Best in class
Breaking down the season's top nonconference college football games
College football has a ripe tradition of staging big-time intersectional games, and although those games have become less frequent as teams have grown hesitant to schedule tougher opponents, some of the best games of 2009 will come outside conference play.
We take a look at 10 intriguing nonconference matchups that could play key roles in the national title picture and bowl selections. Some of these are rematches, some are new and some are at neutral sites you wouldn't necessarily expect to host a college tilt.
These are nonconference games that are not scheduled every season. So you won't see USC-Notre Dame, Florida-Florida State or the like.
No. 13 Georgia at No. 9 Oklahoma State, Saturday (3:30 p.m., ABC)All times Eastern. Associated Press rankings included on all games, for preseason perspective.
First time for everything
Here are some BCS teams enjoying first-time meetings with their opponents:
Eastern Kentucky at Indiana
North Dakota State at Iowa State
Central Michigan at Arizona
Idaho State at Arizona State
Charleston Southern at Florida
Northern Colorado at Kansas
Jackson State at Mississippi State
Florida Atlantic at Nebraska
Western Kentucky at Tennessee
Towson at Northwestern
Nevada at Notre Dame
Louisiana Monroe at Texas
North Dakota at Texas Tech
Wofford at USF
West Carolina at Vanderbilt
Liberty at West Virginia
Friday, Sept. 11
Colorado at Toledo
Saturday, Sept. 12
Eastern Washington at California
S.E. Missouri State at Cincinnati
Kansas at UTEP
Air Force at Minnesota
Louisiana Tech at Navy
Arkansas State at Nebraska
Murray State at North Carolina State
Idaho State at Oklahoma
Stanford at Wake Forest
Saturday, Sept. 19
Louisiana Monroe at Arizona State
Duke at Kansas
Kansas State at UCLA
S.E. Louisiana at Mississippi
Furman at Missouri
Gardner-Webb at North Carolina State
Northern Illinois at Purdue
Florida International at Rutgers
Utah State at Texas A&M
Virginia at Southern Miss
SMU at Washington State
Wofford at Wisconsin
Saturday, Sept. 26
Fresno State at Cincinnati
North Carolina Central at Duke
USF at Florida State
Southern Miss at Kansas
Louisiana-Lafayette at Nebraska
Western Kentucky at Navy
Grambling State at Oklahoma State
Maine at Syracuse
Ohio at Tennessee
Alabama Birmingham at Texas A&M
Saturday, Oct. 3
Arkansas State at Iowa
Kent State at Baylor
Texas Southern at Rutgers
Saturday, Oct. 10
Eastern Illinois at Penn State
Indiana at Virginia
Georgia Southern at North Carolina
Saturday, Oct. 17
Alabama Birmingham at Mississippi
Delaware State at Michigan
Saturday, Oct. 31
Eastern Michigan at Arkansas
Coastal Carolina at Clemson
Arkansas State at Louisville
New Mexico State at Ohio State
Saturday, Nov. 7
Northern Arizona at Mississippi
Saturday, Nov. 21
Connecticut at Notre Dame
Florida International at Florida
Friday, Nov. 27
Illinois at Cincinnati
Saturday, Dec. 5
Fresno State at Illinois
Oklahoma State returns quarterback Zac Robinson and wide receiver Dez Bryant, while Georgia must have players step up in place of Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno. The Cowboys have won 13 consecutive home openers, and they certainly have their work cut out for them to continue the streak in Stillwater.
Georgia coach Mark Richt is not too happy with the travel. The Bulldogs played at Arizona State in Week 4 last season, something Richt said took a toll over the season.
"I'm not that thrilled about it," Richt told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. "One of the biggest issues with it, just living through the Arizona State travel, that's a tough trip to fly all the way over there and come back and be ready to keep grinding. The travel part is tougher than who you're playing."
No. 20 BYU vs. No. 3 Oklahoma in Arlington, Texas, Saturday
(7 p.m., ESPN)
In the inaugural college football game at the new, 80,000-seat Cowboys Stadium, this will be just the second time these schools meet. BYU smashed the Sooners 31-6 in the 1994 Copper Bowl. Also note that BYU is 5-2 against BCS schools.
The tilt features reigning Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford of Oklahoma (who set an NCAA record with a 180.84 passer rating in 2008) against BYU's Max Hall (the nephew of former Dallas quarterback Danny White).
This is part of a five-year agreement between the Dallas Cowboys and ESPN for an opening-weekend college game at their opulent digs.
"We appreciate the unique opportunity of being part of the first college game played in the new home of the Dallas Cowboys," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said earlier this year. "Given the strong football traditions of Oklahoma, BYU and the Dallas Cowboys, it's a fitting matchup and a perfect venue for what should be a great football game."
No. 5 Alabama vs. No. 7 Virginia Tech in Atlanta, Saturday
(8 p.m., ABC)
This is part of a series of annual ACC-SEC nonconference openers. The second Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome already has been dubbed by some the Daytona 500 of college football for its BCS bowl atmosphere and early influence on national title talk. Last season, upstart Alabama damaged highly rated Clemson's national title hopes and raised its own with a 34-10 victory. (Click here for the complete details on the game and Hotlanta itself.)
"I think any time you play a national program, a quality program like Alabama, a program that is ranked as high as they were last year, I think that our players are excited," Hokies coach Frank Beamer said during an ACC teleconference. "I know our fans are. Been hearing some things about ticket sales, and there's no question they're excited about opening up with Alabama there in Atlanta."
While in A-Town, you also can catch the Reds and Braves from Friday through Sunday at Turner Field.
No. 4 USC at No. 6 Ohio State,
Sept. 12 (8 p.m., ESPN)
In a rematch of last year's game in Los Angeles, the Trojans head into Ohio Stadium minus outgoing quarterback Mark Sanchez and significant parts of their outstanding defense. Something, namely a fleet of talented running backs, suggests USC won't fall too far.
For the Buckeyes, quarterback Terrelle Pryor shared QB duties early last season and many in Columbus expect this to serve as his breakout game as the primary play caller.
USC has won six consecutive games in the series, including three Rose Bowls, and has not lost to Ohio State since 1974's Granddaddy of Them All.
Despite being one of the most successful teams in the country, the Buckeyes have a reputation of blowing big games and can correct that in a hurry with a victory over the Trojans in The Horseshoe. USC, on the other hand, has lost games it has no business losing, and promptly fell at Oregon State after its impressive triumph over the Buckeyes last season.
(Scheduling note: After its date with the Buckeyes, USC again travels to the Northwest, this time to Seattle for a date with Washington. Do we smell upset? Or maybe even the first taste of victory for UW since -- what -- 2007? The Huskies -- oh, yes, we remember now, winless in 2008 -- host No. 11 LSU and Idaho before hosting the Trojans.)
NFL fans can double down on their USC-OSU odyssey by traveling southwest to catch the Broncos at the Bengals or northeast to see the Vikings at the Browns -- both 1 p.m. kickoffs on Sunday.
No. 24 Nebraska at No. 7 Virginia Tech, Sept. 19 (3:30 p.m., ABC)
This will be Nebraska's first trip to Blacksburg and perhaps its toughest game of the season outside of Oklahoma. Virginia Tech can't be accused of dodging good teams, as we've seen herein with its opener against Alabama. The Hokies open the ACC season against Miami a week after hosting the Cornhuskers.
This is Nebraska's only nonconference game not against a Sun Belt team, as the Huskers' other matchups are at home against Florida Atlantic, Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette.
Last season in Lincoln, Virginia Tech raced to a 28-10 lead midway through the third quarter before Nebraska came back. The Huskers had a chance to win before fumbling the ball away in the final seconds. The Hokies held on for a 35-30 decision.
As part of the rematch adventure, NFL followers can make the haul to the D.C. area to catch the Rams at the Redskins at 1 p.m. on Sept. 20. And you baseball aficionados can motor to Baltimore for the Orioles' homestand Sept. 18-20 against the Red Sox.
No. 19 Utah at No. 16 Oregon, Sept. 19 (3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Following a 19-8 loss to No. 14 Boise State on Thursday night, the Ducks now know they have much work to do if they want to be in the Pac-10 title hunt. This will be Oregon's final nonconference game and will come a week before California arrives in Eugene. The Utes likely will be riding a 16-game win streak but also likely will get their toughest test of the season in front of Autzen Stadium's Quack Attack.
This will be Utah's highest-profile game and its only one before a national TV audience. It lost several key players on offense but returns seven starters on defense.
Oregon leads the all-time series 17-8. Utah won the previous meeting in 2003 but hasn't won in Eugene since 1994.
There's doubleheader potential on this fine day in the Beaver State, as Oregon State hosts Cincinnati an hour's drive north in Corvallis at 6:45 p.m.
No. 17 TCU at Clemson, Sept. 26 (game time TBD)
If TCU wants to earn any national respect, it must win this game in one of the nation's most colorful and toughest atmospheres -- Death Valley. The Horned Frogs play at Virginia just two weeks before this game.
The game comes 50 years after the teams' first meeting, a 23-7 Clemson win over the seventh-ranked Frogs in the inaugural Bluebonnet Bowl in 1959.
This is just the second time in 20 years Clemson has hosted at infamous Memorial Stadium a nonconference team that had been ranked in the top 10 the year before. Also adding intrigue to the matchup is that TCU coach Gary Patterson had been rumored to be a candidate for the Clemson job in the fall.
"This is a program that has been very good for some time under Gary Patterson," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told media. "It is a game I know our fans will be excited about, because this is one of the top programs in the nation, especially on defense."
South Florida at No. 18 Florida State, Sept. 26 (game time TBD)
This is the first meeting between these two schools; a second game is slated for September 2012 in Tampa.
USF received an initial allotment of 5,000 tickets, then got an additional 2,500 ducats for the tilt in Tallahassee.
"This is a milestone moment for our program and a tremendous opportunity for our players," USF coach Jim Leavitt said in a news release. "Florida State has a great football tradition, and we have a tremendous amount of respect for them."
The Bulls are 3-2 against the ACC. It apparently has gotten the attention of FSU coach Bobby Bowden.
"You usually try to find somebody that you've got a chance to win, instead of getting your nose bloodied," Bowden told the St. Petersburg Times.
No. 3 Oklahoma at Miami, Oct. 3 (game time TBD)
Oklahoma returns to the stadium (now renamed Land Shark Stadium) where it had a chance to win the national title in January.
Oklahoma has lost its past two games played in Miami -- the national title game against Florida last season and the 2005 Orange Bowl, also for all the marbles, against USC.
Miami will prepare for this game by hosting No. 18 Florida State and No. 15 Georgia Tech, then playing at No. 7 Virginia Tech.
On Sunday of the football weekend, Dolphins fans will get their first look at Terrell Owens and the Bills.
Washington State vs. No. 23 Notre Dame in San Antonio, Oct. 31
(7:30 p.m., NBC)
OK, before you go thinking this is a Halloween trick, consider this game is really a treat for the football faithful in San Antonio, where the Irish will be the home team at the Alamodome in a nationally televised contest. However you think of it, this is just the type of game that tripped up the Irish last season and comes after games against No. 4 USC and Boston College.
Notre Dame is trying to spread its fan base by scheduling neutral-site games. Playing in San Antonio for the first time will give the Irish the opportunity to help recruit the talented state of Texas, as well as play in one of the nation's Roman Catholic strongholds. The Irish are 5-0 in neutral-site games during the regular season and have won eight in a row against Pac-10 schools other than USC. (And Notre Dame again will see plenty of other Pac-10 teams this season, with Washington, No. 4 USC and Stanford also on their schedule.)
The Cougars, who lost to the Irish 29-26 in overtime in 2003, have made one previous appearance at the Alamodome, earning a 10-3 victory over Baylor in the 1994 Alamo Bowl.
Seahawks fans can make this a Texas two-step by heading to Arlington on Sunday to see their squad take on the Cowboys.
Tony Guadagnoli is a freelance writer in western Washington. He is the national college football examiner for Examiner.com. To read more of his work, click here.
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