Tom Layberger

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Best Non-Conference Games

Thursday, May 31, 2012

With all the conference realignment that took place earlier this off-season, it was a chore for a number of teams to solidify their schedules. That was especially the case with non-conference scheduling, which became a moving target for some. For example, a September 8 date between West Virginia and Florida State in Tallahassee – the first engagement of a home-and-home agreement -- would have been a must-see.

Waiting for the finishing touches to be applied to the Mountaineers’ move to the Big 12 held up the release of that conference’s schedule as well as that of the conference WVU vacated: the Big East. West Virginia’s move to the Big 12 resulted in the program having to play more conference games than it would have had it remained in the smaller Big East. With more conference games on the slate, school officials opted to alter the non-conference schedule, including paying FSU a $350,000 escape fee to terminate the early-season matchup. Of course, this did not sit well with Florida State officials, who suddenly had to scramble to find a new non-conference opponent for that date. That is not an easy thing to do in February and, adding to the disappointment, several other top schools were not interested in traveling to Tallahassee unless there was a guarantee of return home game.

When the dust settled, Florida State booked a visit from Savannah State, a game that takes place one week after opening with Murray State. That gives the ‘Noles two FCS programs to kickoff their 2012 schedule. While we will obviously never know what would have happened, an early-season win over West Virginia would have quite a bit more impact on FSU’s standing in the top 25 than a yawner over a MEAC program that went 1-10 last season and lost five games by at least 30 points.  

There are still plenty of what will be highly-anticipated non-conference clashes, though not the quantity there could have been. Here is a look at what I judge to be the best non-conference game on a week-to-week basis. 

Sept. 1: Alabama vs Michigan (Arlington, Texas)
It is a shame this game is being played in Jerry Jones’ play palace. After all, wouldn’t this mega-watt matchup be better served in the Big House or Tuscaloosa? Regardless of venue, Michigan coach Brady Hoke will find out if his Wolverines are in line to contend for the national title with QB Denard Robinson sure to be tested time and again by the Tide’s defense. While the defending national champs have some holes to plug on either side scrimmage, there is no lack of talent. Michigan will serve as a nice measuring stick to see how far Nick Saban’ new starters have come – or have to go. Either way, it should be a dandy with early national title – and Heisman -- implications.

Sept. 8: Washington at LSU
This is quite a trip for the Huskies, who rarely venture this far east. In fact, it will mark only be their third visit to a traditional SEC school with the last coming in 1983 against the Bayou Bengals. It’s likely this contest will not end in a 40-14 UW defeat as it did 29 years ago, but it will be quite a test for QB Keith Price against a defense that will have the Tigers in the national title hunt once again. After opening at home against North Texas, new LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger gets his first start against a strong opponent.   

Sept. 15: North Carolina at Louisville
While Notre Dame and Michigan State go at it on this day, I like the Tar Heels and Cardinals in that it could easily be the most entertaining Week 3 contest. Teddy Bridgewater should be something to watch for Louisville after a promising freshman year. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels have an exciting offense that could cause much havoc in the ACC under new coach Larry Fedora. It adds up to a potential offensive explosion that could overheat The Oven.

Sept. 22: Michigan at Notre Dame
It will be hard to top their thrilling primetime encounter in Ann Arbor last season, so don’t expect that. Given the Irish open in Ireland against Navy, return to South Bend for a short week prior to hosting Purdue, then have a date at Michigan State, one can see how the Golden Domers are likely to be pooped by kickoff. On top of jam-packed itinerary, coach Brian Kelly still may not know who his starting quarterback is. All that stated, it is not out of the question that both teams will be 3-0 heading into this one. If that turns out to be the case, the hype meter will be out of control.

Sept. 29: Florida State at USF
In the only previous meeting between the schools, the Bulls knocked off the Seminoles in Tallahassee in 2009. While the cast of characters has changed, including both coaches, nobody in the state capital has forgotten what happened three years ago. The quarterback matchup of FSU’s E.J. Manuel and USF’s B.J. Daniels, a Tallahassee native by the way, will be much anticipated. The ‘Noles will have to be careful as this game is sandwiched between ACC tilts against visiting Clemson and at North Carolina State.  

Oct. 6: Notre Dame vs. Miami (Chicago)
The matchup doesn’t have the headline-grabbing attention it deserved when the teams last played in 1989. The seventh-ranked Hurricanes defeated top-ranked Notre Dame, 27-10, to put an end to the Irish’s 23-game win streak. Lou Holtz and Dennis Erickson are long gone and both programs are attempting to build themselves back up in the national landscape. That might be reason enough to tune in.

Oct. 13: Stanford at Notre Dame
Unless the Silver State battle between Nevada and UNLV captures your fancy, there is little to choose from this week. That brings us to the Luck-less Cardinal and Irish. Both teams may simply be attempting to keep their heads above water at this stage of the season with the loser potentially scrambling for something resembling a mid-level bowl.

Oct. 20: Wyoming at Fresno State
Another sparse week as far as non-conference games. BYU at Notre Dame? Ho-hum. Cincy at Toledo? No thanks. It’s that slim. To settle the score, I’ll go with the Cowboys and Bulldogs in a game that at least boasts a pair of real good quarterbacks in the Pokes’ Brett Smith and Fresno State’s Derek Carr. Frankly, it could be a heck of game.

Oct. 27: Notre Dame at Oklahoma
This will be the tenth meeting between the schools and only the second since 1968. One of the previous nine games serves as a substantial entry in college football lore. In 1957, Terry Brennan’s Irish snapped the record 47-game winning streak of Bud Wilkinson’s Sooners. Which brings us to this neat little tidbit: should OU win to move to 7-0, Bob Stoops will pass Wilkinson as the Sooners’ second- winningest coach. Wilkinson won 145 games and Stoops enters 2012 with 139 victories. Notre Dame comes to Norman having already played a brutal schedule. 

Nov. 3: Air Force at Army
Instead of Pitt at Notre Dame, let’s put the focus on beautiful West Point and the banks of the Hudson. Granted the more traditional academy battle is a little more than a month away, but you can’t beat the atmosphere of these rivalry games – even if the Falcons have won 13 of the last 14 against the Black Knights.

Nov. 10: Boise State at Hawaii
The Broncos will not be the juggernaut they were during the Kellen Moore era, but by this point in the season they could be in the mix for a Mountain West title. They could also be in for a battle as Aloha Stadium has trapped many an opponent. Even with new starting QBs on either side, points likely will not be at a premium.

Nov. 17: USF at Miami
Should the Bulls knock off Florida State on the final Saturday in September, this could be a showcase for state bragging rights. In the previous three meetings, neither team has been able to win on its home field, something Skip Holtz’s squad hopes to achieve just that and square the series at two. If so, and depending on how the Bulls fare in Tallahassee, the victory would resonate throughout the Sunshine State and likely the top 25.

Nov. 24: Georgia Tech at Georgia
Notre Dame is in SoCal where the Trojans could be on their way to playing for the national title. Who knows about Notre Dame at this point? That’s why I look to Peach State and what could be one of the more entertaining games of the year. With quarterback Aaron Murray and the Bulldogs’ stable of talent coupled with Paul Johnson’s option offense at Tech, there should be plenty edge-of-your-seat playmaking. It also could be huge for a Georgia team that has its eyes on a BCS bowl.   

Dec. 8: Army vs Navy (Philadelphia)
Always emotional and always a rewarding experience for any and all that attend, it remains a classic regardless of what else is going on in the world college football. The Black Knights’ faithful just wish it had not become such a one-sided affair as the Middies have claimed victory in the last 10 meetings. A smart thing was done a couple of years ago in moving this contest to the second Saturday in December so that it stands alone.  

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