College football is all of seven months away from kicking off again, but that doesn't mean avid fans aren't already circling key dates on their calendars.
This is historically the time of year when the coaching carousel stops spinning and each team turns its focus to recruiting, whether they've got the same coach or a new leader in place. This year, there are a number of new guys breaking in to high profile jobs across the nation, and they'll have some big games ahead of them in the 2011 regular season that will serve as big barometers of their potential for success during their coaching stays.
Whether it's an established coach looking for redemption against a rival, or a new coach looking to make a strong impression on a big stage, there are plenty of juicy matchups to look forward to on the college schedule.
So I'll take you through 10 games that have very appealing pairings at the top in college football, with an eye on games that have big impact for each program involved. Consider this a good primer for some big games to look forward to in the 2011 college football season.
This is the national kickoff game for the 2011 college football regular season. It pits a Boise State team still dreaming about a national title and an unbeaten season against a perennial SEC power the Georgia Bulldogs, with coach Mark Richt looking to right the ship after two sub-par seasons.
This will be an intriguing matchup because it's two coaches with teams in starkly different positions. Chris Petersen is flying high with a 61-5 record over the last five years at Boise state while Richt needs to get off to a good start in Georgia to keep rumors about his future as coach of the Bulldogs from swirling.
Boise State is an increasingly popular and well-known program, and Petersen will be looking for another high profile victory to put on the team's resume as they look to march up the BCS standings for another year.
This should be a highly entertaining game, with a big national audience and an equally impressive setting in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
Chip Kelly lead his high octane Oregon Ducks offense all the way to the BCS National Championship Game, where they went toe to toe with Auburn and nearly pulled off an upset for the national title.
Instead they fell short, and now face the tough task of starting the season as a team that was marked as one of the nation's top teams in 2010.
Kelly will also have a very tough matchup in Oregon's first game of the season, as the team will travel to Dallas' palace of football, Jerry Jones' billion dollar Cowboys Stadium. Their opponent? The always tough LSU Tigers, led by Les Miles.
Miles was all wrapped up in rumors about whether or not he'd leave the SEC in favor of the Michigan job, but he's back for another season at LSU and will be looking to build on the success he enjoyed a year ago.
LSU is usually a strong defensive team, so it will be very interesting to see how Miles and his staff approaches Kelly's fast paced, frenetic offensive team.
Utah is making its Pac-12 debut in this one, a huge game for the program as well as for coach Kyle Whittingham. It was quite the surprise when announced that Utah and Colorado would be joining the Pac-10, and the fact that the historic conference would be renamed the Pac-12.
But such is a reality, and now Whittingham and the Utes will get their first major test this September 10th against the always tough USC Trojans. This game will be played at the LA Coliseum, USC's home turf. It will be a chance for coach Lane Kiffin to begin his second full year at the helm of the team in strong fashion by toppling a new conference opponent and setting USC up as one of the Pac-12's better teams.
Todd Graham, the second choice for the Pittsburgh Panthers' football program, will be looking to make an early-season impact in his first year at the helm of the program when Pitt takes to the road to take on a very tough Big Ten opponent, the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Heading to Iowa is no easy task, especially in the first year of a coach trying to rebuild a Big East football program that had enjoyed strong success and has produced quality players.
Iowa will be looking to put things back together after enjoying a strong start to their 2010 season. Under veteran coach Kirk Ferentz, the team is a perennial contender in the Big Ten and will be looking for a quality non-conference win when they take on Pitt. This should hopefully be a good game between a brand new major conference coach and a seasoned vet who has gotten comfortable at his program.
Michigan plays much bigger games than their non-conference meeting with the Mountain West's San Diego State in late September. But for their new head coach, the meeting with the Aztecs will have added meaning.
Brady Hoke was coaching at San Diego State a year ago, and he'll be going up against his replacement, his former defensive coordinator at SDSU, Rocky Long. Long was formerly a head coach at the University of New Mexico, a position he held for a decade until 2008.
For Hoke, it will presumably be bittersweet, but an interesting meeting. San Diego State was a good team last year, and Hoke worked closely with the Aztecs' new coach. Long will no doubt be motivated to pull out a huge upset at the Big House, and Hoke will be looking to get the Michigan faithful firming in his corner by dispatching a lesser non-conference opponent.
This game will be new Florida head coach Will Muschamp's third SEC game, but it will no doubt be the biggest game on the schedule to date for his new team. They'll host the Alabama Crimson Tide and their veteran coach Nick Saban. It will be Muschamp's first big chance to leave his stamp on the Florida football program.
No better way to endear yourself to the Gator faithful in the swamp than by beating Alabama, who figures to still be a tough team despite losing a huge number of talented players for a second straight year.
This meeting between a rookie coach and one of the more successful SEC coaches in history will be sure to be a great one, a must-watch.
This will be Nebraska's first season in the Big Ten, and their meeting with Ohio State is a great example of two opposites being forced together when it comes to head coaches.
Nebraska's leader is Bo Pelini, who is the epitome of fiery and intense. He had to apologize for his sideline behavior getting out of hand during one of the Cornhuskers' bigger Big 12 games from a year ago, as he's constantly in the ear of the officials as well as his own players, often with numerous expletives sprinkled in for added affect.
Pelini's counterpart will be the stoic, reserved and cerebral (and sweater-vested) Jim Tressel, the longtime and highly successful Ohio State coach. Tressel seems in control at all times with both of his team and his emotions.
It's a great juxtaposition between the two coaches, and it should actually be a good game.
Oklahoma State enjoyed a breakout season in 2010, and one of their signature wins was beating Texas on the road in convincing fashion. Their season didn't end in ideal fashion, as the Cowboys missed out on a spot in the Big 12 title game due to a loss in the Bedlam rivalry game against Oklahoma.
Obviously that will be a huge one but before they get there, coach Mike Gundy will have the tough task of heading back to Texas and taking on a presumably improved Mack Brown-led Texas Longhorns team looking for serious redemption. Gundy has built a high-powered offensive team, and Brown always enjoyed solid offensive units. This could be a high scoring affair between two coaches looking for a big win.
Stanford handled Notre Dame in impressive fashion a year ago under Jim Harbaugh; the teams met early in the season before the Fighting Irish's year and fate improved, culminating in a solid run of season-ending play.
Now Stanford will have a new coach, former offensive coordinator David Shaw, taking over for Harbaugh as he moves to the NFL. They will also have to negotiate a still-tough Pac-12 schedule, then wrap their regular season up right after the Thanksgiving holiday by playing their longtime rivals Notre Dame.
Notre Dame is expected to improve greatly in 2011 under Brian Kelly, who will enter his second year with heightened expectations thanks to good quarterback play late in the year and wide receiver Michael Floyd returning.
This game in Palo Alto could likely be the last home game for elite Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who decided to return to school for another year. It's impossible to know where these teams will stand this late in the regular season, but it should be a great meeting between two offensive-minded coaches.
Al Golden will be jumping in to a heated college football rivalry (on a date to be determined) and will be looking to avenge an ugly loss that the Hurricanes suffered at the hands of Florida State a year ago. For the Seminoles, Jimbo Fisher will be looking to take another step towards cementing his status as the coach to lead them back to the top of the ACC and into national relevance.
Golden will have other big tests next season, such as an early season meeting with Ohio State, but playing Florida State is always a huge deal for the Hurricanes' faithful. A win in that game would go a long way towards making Golden a fan favorite, and instilling the faith that he was the right hire for the job.