While the college football season is still more than eight months away, it's never too early to look at some of the most intriguing games in the season to come. For most teams, non-conference season has become a way to fill up schedules with the Florida Atlantics and UTEPs of college football to add to win totals, but there are still plenty of great games to make up for those 64-0 nothing blowouts.
From traditional non-conference rivalries to games with rising mid-majors that have huge national implications, 2010 has one of the best non-conference slates that college football has seen in a long time. And most of the top teams have thrown in at least one challenge among the cupcakes.
Here's a look at the 25 non-conference clashes that I'll be looking forward to come September.
No. 25: Navy vs. Notre Dame @ East Rutherford, NJ
After a 40+ year losing streak against the Irish, Navy suddenly has a two game winning streak against Notre Dame, making this series very interesting.
The last two games between the teams ended up being thrillers, and there is no reason to believe this one won't be any different.
Notre Dame loses most of its offensive production in quarterback Jimmy Claussen and wide receiver Golden Tate. Navy, meanwhile, whould have a very good team once again, especially running the football. The Midshipmen's triple option offense is one of the best rushing attacks in the country and should give Notre Dame a lot of trouble.
Notre Dame has a shot in this game, though, mainly because the New York location is essentially a home game for the Irish. But nevertheless, they need to play Navy much better than they have in previous years.
No. 24: Houston at Texas Tech
The 2009 version of Houston vs. Texas Tech was a season-defining game for the Cougars. Star quarterback Case Keenum leads one of the best passing offenses in the country and helped his team gain national respect following the win over the Red Raiders. With nine offensive starters returning, the Houston offense could be even better in 2010, a scary thought for any of its opponents.
The Texas Tech program has many more question marks surrounding it, mainly the dismissal of head coach Mike Leach. However, his replacement, former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, has a lot to work with on offense. Quarterbacks Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield both have the ability to throw for over 500 yards in a game and help the Red Raider offense rival Houston as one of the best passing attacks in the country.
With two unbelievable passing attacks facing off, expect a shootout in Lubbock in November. Both teams will likely be fighting for bowl placement, and a win in this game would be a big boost for either one.
No. 23: Florida State at Oklahoma
Both Florida State and Oklahoma are in somewhat unknown territory entering this decade. Both programs are in decline, and Florida State just lost legendary coach Bobby Bowden to "retirement". After winning their respective bowl games, both teams have some momentum heading into 2010 and hope that momentum can turn into wins.
This game means much more to Florida State than Oklahoma. The Seminoles haven't been able to start off on the right foot over the past few seasons, causing them to barely scrape by and barely make a bowl game. 2010 looks more promising, but a letdown in Norman could lead to another season of mediocrity.
Meanwhile, the Sooners are looking to make it back to the Big 12 elite after a disappointing season. Quarterback Landry Jones needs to be more consistent after a very streaky 2009. This would be a big win for Oklahoma, which will be under a lot of pressure to improve. A win in this game could signal a Sooner revival, but a loss could lead to another season of mediocrity and put coach Bob Stoops on the hot seat.
No. 22: BYU at Florida State
Yet another big game for Florida State, which will need to perform well in the non-conference season to help catapult it to the top of the ACC. FSU gets BYU at home this season after Christian Ponder and company led the Seminoles on a 54-28 rout of the Cougars last year in Provo.
BYU will also come into the season with high expectations, especially because its legacy as one of the top non-Big Six schools is starting to be overtaken by other teams, such as Boise State, TCU, and Utah. The loss of quarterback Max Hall definitely hurts, and the Cougars will lack experience heading into this early season matchup, which could mean a loss in Tallahassee. But a win would give BYU tremendous confidence and mean a big boost in the top 25 rankings.
No. 21: Nebraska at Washington
Washington is one of the most confusing teams I’ve ever seen. At the beginning of the season, the Huskies looked like a top 25 caliber team with a win against USC and a close loss to LSU. Head coach Steve Sarkisian clearly has his team headed in the right direction, and he might have turned the Huskies into a bowl team in 2010.
Nebraska is another team on the rise. The once prominent program experienced a lull in recent years, but Bo Pelini has the Cornhuskers back on track. The offense, led by quarterback Zac Lee and running back Roy Helu, will be one of the best in the Big 12 and by far the best in the Big 12 North. The defense will take a hit with the loss of Ndamukong Suh, but it still returns seven starters.
Washington will undoubtedly have its hands full when Nebraska comes to Seattle, but expect a dogfight since Sarkisian will have his team well prepared for this big test, as a win would put his team in good position to make a run at the postseason.
No. 20: Connecticut at Michigan
Considering the sorry state of Michigan football and the irrelevancy of Connecticut football, this may not be a very intriguing matchup for the average fan. But this game could shape up to be a classic.
While UCONN is known for its basketball rather than its football, the Huskies could have a very good season in 2010 and possibly contend for the Big East title. Quarterbacks Zach Frazer and Cody Endres return, headlining a very experienced team on both sides of the ball.
Michigan’s fortune is almost impossible to predict. Quarterback Tate Forcier looked like a star at the start of last season but got worse as the year progressed. Expect the offense to get better, but it won't be overwhelming. Plus, the defense will be very inexperienced, losing Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren.
But the Wolverines always play well at home, and expect a dogfight in the Big House against a team fighting for its reputation and another trying to make a name for itself.
No. 19: Arizona State at Wisconsin
After years of falling short of expectations, Arizona State has fallen off the radar. But the Sun Devils can make a name for themselves once again with a big win in Madison this September.
Wisconsin’s dominant performance in the Champs Sports Bowl has turned it into a sleeper team for the national championship in 2010. Led by quarterback Scott Tolzien and John Clay, the offense should be one of the best in the Big Ten, and the defense will also be solid.
This should be an easy win for the Badgers, but their history of bad starts and inability to put teams away could spell trouble against Arizona State. But this Wisconsin squad is much more disciplined than past teams, and it has the chance to get big win for the Big Ten.
No. 18: Arkansas vs. Texas A&M @ Arlington, TX
While it doesn’t feature two traditional powers, this matchup should be a good game against two improved teams. Both have a chance to jump into the top 25 this season after spending years as the “irrelevants” of their respective conferences.
Offense will be the strength for Arkansas, especially the passing game, with star quarterback Ryan Mallett returning. The defense should also be strong with seven starters coming back.
Texas A&M’s strength will be on defense, with 10 starters returning, but the offense should still be strong, especially with quarterback Jerrod Johnson coming back.
This game could end up being a classic strength on strength matchup, and look for it to be the premier game this season between the Big 12 and the SEC.
No. 17: Iowa at Arizona
Coming off a big win in the Orange Bowl, Iowa could head into 2010 with a top five ranking. The defense, especially the Adrian Clayborn led defensive line, may be the best in college football, and the offense will be improved as well, even after a solid 2009 season.
Arizona looks like it has finally found an identity in football, with quarterback Nick Foles leading the offense. Foles didn’t start in Arizona’s loss last year in Iowa City, but he improved as the year went on and eventually won the starting job.
But the Wildcats will still face an uphill climb in this game, especially because the Hawkeyes have improved just as much as them. Also, don’t expect a home field advantage for Arizona because of the large number of Iowa alumni in the area (they brought 20,000 fans to Sun Devil Stadium for a regular season game in 2004).
And just like the Wisconsin vs. Arizona State game, the winner will take home major bragging rights for its respective conference.
No. 16: UCLA at Texas
I’m not sure why, but this game really grabs my interest. Will it be a blowout? Probably. Would it be a better basketball game? Definitely.
I’m probably really wrong for saying this, but I think this could be an intriguing game. It’s an early season game, and Texas may have trouble due to its inexperience on offense. Quarterback Garrett Gilbert looked very impressive in the national championship game, and he will be expected to lead the offense right away.
UCLA has a lot returners on offense and may have enough to make this game interesting. Quarterback Kevin Prince returns, along with the entire offensive line. The defense may be shaky, but with the momentum coming off of the bowl comeback against Temple, UCLA might have enough to keep this one close, or maybe even pull out a win in Austin.
No. 15: Stanford at Notre Dame
Last year, this was the game that ended Charlie Weis’s career at Notre Dame and the game that solidified Jim Harbaugh’s career at Stanford.
Stanford should have a good season again in 2010, with a big chunk of players coming back. Losing running back Toby Gerhart hurts, but quarterback Andrew Luck comes back and looks like a star in the making.
Notre Dame loses the keys to its offense, quarterback Jimmy Clausen and wide receiver Golden Tate, so the defense must step up if the Irish want to regain prominence or even beat the Cardinal. But nevertheless, this game should be entertaining, like it was in 2009.
No. 14: Clemson at Auburn
After failing to meet expectations in recent years, both the Clemson and Auburn programs saw a revival under respective head coaches Dabo Swinney and Gene Chizik. Both programs will also have momentum heading into next season with bowl wins under their belts.
Clemson has constantly underachieved during the last few seasons but got back on track last year, as a close loss to Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship was all that stood between the Tigers and an Orange Bowl berth.
Auburn started off the season hot in 2009, jumping out to 5-0. After a losing streak, the Tigers bounced back to beat Northwestern in the Outback Bowl in one of the most exciting games of the bowl season. And while their game against Clemson may not live up to last season’s Outback Bowl thriller, expect a good game next September.
No. 13: Georgia Tech at Georgia
The past two years, the team that should have won this game ended up losing. Last year, ACC Champion Georgia Tech lost to an inferior Georgia team at home, and the opposite was true of the year before. Expect the unexpected again this season in what is always an entertaining game.
It’s hard to judge how good either team will be next season. Georgia is coming off a down year, with a 7-5 season and a win in the Independence Bowl, while Georgia Tech won the ACC Championship but lost a lot of key players from that team, including defensive end Derrick Morgan, running back Jonathan Dwyer, and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.
Hopefully the better team is ready, because it will be in for a tough game come November.
No. 12: West Virginia at LSU
Most years this game would be higher on the list, but both teams aren’t expected to be as dominant as they normally are. But based on names alone, this is an intriguing matchup.
Both teams underperformed in bowl games and can use this game to regain momentum early into 2010. LSU’s poor clock management ruined its chances in the Capital One Bowl, and West Virginia blew a big early lead to Florida State in the Gator Bowl.
The Mountaineers should be better than last season on both sides of the ball, especially with running back Noel Devine returning for his senior season. Losing quarterback Jarrett Brown hurts, and LSU needs to be strong on run defense. If the Tigers are able to stop Devine, they will win the game, but that’s a very difficult task. Plus, Les Miles has the clock playing against him as well.
No. 11: Miami at Pittsburgh
In all honesty, this should have been the Gator Bowl last season. Both teams got screwed over because of the Bobby Bowden vs. West Virginia matchup and should have been in much better games than the Champs Sports and Meineke Car Care Bowls. And now they get their January bowl, just nine months later.
With two great offenses, this game is almost guaranteed to be a shoot-out. Miami quarterback Jacory Harris was very inconsistent in 2009, but when he’s good, he’s great. On the flip side, Pittsburgh will rely on the run. Quarterback Bill Stull is gone, so the Panthers will count on star sophomore running back Dion Lewis to carry most of the workload.
And not only will this game jump-start the winner’s season, it just might take that team to a real January bowl.
No. 10: Utah at Notre Dame
This is another one of those games that might not be very intriguing to most college football fans but it is one that jumps out at me on the schedule.
Utah has a chance to improve the Mountain West’s BCS cause by beating one of the most storied programs in college football. Sure, that might not mean much this year, but it’s a big boost for those who think the Mountain West champion should get an automatic BCS berth.
After the magical Sugar Bowl season, the Utes were overshadowed by fellow non-Big Six teams Boise State and TCU but had an impressive win against California in the Poinsettia Bowl. They have played very well against non-Big Six teams in recent history and need to keep that trend going in this game to gain more national respect.
No. 9: Pittsburgh at Utah
…and speaking of Utah. This is another essential win for the Utes and for the rest of the Mountain West Conference. A win against Pitt would mean that the top of the Mountain West can play with the top of the Big East and—you guessed it—solidify the Mountain West cause.
But Pitt is also playing with some conference pride. Often seen as the weakest of the Big Six conferences, the Big East is in danger of gaining the reputation as a worse conference than the Mountain West. A win here would be big for Pitt as well, meaning this game carries major conference implications.
No. 8: Oklahoma at Cincinnati
There are many intriguing non-conference games for the Big East in 2010, but this one is the icing on the cake.
Both programs have question marks hanging over them heading into 2010. Will Cincinnati be able to stay strong with the loss of head coach Brian Kelly? Will Oklahoma, especially quarterback Landry Jones, improve on a mediocre season?
This early game should answer both of those questions and give an accurate picture of how both teams will perform this season.
No. 7: Notre Dame at USC
From the big names to the classic finishes, Notre Dame vs. USC rarely disappoints, even when neither team is at its best. Last year, Notre Dame gave the Trojans all they could handle before eventually falling in South Bend.
This season, neither team will be in its best shape, but expect another thriller to unfold, this time in Los Angeles. Both teams will be sporting new coaches (Brian Kelly for Notre Dame and Lane Kiffin for USC) who will each be trying to get a leg up in the rivalry.
Notre Dame will certainly be facing an uphill climb without Clausen or Tate playing in the Coliseum, but Brian Kelly may be able to work his magic and grind out a win.
No. 6: Oregon State at Boise State
After two years of very exciting games, big hits, and punches, the Oregon-Boise State series is over. But Oregon State is ready to face the Broncos and do something that its in-state rival couldn’t; beat Boise State.
This is a very favorable matchup for the Broncos. Oregon State loses starting quarterback Sean Canfield, and Jacquizz Rodgers won’t be able to carry the team by himself. If the experienced Boise State defense can rattle the inexperienced OSU passing attack, the Broncos should win this game.
Timing means everything in this game. It’s an early season matchup, meaning inexperience is the Beavers’ worst enemy. If Canfield was still in school, Oregon State would have a good chance at winning, but his departure makes a win that much more difficult.
No. 5: Oregon at Tennessee
While this game could have the makings of a blowout, it also could turn out to be a classic. Tennessee is a hard team to understand, proving to be very inconsistent in 2009. Coach Lane Kiffin’s departure certainly won’t make things any less hectic, and the Volunteers’ program needs to find a way to get back on track. A win against Oregon would do just that.
Oregon has been a slow starter in recent years, and Tennessee needs to take advantage of that. The Ducks have one of the most dynamic offenses in the country and will be very difficult to stop. But as Boise State and Ohio State proved, it’s not impossible to at least slow down that offense. If Tennessee can do that, it may have a chance at a program defining win.
No. 4: North Carolina vs. LSU @ Atlanta, GA
Of all the teams that had players decide to skip the NFL draft, North Carolina made out the best. The defense is stacked with future NFL prospects that could help the Tar Heels climb to the top of the ACC. Linebacker Quan Sturdivant will lead one of the best defenses in the country into a game in Atlanta against LSU.
This is a critical game for the ACC, which has fallen short in marquee games against the SEC. Virginia Tech fell short to Alabama in Atlanta, and North Carolina needs to avoid the same fate to save its conference’s reputation.
No. 3: Miami at Ohio State
The first rematch of the 2002 National Championship will be played in Columbus, and Miami will try to avenge a double overtime loss to Ohio State in that game. But it’s safe to say this was a bad year to try to get revenge.
After Terrelle Pryor’s dominant performance in the Rose Bowl, Ohio State looks like the favorite in the Big Ten and will likely be a national championship contender. Miami was extremely inconsistent in 2009 and struggled in the Champs Sports bowl against Wisconsin’s punishing defense. And the bad news for the Hurricanes; Ohio State’s defense is just a more talented version of that. If Miami plays at its best, this should be a good game. But either way, it certainly has conference bragging rights on the line.
No. 2: Penn State at Alabama
The Big Ten-SEC battle begins once again, and the timing couldn’t be better for the SEC. Alabama brings back most of its national championship team from 2009 and will be the favorite to repeat in 2010. Penn State loses linebackers Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee and quarterback Darryl Clark and isn’t even in the top three in the conference.
And while Alabama will likely win, this game defines college football tradition with two of the most storied programs in the country going head-to-head. If Penn State had a better team, this would be the best non-conference game of the season. And if the Nittany Lions can put together a miracle, it may be just that. But no matter the outcome, this could be a classic game based on the team names alone.
No. 1: Boise State vs. Virginia Tech @ Landover, MD
Let’s face it, any game that pits Boise State against a Big Six school is going to get a lot of attention. But this could be the Broncos’ biggest game yet; bigger than the Oregon games and even the Fiesta Bowls. Let me explain…
Boise State will undoubtedly start 2010 with its highest ranking ever—likely somewhere in the top five, maybe even the top three. With a preseason ranking this high, the Broncos may have a shot at a national championship, especially with a win against Virginia Tech under their belt.
If Virginia Tech wins, it will likely be one of the top candidates for a national championship berth. And if Boise State wins, it may be headed to Glendale again. But this time, it may be playing for more than the Fiesta Bowl.
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