to Steve Sarkisian at Texas (although don't sleep on that opener vs. Louisiana). This will be Texas's second visit to Fayetteville since 1989 and first since 2004, when a 5-6 Arkansas played the eventual Rose Bowl champions to a 22-20 final. Following a successful debut season, Sam Pittman will have his Hogs ready.

7. No. 13 Wisconsin vs. No. 10 Notre Dame, at Chicago (Sept. 25)

We were robbed of a Badgers-Irish game at Lambeau Field, but we'll still get the return visit of this neutral site home-and-home. Notre Dame is 10-0-2 all-time at Soldier Field; this will be the fourth such game post-World War II.

6. Nebraska at No. 2 Oklahoma (Sept. 18)

Oklahoma hopes to play for a national title in 2021; Nebraska would be thrilled to make a bowl game. This rivalry isn't what it once was, but the fact that we'll see the Block N and the interlocking OU on the same field is reason enough. Nebraska claimed 41 Big 8 titles, Oklahoma claimed 34, the rest of the conference combined won 28. This will be their first meeting since 2010.

5. No. 11 Iowa at No. 7 Iowa State (Sept. 11)

Matt Campbell has turned Iowa State into a serious player in the Big 12. He's beaten Oklahoma and Texas twice, put the Cyclones on the cusp of their first conference title in more than a century, won the first New Year's Six game in program history... but he's never beaten Iowa. Iowa State brings back most everyone from 2020; Iowa went 6-2 and was five points away from going 8-0. Both teams will be in the AP Top 15 for perhaps the biggest CyHawk game ever.

4. No. 8 Cincinnati at No. 10 Notre Dame (Oct. 2)

Yes, it's the third Notre Dame game on this list, but this one's more about the opponent than the Irish. Cincinnati came closer than any Group of 5 team to busting the College Football Playoff, and their 2021 team will have an even better shot. The Bearcats return 15 starters, including QB Desmond Ridder, and will begin the year in the AP Top 10. A win on college football's most hallowed artificial surface could catapult the Bearcats from presumed contenders to actual contenders.

3. No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 20 Miami, at Atlanta (Sept. 4)

The end of an era. Alabama revived the concept of a neutral site kickoff game with its 34-10 demolition of Clemson at the Georgia Dome in 2008 and played a neutral site opener nearly every year since, going 10-0 in the process. While the concept will live on, Alabama is moving on -- the Tide has traditional home-and-homes with the likes of Texas, Wisconsin, Florida State and others on the books from 2022 to 2035.

2. No. 12 Oregon at No. 6 Ohio State (Sept. 11) 

The 2-time defending Pac-12 champions visit the 4-time defending Big Ten champions. Oregon's first visit to the Shoe since 1987, in another return visit for a home-and-home that never happened. The Pac-12's brand is at its lowest point in recent memory, and so snapping the league's 4-year Playoff drought may depend on the Ducks' ability to leave Columbus with a victory.

1. No. 4 Georgia vs. No. 3 Clemson, at Charlotte (Sept. 4)

Holy crap. Ho-leee crap. They're actually gonna play this game (knock on wood).

This meeting of on-again, off-again rivals will be a clash of AP Top 5 teams, at a minimum. It's Georgia's 5-star Californian QB JT Daniels vs. Clemson's 5-star Californian QB DJ Uiagalelei. It's college football's preeminent DIY dynasty taking on a program with all the pieces to win a title but hasn't broken through yet.

A 2013 opening night win over No. 5 Georgia was a major part of the Clemson dynasty's origin story, and now Kirby Smart will try to return the favor as Dabo Swinney's team enters this game as the hunted, not hunter. Based on what we know of the Playoff's 7-year history, the loser of this game will have to win out from here to play for a national title, while the winner moves to the front of the line for the No. 1 seed.

We know what's waiting for us. Now it's on all of us to do what it takes to make sure these games happen.