College Football 2011: Power Ranking the 25 Best Non-Conference Clashes

Kevin TrahanAnalyst IMay 5, 2011

College Football 2011: Power Ranking the 25 Best Non-Conference Clashes

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    For most teams, non-conference season means a chance to play some cupcakes, rack up some wins and roll in extra ticket revenue. Sadly, we rarely see high-profile non-conference matchups anymore outside of bowl games.

    The 2011 season features a high number of high-profile games though, including great rivalries, revenge games and National Championship-caliber matchups.

    Check out the top 25 non-conference clashes the 2011 college football season has to offer.

No. 25: San Diego State at Michigan

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    After leaving San Diego State for Michigan following the 2010 season, Brady Hoke will have to coach against his old team in a possible trap game for the Wolverines.

    San Diego State has emerged as a legitimate "mid-major" team—thanks in large part to Hoke—and has the chance to take down a Michigan team that may still be finding its identity.

    The Wolverines have started off hot over the last few years, which plays in their favor for this home contest. However, if they take the Aztecs lightly, there is a chance for another Appalachian State-type game, which would start the "Fire Brady Hoke" chatter just four weeks into his inaugural season.

No. 24: Tulsa at Boise State

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    Boise State will likely be considered the top mid-major heading into the 2011 season, but with 19 returning starters, Tulsa could be a sleeper to join the BCS conversation.

    The Golden Hurricane have one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the country, having to face Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, in addition to this contest at Boise.

    While it would be extremely difficult for Tulsa—let alone any team—to make it through those three games unscathed, a win against the Broncos could help the Golden Hurricane enter the conversation as one of the country's top non-BCS teams.

No. 23: Colorado at Ohio State

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    Normally, this game would be a blowout; underachieving Colorado would be treated as a tackling dummy in the Horseshoe against powerhouse Ohio State.

    But the circumstances surrounding Columbus over the past few months have been anything but normal.

    With coach Jim Tressel suspended for this game, along with stars Terrelle Pryor, Dan Herron and DeVier Posey, this could be the Buffaloes' chance to grab a signature win on the national stage.

    It would be a program-changing win for Colorado, but a devastating defeat for Ohio State, which would have a tough time coming back and reaching the BCS without winning the Big Ten.

No. 22: Pittsburgh at Iowa

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    The last time these two teams met in 2008, Iowa hadn't yet discovered its identity, losing a lead late to the Panthers at Heinz Field.

    The Hawkeyes finished 2008 strong and have since stabilized, while the Panthers have been mediocre after being Big East preseason favorites the past two years.

    Iowa will be in a rebuilding mode, but this will be the first real test for new Pitt coach Todd Graham. It would be a big win for Graham, but perhaps an even bigger win for the Hawkeyes. It would be a confidence-booster going forward and would present the real possibility of starting the season 7-1 or 8-0.

No. 21: Clemson at South Carolina

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    Both Clemson and South Carolina have been underachievers in recent years—no Gamecock fans, winning the SEC East in 2010 is not something to be extremely proud of.

    However, both teams have a chance to do well in their respective conferences this season, and this late-season battle could be a major factor in jockeying for bowl position.

    South Carolina will presumably be favored, but the the Gamecocks routinely struggle in the latter part of the season, and this is a chance for Clemson to gain back the respect it enjoyed in the middle of the decade.

No. 20: Missouri at Arizona State

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    Typically, this would be a ho-hum non-conference game that sits a step above the powerhouse-cupcake games.

    Missouri is coming off a 10-win season though, and Arizona State should be much improved from last year, as it returns a majority of its starters from 2010.

    The Sun Devils have underachieved in recent years, while the Tigers have been overachievers. But Missouri's visit to the desert gives Arizona State a chance to gain back some respect and a chance to gain confidence before the conference schedule gets going.

No. 19: BYU at Texas

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    This year should be an experiment for both teams, as BYU will be an independent and Texas will look to rebound from a very disappointing 5-7 year in 2010.

    This early-season game could determine the direction each team goes this year.

    A win for Texas would give it a chance to get its mojo back, while a win for BYU would help prove it made the right decision going independent.

    The Cougars were a disappointment last season as well, but a win in Austin would help return them to top-tier non-BCS status.

No. 18: Notre Dame at Michigan

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    I'm still not sold on the Irish or the Wolverines, as they have failed to live up to the hype over the past few years.

    However, both are presumably headed in the right direction, and if nothing else, fans of tradition will love this game.

    This is also a very intriguing coaching matchup, as both Notre Dame's Brian Kelly and Michigan's Brady Hoke were in high demand for vacant coaching positions over the past two seasons. Now that they have landed their dream jobs, this game could provide one of them with a signature win moving forward.

No. 17: Oregon State at Wisconsin

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    On paper, Wisconsin should win this game.

    Still, the Badgers lost a lot of talent from last season on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Scott Tolzien. The running game should still be solid, but being run-heavy without a proven quarterback doesn't work out, as Wisconsin learned the hard way in 2008.

    The Badgers were also slow starters last season, picking up their only conference loss the first weekend of Big Ten play and nearly falling to Arizona State at home.

    This could be Oregon State's chance to sneak up on a solid opponent and gain respect heading into the Pac-10 season.

No. 16: Washington at Nebraska

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    After beating up on Washington in Seattle at the beginning of last season, Nebraska fell to the Huskies 19-7 in an embarrassing Holiday Bowl rematch.

    On paper, the Huskers are the clear favorites, but their offense was extremely inconsistent last season, and they can't afford another game like the showing in the Holiday Bowl.

    Washington must replace a number of starters, including quarterback Jake Locker. But if Taylor Martinez and Nebraska can't get in sync offensively, the Huskies could come out of Lincoln with an upset win.

No. 15: TCU vs. BYU (in Dallas)

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    This would have been a much bigger game last season. TCU has lost a lot of talent from its Rose Bowl team, taking a bit of the luster out of this matchup.

    It's still a great chance for the former Mountain West rivals to meet up again, as BYU will be an independent, and TCU will leave for the Big East in 2012.

    For TCU, this game will be a chance to prove it can still be a contender even in rebuilding mode, while it is yet another chance for BYU to prove its worth as a top non-BCS team.

No. 14: Michigan State at Notre Dame

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    Last year's Michigan State-Notre Dame game became an instant classic when the Spartans used a fake field goal on fourth-and-13 to beat the Irish in overtime.

    If this year's game even comes close to last season's last-second drama, it may instantly become an ESPN Classic.

    Unlike last year, both teams will have very high expectations for the season, and both should be ranked in the top 25. A win here would help boost MSU's confidence for the Big Ten season, while it could jumpstart Notre Dame to a 10-win season.

No. 13: Texas at UCLA

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    After UCLA's 34-12 win in Austin last season, which might have just shocked Texas into their losing skid, the Longhorns will be looking for revenge this year in Los Angeles.

    Texas was much more talented than the Bruins, but was outplayed and flat-out embarrassed by UCLA on both sides of the ball.

    On paper, Texas should win this game, as it is again the more talented team. It's also a must-win for the Longhorns in order to avoid the type of free-fall they endured last season.

No. 12: USC at Notre Dame

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    Oh how far this rivalry has fallen.

    Just a few years ago—in the days of Reggie Bush and Brady Quinn—this was one of the biggest non-conference games of the season.

    However, it has become largely irrelevant over the past couple years, as both teams have fallen into mediocrity.

    Both USC and Notre Dame are expected to be much improved in 2011, and if they can live up to the hype, this game could ultimately be a deciding factor as to who gets a BCS invite.

    While it won't match two of the best teams in the country, this matchup may be a building block to return the USC-Notre Dame rivalry to its prominent status.

No. 11: LSU at West Virginia

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    Like the USC-Notre Dame game, this matchup would have been huge five years ago.

    West Virginia's program has dropped off a bit since the Rich Rodriguez days, and this could have the makings of a blowout. But due to the Big East's low talent level, this could be a matchup of conference contenders, as the Mountaineers can never be counted out of the Big East race.

    On paper, LSU should win. Since the game will be played in Morgantown though, an underdog West Virginia team may be able to come away with a win and earn back its prestige from earlier this decade.

No. 10: Arizona at Oklahoma State

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    In a matchup of high-powered offenses, Arizona will try to pull an upset in Stillwater against Oklahoma State, which will likely be ranked in the polls' top 10.

    Like Oklahoma State, Arizona's offense is based around its highly productive passing attack, but it lacks the star power of the Cowboys'.

    The Wildcats' program has been on the rise in recent years, and Mike Stoops' team has a chance to gain an impressive non-conference win for the second year in a row, after beating Iowa in Tuscon last year.

    Expect a lot of points and very little defense in what should be an entertaining shootout.

No. 9: Florida at Florida State

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    After being dominated by the Gators for most of the decade, Florida State finally beat its in-state rival last season, crushing Florida 31-7 in Tallahassee.

    This year the Seminoles will be favorites, thanks to loads of returning talent and a number of talented recruits coming in.

    Florida will be back for revenge, coming off a disappointing 7-5 season and looking to begin a new chapter of this rivalry with new head coach Will Muschamp.

    In such a fierce in-state rivalry, nothing is guaranteed, and Florida State must prove it can handle the role of the favorite and win in a hostile environment on the road in Gainesville.

No. 8: Notre Dame at Stanford

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    While Notre Dame-USC will always be a bigger rivalry, Stanford is likely the biggest hurdle the Irish will encounter on their quest back to the BCS.

    With star quarterback Andrew Luck's announcement to return for his senior season, the Cardinal should once again challenge for a Pac-10 title. Meanwhile, a win for Notre Dame would mean the possibility of a BCS berth.

    This would be a signature win for Brian Kelly's team, and it could be a program-changing win that could help return the Irish to their winning ways.

No. 7: Ohio State at Miami

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    While last year's game wasn't as good as advertised—the Buckeyes won in relatively easy fashion—this year's game could be more competitive because both programs are down.

    Miami will be breaking in a new coach and probably would have no chance under normal circumstances, but with OSU coach Jim Tressel suspended, along with star players Terrelle Pryor, Dan Herron and DeVier Posey, the Hurricanes have a chance to pick up their first signature win of the Al Golden era.

    This home-and-home series will likely lack the luster of the suspenseful 2002 BCS Championship, but because both teams are suddenly on an even playing field, the final game of the series could end up being a good one.

No. 6: Auburn at Clemson

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    This game is up so high for no other reason than the fact that it was such a thriller last year.

    Clemson played well above the level that it played at for much of the 2010 season and nearly came away with a win against the eventual National Champions.

    In fact, it was Auburn's biggest scare all year.

    This year, Auburn will be down due to the losses of Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, and Clemson will continue to build under the direction of Dabo Swinney.

    After last year's heartbreaker, Clemson has a chance to pull an "upset" at home this season and rise back to national relevance.

No. 5: Alabama at Penn State

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    Tradition-wise, Alabama-Penn State may be the best non-conference game of the season.

    But after Alabama's 24-7 win last season, the home-and-home series may not live up to its extraordinary amount of hype.

    For the second straight year, Penn State will be very overmatched, and even though the game will be in State College, the Nittany Lions will be heavy underdogs against the Crimson Tide.

    From a tradition standpoint though, this game is great for college football, regardless of what the final score may end up being.

No. 4: Boise State vs. Georgia (in Atlanta)

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    For the second straight year, Boise State will get the chance to "prove itself" against a major conference team to start the season.

    The Broncos defeated Virginia Tech to kick off the 2010 season and looked to be in good shape for a BCS berth before losing to Nevada in November.

    Boise has divided the college football community, and regardless of which side fans are on, all of them are captivated by the Broncos' games against AQ conference opponents.

    While a win against Georgia this year likely won't earn the Broncos as much respect as the Virginia Tech win did, it certainly would be another solid step toward finally earning an elusive BCS berth.

No. 3: Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (in Dallas)

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    After posting solid seasons in 2010, both Arkansas and Texas A&M are clearly on the rise and will get a chance early in the season to prove they deserve national respect as legitimate title contenders.

    Both teams will likely be ranked very high and will be considered BCS contenders. This early-season game can help catapult one into the national title picture. Plus, with bragging rights on the line for the SEC and Big 12, this will be a very interesting matchup for two programs trying to make the jump from good to great.

No. 2: Oklahoma at Florida State

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    Oklahoma will likely be the top-ranked team in the 2011 preseason poll, but faces an early challenge from Florida State, which won't be far behind.

    The Seminoles are on the rise and look like the favorites to win the ACC in Jimbo Fisher's second season. They have the talent to compete with the Sooners after being embarrassed in Norman last season and will have the advantage of playing in Tallahassee.

    The Sooners have loads of talent and deservedly will be named the favorites for this contest. However, Florida State may have what it takes to drop a No. 1 team very early in the season.

No. 1: Oregon vs. LSU (in Dallas)

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    While there are a number of good non-conference games this season, this game is the clear-cut No. 1.

    Both teams should be ranked in the top five for this game, which will be played on the season's first weekend, and both will contend for a berth in the National Championship game.

    In fact, this game could be a prequel.

    Doubtful, I know, but both of these teams are good enough to reach the title game next season.

    This game will also feature a contrast of styles, as LSU's strong defense will try to contain Oregon's high-powered, run-based offense.

    In short, this could be the game of the regular season, and expect a close contest between two BCS Championship contenders.