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As another college football season nears, I'd like to take an in-depth look at each school's non-conference schedule and see what interesting points can be discovered.
Best Overall Games
1 - Ohio St at USC, September 13 This is the big one. These two teams have been dominant on an annual basis during the BCS era. These two teams have squared off in the Rose Bowl seven times (USC leads series 4-3 with wins in the last three.) These two teams are early national championship contenders. These two teams really need this win to stay in the hunt to play in Miami on January 8, 2009. As a college football fan, there is not a better regular season game than this one.
2 - Georgia at Arizona St, September 20 Georgia finished last season as the hottest team in the country and will probably be a preseason Top 5 team. Arizona St and first year head coach Dennis Erickson won 10 games and were in the hunt for a conference championship until the end of the season. Both teams will be looking to make a statement before the conference schedule is in full swing.
3 - Auburn at West Virginia, October 23 The two most notable things about this game are its late date in the thick of the conference schedule and the fact that it's on a Thursday night. Both teams have a bye the previous week, so I don't think the midweek date will affect the outcome much. Auburn has a relatively easy road schedule, so this will be one of the only times they will be tested away from home. West Virginia will have broken in their new head coach Bill Stewart by week nine of the season. It's difficult to pick this game before I see these teams play.
4 - Tennessee at UCLA, September 1 The dropoff from the first three games to this one is significant. Looking at this game reminds me of how much risk is involved in creating elite matchups without much reward. This game looks great on paper between two storied programs, but don't forget that UCLA finished last season with a losing record after the bowl game and replaced their coach. New coach Rick Neuheisel has proven that he can win, but it's hard to imagine him doing so in the first game against a team like Tennessee. Hopefully I'm wrong and we'll get to see a great game on the Monday after opening weekend.
5 - Virginia Tech at Nebraska, September 27 Very similar to the previous game since it has a famous program with a new head coach trying to turn the program around playing host to another famous program in better shape. The two things that could make it a better matchup is that Nebraska will have had a few weeks to get used to Bo Pelini's system, and Virginia Tech isn't the type of team to score points in bunches.
6 - Wisconsin at Fresno St, September 13 Both teams will begin the season with hopes of a BCS bowl game. The loser will suffer a setback that might prevent those dreams from coming true. This game reminds me a lot of the Missouri-Illinois game last season, where nobody thought much of it until the end of the season and the teams had a combined 21 wins. Don't be surprised if Wisconsin and Fresno St combine for as many or more wins when the season is over.
7 - Cincinnati at Oklahoma, September 6 I debated putting this game on the list, because it's likely that Oklahoma will win big. I decided to add it since Cincinnati had a huge first year under head coach Brian Kelly, and now they have the chance to play a 'prove-it' game against a team with national title aspirations. I'm not a big believer in moral victories, but just showing that you belong on the same field as Oklahoma is a step in the right direction. If Oklahoma wins 51-13 like they did last year against Miami, well that wouldn't surprise me either.
8 - Kansas at South Florida, September 13 Two teams square off that found themselves in the national spotlight last year. South Florida won its first six games including matchups against Auburn and West Virginia. Three straight losses took them out of the spotlight and the chance for a Big East title, but now the average fan was aware of them. Kansas started off an amazing 11-0 before falling to Missouri. The Jayhawks made it to their first BCS bowl where they defeated Virginia Tech. Kansas' meteoric rise was much more surprising to me, so I wouldn't be surprised if they came back to earth this season. South Florida looks like they have more staying power and will probably be favored in this game. This game would have been even more fun if it had happened last season, but still should be a good matchup this season.
9 - Clemson vs Alabama in Atlanta, August 30 Here are two teams with a lot of potential and a lot of question marks, and they'll both be showcased in one of the most intriguing games of the opening weekend. Clemson will probably have their best team in years, but they haven't shown the ability to get over the hump and have a huge season. Alabama is waiting on the Return on Investment on the highest paid head coach in the country. Whichever team gets the victory will have an excellent starting point for the rest of the year.
10 - UCLA at BYU, September 13 No matter how many times these two teams play each other, I know I won't get tired of watching it. UCLA won the regular season matchup while BYU took the victory in the bowl game. BYU should have an even better team than last year's 11-2 squad and will have home field advantage. UCLA upgraded their coach and will have been battle-tested after the Tennessee game. On a weekend with several fun matchups, don't let this one go unnoticed.
Paper Games (Games that look good on paper, but I don't expect a close game)
1 - USC at Virginia, August 30 Anyone else surprised that this is their first meeting? USC has impressed me during the Pete Carroll era with their non-conference slates. USC has the 'anyone, anytime, anywhere' attitude that every elite team should. The only problem is that most teams can't compete with USC. Virginia is one of those teams.
2 - Missouri vs Illinois in St. Louis, August 30 Everybody is going to hop on this bandwagon a year late. Missouri should be just as good as last year if not better, but I fully expect Illinois to regress a lot. I don't think anybody will be able to fill Rashard Mendenhall's shoes and the offense will suffer. Mizzou in a route.
3 - Miami at Florida, September 6 Miami has fallen into the category of former great programs until they show me something different. Just to remind you how far they've fallen, let's take a look at what they accomplished last season. They went 5-7 and missed a bowl game. That doesn't sound too terrible until you see that three of the five wins were against Marshall, FIU, and Duke. Those three teams won a combined five games last season. That's not the kind of team that keeps a national title contender like Florida up at night.
4 - Arkansas at Texas, September 13 Normally this game would be in the Top Ten non-conference games. I have to put it here because of the heavy personnel losses incurred by Arkansas added to a new head coach coming in. Bobby Petrino will need time to rebuild the Arkansas program, so Texas should win easily this time around.
5 - Oklahoma at Washington, September 13 Washington seems like it's always one of the trendy picks for a big turnaround season, except it never happens. Oklahoma will again be one of the best teams in the country. Don't listen to any potential upset rumors about this game.
Under the Radar Games (Games that won't get the national attention they deserve)
1 - Utah at Michigan, August 30 Actually this game might become a trendy upset pick later. Be the first to predict the upset in a game that could be eerily similar to Michigan's opener last season. Michigan has a ton of problems, but they will need to be prepared for a Utah team that has improved every year under head coach Kyle Whittingham.
2 - Virginia Tech vs East Carolina in Charlotte, August 30 Remember how close this game was last season? This time it's being played at a neutral site.
3 - Oregon St at Penn St, September 6 Oregon St never seems to get any national recognition, but an early win in State College could change all that. As an added bonus, everybody will be making jokes about how the Beavers are going to play at Beaver Stadium.
4 - Michigan St at California, August 30 It's a shame that this game will get lost in the shuffle of all of the interesting games on opening weekend. Both teams finished last season with a 7-6 record, but both showed great potential. California started out hot with big wins over Tennessee and Oregon, but then crashed and burned over the second half of the season. Michigan St lost six games, but none of them were by more than a touchdown, and two were in overtime.
- Oddly enough, that's the third Big Ten - Pac Ten matchup mentioned in this column. Add in the Oregon - Purdue game on September 13, and it seems like everyone wants to be in a mini-Rose Bowl to start the season
5 - Iowa at Pittsburgh, September 20 Like Washington, I'm always hearing about how Pitt is going to turn it around every year. Similarly, I always hear about how great a coach Kirk Ferentz of Iowa is. After three seasons of mediocrity from both teams, I'm having trouble believing both of those statements. So why is this game on the list? Because it wouldn't surprise me if winning this game is the difference between going bowling or not for both teams. I have to include a game that has that much implication on the postseason.
Best Non-BCS games (Games that involve at least one non-BCS team not mentioned previously)
1 - Boise St at Southern Miss, October 11 This game didn't live up to the hype last season, but I'm giving it another chance since it won't be on the Smurf Turf this time.
2 - Colorado St vs Colorado in Denver, August 30 The Rocky Mountain Showdown is a great rivalry game that has been decided by a touchdown or less in each of the past six seasons.
3 - UCF at Miami, October 11 I'm not sure if UCF has the talent to play with Miami, but I won't have to speculate for much longer. The two teams battle it out on the field midway through the season.
4 - BYU at Washington, September 6 Beating a Pac-10 team on the road is always good publicity and would be a huge confidence boost going into my #10 Best Non-Conference Game the following week.
5 - Tulsa at Arkansas, November 1 The high octane Tulsa offense catches Arkansas in what will be a definite down year for them. Todd Graham coached teams are known for not playing much defense, but all of Arkansas' offensive firepower has to be replaced. I don't think the Razorbacks can win a shootout with the Golden Hurricane.
- Fresno St and East Carolina's non-conference slates are good enough to be mentioned in the next section instead of on a game-by-game basis here
Best Non-Conference Schedules (In alphabetical order)
- Colorado St in Denver, August 30
- Eastern Washington, September 6
- West Virginia, September 18
- Florida St in Jacksonville, September 27
The FCS game does nothing for me, but I love the rest of the list. I already mentioned the rivalry game, and dates with West Virginia and Florida St make this one of the best.
- Virginia Tech in Charlotte, August 30
- West Virginia, September 6
- @ NC State, September 20
- @ Virginia, October 11
No non-BCS team schedules as well and as aggressively as East Carolina. The Pirates are trying to prove that they belong in a BCS conference by scheduling like they are already in one.
- @ Rutgers, September 1
- Wisconsin, September 13
- @ Toledo, September 20
- @ UCLA, September 27
Fresno St is known as a BCS killer, and they will have three more chances this season to add to that reputation.
- Tennessee, September 1
- @ BYU, September 13
- Fresno St, September 27
Pac-10 teams only play three non-conference games, and UCLA made the most of them. I'm excited about all of these games.
- @ Virginia, August 30
- Ohio St, September 13
- Notre Dame, November 29
The Trojans almost always impress me with their scheduling. Again they do not disappoint, although the aforementioned Virginia game probably won't be that competitive.
- Villanova, August 30
- @ East Carolina, September 6
- @ Colorado, September 18
- Marshall, September 27
- Auburn, October 23
I don't like the tune up against 'Nova, but the other four are games I want to watch. They play one of the best overall games, two good road games, and in-state rival Marshall.
Worst Non-Conference Schedules (in alphabetical order)
- Western Kentucky, August 30
- Murray St, September 6
- Ball St, September 20
- Central Michigan, November 1
The Hoosiers should make it to another bowl game with this slate of home games.
- FIU, August 30
- Louisiana Tech, September 6
- @ South Florida, September 13
- Sam Houston St, September 20
One great game against USF doesn't make up for another season of scheduling down in every other game.
- North Texas, August 30
- Montana St, September 6
- @ Louisville, September 17
- Louisiana Lafayette, September 27
The Wildcats get a spot here for wussing out of an opening game against Fresno St, not to mention scheduling down in three games like their Sunflower State rival above.
- Appalachian St, August 30
- Troy, September 6
- North Texas, September 13
- Tulane, November 1
Part of me likes the idea of the defending FBS and FCS champions playing in the first weekend. I just don't like that it could be the toughest opponent the Tigers face out of conference.
- Eastern Washington, August 30
- @ Nevada, September 6
- SMU, September 13
- Massachusetts, September 20
The best Texas Tech team in years will be playing one of the weakest non-conference slates. Embarrassing and sad.