College Football 2011: The 20 Programs with the Toughest Season Openers

Matthew DonaldsonCorrespondent IMay 17, 2011

College Football 2011: The 20 Programs with the Toughest Season Openers

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    As we get into the month of May, the start of college football is closer than the end of the 2010 season. That is reason enough for excitement, especially with the NFL season in limbo due to the infamous lockout. 

    It's never too early to look ahead to the first weekend's slate of college games. This slideshow previews 20 programs who face the toughest challenges on the first weekend of the college football calendar. 

    Sure, plenty of big name schools have scheduled almost guaranteed wins, but there are some very fascinating games. These are listed in a general order from easiest to most difficult. Enjoy!

20. Wake Forest at Syracuse

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    Syracuse is coming off a wildly successful 8-5 season with a victory over Kansas State in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Quarterback Ryan Nassib returns to try to lead Syracuse to back-to-back bowl bids.

    Although Wake Forest finished with a disappointing 3-9 record in 2010, they still pose a threat in the season opener at the Carrier Dome. A big conference team with a lot of experience on the road in tough environments may be able to hang in the game and give Syracuse some trouble. 

19. Mississippi State at Memphis

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    Mississippi State has high expectations this season. With hopes of taking the SEC West, they begin their year with a short road trip to Memphis to take on the recently struggling Tigers. 

    MSU beat Memphis 49-7 in Starkville last year, and the Tigers will undoubtedly be trying to forget their 2010 campaign, which ended with an 1-11 record. Going on the road for Week 1 leaves a bit of an unknown about how a team will respond, but the Bulldogs should be fine here. 

18. Appalachian State at Virginia Tech

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    Most people remember the Hokies' upset loss at the hands of James Madison one year ago. They managed to right the ship after two early season losses with 10 straight wins, storming to the ACC Championship. 

    Instead of opening against Boise State, they start 2011 against the Appalachian State Mountaineers, who still conjure up memories of their upset of Michigan at the Big House. App State has more firepower than many I-AA opponents and can be dangerous.

    Virginia Tech likely learned their lesson last season, but it's a game to keep an eye on. 

17. Marshall at West Virginia

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    Marshall and West Virginia have a historic rivalry, so it's worth taking a look during opening weekend. West Virginia prevailed in overtime last year in Week 2, 24-21. 

    The Mountaineers have more explosive players on offense and a fast, athletic defense. The key should be creating separation from the Herd early in the game, with dark horse Heisman candidate Geno Smith at the helm for the Mountaineers.

    A few early scores could be enough cushion for the Mountaineer defense to hold on to. 

16. UCLA at Houston

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    UCLA faces a tough test to start the season going on the road to Robertson Stadium in Houston. The Bruins defeated the Cougars 31-13 last year, as stud Houston quarterback Case Keenum went down with a season-ending knee injury. 

    Keenum appealed to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility and received a positive verdict. He'll be able to play in 2011 for the Cougars, making Houston a dangerous first opponent for UCLA. Look for the return of Keenum to inspire U of H to a competitive game with their Pac-12 opponent. 

15. Utah State at Auburn

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    Auburn begins an absolute gauntlet of a schedule with Utah State, who finished 4-8 in their 2010 campaign. Despite their record, the Aggies gave Oklahoma all they wanted and more in last year's season opener, losing by seven points. 

    Auburn needs a good start to the season with many new faces in the lineup. They must travel to Clemson, South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia, not to mention getting Mississippi State, Florida and Alabama at home. The schedule is tough enough without adding an opening day loss to the mix. It's important for the Tigers' season to take care of business and learn from Utah State's performance against Oklahoma last year. 

14. Middle Tennessee at Purdue

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    One of the more interesting matchups between a power conference team and a lesser known squad.

    Purdue is at home and may be favored in this opening weekend game, but Middle Tennessee State made a bowl game and recorded six wins to Purdue's four last year. 

    The last thing Purdue needs if they want to break a bowl-less streak that goes back to 2007 is a loss to Middle Tennessee to start the season. On the other hand, it's a great opportunity for the Blue Raiders to try to get a win in a Big Ten stadium. 

13. Northwestern at Boston College

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    Both teams finished with 7-6 records last season and look to kick start 2011 with a win against the other this year. Northwestern has been fairly successful under Pat Fitzgerald, and Dan Persa will return from an ACL injury that sidelined him for the last three games of 2010 (all of which were Northwestern losses). 

    Whoever wins this opening game will take a good step toward trying to challenge the big boys in their respective conferences. Boston College could use a quality win to begin the season for coach Frank Spaziani, who just received a contract extension. 

12. Colorado at Hawaii

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    Hawaii finished with a 10-4 record in 2010, tying Nevada and Boise State for the best record in the WAC. They led the nation in passing offense and finished the season ranked in the top 25. 

    Colorado comes to the island for the season opener in 2011. The Buffaloes beat Georgia, Kansas State and these same Hawaii Warriors last season, so they cannot be taken lightly as they move into the Pac-12. 

11. Fresno State at California

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    Fresno State finished off an 8-5 campaign with a disappointing blowout loss to Northern Illinois in the bowl season. All of their losses came at the expense of quality competition including Nevada, Boise State, Ole Miss and Hawaii.

    This season begins with a road trip to Berkeley to face the Cal Golden Bears. Jeff Tedford needs to have at least a winning season to keep up in the increasingly competitive Pac-12. A good start would be holding serve at home against the Bulldogs. 

10. South Florida at Notre Dame

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    High hopes are back in South Bend with Brian Kelly at the helm. The Irish will need to avoid looking past their season opener at a road trip to Ann Arbor in Week 2 though. 

    First, the South Florida Bulls from the Big East visit Notre Dame. They finished 8-5 with a win over Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl and return dual-threat quarterback B.J. Daniels. The Irish's 2011 schedule looks very manageable, but a loss to the Bulls would be the opposite of what needs to happen if they want a BCS berth in 2011. 

9. Troy at Clemson

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    Clemson begins the 2011 season with a showdown against the Troy Trojans, notorious in recent years for being a dangerous non-conference opponent. Troy won a share of the Sun Belt title and finished at 8-5 in 2010, while Dabo Swinney's Tigers finished 6-7, after nearly beating the eventual national champions. 

    Clemson needs a good start to this season. They have Troy and Wofford visiting town before Auburn comes to Death Valley, so getting those two early season wins will be key before the Auburn game and ACC play. 

8. BYU at Ole Miss

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    BYU begins their football independence with a trip to Oxford, Miss. to face Ole Miss. Coming off a 7-6 season, knocking off a SEC opponent (even if it is the worst team in the West) would be a great step toward a positive 2011 season. 

    Looking past Week 1, the Cougars have a road trip to Austin and the Holy War with Utah coming up immediately afterward. Beating Ole Miss is almost essential to avoid being in a big hole entering October. 

7. ECU at South Carolina

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    Despite South Carolina's first ever SEC title game appearance last year, the Gamecocks still found a way to lose at least five games for the ninth consecutive year. They did however beat Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Florida in the same season, and they return key playmakers like Alshon Jeffrey and Marcus Lattimore. 

    A trip to Athens looms in Week 2, but Dominique Davis and ECU were a bowl team last year, and they will be poised to give the Gamecocks a tough game. Whether its Stephen Garcia or Connor Shaw at quarterback, South Carolina needs to take care of business in Week 1.  

6. SMU at Texas A&M

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    Texas A&M starts 2011 with three home games, the first of which is against bowl team SMU, who has finally surged back into the college football bowl picture in back-to-back seasons. They visit Kyle Field against an Aggies team that will undoubtedly be confident after finishing the regular season with six straight regular season wins. 

    Ryan Tannehill will be the quarterback after authoring that resurgent finish to the 2010 season. To continue the momentum and handle the expectations being placed on the Aggies this season, they need to handle in-state foe SMU. The offense that June Jones brings to the table could keep this game interesting into the fourth quarter. 

5. Miami at Maryland

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    Jacory Harris returns hoping to hold onto his starting job to propel Miami toward competing for a spot in the ACC title game. Miami  has a difficult opener with a conference road game against Maryland, who finished with an identical 5-3 conference record last year. 

    This will be Randy Edsall's first game as the Maryland head coach, so Miami will have their work cut out for them going into Byrd Stadium. The winner takes a big early step in the ACC race. 

4. Tulsa at Oklahoma

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    Oklahoma has a pretty tough season opener with 10-win Tulsa coming to Norman Sept. 3. They defeated Notre Dame in South Bend last season and have the offensive firepower to test Oklahoma, who may be caught looking ahead at a trip to Tallahassee in Week 2. 

    The Sooners nearly slipped up against Utah State last season, so expect Bob Stoops to have his team ready to play. Still, the Golden Hurricane have a chance to keep the game competitive. 

3. TCU at Baylor

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    TCU, coming off an undefeated season capped off by a Rose Bowl win, begins 2011 by traveling the short drive from Fort Worth to Waco to visit the Baylor Bears. Baylor is coming off their first bowl appearance in 16 years, albeit a loss to Illinois. 

    Robert Griffin III is back to try to vault Baylor further into the national spotlight. What better way to do that than take down TCU on Friday night, Sept. 2? It should be a good matchup to watch with the TCU defense going up against Griffin's passing and running ability. 

2. Boise State at Georgia

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    Boise State lost a lot of talent off a very successful, one-loss team of a year ago. This offseason ushered in NCAA sanctions of a loss of practice time and scholarships over the next two years. To top it off, they must travel to the Georgia Dome to face the Georgia Bulldogs. 

    Many college football fans have wanted to see how Boise would do against higher quality competition. While Georgia isn't the best the SEC has to offer, they will be a good test for the Broncos at the very beginning of the season.

    Keep an eye on how this offseason affects the buildup and preparation for this opener. Mark Richt is in need of a statement win. They have South Carolina visiting Sanford Stadium the next week as well, so a win to start the year would be nice for the Bulldogs. 

1. LSU at Oregon

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    Both Oregon and LSU likely face the toughest season opener in the country, facing each other at Cowboys Stadium in primetime on Sept. 3. It's a game featuring two teams with National Championship aspirations, Heisman Trophy candidates and conference bragging rights. 

    Oregon's unique and fast-paced offense will challenge the usually strong John Chavis-led LSU defense. The Bengal Tigers will be trying to jump-start an offense that finally began to live up to its talent in the bowl game against Texas A&M. 

    On paper, this is the best matchup of the opening weekend. Personally, I can't wait to watch this game unfold. There will be a ton of talent and athleticism all over the field. Whoever can survive with a win may kick off a very special season.