The toughest part of evaluating teams in college football is what could best be described as its lack of connectivity. You’ve got more than 120 teams on the FBS level, most of which play three or four non-conference games per season that are under their control. Factor in that teams from the power conferences such as the SEC and Big Ten generally play only one game a year against a team from another power conference, and you end up with judgment calls made based on “wins by association”: Team X beats Team Y; Team Z beats Team X; therefore, Team Z earns some type of derivative win over Team Y.
It’s why we’re hearing stats like “the Big 12 went 4-6 in non-conference games versus Power 5 opponents” and “the SEC West went undefeated in games outside the conference.” Those kinds of statements are trotted out right now when comparing the bona fides of playoff contenders. They supposedly say something about the quality of the resumes of Alabama or TCU.
Should those kinds of data points have any relevance? Probably not. Unfortunately, we kinda have to care about them because we have so little to go on otherwise.
With that in mind, here are the five best non-conference wins of the season, ranked in order based on strength of opponent, where the game was played, and the winner’s level of dominance.
1. Virginia Tech 35, Ohio State 21 (Sept. 6)
The Hokies took advantage of J.T. Barrett’s inexperience in his second start, picking OSU’s quarterback off three times en route to the upset in Columbus. The win didn’t do much to kickstart Virginia Tech’s season, but it’s one of the most influential results in the broader picture of the year. OSU has cruised through its Big Ten slate so far, but the loss could leave the Buckeyes outside the final four.
2. Georgia Tech 30, Georgia 24 (Nov. 29)
With the Bulldogs’ hopes of an SEC East title dashed a day earlier by Missouri, the Yellow Jackets pulled out an overtime win at Sanford Stadium versus their in-state rivals. A (very) chaotic final weekend could have Georgia Tech jockeying for a spot in the playoff, in which case this win would loom large for its chances.
(ACC teams in the top two spots could provide some interesting talking points this week for John Swofford if the conference’s commissioner were so inclined.)
3. Indiana 31, Missouri 27 (Sept. 20)
Speaking of Missouri and talking points, “Missouri lost to Indiana” has generated plenty of fodder for the SEC-weary this season. A division champ falling at home to a Big Ten bottom-feeder throws at least a little shade at the SEC’s purported superiority. If the Tigers somehow manage to knock off Alabama in the SEC Championship Game this weekend, the conference probably won’t have a representative in the playoff, which would have a lot to do with this game.
4. Auburn 20, Kansas State 14 (Sept. 18)
These two good-but-not-great squads played to a near standstill in Manhattan early in the season. This time, however, it was Bill Snyder’s team that out-mistaked its opponent, as ill-timed turnovers and special teams miscues essentially handed a win to the Tigers.
Given Auburn’s struggles down the stretch this year, SEC partisans could put plenty of emphasis on the importance of this win for the league.
5. Oregon 46, Michigan State 27 (Sept. 6)
A decent argument exists that this game should be No. 1 on this list. However, drawing MSU at Autzen Stadium shades the degree of difficulty down a little for the Ducks. Plus, the score of this game is a little misleading, as Oregon didn’t really pull away from Sparty until the fourth quarter.
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