College Football 2011: The One Must-Win Game on Every BCS Team's Schedule
Since the BCS was founded over a decade ago, the teams in the six automatic-qualifying conferences have had their fair share of chances to be awarded one of the coveted BCS bowl berths.
When the BCS added a separate championship game a few years back, it opened up two more spots for the lucky few.
But before teams get to that point, there's a sometimes-grueling regular season awaiting them. While teams in certain conferences have a very difficult slate of conference games, others seem to have a pretty smooth path to a 10-win season (or better).
Regardless of each team's regular-season strength of schedule, there's invariably at least one game on the schedule that fans, players and coaches alike circle on their calendars as “must-win” games.
Here's a rundown of those such games on each of the FBS' 67 BCS automatic-qualifying programs, in no particular order.
Notre Dame (No. 19)
Since Notre Dame is the only school not in a conference, yet still a BCS automatic qualifier, we'll start in South Bend.
Notre Dame is on the move, and the recent trend has been an upward one. Starting the season ranked in the Top 25 will certainly help the Fighting Irish's chances of reaching another BCS bowl.
Notre Dame needs to finish in the top eight in the final BCS rankings to receive an automatic bid to a BCS bowl, but realistically, anywhere in the top 15 or so would probably put them in contention for an at-large (rather than automatic) bid.
In order for Notre Dame to begin 2011 on the right foot, they'll be faced with an early must-win scenario when Michigan State comes to South Bend on September 17.
Last year, MSU had a spectacular overtime win in East Lansing. If Notre Dame falls to the Spartans again in 2011, their BCS chances are all but sunk.
Let's move to the Big East and take a look at Cincinnati's 2011 schedule.
It turns out that Brian Kelly was pretty important to the Bearcats' success, despite what the players and fans would have everyone believe.
Once Coach Kelly left for Notre Dame, Cincinnati took a pretty steep dive in the rankings and finished 2010 with eight fewer wins than 2009, including a 4-8 record.
To avoid such an abysmal flop yet again, Cincinnati is a team that desperately needs to get started quickly.
Luckily, they'll have that chance in 2011, as the Bearcats host FCS Austin Peay to start the season, followed by a trip to Tennessee to take on the Volunteers.
Facing a good program from the top conference of the past few seasons will provide Cincinnati with just the opportunity it needs to make headlines.
A win over Tennessee would not only set a positive tone for the remainder of the 2011 season, it would also set them up with a likely 5-0, or at worst a 4-1, non-conference mark headed into Big East Conference play.
A loss would signal more of the same to fans and pollsters alike.
For that reason, the Sept. 10 game at Tennessee is a must-win for Cincinnati.
UConn started 2011 with high hopes. After a fairly shocking loss to Michigan to begin the year, the Huskies began to right the ship and finished 2011 as Big East champions, earning a berth to the Fiesta Bowl.
Connecticut doesn't exactly have a brutal 2011 schedule, and it may be difficult to find too many tough opponents for the Huskies, but they do open the Big East Conference schedule with a trip to West Virginia to play the always-feisty Mountaineers.
While the Big East isn't anyone's pick as the best conference among the BCS-AQ conferences, it does provide a decent test for teams in the conference, as parity among the top programs seems to be the name of the game over the past few seasons.
A win at West Virginia sets Connecticut on the right path in the Big East and would be huge for their momentum towards a second-straight Big East title.
Admit it: Louisville hasn't quite been the same since Bobby Petrino left.
Louisville lost Petrino following the 2006 season. That also happens to be Louisville's last Big East championship, Louisville's last BCS berth, and until last season, Louisville's last bowl berth of any kind.
Charlie Strong was hired for the 2010 season to resurrect the Louisville program, and 2011 may be the year most are expecting him to make giant strides.
Strong and the Cardinals will have an opportunity on Oct. 8, when Louisville travels to take on North Carolina.
UNC is flying a little beneath the radar to start the year, but there wouldn't be a resounding shock in the college football world if the Tar Heels made a push in the ACC in 2011. If Louisville can't make it past UNC in early October, the Cardinals' 2011 chances in the Big East don't look too bright.
It's fair to say that Pittsburgh had a bit of a mess during the offseason when looking to replace Dave Wannstedt. When the dust settled, Todd Graham was the head coach of the Panthers.
Hopefully, the program can put the offseason distractions behind it and focus on the 2011 schedule.
After a few gimmies against Buffalo and FCS Maine, the Panthers travel to one of the most difficult environments in college football: Iowa's Kinnick Stadium.
There aren't many who will give Pittsburgh a shot in this game, but if the Panthers hope to make a new name for themselves, this is a game they must win.
Losing to Iowa will probably mean no shot at a top 25 ranking, and an even slimmer chance at a decent bowl bid come December.
We're a few years removed from the “Pandemonium in Piscataway,” but that doesn't mean that Rutgers is out of the conversation entirely.
In fact, Rutgers' 2011 schedule sets up nicely for a possible return to the top 25.
Rutgers' biggest roadblock comes early on with a trip to North Carolina on Sept. 10. The always-pesky Tar Heels are looking to erase memories of last season's failures amid lofty expectations, and the Scarlet Knights will need to bring their “A-game” in order to return home from Chapel Hill with a victory.
The reason this game is a must-win for Rutgers is the fact that the rest of the schedule is comparitively weak. Should Rutgers lose to UNC, there's not much left of their schedule to impress pollsters and bowl committees.
The Orange begin 2011 with one of the more difficult Big East non-conference schedules.
There's not much of a shot the Orange have at beating USC on Sept. 17, but with other non-conference games against Wake Forest, FCS Rhode Island, Toledo and Tulane, there's plenty of room for Syracuse to make some noise.
It's actually the Orange's first game, a Sept. 3 meeting with Wake Forest, that tops the must-win list for Syracuse.
The Demon Deacons visit Syracuse to open the 2011 season, and if Syracuse has any chance to impress anyone during the 2011 season, this is their first, and best, opportunity to do so. A win against Wake Forest would signal to rest of the Big East that Syracuse won't be a doormat this season, and the program as a whole could really use the boost in attention.
The Bulls are definitely going to try and take 2011 by the horns.
Their non-conference schedule includes Notre Dame and the University of Miami, two programs that should be heavily favored against the Bulls.
But USF is looking for a return to the top of the Big East, and the BCS berth that goes along with it. And in order for that to occur, the Bulls must set the tone early in their season.
The Sept. 3 game at Notre Dame will provide USF the perfect opportunity to broadcast to the nation their intention to make a run for the BCS in 2011.
In fact, the game is so important that a loss will probably mean the end of USF's top 25 hopes for 2011. USF is another program that doesn't have too much on their schedule to impress pollsters, save for Notre Dame and Miami. But even a win against Miami will be muted after a Week 1 loss to the Irish.
When Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan, it was clearly the biggest blow the program had ever suffered. And the fans knew it.
Perhaps, that's why so many of them acted so childish, even going so far as to harass his family.
Well, that whole saga is behind the Mountaineers now, but it's probably safe to say the program has not yet fully recovered.
Sure, 9-4 seasons aren't bad, but they're not 11-2 seasons. And when you're in the Big East, you really need 11-2 seasons to make much of a national mark.
West Virginia has a few games on their 2011 slate where they could make some noise, particularly hosting LSU on Sept. 24, but none of that will make much of a difference if the Mountaineers can't get past Maryland.
The Mountaineers and Terrapins will meet up at Maryland on Sept. 17. Both teams are looking for improvements in their 2011 season, and this game will go a long way towards both teams' goals.
But if West Virginia hopes to prove to the national press that they can compete with the rest of the nation, losing to Maryland will contradict that assertion.
Moving to the ACC, we'll start with the Eagles of Boston College.
BC's 2011 schedule includes some tough non-conference games and some tough ACC games, as well.
In addition to their ACC schedule, which includes Clemson, Virginia Tech, Miami and Florida State, the Eagles also find an improving Northwestern team, and a feisty FCS UMass program that will be making the leap to the FBS by joining the MAC in 2013 (playing their two FBS transition schedules in 2011 and 2012).
Boston College will need to establish itself in 2011 with a signature victory, and the best possibility for such a win comes on Oct. 8, as the Eagles travel to Clemson
A win against Clemson will put the Eagles in a confident position in the ACC. Conversely, a loss will signal to the rest of the ACC, as well as to themselves, that they aren't a real contender.
Speaking of the Tigers, they also have an early-season matchup that could well define their season trend, either up or down.
Week 3 will see another matchup between Clemson and Auburn. In 2010, the Clemson Tigers nearly pulled off the upset against Auburn, but Auburn survived, and that early victory set the tone for what turned into a SEC and BCS championship season.
In 2011, Clemson will need to build on last season's near victory over Auburn, and try and break through this year. If Clemson is able to beat Auburn, it could similarly set the tone for the entire 2011 season.
Even Duke fans know that Duke's prestige doesn't come from the gridiron, but from the hardwood.
But that doesn't mean Duke can't or shouldn't be competitive in football. While Duke certainly ranks near the bottom of the ACC in football, there are some opportunities for some impressive wins in 2011.
But if we're looking for a game that Duke must win, it's the first game of the season.
Duke will host annual FCS power Richmond.
Every year, there are a couple of FCS teams that either beat or come close to beating FBS schools. Everyone knows about Appalachian State over Michigan and James Madison over Virginia Tech, but games on the order of Duke-Richmond is where the FCS really makes the most of FBS opportunities.
Richmond is a good football team, and the Spiders have proven that with an FCS championship in 2008. While Richmond's 2010 season wasn't a resounding success, an opening-week matchup against Duke could be just what the Spiders are looking for.
Duke must avoid the Spiders' upset bid in order to have any semblance of a decent season. An early-season defeat to an FCS team can and usually will deflate any team, spoiling the entire year.
Florida State (No. 9)
There is a ton of hype surrounding the 2011 Seminoles squad.
Many, if not all polls, put them squarely in the top 10. Florida State fans are hoping for a return to the glory days of Seminole football in Tallahassee, but there's one mother of a road block standing squarely in their path.
While it may not derail their BCS hopes by route of winning the ACC, a loss against Oklahoma on Sept. 17 would spell an early end to Florida State's BCS championship hopes.
While no one would write off the Seminoles were they to lose to Oklahoma, the game is easily a must win for FSU if they have any hope of making a run at the BCS title game.
While Tech probably doesn't have much of a shot at any premier bowl games come late December or January, there's always hope for the future.
In order to begin the long journey back to relevance, they'll need to start making a little noise in the ACC.
Just to make that happen won't be easy, and the only chance they'll have is to start right away with a win over North Carolina on Sept. 24.
As previously mentioned, UNC is looking to rebound from last season's disappointment. If Georgia Tech can't take advantage of UNC's perceived weakness early in the season, there won't be much hope for the Rambling Wreck later in 2011.
Look no further than Week 1. If Maryland hopes to show the nation that it is indeed worthy of respect and recognition, it must beat the University of Miami on Sept. 5. A loss there would mean that everyone was right to doubt Maryland's chances, both in the ACC and nationally.
University of Miami
Miami has a great opportunity to not only get some revenge in Week 3, but also score some major points with pollsters, as the 'Canes welcome the Ohio State Buckeyes on Sept. 17.
Miami will also have the advantage of taking on a depleted Buckeye squad, as four offensive starters will be serving five-game suspensions.
Should Miami not win this matchup, it would not only be a major disappointment, but it could also end their chances at a top 25 ranking in 2011.
North Carolina State
After beginning the season against FCS doormat Liberty, NC State has a relatively weak first half of 2011, with contests against such teams as Central Michigan and FCS South Alabama (yes, two FCS teams on the 2011 schedule).
It really isn't until an Oct. 29 date with Florida State that NC State finds itself in a marquee matchup.
While NC State isn't leading many ACC lists for 2011, a win against what is sure to be a highly-ranked and heavily-favored Seminoles squad could signal NC State's arrival to the 2011 conversation.
If NC State loses that game, the 'Pack might as well pack it in, and they'll be just another “also ran” in the ACC.
The 2010 season began with high hopes for the Tar Heels—perhaps the highest expectations UNC had ever encountered.
After what amounted to most of the team being suspended prior to the start of the 2010 season, those hopes quickly faded.
The 2011 season begins against FCS James Madiosn (which knocked off a highly-ranked Virginia Tech team in 2010). The healing from 2010 can begin right there, as a lopsided win against JMU will help propel UNC into a season that will go a long way to erasing 2010 from the minds of Tar Heel fans.
A loss will instantly spell the end for North Carolina, before its season really even gets started. Two disasters to start two-consecutive seasons could mean years of depression for the entire program.
The Cavaliers begin 2011 with a game against FCS William & Mary. While Virginia isn't what most would consider an ACC power, the Cavaliers should win that game fairly easily.
Week 2 finds Virginia traveling to Indiana to face the Hoosiers.
Indiana isn't a Big Ten powerhouse by any stretch of the imagination, but a quality win against an opponent from the Big Ten will go along way to boost the confidence of the Cavaliers. A loss will simply signal to their fans that there is absolutely nothing for which excitement is needed in 2011.
Virginia Tech (No. 18)
The Hokies had a bit of a rough start to 2010, with a close loss to Boise State followed by a shocking defeat at the hands of FCS James Madison.
Don't expect 2011 to start in any way resembling 2010.
Although the Hokies rebounded to win the ACC last season, those first two games cost Virginia Tech dearly in the polls and in the minds of the nation.
The Hokies need to prove that 2010's start was a fluke, and that they're back and ready to compete for a coveted BCS berth in 2011 by dispatching their Week 1 opponent, FCS Appalachian State.
Everyone knows the Mountaineers can be pesky, and they're always at or near the top of FCS rankings.
Not only is Week 1 a must-win for Virginia Tech, but the Hokies must win big. Doing so will prove that 2010's loss to JMU was an aberration, and the Hokies are an early favorite in the ACC.
If the Demon Deacons have any shot in 2011, it's not hard to pick their must-win game of the year.
The Deacons will host the Florida State Seminoles on Oct. 8, and Florida State is sure to be a heavy favorite.
While a Wake Forest loss wouldn't shock many, it would certainly spell the end of any hopes for a run in the ACC for the Deacons.
Heading south to the Big 12, we'll look first at the Baylor Bears.
Baylor had a pretty impressive 2010 season, with a signature win against struggling Texas. Baylor even found itself ranked at one point in the season, only to completely fall apart down the stretch, losing their last four, including a Texas Bowl loss to Illinois.
Baylor must rebound and start 2011 on a high note, and that can be done with a Week 1 win against Texas Christian.
Last season, TCU handed Baylor a 45-10 defeat en route to a perfect season and Rose Bowl win. This season will be a bit different, as Baylor will be taking on a Dalton-less Horned Frogs program.
Even so, TCU is beginning the season ranked in everyone's top 15.
For Baylor to exorcise the demons of last season and set the tone for a successful 2011 campaign, the Bears must win their Sept. 2 game against TCU.
Iowa State is one of those programs that it's easy to look past.
There haven't been any huge successes for the Cyclones. They've never won more than nine games in a season. Their annual meeting with Iowa is typically a foregone conclusion. They've never come close to a conference title in the Big 12.
It's no wonder no one really takes the Cyclones seriously.
In the pared down Big 12, each team must now play every other team in the conference to determine the champion. While the lack of a conference championship game isn't good for the conference as a whole, it does provide opportunities for the “smaller” programs in the conference.
Each week and, subsequently, each win now means more in the conference championship race.
Iowa State must hope to match their defeat of Texas last year in order to have any chance of success in 2011. The Cyclones travel to Austin on Oct. 1 to take on the Longhorns in the Big 12 opener.
If the Cyclones lose to Texas, they'll be one of the first Big 12 teams out of the hunt. Additionally, it will broadcast to everyone that the 2010 victory over the Longhorns was more about Texas being bad than Iowa State being good.
When Kansas hosts Texas Tech in their Big 12 opener on Oct. 1, it will be the first chance KU has to show the Big 12 that they're ready to compete for a championship now that the conference championship game is gone.
In fact, if Kansas can't get past Texas Tech, they'll be in deep trouble, as the schedule doesn't get any easier afterwards.
On Oct. 8 and Oct. 15, the Jayhawks take on Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, respectively. A loss to Texas Tech on the first will put KU in a perfect position for a disastrous start to the Big 12 season.
Kansas State will have a nice run up to their Week 4 showdown with the University of Miami.
After facing FCS Eastern Kentucky, the Wildcats will rest up with a bye week before taking on Kent State from the MAC. These two presumptive wins combined with the bye week should place Kansas State is the best position they can hope for going into a game at Miami.
The Hurricanes will certainly be looking for victims during the 2011 season, and Kansas State must avoid becoming one in order to prepare for a killer Big 12 schedule.
Starting the year 3-0 will go a long way to propelling Kansas State towards a quality bowl berth in 2011. A loss to Miami, on the other hand, could linger with the team all the way through to December.
Missouri (No. 21)
After games against Miami University, Arizona State and FCS Western Illinois, the Tigers have one of the marquee matchups of the Big 12's opening week, traveling to Norman to take on the Sooners on Sept. 24.
This game is an absolute must-win for the Tigers if they are to have any chance of making a BCS bowl in 2011.
Hopes are high for the Tigers in 2011, and a win against Oklahoma could cement Missouri as a national contender.
Oklahoma (No. 1)
The preseason's top team is Oklahoma, and the Sooners' schedule for 2011 will prove to be a difficult one to master.
While Oklahoma has a big showdown with Florida State on Sept. 17, a loss in that game would not necessarily end their BCS chances.
The most important game, and consequently Oklahoma's must-win game of 2011, comes in the annual season-ending showdown with in-state rival Oklahoma State on Dec. 3.
Both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are top-10 teams coming into the new season, and the final week game could very well take on the atmosphere and consequence of a Big 12 championship game.
A win in this game will be absolutely essential for any BCS dreams to be fulfilled.
Oklahoma State (No. 8)
Similarly, Oklahoma State will also have their must-win game against Oklahoma. For many of the same reasons that Oklahoma must win this game, so too must Oklahoma State.
Even with the bevy of new conference championship games in 2011, this Dec. 3 game will be just as important as those games taking place in the Pac-12, Big Ten, ACC and SEC.
Texas (No. 22)
By anyone's measure, 2010 was a bad year for Texas.
Texas will have some early opportunities to begin the process of healing from last season, but none of those opportunities compare to the one on Sept. 17 when the Longhorns travel to Los Angeles to take on UCLA at the Rose Bowl.
The Longhorns need to avenge last season's loss to the Bruins in order to give some notice to the rest of the Big 12 (and the nation) that 2011 will be different.
It's doubtful Mack Brown will allow another 5-7 season in Austin, but the game against UCLA is a must-win to show the rest of the country that Texas is serious this time.
Texas A&M (No. 10)
The Aggies are primed for a BCS run in 2011, beginning the year ranked in the top 10.
Texas A&M will be provided an early opportunity to prove its worth when the Aggies meet up with Oklahoma State on Sept. 24.
This matchup of two top-10 teams will go a long way toward sorting things out early in the Big 12, and if the Aggies wish to keep pace with the rest of the conference, a win here is essential.
It might be a little frustrating for the Red Raiders, listening to all of the talk around the country about the rest of the conference. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Missouri and Texas are all ranked and are all getting quite a lot of press.
It's probably going to stay that way until Tech gives us something to talk about.
The Red Raiders will be provided that opportunity on Oct. 8 when they host Texas A&M in an early-season in-state grudge match.
The Aggies will undoubtedly be favored in this game, and Texas Tech will need to play at their absolute best in order to have a shot.
But Tech has played the role of spoiler before, and it's never wise to underestimate Texas Tech.
It's also a must-win game for the Raiders, as a loss to A&M will all but end their shot in the Big 12 early in the season.
With all of the talent and highly-ranked teams in the South and West this year, it's easy to overlook the Wildcats.
But like their win in 2010 over Iowa, Arizona will have some opportunity to make headlines with an early-season game at Oklahoma State on Sept. 8.
The Wildcats and Cowboys won't be a game that many people nationally will pay close attention to, unless Arizona wins.
And in order for Arizona to set up a run in the Pac-12, they must win a nationally-televised game against a top-10 team, like Oklahoma State.
A loss would be expected, and a loss will keep Arizona from making much noise in 2011.
Arizona State, like Arizona, will find themselves in a Week 2 showdown with a ranked team from the Big 12.
The Sun Devils will host Missouri on Sept. 9 and, like Arizona, this matchup is a must-win for Arizona State to have any shot to make any national noise in 2011.
While in-conference wins against favorites like Oregon or USC would unquestionably help Arizona State, a massive upset against a non-conference opponent would instantly grab the attention of the national media.
The fact that the game is in Week 2 would also serve as an early boost to the Sun Devil's confidence before the Pac-12 season begins.
The Bears always seem to be just on the cusp of breaking out in the conference. Will 2011 be their year?
In order for that to happen, Cal must win their Oct. 6 game at Oregon.
Easily one of the most difficult environments for opposing teams, Oregon is also very highly-ranked coming into 2011 after their BCS runner-up finish in 2010. But it was the Golden Bears that gave Oregon their biggest scare in 2010, nearly beating the Ducks. And they would have, too, were it not for an untimely penalty.
California can make waves in the Pac-12 and nationally this year, but in order to do that, they must beat Oregon.
Colorado made one of the more curious conference moves during the offseason, moving from the Big 12—where they were never much of a threat—to the new Pac-12.
It's doubtful whether or not they'll be able to make any noise in that conference, either.
Their first opportunity will come on September 10, when they take on California.
Even though both teams are Pac-12 teams, this game will be a non-conference game, as the game was scheduled prior to Colorado joining the conference.
Although the game will have no bearing on the Pac-12 Conference standings, it will go a long way to signaling Colorado's place in the conference, in 2011 and in the years to come.
A win against Cal will be a firm statement that the Buffaloes intend to be competitive in the Pac-12 and that the rest of the conference best take notice.
For that reason, Cal is a must-win game for Colorado in 2011.
Oregon (No. 4)
Our first ranked team in the Pac-12, Oregon is coming off of perhaps their best season in program history.
Their only loss in 2010 came in the BCS championship game, and Oregon is hoping to take care of a little unfinished business in 2011.
In order for Oregon to have a shot, they must win the headlining game of the opening week: a Sept. 3 showdown with LSU at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
This game pits the preseason No. 4 Ducks against the preseason No. 3 Tigers in what is sure to be the game everyone in the nation will be watching on the first Saturday of the season.
If Oregon wants to return to the BCS championship game, a win against LSU is essential.
Over the years, Oregon State has built a reputation for winning games they shouldn't win, yet losing games they shouldn't lose.
The Beavers will need to buck half of that trend in 2011 if they're to have any BCS hopes.
Their must-win game of the upcoming season comes pretty early, as the Beavers will travel to Camp Randall to take on the Wisconsin Badgers.
Wisconsin is an early Big Ten favorite in 2011, and the defending co-champions of the Big Ten are always tough to beat, especially at home.
But Oregon State has as good of a shot as any, and on Sept. 10, the Beavers will take their best shot. Winning this game is a necessity if the Beavers are to crack the top 25 this season.
Stanford (No. 5)
The Cardinal broke into the BCS last season in a big way and walked away with an Orange Bowl victory.
Their chances in 2011 got a huge shot in the arm when Andrew Luck announced that he'd return for his junior year at Stanford.
The only thing that kept Stanford from a shot at the BCS championship was those pesky Ducks from Oregon. Similarly, if the Cardinal hope to have any championship shot in 2011, they'll need to get past the Ducks on Nov. 12.
Only the addition of that win (combined with a theoretical win in the Pac-12 championship game) will propel the Cardinal to the BCS championship game at the conclusion of the 2011 season.
UCLA benefits from the new divisional play in the Pac-12, as Oregon does not appear on their regular-season schedule.
That being said, the Bruins still have to get past Stanford, and the Oct. 1 showdown between these two California schools will be a big one.
While UCLA doesn't have the most difficult schedule in the Pac-12 in 2011, this one matchup could easily be season-defining for the Bruins. Additionally, any Pac-12 championship game bid hopes will rest on the outcome of the game against the Cardinal.
Take heart, Trojans fans. There is light at the end of the NCAA-imposed tunnel.
While USC will still be banned from postseason play, that doesn't mean it can't take advantage of the regular-season schedule and position the program for renewed success once the NCAA sanctions are lifted.
USC is also ineligible for the 2011 Pac-12 championship game, according to Pac-12 spokesman Dave Hirsch, so that excludes most conference games as “must-wins.”
So, given USC's unique position in 2011, their must-win game will boil down to which wins would be most advantageous to recruiting and continued alumni support.
That game is clearly at Notre Dame on Oct. 22.
The Irish got their much-needed win against the Trojans in 2010. USC needs to return the favor in 2011 in order to stay relevant in terms of Pac-12 recruiting.
In the absence of bowl games or conference championship berths, rivalry games are what USC will live off of over the next few seasons. If the Trojans continue to drop these contests, they risk becoming an afterthought to the next crop of high-caliber Pac-12 recruits which will opt for opportunities at Oregon or Stanford or Utah.
Honestly, the Utes weren't exactly as advertised in 2010. Much like a paper tiger, the highly-ranked Utes folded under any significant pressure last season and ended the year a disappointing 10-3, with two of the losses coming at the hands of the other non-AQ BCS busting programs, TCU and Boise State.
Utah can no longer claim the title of BCS Buster, as they have joined the enemy by accepting an invitation to the Pac-12, a BCS-AQ conference.
But before Utah fans get too excited, the Pac-12 isn't exactly the MWC, and making a BCS game may have been easier as an undefeated non-AQ program.
Utah will be provided an early opportunity to make a little noise in the conference when it travels to LA to take on USC on Sept. 10.
While USC is currently in the midst of a downturn, USC is still USC, and a win at USC will certainly be welcomed by Utes fans.
It's also a must-win for the Utes to prove that 2010 is behind them, and that they can compete in the Pac-12.
Jake Locker may be gone, but the Huskies still have to play football.
A lot of people around the nation have begun to write off Washington, believing that Jake Locker alone made the Huskies a success. In order to prove those detractors wrong, Washington must win their Sept. 17 game against the Big Ten's Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Locker led the Huskies to a win over the Huskers in last season's Holiday Bowl.
A win against the Huskers in 2011 would prove to the world that the Huskies can be successful without Locker.
The Washington State Cougars have the dubious distinction of being one of the worst BCS programs over the past few years.
Over the past three years, the Cougars have just five combined wins and 32 combined losses.
There's no argument anyone can make that would shine a positive light on that situation.
Washington State isn't taking any chances with its 2011 schedule, hoping to break out of this current funk. The Cougars open the season against FCS Idaho State, followed by a game against UNLV.
But proving that things have changed at Washington State will be a more difficult task than beating these two lowly programs.
A Sept. 17 game against a resurgent San Diego State program gives the Cougars the opportunity they need to create some positive headlines.
In fact, if Washington ever wants to break out of the basement, the Cougars must come away with a victory against the Aztecs.
Moving to the new-look Big Ten, we'll start with Illinois.
The Fighting Illini are a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team, and with the exception of the 2008 Rose Bowl berth (only given because the Big Ten champion played in that season's BCS championship game), somewhere in the middle is where you always expect Illinois to end up.
This year will be no different, and if the Illini hope to prove doubters wrong, they'll need a big win over Dan Persa and the Northwestern Wildcats on Oct. 1.
The Hoosiers are a perennial Big Ten cellar dweller, and their prospects for 2011 aren't looking much brighter.
The Hoosiers begin their Big Ten season with a visit from Penn State on Oct. 1, and if the Hoosiers want to be any kind of factor in the Big Ten this year, they must come away with a victory against the Nittany Lions.
The Hawkeyes always seem to confound most Big Ten watchers.
Iowa always seems to be loaded with talent, and they always seem to be well suited to compete for a conference championship.
Yet year in and year out, the Hawkeyes fall short in a somewhat confusing fashion.
If Iowa hopes to avoid a letdown again in 2011, they should be focused on getting through to their must-win game against Nebraska on Nov. 25.
Regardless of what happens earlier in the season, the Hawkeyes will be provided an opportunity to shake up the conference with a win against the Cornhuskers.
Michigan (No. 25)
Rich Rodriguez is gone, and the rejoicing in Ann Arbor can begin.
After putting together perhaps the worst three seasons in Michigan football history, the program has been handed over to a true “Michigan Man,” Brady Hoke.
Hoke has a reputation of turning programs around and doing so quickly. UM fans are so restless after the past few seasons that 2011 provides Hoke and his Wolverines with two must-win games.
The first is Oct. 15 at Michigan State.
MSU has beaten the Wolverines the past three years, something that hasn't happened since 1967. MSU hasn't beaten the Wolverines in four consecutive years since 1959-1962, and Hoke will need to return the Paul Bunyan Trophy to Ann Arbor in order to calm the nerves of the Michigan alumni.
The second must-win for Michigan is every UM coach's must-win: Ohio State.
Ohio State has won the last seven games in this series, much to the chagrin of Michigan fans everywhere, and the utter, almost pathologically, delirious delight of Ohio State fans.
Michigan and Brady Hoke must beat the Buckeyes to assure Wolverine fans that all is not lost in Ann Arbor.
Michigan State (No. 11)
Sparty was clearly pleased with the 2010 season, as Michigan State had its best year of football since 1999.
The defending co-champions of the Big Ten will be in for a real test in 2011, as they'll get the best shot from every team they face.
In order to prove to the Big Ten and the nation that 2010 was not a one-and-done for MSU, the Spartans must win their Oct. 1 matchup against a suspension-laden Ohio State squad.
A loss in that game would derail any chance MSU has at another Big Ten title.
The Golden Gophers were hoping that their nice new stadium would go hand-and-hand with a new winning attitude within their football program.
Unfortunately, that hasn't exactly worked out thus far.
The Gophers need a big win off of which they can build, and Week 1 provides them with ample opportunity as they travel to USC to take on the Trojans.
A loss to USC would be just another in a long line of expected disappointments from Minnesota.
Nebraska (No. 20)
Nebraska begins its first season in the Big Ten with high hopes and with the rest of the conference not knowing quite what to expect.
That will work in Nebraska's favor early in the year, but Nebraska's real test will come on October 8 when the Huskers host the Buckeyes from Ohio State.
This game will also be the first game back for the Buckeye Five, the suspended Ohio State players, and it will be the first Big Ten Conference game that Nebraska hosts.
As the saying goes, you never have a second chance at a first impression, and the Huskers need to make their Big Ten home debut a day to remember.
On Oct. 8, Northwestern plays host to the Michigan Wolverines. While Northwestern has had some success, especially with Dan Persa leading the way, the Wildcats are still without a signature win.
While Michigan hasn't exactly oozed success the past few years, the Wolverines are still the winningest program in college football history, and Northwestern needs to prove to everyone, including itself, that it can win the big games against the big opponents.
Ohio State (No. 7)
The Buckeyes don't have a single “must-win” game on their schedule for 2011. In fact, they have five.
The first five games of the season will be of utmost importance to the Buckeyes, as they'll be missing four offensive starters due to suspension, including starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
If Ohio State has any hope of BCS glory in 2011, the Buckeyes must hold serve until the suspended players return for their Oct. 8 contest at Nebraska.
Last year, Joe Paterno won his 400th game as a head coach. This year, Penn State will need to prove that it is still nationally relevant, and it will be provided that opportunity when it hosts Alabama on Sept. 10.
Last year, Penn State was pretty much embarrassed by Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Returning the favor in 2011 will not only signal to the nation that Joe Paterno still has to goods, but it will set up the Nittany Lions for an enthusiastic run through the Big Ten.
Purdue has really been Purdon't in recent Big Ten history.
Without much on-field success, Purdue is stuck in that horrible paradox of losing out on top recruits because they don't win. That means Purdue doesn't win, and the cycle repeats.
In order to break out of that malicious circle, Purdue needs to break out of the slump against Notre Dame.
Their Oct. 1 visit from the Irish will provide the Boilermakers with an opportunity to get a signature win just before starting the Big Ten season.
Right now, the Boilers can use all the confidence they can get, and a win against Notre Dame will be key.
Wisconsin (No. 12)
The only thing that kept Wisconsin from the BCS championship conversation last year was Sparty.
Wisconsin needs to avenge the 2010 loss at the hands of MSU, and they'll be able to do that on Oct. 22 when the Badgers visit East Lansing.
The Badgers will need a quality win against the Spartans (as well as a few others) if they hope to repeat as Big Ten champions, and return to the Rose Bowl for another shot in Pasadena.
Alabama (No. 2)
We'll start our last BCS conference with Alabama and their must-win game of 2011—an Oct. 5 visit from LSU.
Alabama and LSU are the two early favorites in the SEC, and both are ranked in the top five nationally.
The Tide were expected to compete for a BCS championship last year, but fell short with losses to South Carolina, LSU and Auburn. An early look at Alabama's 2011 schedule shows that one game stands out above all others: LSU.
If the Tide can take care of business through the rest of the SEC, then the LSU-Alabama game should provide us with the eventual SEC-West champion.
Arkansas (No. 15)
Ryan Mallett may be gone, but that doesn't mean anyone should be betting against the Razorbacks.
Arkansas will be faced with an early test, as it opens the SEC season with a visit to Alabama.
If Arkansas has any hope of breaking through and winning the SEC-West, it must begin with a quality win against the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 24.
If the Hogs lose that game, you can kiss their hopes of a trip to Atlanta goodbye.
Auburn (No. 13)
The talent drain that Auburn suffered after last season is almost more than can be expressed.
Still, Auburn is the defending BCS champion, and the Tigers will need to prove that those players that remain can still win the big games.
Their first big game will be against the opponent that came closest to beating them last season—Clemson.
It took Auburn overtime to finally walk away with a victory in 2010. In order to prove that the program hasn't completely fallen off of a cliff, the Auburn Tigers will need to beat the Clemson Tigers on Sept. 17, and they'll need to do it without going to overtime.
Florida (No. 23)
The changing of the guard has taken place, and it's now up to Will Muschamp and his cadre of coaches to prove that the 2010 Florida season was a fluke, and the Gators still deserve to be mentioned right along with Alabama and LSU when talking about the SEC greats.
The Gators will get their chance to put their season on the line fairly early when the Crimson Tide come to visit the Swamp on Oct. 1.
If Florida wants to be a factor in the SEC in 2011, the Gators must beat Alabama at home and follow that success with more wins.
Georgia (No. 24)
OK, so the 2010 season didn't start off so hot. But did Bulldogs fans really want Mark Richt fired?
It seems impossible, but it's true. Suffice it to say that 2011 really should start off better than last year, unless Richt really wants to feel the heat from fans.
Georgia faces perennial BCS-buster Boise State at the Georgia Dome on Sept. 3 in what is sure to be a game that all Georgia fans will expect Richt to win.
In fact, unless the Bulldogs want to stumble their way into another SEC season, they must find a way to top the Broncos.
Should the Bulldogs lose, you'll hear howls from Bulldogs faithful about their head coach—no matter how successful he's been in the past.
The Wildcats may be all the rage when it comes to basketball, but in SEC football, they've been mostly a non-factor in recent memory.
Kentucky's SEC opener in 2011 is a visit from the Florida Gators on Sept. 24.
If the Wildcats hope to make any noise in the SEC this season, they must show that they're a force to be reckoned with by beating the Gators.
A loss to Florida will mean a demoralized—and irrelevant—Kentucky squad traveling to LSU the following week.
LSU (No. 3)
LSU had a couple of close calls in 2010, and it led a number of people to question whether or not the Tigers deserved their ranking towards season's end.
In 2011, the Tigers will be tested to the extreme right out of the gate with a Week 1 meeting with No. 4 Oregon at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas on Sept. 3, in what is sure to be the most-watched game of the opening week.
LSU absolutely must find a way to win this game to maintain BCS championship chances.
Heading into the SEC season with a loss on the record, even a loss to a highly-ranked Oregon, will leave LSU at a disadvantage, considering the relative weakness of the majority of SEC teams' non-conference schedule.
Mississippi State (No. 17)
Yet another team from the SEC ranked in most preseason polls, the Mississippi State Bulldogs have made some impressive strides in recent seasons, and the Bulldogs have become a factor in the SEC.
Mississippi State has the opportunity to start out their 2011 SEC campaign strongly when it visits the talent-depleted Auburn Tigers on Sept. 10.
If the Bulldogs want to have any chance of competing for an SEC championship game berth, they must prove they can hang with the SEC's big boys by dispatching a defending BCS champion on the road.
Anything less would be a signal that Mississippi State isn't quite ready to be counted among the nation's elite.
Ole Miss has got to find a way to break out in the SEC.
A great way to start would be to tear through the non-conference schedule, setting up success later in the season.
A Week 1 contest against BYU will provide Ole Miss with the opportunity to impress a national television audience and beat a team it is not expected to beat.
The Rebels have been a non-factor in the SEC for some time now, and losing to BYU won't give anybody any reason to pay much attention in 2011.
South Carolina (No. 16)
South Carolina had one of the program's biggest wins in history in 2010, when the Gamecocks beat the defending BCS champion and then-No. 1-ranked team in the nation, Alabama.
A few missteps later, and South Carolina was hanging on by a thread. Thanks to a woefully weak SEC-East last year, SC was still able to earn the program's first-ever berth in the SEC championship game (although the Gamecocks were throttled by Auburn).
South Carolina needs redemption, and it needs to prove to the rest of the conference that 2010 wasn't a fluke.
If the Gamecocks have truly arrived in the SEC, then they need to prove it by beating Auburn on Oct. 1.
As mentioned, Auburn is depleted, and South Carolina is returning quite a lot of talent (although it remains to be seen if Stephen Garcia will return). South Carolina absolutely must win on Oct. 1 against Auburn in order to cement their status as SEC contender.
What ever happened to the venerable Volunteers?
After winning the first-ever BCS championship, the Vols have been basically a non-factor. While there have been many attempts to kick-start the Tennessee program, nothing will help the Volunteers quite like a headline-making victory in the Swamp.
The Vols travel to Gainesville on Sept. 17, and in order to signal their return to SEC relevency, they must leave with a victory.
The last of the BCS programs is also one of the least successful.
Vanderbilt has been an SEC doormat for quite some time, and with the exception of 2008, the Commodores haven't seen a bowl game since 1982.
The prospects aren't looking much better in 2011, but Vandy can prove everyone wrong with a necessary win at South Carolina on Sept. 24.
In 2008, Vandy started off 5-0, and the Commodores saw their stock soar. It won one of its next seven games, barely remaining bowl eligible. Since that season, Vanderbilt has won a grand total of four games.
If Vanderbilt ever hopes to break out of this slump, it must win a game against a ranked SEC opponent—an elusive feat for the Commodores.
They'll have that opportunity when they visit the Gamecocks.
Should they lose, it's doubtful that Vanderbilt will be mentioned in anything more than a box score the rest of the season.