The 2021 college football season is less than two weeks away, meaning non-conference games are on the horizon. Most of them will occur in the first few weeks, but a few will be scattered throughout the regular season. For some, it can be a meaningful rivalry game; for others, it can be an upset that defines their season; and for the playoff contenders, it can be a résumé booster down the line.
Despite a conference-heavy slate last year due to COVID-19, non-conference games still lived up to expectations. BYU's Week 1 sinking of Navy (55-3) was a sign to come for the rest of their season. In Week 2, the Sun Belt went 3-0 against Big 12 schools (Louisiana over Iowa State 31-14, Arkansas State over Kansas State 35-31, and Coastal Carolina over Kansas 38-23). Week 3 involved a defensive showdown between Marshall and Appalachian State, a Group of Five matchup between two teams generally in the upper echelon of their respective conferences.
Finally, who could forget the potential Game of the Year in the battle of “Mormons versus Mullets” that was scheduled just days in advance between BYU and Coastal Carolina?
With the season getting back to usual, the non-conference games are back and better than ever. Below are a handful of the most highly anticipated such contests of the season and the best spread bets (and one total).
Clemson Tigers vs. Georgia Bulldogs, Sept. 4
Best Bet: UNDER 52
Yes, this isn't a spread pick. But it's an enticing matchup with a total that is hard to ignore.
ESPN's College GameDay kicks off the season in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a matchup between top-five teams: No. 2 Clemson versus No. 4 Georgia. One program will have College Football Playoff hopes by the end of the contest, while the losing team will be on thin ice if it suffers another defeat down the road.
Clemson's last outing was a 49-28 defeat to the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Sugar Bowl. Now, they will have to replace three-year starter Trevor Lawrence and four-year starter Travis Etienne at quarterback and running back, respectively.
Lawrence’s replacement, former five-star D.J. Uiagalelei, started two games last season while Lawrence was sidelined due to COVID-19. He put up PFF passing grades of 83.2 versus Boston College and 76.5 at Notre Dame, finishing with five touchdowns and zero interceptions on the year.
Five-star true freshman running back Will Shipley will need to shoulder a big load in the running game. Although the Tigers lose their top two receivers in Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell, they reload at the position once again. Expect more from E.J. Williams, Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata (all former four-star recruits), but the biggest returner is Justyn Ross (91.2 receiving grade in 2018, 79.0 receiving grade in 2019). He did not play last year after undergoing spinal surgery.
For Georgia, a win against the Cincinnati Bearcats in the Peach Bowl provides momentum for the start of their 2021 season. JT Daniels missed the first half of the season while recovering from a torn ACL. He made his debut against Mississippi State, throwing for 401 yards and 4 touchdowns en route to a 94.8 passing grade.
The Bulldogs were 4-0 and won the Peach Bowl with Daniels under center, but despite his 392-yard passing performance against the Bearcats, he earned only a 52.8 passing grade due to four turnover-worthy plays and three sacks. That was largely due to a ferocious Bearcats defense that pressured him 15 times. Luckily, Georgia returns its top five running backs and essential pass-catchers, minus George Pickens (torn ACL). Arik Gilbert also transfers in from LSU (73.0 receiving grade).