Every college football fan knows that the real meat and potatoes of the season takes place in the heart of fall, when conference play provides a plethora of rivalries and title implications.
But with each passing season we are blessed to have a host of noteworthy games that litter the schedule in September. Inter-conference foes get together. Unfamiliar in-state opponents square off. And, if we're lucky, a new grudge match or two begins to form.
And what better time to forge these than right off the bat.
Here's the 25-best games to look out for on the opening weekend of the 2010 college football season.
Note: All games take place on Saturday, Sept. 4, unless otherwise stated.
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Time: Sept. 2, 9:00 PM ET (No TV)
Place: Kibbie Dome (Moscow, ID)
Rundown: Per my extensive research, this game will not be televised. That’s probably a good thing unless you dig the monstrosity that is the Vandals’ Kibbie Dome, a multi-purpose facility that looks better suited to house antique conventions than winning football.
Associating winning football with a program as synonymous with futility as Idaho’s is odd, but head coach Robb Akey is changing the culture in Moscow. Last season, his third on the job, Akey led the Vandals to eight wins, the program’s most since 1998.
Now, Akey will attempt to become the first Idaho head coach since John L. Smith (1993-94) to win eight or more games in consecutive seasons. And his quest should get off to a flying start, because as North Dakota well knows, no one leaves the Kibbie Dome alive.
Tulsa head coach Todd Graham
Time: Sept. 5, 2:00 PM ET (ESPN2, ESPN3.com)
Place: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium (Greenville, NC)
Rundown: I’ll admit, this game could be a real clunker if the Tulsa offense doesn’t show. Because, as the numbers dictate, the Golden Hurricane can’t play a lick of defense, surrendering nearly 30 points a game in 2009.
Second year quarterback G.J. Kinne is no Paul Smith or David Johnson—his predecessors who combined to throw for more than 9,000 yards and 93 touchdowns in 2007 and 2008—but he can still wing it.
On the other side, the Pirates will be playing their first game under head coach Ruffin McNeil, so the atmosphere in Greenville should be decent. Just do yourself a favor: At least check out a quarter or so of this one before that SMU/Texas Tech passing clinic begins 90 minutes later on ESPN.
Time: 7:30 PM ET (ESPN3.com)
Place: Vanderbilt Stadium (Nashville, Tenn.)
Rundown: The Battle of the Smart Kids is worth dissection when it comes to determining which depth chart has the higher cumulative grade point average, but the appeal of comparing Xs and Os just isn’t there. Still, you never know.
Take 22 or so future lawyers, scholars, and medical practitioners, put them on the same field, pack Vanderbilt Stadium with 40,000 high school valedictorians, and you may be surprised by what you get. Or maybe you won’t. No matter what, you know for a fact there won’t be any dumb penalties.
Time: 3:30 PM ET (NBC)
Place: Notre Dame Stadium (Notre Dame, Ind.)
Rundown: It will be a sweet day come Sept. 4, and we can all exhale after we find out what kind of effect Brian Kelly will have as the new head coach of the Irish.
For the sake of college football at large, let’s hope it’s a good one. The spirit of the game is better when the Golden Domers are worth a damn. On the flip side, for the sake of my list here, let’s hope Kelly falls flat on his face in his debut, allowing an average Purdue team to make its season opening visit to South Bend interesting for at least three quarters.
Time: Sept. 2, 7:30 PM ET (ESPNU)
Place: Floyd Stadium (Murfreesboro, Tenn.)
Rundown: Yeah, I know: “What, Middle Tennessee?” But hear me out.
The Blue Raiders return 15 starters from last season’s 10-3 team, including dual-threat quarterback Dwight Dasher, who might be one of college football’s best kept secrets, despite piling up nearly 4,000 combined yards and 36 touchdowns in 2009.
From top to bottom, Minnesota’s depth chart holds more water, but the theatrics of Dasher and a home field advantage could very well even things out.
Time: 7:00 PM ET (Troy/ISP Network)
Place: Veterans Memorial Stadium (Troy, Ala.)
Rundown: Oh yes, giants of the MAC and Sun Belt collide in a match up of non-BCS deliciousness on opening weekend. Or something like that.
No matter your take on this low-profile match up, the Falcons and Trojans should make for some engaging football.
Even minus all-world receiver Freddie Barnes (1,770 yards in ’09), quarterback Tyler Sheehan, and six other offensive starters from a season ago, Bowling Green can still move the ball up and down the field. For that matter so can Troy, which threw for nearly 337 yards per game in ’09, good for fourth nationally.
Time: Sept. 2, 11:00 PM ET (ESPN, ESPN3.com)
Place: Aloha Stadium (Honolulu, HI)
Rundown: 2,551 miles and three time zones. These are the two forces that will likely put up the most resistance when Lane Kiffin and USC travel to Honolulu to play the Rainbow Warriors.
No disrespect to Hawaii, but even a Trojan program that is currently in the midst of getting thrown through the NCAA ringer is plenty talented. Still, this game may be worth watching just to see whether USC forgets its bearings in Los Angeles—or if Kiffin provides his critics with more fuel by wearing a decorative lei and matching floral shirt.
Time: 11:00 PM ET (Versus)
Place: Sam Boyd Stadium (Las Vegas, Nev.)
Rundown: No stranger to venturing West, Wisconsin has won its last four games played in the Rocky Mountain or Pacific time zones, including victories at Las Vegas in 2002 and 2007.
In each of those seasons, the Badgers succumbed to a midseason slump after beginning 5-0.
With San Jose State, Arizona State, and Austin Peay on the home schedule following the trip to Sin City, another spotless start could be in the works, particularly if running back John Clay and the offense can sustain momentum that will surely be generated facing the Running Rebels’ 103rd-ranked scoring defense from a season ago.
Time: Sept. 3, 5:00 PM ET (ESPN3.com)
Place: Lincoln Financial Field (Philadelphia, Pa.)
Rundown: Al Golden must be seen as a miracle worker in much of Philadelphia.
In the 15 years prior to his arrival, the Owls won four games in a season only three times. Never mind clinching a bowl berth, which is something Golden did with his 9-4 Temple team last season, his third on the job.
Understandably, expectations are significant, and only another run at a MAC title will do. But first things first, which is to navigate the first portion of a brutal non-conference that includes UConn, Penn State, and in-state rival Villanova, the defending FCS national champions.
Time: 6:00 PM ET (ESPN3.com)
Place: Scott Stadium (Charlottesville, Virg.)
Rundown: Twice a former UVA assistant, new head coach Mike London is being entrusted with righting a sinking ship in the ACC. The Cavaliers have won more than seven games only once since 2004, and the first step back toward respectability is beating the teams you’re supposed to, which hasn’t exactly been a given in recent past.
Virginia has lost its last two to traditional conference bottom feeder Duke, and who could forget the loss at home to FCS opponent William & Mary last season?
But of course, hope springs eternal in Charlottesville, where the new regime is expected to pay immediate dividends against Richmond, an FCS program that, coincidentally, won a national championship under none other than London in 2008.
Time: 2:00 PM ET (The Mountain West Sports Network)
Place: Invesco Field (Denver, Colo.)
Rundown: Though neither of these programs figures to generate much national appeal, the Rocky Mountain Showdown deserves some recognition. The game has been nothing short of riveting for the better part of the past decade, with seven of the last eight match ups decided by a touchdown or less.
The lone exception was in 2008 when Colorado registered a 38-17 victory.
Time: 3:30 PM ET (ABC)
Place: Bill Snyder Family Stadium (Manhattan, Kan.)
Rundown: Never one to hold his tongue, Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder, at the recent Big 12 Media Days, mildly voiced his displeasure for how television demands will dictate his team playing a pair of Thursday night games in 2010.
According to Snyder, games held smack dab in the middle of the work week place a logistical strain on the Wildcats’ fanbase, much of which travels across the state to attend.
Such factors will play no part in the opener with UCLA, which, at this point, is one of only two games K-State is scheduled to play prior to the seventh week of the season to be held earlier than 7:30 PM ET.
Time: 7:00 PM ET (ESPNU)
Place: Davis Wade Stadium (Starkville, Miss.)
Rundown: Good things are expected this season in Starkville, where good things haven’t exactly been a consistent presence in terms of football.
It appears Mississippi State’s days of rolling over for the rest of the SEC are over, but Dan Mullen has to find himself a replacement for running back Anthony Dixon, who was the centerpiece of the nation’s ninth-ranked ground attack.
And the sooner the better. After squaring off with Memphis’ leaky run defense (158.3 yards/game in ’09), the Bulldogs play Auburn, LSU, and Georgia to round out the first month of the season.
Time: 12:30 PM ET (Fox Sports Net)
Place: Edward Jones Dome (St. Louis, Mo.)
Rundown: I don’t pretend to know the current psyche of Illini fans, but “fragile” may be a fitting description.
And a good deal of the consternation has to stem from head coach Ron Zook’s inability to beat Illinois’ next-door neighbor, Missouri, which currently owns a five game winning streak in the series, as well as a decisive 16-7 advantage overall.
With his seat hotter than anybody’s in the country, Zook could desperately use a win to not only open 2010 but leave even a small mark on the Arch Rivalry, which has not been renewed past this season.
Time: 3:30 PM ET (ABC)
Place: Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium (Louisville, Ky.)
Rundown: Joker Phillips takes over a mediocre Kentucky program after serving as offensive coordinator for former head coach Rich Brooks. Meanwhile, former Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong assumes the reins at Louisville, hoping to complete a similar reconstruction project.
Optimism abounds in the Blue Grass State, and each head coach has an excellent chance at beginning his tenure with a win in a rivalry that has been defined by an ebb and flow as of late.
The Cardinals won four straight from 2003-06, only to have the Wildcats return the favor with wins each of the past three seasons.
Time: 10:00 PM ET (ESPN2, ESPN3.com)
Place: Bulldog Stadium (Fresno, Calif.)
Rundown: The Bearcats narrowly defeated Fresno last season, winning 28-20 at Nippert despite surrendering 290 yards on the ground.
If the Bulldogs, which ranked eighth nationally in rushing in 2009, chose to grind it out again, Cincy may not be so fortunate this time around, especially if quarterback Zach Collaros and receiver Armon Binns don’t step up in the season opener.
Time: Sept. 2, 7:30 PM ET (ESPN, ESPN3.com)
Place: Williams-Brice Stadium (Columbia, SC.)
Rundown: Judging from my initial inspection of the TV schedule, this will be the first game a majority of us will see this season. But it should come as no surprise that Spurrier’s Gamecocks are involved.
South Carolina has helped kick off the college football season by appearing on ESPN’s Thursday night game each of the past two seasons. At least this season they’ll play someone decent.
Southern Mississippi, coming off an 8-5 season, is expected to challenge Houston for the Conference USA crown. Which is good, because the Gamecocks owe us some entertainment after dragging their knuckles through a 7-3 grossfest against North Carolina State to open up last season.
Time: 7:00 PM ET (CBS College Sports Network)
Place: LaVell Edwards Stadium (Provo, UT)
Rundown: Year one of the Steve Sarkisian Era in Seattle was largely a mixed bag, highlighted by the unexpected win over then-No.3 USC. But it also included just three wins after that landmark moment on Sept. 19.
If nothing else, Sarkisian’s a season wiser and his program, a year more developed. We’ll find out how far along both have come when Washington goes to Provo, where a win over a rugged BYU team would legitimize the Huskies’ status as a Pac-10 dark horse.
Time: 7:45 PM ET (ESPN, ESPN3.com)
Place: Cowboy Stadium (Arlington, Tex.)
Rundown: Give credit to Mike Riley. Besides being one of the more underrated coaches in America, he’s definitely not shy about taking his team into harrowing territory in September.
In 2008, the Beavers went to Penn State and Utah. Last season, Cincinnati filled the bill, as will Wisconsin and BYU on future schedules. But the focus now is on the Texas-based bio-dome they call Jerry World, where the Beavers will attempt to temper the exuberance of what is sure to be a partisan crowd and derail the BCS hopes of the Horn Frogs.
Time: Sept 6, 4:00 PM ET (ESPN, ESPN3.com)
Place: M&T Bank Stadium (Baltimore, MD)
Rundown: Naturally, the theme surrounding this matchup will be how well the undersized and outmanned Midshipmen can fare against the big boys. That, and the pageantry that comes with an academy playing on Labor Day.
OK, so the Terrapins may not be the best measuring stick. But the good thing, at least for head coach Ken Niumatalolo, is that Navy appears good enough to pull one more 10-win season closer to vanquishing that stigma—if it hasn’t begun to disappear already.
The defense will be pushed around at times, probably even against Maryland, but the triple option is deadly at the conduction of Ricky Dobbs. Look for him, he’ll be the quarterback who’ll put the ball in the air once a quarter.
Time: 3:30 PM ET (ABC)
Place: Michigan Stadium (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Rundown: The last time Michigan played a Big East team was 1999. That season, the Wolverines defeated Syracuse on the road, 18-13, to avenge a loss a year earlier to the Donovan McNabb-led Orangemen.
The win was the first of five consecutive to start the season, and the Wolverines capped a 10-2 record with a scintillating overtime win over Alabama in the Orange Bowl, in which Tom Brady threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns.
Time: Sept 2, 8:30 PM ET (Versus)
Place: Rice-Eccles Stadium (Salt Lake City, UT)
Rundown: For all the things the Utes accomplished in 2009—including posting a 6-2 mark in the competitive Mountain West and beating Pac-10 foe California by 10 in the Poinsettia Bowl—they failed to topple a Top 25 team.
Kyle Whittingham’s squad won't have to wait long to get its shot in 2010. The No. 15 Panthers come to Salt Lake City for what should be one of the better games of Week 1.
This will be only the second meeting between the two, with the first being a dominant 35-7 Fiesta Bowl win to cap a perfect 12-0 season for Utah in 2004.
Time: Sept. 5, 3:30 PM ET (ESPN, ESPN3.com)
Place: Jones AT&T Stadium (Lubbock, Tex.)
Rundown: This may be one of the more intriguing matchups not only during opening weekend, but the entire college football season.
Sure, pitting two of the nation’s top 15 passing offenses from last season against one another should make for some irregular heartbeats, but the more entertaining storyline could be whether either defense—more notably, Tommy Tuberville's unit—can stop wobbling long enough to make a rare stand.
Time: 8:00 PM ET (ABC)
Place: Georgia Dome (Atlanta, Ga.)
Rundown: After playing second fiddle to the Crimson Tide in the SEC West the past couple years, Les Miles and the Bayou Bengals may have what it takes to regain their swagger in 2010.
That is, if junior Jordan Jefferson, the presumptive starting quarterback, receives protection (sacked 34 times in ’09) and minimizes mistakes. Remedying both problems may prove to be a tall task against the Tar Heel defense, which is crawling with future NFL players, led by end Robert Quinn and tackle Marvin Austin.
Time: Sept. 6, 8:00 PM ET (ESPN, ESPN3.com)
Place: FedEx Field (Landover, Md.)
Rundown: The Broncos’ quest for a second consecutive perfect season begins in earnest in front of a national primetime audience on Labor Day.
Whether another 14-0 campaign will be enough to earn a spot in the national title game is anybody’s guess, but a win over the No. 6 Hokies, essentially on the road, wouldn’t hurt.