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

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistJune 30, 2011

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

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    College football is an odd creature.

    The game is almost completely focused on conference schedules, and nowhere is the debate about conference supremacy more heated than in college football.

    There are so few non-conference games for each team each year that it's really difficult to judge one conference versus another with any certainty.

    It also doesn't help matters when teams like Alabama choose to go the route of scheduling Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Kent State or North Texas, rather than taking the opportunity to test themselves (and the "SEC is Better than You" theory) by scheduling a team like Oklahoma State, Boise State or Virginia Tech.

    Alabama certainly isn't the only culprit, and the other conferences are buying into the SEC model of scheduling non-conference games against the creampuffs of the college football world.

    But there are some programs that are involved in some great non-con games in 2011, and they should be receiving praise for their boldness and courage.

    After all, when you're a top-five team and you're hoping to make a run at the BCS Championship, it takes big brass ones to play another top team rather than scheduling an FCS opponent.

    So here is my power ranking list for the top 25 non-conference clashes coming in 2011.

No. 25: TCU at SMU

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    Friday, Sept. 30 at 8:00 p.m. EDT (CBS Sports Network)

    SMU head coach June Jones believes his team can be the next TCU.

    Don't believe it? Just ask him!

    At first glance, most people won't give the Mustangs much of a chance against the defending Rose Bowl champions. But TCU has lost so much talent that this game could be the beginning of the end for TCU's 2011 and the beginning of something better for SMU.

    After all, SMU's football program has, for the most part, been an exercise in futility for much of the past two-plus decades.

No. 24: Clemson at South Carolina

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    Saturday, Nov. 26 (Time and Coverage TBA)

    Clemson and South Carolina have been fairly disappointing over the past few years.

    Sure, South Carolina won the SEC East last season, but that wasn't much of a feat, considering the hot mess that division was last season.

    Clemson's best moment of 2010 came in a loss—an overtime heartbreaker early in the season to Auburn.

    While this cross-conference rivalry game has a lot of intensity between Clemson and South Carolina, on the outside, it just doesn't mean too terribly much these days.

No. 23: Tulsa at Boise State

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    Saturday, Sept. 24 at 8:00 p.m. EDT (CBS Sports Network)

    Boise State isn't only the top non-AQ program in 2011, they're one of the top programs—AQ or not—in the entire country.

    Tulsa, on the other hand, is a team of wild extremes. Pretty good one season and terrible the next, the Golden Hurricane will find themselves facing Boise State in Boise early in 2011.

    While many people might overlook this game, Tulsa certainly won't, and a win here would propel the Hurricane into the top 25.

No. 22: Notre Dame at Michigan

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    Saturday, Sept. 10 at 8:00 p.m. EDT (ABC/ESPN)

    A night game at Michigan Stadium is always a special event, considering how extremely rare it is.

    The fact that it's Michigan-Notre Dame makes the event even more special.

    Add in the premise that Michigan is hopefully entering a new era under Brady Hoke, and Notre Dame has its sights set on the BCS in 2011, and this could turn into a real spectacle.

    It's always great when two storied programs get together. And you can't get much more football history in one stadium than when you get Michigan and Notre Dame.

No. 21: Texas at UCLA

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    Saturday, Sept. 17 at 3:30 p.m. EDT (ABC/ESPN)

    When UCLA pounded the Longhorns last season, it was the beginning of the end of Texas' 2010 season.

    The Longhorns are definitely out for blood in 2011.

    Texas should be much more talented than UCLA, but that was true last season as well, and the Bruins took it to the Longhorns early and often.

    This time, the game is at the Rose Bowl, so don't expect UCLA fans to make it easy on whomever emerges as the Longhorns' starting quarterback.

No. 20: Oregon State at Wisconsin

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    Saturday, Sept. 10 at 12:00 p.m. EDT (ESPN/ESPN2)

    Why is Oregon State and Wisconsin an important game this season?

    On paper, it shouldn't be.

    Wisconsin will win, right?

    Well, they should win, yes. But there are two things about this game that placed it on this power rankings list:

    First, every couple of years, Oregon State has a habit of taking out a highly-ranked team in a game where the Beavers are completely overmatched. The Beavers haven't done that in a while, and they're due.

    Second, although Wisconsin is widely expected to compete for the Big Ten title this year, they did lose significant talent from last year's Rose Bowl squad.

    Bottom line, it's not completely out of realm of possibility that Oregon State wins this game.

No. 19: Colorado at Ohio State

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    Saturday, Sept. 24 (Time and Coverage TBA)

    A few months ago, no one gave this game much attention.

    Since the Buckeyes' offseason implosion, this game now has a little more spice added to it.

    Colorado has been a perennial underachiever the past decade or so, but their move to the Pac-12 could change things.

    Add in the fact that Ohio State will still be dealing with suspensions and who knows what else in the early season, and this game could end up surprising a number of people—least of all, Colorado fans.

No. 18: USC at Notre Dame

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    Saturday, Oct. 22 at 7:30 pm EDT (NBC)

    Notre Dame is looking to improve on last year's success and fight their way back into the BCS.

    USC is looking to pull itself up off the mat.

    It seems like just yesterday the USC-Notre Dame rivalry was one of the top games in the nation. But both teams have fallen on hard times lately, although for very different reasons.

    USC is not the national power today it was just a few short years ago. NCAA sanctions for egregious rule violations have a habit of knocking down even the best programs in the nation. Just as SMU—or ask Ohio State in a year or two.

    Notre Dame is also not the national power it once was, although many believe the Fighting Irish are well on the way back up the ladder; successive hiring of less-than-qualified coaches will do that. Notre Dame probably has all of their eggs in Brian Kelly's basket, but that's only because they only have a few eggs left.

    This game will be important for the Irish, as it could prove they can consistently beat the decent teams. We still consider USC a decent team, even though they're having their (self-inflicted) issues, they are still USC.

    And therein lies the reason this game is important to the Trojans. USC needs to show the rest of the nation that even though they are down, they are not out. They need to prove they are indeed still USC, and beating a very good Notre Dame team will do exactly that.

No. 17: Florida at Florida State

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    Saturday, Nov. 26 (Time and Coverage TBA)

    Over the past few years, this game has really taken a beating.

    As this season-concluding game approaches each season, one of these teams has found itself out of the national conversation, and the game has ended in predictable fashion.

    This year could change that trend, and both teams could find themselves highly ranked by the time Nov. 26 rolls around.

    After 10 years of dominance, the Gators were finally beaten by their in-state rivals last season.

    This year, the Seminoles should again be the favorites, but don't expect a 31-7 steamrolling.

No. 16: Michigan State at Notre Dame

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    Saturday, Sept. 17 at 3:30 p.m. (ABC/ESPN)

    Putting this game on the power rankings list for 2011 is a no-brainer.

    And if you doubt that, you obviously didn't see last year's game.

    Michigan State's instant classic win on a fake field goal in overtime will be remembered for decades in East Lansing—and probably in South Bend, too.

    This year, both teams are expected to be as good, if not better, than they were last year. Notre Dame definitely wants revenge, and MSU desperately wants to prove to the nation that their 2010 Big Ten co-championship wasn't a fluke.

    This game could prove to be very important down the stretch when it comes to BCS standings, as well.

    Last year, neither team expected to do as well as they did. This year, the magnitude of the game will be well understood weeks before kickoff.

No. 15: Notre Dame at Stanford

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    Saturday, Nov. 26 at 8:00 p.m. EST (ABC/ESPN)

    Notre Dame and Stanford comes in at No. 15 on our power rankings list—three spots ahead of this year's USC-Notre Dame game.

    Does that mean the Notre Dame-Stanford rivalry has outpaced the USC-Notre Dame rivalry?

    Simply put, no.

    But since we're talking only about 2011, the answer for this list is, yes.

    Just comparing USC and Stanford will show that Stanford is likely to be a much bigger test for the Irish this season. It's conceivable to have two top-10 teams facing off in this late-season clash, and a possible national network audience could make this game very important in terms of poll votes as well.

No. 14: Pittsburgh at Iowa

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    Saturday, Sept. 17 at 12:00 p.m. EDT (ESPN/ESPN2)

    Iowa will be looking for a quality win early in the season, and their best opportunity will come Sept. 17 when they host Pitt.

    Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has a fairly weak schedule, and a win over Iowa could mean the Panthers will have a real shot at starting the season five or six wins over their first seven games.

No. 13: Arizona at Oklahoma State

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    Thursday, Sept. 8 at 8:00 p.m. EDT (ESPN)

    Stillwater isn't an easy place to win a road game these days.

    Arizona will give Oklahoma State its best shot in a Thursday night game early this season. The Wildcats actually have a similar offense to the Cowboys, and it will be a good early test for the Oklahoma State defense.

    We all know the Cowboys will have a high-octane offense this year; scoring points won't be the problem.

    Keeping teams like Arizona off the scoreboard is what will be important this year.

    This game could serve to answer a lot of lingering questions about Oklahoma State.

No. 12: San Diego State at Michigan

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    Saturday, Sept. 24 (Time and Coverage TBA)

    Brady Hoke left San Diego State for Michigan this offseason, but he the program in decent shape, and he's taking over a Michigan program that is pretty listless.

    But even though Michigan definitely had their troubles the past three seasons under Rich Rodriguez, they've typically had some pretty good starts to the season. The game is also at home, and SDSU is definitely not accustomed to playing in front of 113,000 fans.

    But if there's an early-season shocker in the cards for Michigan fans, this could be it.

No. 11: Arizona State at Illinois

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    Saturday, Sept. 17 at 7:00 p.m. EDT (Big Ten Network)

    This game is one of five Pac-12/Big Ten games scheduled for the 2011 regular season, and it's important because it will pit a Pac-12 contender no one seems to be talking about against an Illinois team that has the potential to compete in the Big Ten if some pieces fall into place for the Fighting Illini.

    While it certainly isn't getting the fanfare that a LSU-Oregon or Boise State-Goeriga game is getting, this game could be looked back upon as a real season-changer for one of these teams later in the season.

No. 10: BYU at Texas

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    Saturday, Sept. 10 at 7:00 p.m. EDT (ESPN2)

    This game is intriguing not because either team was particularly great last season or because they're expected to be particularly great this season, but rather for the team-specific storylines.

    BYU is embarking on their experiment in football independence, and Texas is embarking on a season of redemption after a 2010 that could only be described as painfully embarrassing.

No. 9: Missouri at Arizona State

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    Friday, Sept. 9 at 10:30 p.m. EDT (ABC/ESPN)

    The Sun Devils had a mediocre record last season, but if you take a peek just below the surface, you might find an Arizona State team in 2011 that could realistically compete for the Pac-12 Championship.

    After all, the Sun Devils were a combined touchdown away from winning 10 games last season, and they return every offensive starter on the team, plus most of their defense as well.

    Missouri is coming off a 10-win season and is looking to make a real move in the Big 12 this year.

    What would otherwise be a game only important in Arizona and Missouri could turn into a clash between two AQ conference championship contenders.

No. 8: Alabama at Penn State

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    Saturday, Sept. 10 at 3:30 p.m. EDT (ABC)

    It's truly a rare sight seeing Alabama playing a non-conference game against a quality opponent from a BCS AQ conference.

    There's one little problem though.

    When Alabama and Penn State scheduled the game, Penn State was in the midst of an upswing. In 2005, the Nittany Lions finished the year ranked No. 3 in the nation. In 2008, the Nittany Lions were No. 8 and shared the Big Ten Championship. In 2009, the Lions again finished as the No. 8 team in the nation.

    Last year, a lackluster 7-6 season was the result, including a thrashing at the hands of the Crimson Tide.

    It will be curious to see if Joe Paterno can right the Penn State ship. This game makes it into our top 10 because of that curiosity and the fact that Alabama begins the 2011 season so highly ranked.

    This is a potential stumbling block for the Tide.

No. 7: Texas A&M vs. Arkansas

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    Saturday, Oct. 1 (Time and Coverage TBA)

    Another highly-anticipated non-conference clash for 2011 will take place Oct. 1 at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.

    This time, the stakes are going to be a touch higher for both teams.

    Texas A&M might be only as high as third on most people's Big 12 lists this season, but they're still high enough to be mentioned in the same breath as Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. It's not out of the realm of possibility that we're talking about a top-10 team in the Aggies, and they have a legit shot at the Big 12 and a BCS bowl berth in 2011.

    Similarly, Arkansas showed in 2010 that they're a force to be reckoned with in the SEC. While the loss of Ryan Mallett is significant, one man a team does not make. The Razorbacks will be fine without him, and what better way to prove that than with a nationally-televised non-conference game against a highly-ranked opponent on a neutral field?

No. 6: Auburn at Clemson

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    Saturday, Sept. 17 at 12:00 p.m. EDT (ABC)

    Last year's contest was a classic, and Clemson almost ended Auburn's BCS Championship run before anyone really knew it had begun.

    The 2010 game was an overtime thriller, and it marked the beginning of Auburn's rise and Clemson's fall. It was Auburn's closest game all season, and it is ranked so highly this year simply because it was such a great game last season.

    It will also be interesting to see how Auburn responds this season to the massive losses in talent and experience they will have to endure. This early test against a team that played the Tigers as tough as anyone last season should give us some insight to Auburn's 2011 future.

No. 5: Boise State at Georgia

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    Saturday, Sept. 3 at 8:00 p.m. (ESPN)

    It's about time someone from the SEC had the courage to schedule Boise State.

    This game will be one of the marquee Week 1 games, and much of the country will be watching.

    Boise State is looking for redemption. It's amazing to think we're talking about a 12-1 team from 2010 looking for redemption, but then again, it's Boise State—a 12-1 season just won't cut it anymore.

    Georgia is similarly looking for redemption, as the Bulldogs started 2010 by losing four of their first five games. While we don't expect a repeat of that performance, we won't be shocked for a moment if Boise State has all of the horses they need to keep pace (or even outrun) the SEC's Georgia Bulldogs at the Georgia Dome.

No. 4: Ohio State at Miami

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    Saturday, Sept. 17 (Time TBA, ABC/ESPN)

    Believe it or not, this game is probably more important now than it was a few months ago.

    Last season, Ohio State won without much difficulty, as Miami just wasn't a good as advertised in 2010.

    While we don't expect Miami to make any great strides in 2011, it's clear Ohio State could very well have some difficulties of their own. In short, this game is now competitive.

    Add in the suspensions and the fact that the game is in Miami, and you have all the ingredients for an upset recipe.

No. 3: LSU at West Virginia

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    Saturday, Sept. 24 (Time and Coverage TBA)

    LSU will start the 2011 season as one of the top five teams in the nation. They have a legit shot at the SEC Championship and BCS title this season, and they also have the non-conference schedule to boost their BCS cred.

    Apparently the Tigers have decided to buck the SEC trend this season to schedule two teams that reside in the top tier of their respective conferences.

    West Virginia is hoping that this season will be the year they can finally get over the Rich Rodriguez hangover. Even diehard Mountaineers fans are forced to admit things just haven't been the same in Morgantown since RichRod left for Michigan.

    Regardless of how despicable WVU fans acted when Rodriguez announced he was leaving West Virginia, they probably still wish he had never left—and Michigan fans probably agree with that sentiment as well.

    But he did leave, and West Virginia had fully moved on, with the hiring of Dana Holgorsen as offensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting.

    Well, as it turned out, the waiting didn't last long, and personality clashes between Holgorsen and head coach Bill Stewart forced Stewart to resign a year earlier than originally planned.

    West Virginia under Rodriguez was known for their prolific offense; Holgorsen is well known for engineering some explosive offenses of his own.

    While this meeting isn't quite the Goliath vs. Goliath it would have been a half-decade ago, it still has the opportunity to either showcase LSU's ability to beat a very good team or announce WVU's return to the national conversation.

No. 2: Oklahoma at Florida State

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    Saturday, Sept. 17 (Time TBA, ABC/ESPN)

    Oklahoma will start the 2011 season at the top of everyone's preseason rankings. Florida State will start the season ranked in many top 10's around the country.

    With this game coming in Week 3, it's going to be an early test for each of these programs.

    Perhaps the interesting thing about this game is the fact that it in no way would derail either team's BCS chances—win or lose. Each team is favored in their respective conferences, and it's doubtful a loss in this game would change that outlook.

    But the game is of primary importance when talking about the BCS Championship game—which takes place nearly four months later.

    While it may be oversimplifying, the reality is that Oklahoma could absorb this loss easier. A top team losing to a top-10 team early on in the season could leave the Sooners enough time to climb back into the top two by season's end.

    If Florida State were to lose, they'd likely drop in the polls into the mid-teens. While that doesn't disqualify them, they'd certainly need a bit of help to climb the BCS mountain.

    Both teams will be very good this year, and this is a game you should have marked on your calendar.

No. 1: LSU vs. Oregon

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    Saturday, Sept. 3 at 8:00 p.m. EDT (ABC)

    This is one heckuva Week 1 game, folks.

    Two teams that will be top-five teams to begin the season will meet in Week 1, and the college football season will begin with a bang.

    Last season's BCS runner-up, Oregon feels as if there is some unfinished business. A close loss in the BCS Championship game has got to leave a bitter taste in one's mouth, and the Ducks will clearly have a championship as their goal in 2011.

    LSU also feels as if there's some unfinished business.

    A close finish in the SEC standings last season left LSU wanting more, and they've shown they have the talent to be considered a contender for both the SEC and the BCS titles. A win over Oregon would serve the purpose of broadcasting to the SEC and the nation that the Tigers are in the hunt this season, and hopefully won't have to rely on last-second magic for wins.

    Take out your highlighter and mark your calendars. This is one of the biggest games of the year, and it's coming in Week 1—just nine weeks away.