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Ranking college football's best September nonconference games of 2020

Sporting News — (Bill Bender)

LSU won the College Football Playoff championship game on Monday, ending the 2019 college football season.

You know we're already looking forward to September, right? The first month of the season features more than enough nonconference matchups worth talking about in the spring and summer, and that doesn't even include awesome conference matchups like Georgia at Alabama (Sept. 19) or big-time matchups that fall later in the season, such as Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin at Lambeau Field (Oct. 3) or Clemson at Notre Dame (Nov. 7).

Think those early nonconference games don't matter? Just ask Oregon, which missed the 2019 Playoff due in part to a season-opening loss to Auburn in Arlington. Better yet, ask LSU, which kickstarted one of the best campaigns in college football history with a 45-38 shootout win vs. Texas in Austin.

But those games are in the past. Now, we are focused on the best nonconference matchups that will define the early part of the season (omitting traditional in-state crossover games such as Iowa State-Iowa).

Here are the 13 best games:

MORE: Sporting News' way-too-early top 25 for 2020

13. Florida State vs. West Virginia (Sept. 5)

The Chick-Fil-A Kickoff game opens with a fun matchup with two fan bases looking to break through. Mike Norvell will make his FSU debut against a West Virginia team that should be much-improved in Neal Brown's second season. The Seminoles better get this one, too — they travel to Boise State two weeks later.

12. Colorado at Texas A&M (Sept. 19)

This is an under-the-radar matchup and a throwback to the old Big 12 days. Texas A&M, in Year 3 under Jimbo Fisher, had better nonconference matchups against Clemson the last two seasons. But the Aggies would be wise not to look past Mel Tucker and the Buffaloes, who are looking to build on a 5-7 season.

11. Miami at Michigan State (Sept. 26)

These two programs will be questioned for their direction all season, but there's a decent chance the winner of this game will be ranked. Mark Dantonio is trying to get the Spartans back in the Big Ten East hunt, and Miami is still on the long road to respectability under Manny Diaz. A victory in East Lansing would help.

10. Ole Miss vs. Baylor (Sept. 5)

The “Lane Train” makes its first stop at NRG Stadium in Houston for what should be an entertaining game with the Bears, who must replace 2019 SN Coach of the Year Matt Rhule after making the Sugar Bowl. This figures to be a fun, offensive-styled shootout that should spice up opening weekend.

MORE: Sporting News' final rankings of 2019

9. Navy vs. Notre Dame (Aug. 29)

The Irish and Midshipmen will head to Dublin, Ireland to kick off the college football season in Week 0, and Ian Book's return for the Irish will be the focus of this game. The last time these teams met in Dublin (2012), Notre Dame won in a 50-10 blowout. This one should be much closer.

8. Georgia vs. Virginia (Sept. 7)

The Labor Day special features the Bulldogs and Cavaliers in a classic SEC-vs.-ACC matchup in Atlanta. Both teams are coming off seasons in which they made New Year’s Day 6 bowls, and both teams will have new quarterbacks under center. Can the Cavaliers shake up the season with an upset?

7. Penn State at Virginia Tech (Sept. 12)

The Nittany Lions are stepping out to Blacksburg, and it's on Virginia Tech to win this game given their struggles against top-10 opponents under Justin Fuente (0-4). Penn State will be one such team, and it will have a chance to score a key nonconference win before turning to Big Ten play.

6. USC vs. Alabama (Sept. 5)

The Crimson Tide and Trojans meet at Jerry World again. Alabama won the last meeting there 52-6 in 2016, a game in which Nick Saban discovered Jalen Hurts as his quarterback of the future. He may have to do so again now that Tua Tagovailoa has declared for the NFL draft. For Clay Helton and the Trojans, this could be a season-shaping game. They can't get blown out again.

MORE: Inside Alabama's renewed focus on home-and-home series

5. Michigan at Washington (Sept. 5)

The Wolverines open Jim Harbaugh's sixth season with a road test against Washington and first-year coach Jimmy Lake. Both teams will have new starting quarterbacks for this game, too. There's more pressure on Michigan in this spot, which makes it that much more intriguing. The Wolverines lead this close series 7-5 and have split four road meetings at Washington.

4. Tennessee at Oklahoma (Sept. 12)

The Sooners won a 31-24 double-overtime thriller at Neyland Stadium in 2015 as part of a home-and-home they swept. Oklahoma's blue-chip credentials under Lincoln Riley will be questioned all offseason after another Playoff loss, and the Vols are trending upward under third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt. This should be another thriller.

3. North Carolina vs. Auburn (Sept. 12)

This is the third part of a tripleheader in Atlanta, and one that will feature two of the best young quarterbacks in the country in UNC's Sam Howell and Auburn's Bo Nix. For Mack Brown, this is an opportunity to show Carolina — an offseason darling-in-waiting — is for real. It's the first of several big games for Auburn and coach Gus Malzahn.

2. Texas at LSU (Sept. 12)

The Tigers and Longhorns played a 45-38 thriller in Austin this season that derailed Texas' Playoff hopes and was the beginning of a story-book season for Joe Burrow and LSU. Burrow won't be there for the rematch at Tiger Stadium, but Sam Ehlinger will — and with the same high stakes on the line.

1. Ohio State at Oregon (Sept. 12)

This might be the only guaranteed top-10 nonconference matchup in September. Second-year coach Ryan Day will lead the Buckeyes on the road in what will be a massive early-season piece of the Playoff puzzle (not to mention a rematch of the 2015 Playoff championship game). For Mario Cristobal, this game — sandwiched between nonconference opponents North Dakota State and Hawaii — is a chance to prove the Ducks belong.