Best nonconference games of 2012

Mark your calendars now with these top 50 non-conference college football games of 2012. Did your team make the list?

50. Colorado vs. Colorado State (in Denver), Sept. 1

This used to be a nasty, under-the-radar rivalry that became more and more significant and entertaining by the year, and then both programs fell off the map. Colorado State has fallen further than Colorado, losing four of the last five in the series, and now it’s up to new head coach Jim McElwein to try to turn around the program. Beating the Buffs would get things off to a hot start and would instantly put Colorado head man John Embree on the hot seat. The Buffaloes follow this up with Sacramento State while the Rams get North Dakota State.

49. Marshall at West Virginia. Sept. 1

Does the in-state showdown matter more now that West Virginia is in the Big 12? Not really, but it’s going to be the first time the Mountaineers hit the field after its performance in the Orange Bowl and after what’s sure to be a fun offseason of praise and high expectations. The problem is that it hasn’t been much of a rivalry – WVU is 10-0 in the series including a 92-6 squeaker in 1915 and an 81-0 battle in 1923. MU is due. The Herd plays Western Carolina next, while the Mountaineers play James Madison in Landover.

48. Temple at Penn State, Sept. 22

There are games that new Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien has to win, and there are games new Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien has to win. Joe Paterno was 14 years old the last time Temple beat Penn State with the Nittany Lions going 36-0-1 since 1941. The lone blemish – a 7-7 tie – was in 1950, but the Owls had last year’s game won. At least it had overtime there for the taking until giving up a late, heartbreaking scoring drive. This might be a rough year for O’Brien as the program tries to rebound, but a loss and an end to the streak would be truly disastrous with the Big Ten opener at Illinois to follow.

47. Syracuse at Minnesota, Sept. 22

In 1996, these two played one of the wildest games in college football history with Minnesota mounting an epic comeback to win 35-33 in the old dome. The Gophers also came up with a 23-20 road win over the Orange in 2009. This year, second-year head coach Jerry Kill has to try to come up with a victory to kickstart a program that struggled throughout last year, while Syracuse head man Doug Marrone – with games against Northwestern and USC over the first few weeks – might need a win to avoid an ugly start. This is Minnesota’s first game against a BCS conference team.

46. Texas A&M at Louisiana Tech, Aug. 30

It got lost in the shuffle, but Louisiana Tech won the WAC last year by closing out the regular season with seven straight wins. It gave Mississippi State and Southern Miss all they could handle in early losses before getting hot, and it pushed Kevin Sumlin’s Houston team in a tough 35-34 loss. Sumlin gets another shot at the Bulldogs in his first game as the new Texas A&M head man, and he can’t afford to get off to a slow start with Florida up next. Louisiana Tech gets Sumlin’s old Houston team on the road to follow. This will be the 11th time the two teams have met with A&M winning 48-16 in 2010. The Aggies are 10-0 in the series winning all by double digits.

45. Northwestern at Syracuse, Sept. 1

The Orange lost their final five games last year to miss out on going to a bowl game. Northwestern went the other way, winning four straight games late to get bowl-eligible but finished up losing its final two games. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald got his team up for a big opening-day win last year at Boston College, and now he’s looking for a second straight opening win over an ACC team on the road. The two teams played a terrific game in 2009 – a 37-34 SU win at home – in their only meeting. The Wildcats need this win with Vanderbilt and Boston College to follow, while the Orange can’t afford to lose at home with a date with USC up next in East Rutherford.

44. Vanderbilt at Northwestern, Sept. 8

It’s a nice mid-level bowl matchup between smart guys. Is Vanderbilt ready to show that 2011 was a stepping-stone season? Is it the real deal under second-year head coach James Franklin? The Commodores lost to Northwestern at home two years ago, 23-21, and now the two programs are meeting for the fourth time with the record 1-1-1. The Commodores need the win after opening up with South Carolina at home and with Georgia coming up next after the layup against Presbyterian, while Northwestern will be in the middle of an interesting three-game stretch starting out at Syracuse and with Boston College to follow.

43. Iowa State at Iowa, Sept. 8

Iowa State came up with a thrilling 44-41 win over Iowa last year and it turned out to kickstart a surprising year. The Hawkeyes won three straight in the series before that, going back to a loss to the Cyclones in 2007. Can they come up with a payback win in a rebuilding season? It’s always a tough game and it’s always a fight for both sides, but Iowa State needs this more with Texas Tech and TCU coming up quickly. The Hawkeyes have an easier first half of the season as this starts a run of four home games and five home dates in six.

42. Houston at UCLA, Sept. 15

UCLA mounted a great comeback but fell short to Houston in the 2011 opener. Little did anyone know that the 38-34 win would be the catalyst to an unbeaten regular season. New head coach Tony Levine has some massive rebuilding to do, and he doesn’t have a lot of time to do it with Texas State to start and a tough battle against defending WAC champion Louisiana Tech to follow. However, things ease up in a big way after the trip to Pasadena, while the Bruins have to avoid a letdown in a sandwich game between Nebraska and the Pac-12 opener against Oregon State.

41. Hawaii at USC, Sept. 1

USC is 7-0 all-time against Hawaii, coming up with some huge offensive performances. Some of the biggest blowouts came with Norm Chow as offensive coordinator, and now, after bouncing around a bit, he has a head coaching job all to himself at Hawaii and he has nothing to lose going against the loaded Trojans. It’ll be the opener for a USC team that’s finally getting through the NCAA sanction storm, and it should be able to make a statement against the mediocre Warriors – unless Chow has a few tricks up his sleeve. At the very least it should be a high-scoring shootout.

40. Connecticut at Maryland, Sept. 15

It’s always a bit crazy to think that a Sept. 15 game could be a make-or-break moment, but that’s exactly what it could become for two programs and two coaching staffs desperate for something positive. Maryland coach Randy Edsall is coming off a 2-10 disaster, and a loss to the Huskies would be a nightmare with a trip to West Virginia before diving into ACC play. On the plus side, with William & Mary and Temple to start, a win might mean a 3-0 record and the September that Edsall needs. Meanwhile, UConn’s Paul Pasqualoni is coming off a 5-7 season, but he doesn’t get much of a break early on with a date with NC State before facing the Terps.

39. Utah at BYU, Sept. 15

As it turned out, BYU was pretty good, finishing 10-3 with wins in nine of the final 10 games. However, on Sept. 17, the Cougars looked like they needed to pack up the tents after getting obliterated at home by Utah 54-10. It was among the ugliest games in the history of the great rivalry, and it set the tone for what should be an even more intense rematch. Both teams are better this time around, and the stakes could be even higher than normal. The Cougars have to go to Boise State the following week and still have several nasty games to deal with, while the Utes have to kick off the Pac-12 schedule the week after with a trip to Arizona State followed up by a date with USC.

38. Ohio at Penn State, Sept. 1

There are spotlights, and then there’s what new Penn State coach O’Brien will have to deal with. It’s not just that he has to replace Joe Paterno as the full-time head man, it’s all the other baggage that comes with running the Nittany Lions at the start of the 2012 season. Part of that is a rebuilding team that needs to find an offense, and while Ohio might be a MAC team, it’s a MAC team that should be good enough to contend for the conference title. Is it going to be good enough to pull off the upset in O’Brien’s opener? The pressure will be on.

37. FIU at UCF, Sept. 15

UCF continues to look to do more in the Sunshine State as the program tries to show that it’s ready for life in the Big East in 2013. One thing it can’t do, though, is keep losing to a program like FIU. The Golden Panthers are going for many of the same in-state talents the Knights are, and while the winner of this game might not control the mid-level Florida recruiting wars, it’ll be able to use the victory as a selling point. FIU won last year 17-10, and UCF might need this game coming off a trip to Ohio State and with Missouri coming up next.

36. Texas at Ole Miss, Sept. 15

Texas vs. Ole Miss – it sounds like an old-school matchup, and it is with the first matchup a 53-14 Texas win in 1912. The two haven’t faced each other since a 19-0 Longhorn win in the 1966 Bluebonnet Bowl to go 5-1 all-time against the Rebels. For Texas, it’s the first real test before the Big 12 season with a brutal three-game stretch of at Oklahoma State, West Virginia, and Oklahoma to follow, while this will be the first real test for new Rebel coach Hugh Freeze, who starts out the year with Central Arkansas and UTEP.

35. Arkansas State at Oregon, Sept. 1

The last time Gus Malzahn had to deal with Oregon he was the Auburn offensive coordinator and had Cam Newton running his attack in the 2011 BCS Championship. Now the head coach of ASU, he has a loaded team full of talented offensive players, led by QB Ryan Aplin and possibly Auburn transfer Michael Dyer. Will it be enough to stay with a reloaded Duck team? The Red Wolves aren’t going to win, but Malzahn’s offense should put on a decent show to make it interesting – for a half.

34. Boston College at Northwestern, Sept. 15

It seemed like a big deal when Northwestern opened up the 2011 season with a 24-17 win at Boston College, but the Eagles turned out to be punchless and finished with a miserable 4-8 season. However, they kept fighting and close the season with a decent 3-2 run. Can the momentum carry over and can Boston College go back to being Boston College? With Clemson coming up next, and with Miami in the season opener, winning in Evanston could be a must. The Wildcats starts out the season with Syracuse and Vanderbilt, but things ease up after dealing with BC.

33. Boise State at Southern Miss, Oct. 6

The two-star non-BCS league programs have met twice, with Boise State winning both games, but this year might be different. Southern Miss – the defending Conference USA champions – should be through the reloading growing pains in early October, and new coach Ellis Johnson will have his guys in place. Boise State has more rebuilding to do than any team in college football, and it won’t have much time to do it in a tough September. Going to USM should be a good test to see just how quickly the Broncos have improved with so many new starters.

32. Wisconsin at Oregon State, Sept. 8

It seemed like a better matchup when it was put together several years ago, but Oregon State had a hard time in 2011, including a 35-0 pasting in Camp Randall. This year, Bucky has a light and breezy non-conference schedule outside of this game, but can the Beavers show that they’ve improved enough to provide a challenge? They get the Pac-12 opener at UCLA up next, and a big upset over the defending Big Ten champs would show that Mike Riley has things back on track. The only other meeting between the two was a 23-20 UW win in 1961.

31. Virginia Tech at Pitt, Sept. 15

It’s a tough road game for Virginia Tech against its future ACC brother in the first huge test for new Pitt head coach Paul Chryst. The Panthers have been fine over the last few years, but they haven’t been able to turn the corner mostly because they haven’t been able to come up with enough big-time wins. Beating Virginia Tech would qualify, and it would quickly put the spotlight on the new-look program. Meanwhile, the Hokies will have already been tested by Georgia Tech in the season opener. The Panthers have won the last three meetings going back to 2000, but are 4-7 all-time in the series.

30. Virginia at TCU, Sept. 22

While it might seem like a strange matchup, the two have played before. In 2008, TCU blasted Virginia 30-14. And in the 1994 Independence Bowl, the Cavaliers got the 20-10 win. It’s a different world for both programs now with TCU playing one of its first big games as a full-time member of the Big 12, while Virginia is a team on the rise under head coach Mike London. The Cavaliers might need this win if they can’t get by Penn State and Georgia Tech in the first few weeks, while this should be TCU’s toughest non-conference game by far.

29. Air Force at Michigan, Sept. 8

Air Force might have been a disappointment last year considering the experience returning, but the option offense will be dangerous for a Michigan team that’ll either be ultra-confident after starting out the season or will be licking its wounds. The expectations will be sky-high for the Wolverines, but the pressure will be on if they can’t pull off the big win over the Tide the week before. With a trip to Notre Dame coming up two weeks later, there can’t be any lack of focus. The two teams have only played once, with Michigan winning 24-7 in the 1964 opener.

28. UCF at Ohio State, Sept. 8

If this was college basketball, this would be the type of nightmare matchup that no big-time coach would take. UCF is coming off a 5-7 season, but it’s loaded with veteran talent and will be more than good enough to pull off the upset. However, if Ohio State wins, it’s not going to get a whole bunch of credit for the victory. In other words, it’s sort of a no-win situation for the Buckeyes. Urban Meyer’s bunch can’t get caught looking ahead to Cal, while still has another good BCS game to play with Missouri coming to Orlando a few weeks later.

27. Illinois at Arizona State, Sept. 8

Little did anyone know in mid-September of last year that both Illinois and Arizona State would be kicking off new eras to start the 2012 season. The Illini pulled off a 17-14 win on the way to a hot 6-0 start, while the loss appeared to be little more than a hiccup for the Sun Devils in what looked like a bounceback season. This time around, it’ll be a measuring stick for the two new head coaches, with ASU’s Todd Graham needing a win against Missouri the week after before kicking off Pac-12 play. If the Illini wins, and if all goes according to plan, coach Tim Beckman should start out 4-0 before hosting Penn State in the Big Ten opener.

26. Missouri at UCF, Sept. 29

The last thing Missouri needs as a member of the SEC is a challenging non-conference road game it could lose, and this couldn’t come at a worse time. The Tigers have to go to Orlando after facing Georgia, Arizona State, and going to South Carolina, and with Alabama coming up a few weeks later. UCF will have played Ohio State, but getting a big boy in its own house is different for the future Big Easter. This might not be the biggest home game in UCF history, but it’ll be important for national recognition. The two programs have never played.

25. Rutgers vs. Arkansas, Sept. 22

New Rutgers coach Kyle Flood has a great team returning, but getting past an Arkansas team that should be ranked in the top ten will be a tall task. Can the Scarlet Knights make a national statement and come up with a huge win for the Big East? The rest of the non-conference schedule is light and squishy, and the team should be fully prepared. On the flip side, Arkansas has to be work hard to stay focused in a sandwich game between Alabama and Texas A&M. The two programs have never met.

24. Penn State at Virginia, Sept. 8

Everything Penn State and coach O’Brien do will be under the microscope, and this will be the first road game in the program’s new era. While the Cavaliers are just 2-4 in the series, they’ve won two of the last three and might have the better team this time around, too, if the Nittany Lions can’t find a passing game in a hurry. Virginia has to start the ACC schedule the week after at Georgia Tech. While nothing will be easy for Penn State as a football program or a school this year, with a win over the Cavs, the schedule is light enough that a 6-0 start is possible going into the trip to Iowa.

23. Nevada at California, Sept. 1

It might not be the sexiest game in the opening weekend, but it could be among the most entertaining. Nevada’s offense returns loaded with firepower as it returns to the Bay Area for the first time since winning the Fight Hunger Bowl to close out the 2010 season. Can the Wolf Pack come up with a huge win for its new conference? It beat the Bears 52-31 two years ago, but lost in the only other meeting in 1996. This time, with a tough game against South Florida to follow, a win is a must to potentially avoid a rough start. For Cal, a loss would be disastrous with September road games at Ohio State and USC still to deal with.

22. Arizona State at Missouri, Sept. 15

It was among the most fun games of 2011. Missouri should’ve won, didn’t, and Arizona State took advantage in what turned out to be the high point of its season. This year, new coach Todd Graham has to deal with a tough road game in a midst of an interesting start, hosting Illinois the week before and starting out Pac-12 play with Utah to follow. For the Tigers, payback is a must with a brutal start, but they have to keep their focus in a sandwich game with this coming in between Georgia and a trip to South Carolina.

21. BYU at Boise State, Sept. 22

It seems like these two should’ve met more than twice. Boise State won a 28-27 thriller in 2004 and in a 50-12 blowout in 2003, and that’s it. Now, the Broncos are hanging out in the Mountain West for one more year before taking off to the Big East, while BYU, one of the league’s former stars, has to come up with a win with a slew of brutal games still to go. The Cougars will be coming off the always nasty rivalry game at Utah and still has road trips to Notre Dame and Georgia Tech over the second half of the season. Boise State starts out the year against Michigan State.

20. Georgia Tech at Georgia, Nov. 24

Georgia has won three in a row in the great rivalry and 10 of the past 11, but this should be one of the best Georgia Tech teams in years. It should also be a terrific Dawg team as the likely favorite to win another SEC East title. Can this be another tune-up before a trip to the SEC championship? The division season ends for Georgia in October. The Yellow Jackets will be among the favorites to win the ACC title, but conference play ends the week before against Duke. This marks the end of a run of three road games in the final four weeks for Tech.

19. Miami at Kansas State, Sept. 8

Kansas State pulled off one of the shockers of the early part of 2011 with a thrilling 28-24 win in Miami, holding on for dear life in the final moments. The Wildcats turned out to be the real deal, while the ‘Canes seemed to invent ways to lose close games. This year, Miami is trying to reload after a massive loss of talent to the NFL and graduation, but it’s still athletic enough and good enough to come out of Manhattan with a win. This is it as far as non-conference test for the Wildcats, but the Big 12 opener at Oklahoma comes up two weeks later. The ‘Canes start out the season at Boston College and had to go to Georgia Tech to kick things off with three road dates in the first four weeks.

18. California at Ohio State, Sept. 15

The Bears beat the Buckeyes 28-0 in the 1921 Rose Bowl, but that was the lone win in the series, including a 17-14 loss in the 1950 Rose Bowl. Cal has to start out the season with a tough test against Nevada, and it has to begin Pac-12 play at USC the week after, but for Jeff Tedford, beating the Buckeyes in Columbus would do wonders for a program that needs a big, splashy win. The OSU, this is Urban Meyer’s first test against a BCS team after starting out against Miami University and UCF. With no bowl appearance, every game like this takes on new meaning for the Buckeyes.

17. Notre Dame at Michigan State, Sept. 15

Yes, these two can play a dud, as last year’s 31-13 Notre Dame win proved, but over the years this has been among the most consistently terrific rivalries as any in college football. For the Irish, though, this is just another interesting game in a season full of interesting games, with Michigan, Miami, Stanford, BYU, and Oklahoma to follow. The Spartans have their share of drama battles, too, kicking off against Boise State and with Ohio State on the horizon, but after last year’s blowout, motivation won’t be a problem. The Irish haven’t won in East Lansing since 2006.

16. Washington at LSU, Sept. 8

It took a fight for LSU to get by Washington 31-23 in 2009, but the 40-14 blasting in 1983 was a different story. This is only the third meeting between the two, and it’s the first spotlight game for the Tigers after their clunker of a BCS championship performance. It’s the only real non-conference test for a team that came up with so many big wins last year. The Huskies start out with a test against San Diego State, but they get a nice week off against Portland State to follow. Has the defense tightened up at all since the Alamo Bowl debacle against Baylor? A win would be a game-changer for UW and the Pac-12.

15. Florida State at South Florida, Sept. 29

USF has had its chances against Miami, and it’s had some interesting games against UCF and FIU, but it hasn’t been able to get Florida on the slate. In the quest to become a bigger player in the Sunshine State, the second-ever showdown against Florida State is a really, really big deal after winning the first one 17-7 in 2009. The Seminoles are loaded and should be red hot coming into the season. By this point in late September, they’ll have faced Wake Forest and Clemson in ACC action, and this game will mean just as much in terms of bragging rights. The Bulls get their shot at the ‘Canes in mid-November.

14. Stanford at Notre Dame, Oct. 13

It’ll take a major collapse for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly to be fired after this season, but after so many problems with Stanford over the last few years, and in the midst of a great schedule full of huge games, another loss will put him on the hot seat. The Irish have lost three in a row in the series, and this year if comes in the middle of a storm with Michigan State, Michigan, and Miami coming before, and with BYU and Oklahoma to follow. Meanwhile, Stanford will be taking a break from Pac-12 action as it kicks off a run of three road games in four weeks and will be in the midst of four road games in six weeks.

13. Cincinnati vs. Virginia Tech (in Landover, Md.), Sept. 29

Shh, but Cincinnati might really, really good, and with the right breaks, this could be a preview of the 2013 Orange Bowl. It’s a rematch of the 2009 Orange Bowl – a 20-7 Hokie win – with Virginia Tech winning five of the eight meetings going back to 1985. The Bearcats have a relatively easy rest of the non-conference schedule, but this is the game they need to get on the national map. Tech will play Pitt from the Big East in mid-September and will start out against Georgia Tech, and this is the end of the non-conference schedule before going off to North Carolina the week after.

12. Nebraska at UCLA, Sept. 8

UCLA might be 4-6 all-time against the Huskers with three of the wins coming before 1973, but it managed to come up with a stunning 41-28 win in Pasadena in 1988. Can Jim Mora put his stamp on the program early on with a big win? It would do wonders to show that things are changing around, even if Nebraska isn’t the Nebraska of old. The Huskers won the last matchup between the two 49-21 in 1994 on the way to an unbeaten season, and if they can get out this year with a win, they should be 4-0 before hosting Wisconsin. This is by far the toughest game for UCLA in the first part of the season, and it could be the hardest game before dealing with USC in mid-November.

11. NC State vs. Tennessee (in Atlanta), Aug. 31

This is expected to be Tom O’Brien’s strongest NC State team yet, and it needs to act like it right away in the opener of part of a big first weekend in Atlanta. The ACC needs this win, O’Brien needs this win, and NC State needs this win. Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley needs it more. While it takes a big strong coach to say he’s on a hot seat, there will be plenty of rumblings if he and the Vols don’t hold up the SEC’s part of the bargain, especially with Florida and Georgia still to play in September. The two schools aren’t all that far apart, but they’ve only played twice with the last meeting a 13-0 Tennessee win in 1939.

10. Miami vs. Notre Dame (in Chicago), Oct. 6

It still sounds like a magical matchup, even if it isn’t. It might not be the Jimmy Johnson vs. Lou Holtz days, and the national championship isn’t going to be in the mix, but for two programs desperate to return to glory, this is a must win on a huge stage. Played at Soldier Field in Chicago, it’ll be a pro-Irish crowd, but it’s the type of atmosphere the ‘Canes of old used to thrive on. This is the fourth game away from home in the first six weeks for Miami, and with Florida State and Virginia Tech still on the horizon, while the Irish will be in the midst of brutal stretch of games with Michigan up before and Stanford coming to South Bend the week after.

9. Notre Dame at USC, Nov. 24

Is this going to be the Heisman-maker for Matt Barkley? USC is in for a fun November, kicking off with the Oregon showdown and with the UCLA game coming the week before the Irish come to town. The Irish schedule is the opposite with the schedule easing up a bit in November before closing things out in L.A. Considering the expectations are through the roof for a loaded Trojan team, and with the pressure on Notre Dame to finally start to make huge strides forward under Brian Kelly, it’s going to be rough on whichever head coach loses. Kelly might have beaten Lane Kiffin two years ago, but after losing last year, and with the Irish dropping nine of the last 10 in the series, he has to finish strong.

8. South Carolina at Clemson, Nov. 24

No one on either side wants to hear it or talk about it, but even though last year’s matchup might have been the strongest in the recent history of the rivalry, it didn’t matter. South Carolina blasted Clemson 34-13, and it’s been spun from both sides. Clemson might have been looking ahead to the more important game against Virginia Tech in the ACC championship, which it won in a walk, while South Carolina might have simply been that much better. After getting blasted three times in a row in the series, though, Clemson will need to win to get the rivalry back on its side.

7. Oklahoma State at Arizona, Sept. 8

The matchup between these two was supposed to be a wild shootout last year, and Oklahoma State won without breathing hard 37-14. They were supposed to come up with a fun 2010 Alamo Bowl, and the Cowboys won a 36-10 layup. Before that, they hadn’t played since 1942. Now things are different as new Wildcat head man Rich Rodriguez coaches his first huge game after starting out the era with Toledo. Can he have his plan and system in place by the second game of the year? Oklahoma State will be looking to show that the offense has reloaded in its only meaningful game until kicking off Big 12 play with Texas at the end of September.

6. Boise State at Michigan State, Aug, 31

It’s the first meeting between the two programs, and it’s yet another moment when Boise State is supposed to prove itself. No one has to do more rebuilding than Boise State, but time and again Chris Petersen and the program have been doubted, and time and again the brand-name BCS team comes away with a loss. Michigan State has a ton of work to do to reload, too, but its toughest early games are at home with the Broncos, Notre Dame, and Ohio State all coming to East Lansing and with only one game outside of the state of Michigan before late October. Boise State still has BYU and a trip to Southern Miss to deal with, but this is the big game the program lives for.

5. Auburn vs. Clemson (in Atlanta), Sept. 1

Has Clemson recovered? The last time it hit the field, West Virginia was scoring at will in one of the ugliest Orange Bowls of all-time. The Tigers are loaded again, they’re good enough to win the ACC title again, and they have everything in place to turn things around with a big opening weekend win, but the other Tigers in this game are improved, too. Auburn might have struggled in a rebuilding year in a nasty conference, but the last time it was in Atlanta it dominated Virginia in the Chick-fil-A bowl in the final game of 2011. With the SEC opener against Mississippi State to follow, and with LSU and Arkansas still to deal with in September, this is a must win. For Clemson, it’s smooth sailing for a few weeks until it opens up the ACC schedule at Florida State.

4. Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 22

It was one of the best games of 2011. The Irish and Wolverines were playing streetball, with each offense doing its best to one-up the other in a 35-31 Michigan thriller. With the win, the Wolverines have won the last three in the series and five of the last six, and this year’s team is the best in several years. The Irish should be improved, too, but the schedule is nasty and the team might already be worn out by this point with the opener against Navy in Ireland and with a trip to Michigan State – along with a home game against Purdue – before the showdown. Michigan has its big tests, too, starting out with Alabama and having to face Air Force, but considering the expectations, a loss to the Irish would be a major disappointment.

3. Florida at Florida State, Nov. 24

Is Florida back to being Florida? The team has another year under Will Muschamp for all the talent to mature and play as expected. Will Florida State live up to the wild expectations everyone has had for the program since Jimbo Fisher loaded the program back up with talent? There’s no reason for this year’s rivalry game to not matter on a national scale again, and there’s absolutely no way it’ll be another brutal game like last year’s 21-7 Seminole win. FSU got the victory despite gaining just 95 yards, while Florida struggled with just 184 yards of total offense. Will the two mega-powers be night-and-day better one year later? There’s no excuse not to be.

2. Notre Dame at Oklahoma, Oct. 27

Oklahoma went on an epic 47-game winning streak from 1953 to 1957, with a loss to Notre Dame at the beginning of the 1953 season the last before the run, and with a 7-0 loss to the Irish in 1957 ending the fun. The two have faced each other since then, with the Irish winning in South Bend in 1999, and now the battle between the two superpowers is back on.

This is the last game in one of the nation’s nastiest schedules with the Irish dealing with big game after big game after big game until the trip to Norman. While the game against Pitt the week after is still interesting, it’s not going to be a breather compared to what the Notre Dame has to face over the first eight games.

The game couldn’t come at a better time for the Sooners. It might be in the middle of the Big 12 season, but it’s sandwiched between two of the of the league’s lightweights with Kansas coming the week before and a trip to Iowa State to follow. The other non-conference games are against UTEP and Florida A&M, but OU can be forgiven for the light slate with such a tough conference schedule.

1. Alabama vs. Michigan (in Arlington), Sept. 1

In the 2000 Orange Bowl, Tom Brady led Michigan over Shaun Alexander and Alabama in one of the greatest bowl games of all time. It was thrilling, heartbreaking, and classic. It was also one of just three times the two mega-programs have met, with the Wolverines winning the 1997 Outback Bowl and the Tide winning the 1988 Hall of Fame Bowl.

The stakes are even higher this time around.

Last year, LSU set the tone for its run to the BCS championship with an impressive win over Oregon in Arlington, and this year’s game might also have national title implications in one way or another.

Alabama still has the brutal SEC schedule to face, including road trips to Arkansas, Missouri, and LSU, but there’s a chance that this might be the toughest game on the lot if Michigan is as good as advertised. The Wolverines are loaded on offense – led by Denard Robinson and a thrilling group of skill players – while the defense should be improved just enough to give the tweaked Tide offense a few problems.

But Alabama is still Alabama, and it’s going to be on the short list of preseason favorites for the national title, but it still has to replace a slew of key defensive starters from the 2011 BCS champion, it has to replace RB Trent Richardson, and it has to get used to life with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.

Brady Hoke came up with a few big wins in his first year in Ann Arbor – including a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech – but beating Alabama would officially signal that the program is back to national title status. If the Wolverines are good enough to beat the Tide, they’ll be good enough to beat everyone else on the schedule.

For Alabama, beating a BCS-caliber team would prove that it’s business as usual and would be yet another big victory for the SEC.