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April 12, 2011

Top 12 non-conference games of 2011

As we pointed out Monday, it's never too early to start discussing 2011 schedules.

Today, we're going to look at the 12 best non-conference games of the season. It's important to note that this does not include non-conference games that are played annually; some of those games would've made the list, sure, but the idea here is to show that the occasional two-game series can lead to some mighty fine football.

Tomorrow, we'll go to the other end of the spectrum and look at the 12 most embarrassing non-conference games of the season.


12. San Diego State at Michigan
When: Sept. 24
The buzz: The Aztecs are coming off a rare bowl appearance, and they'll travel to The Big House to play against Brady Hoke, the coach who led them to that rare bowl appearance. This should be an interesting quarterback battle between Michigan's Denard Robinson and San Diego State's Ryan Lindley. Unless the Wolverines' secondary has made some strides, Lindley is going to pick it apart. San Diego State has lost 23 consecutive games to Big Six opponents, by an average of 17.2 points.

11. Pittsburgh at Iowa
When: Sept. 17
The buzz: Pitt opens with two gimmes at home, and this will be the first road game for new Panthers coach Todd Graham. Graham has promised a more explosive offense, but the Hawkeyes' defense should be a tough test. Conversely, Pitt's defense could prove tough for a revamped Hawkeyes offense to solve.

10. Arizona at Oklahoma State
When: Sept. 10
The buzz: Arizona fell apart late last season and got mauled by Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. The Wildcats won't have to wait long in an attempt to get payback. It's going to take a big effort from QB Nick Foles for Arizona to win, but the Foles-Juron Criner pass-catch combo should be quite potent this season. The problem for the Wildcats is that the Cowboys' pass-catch duo of Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon should be even better. Oklahoma State's offense is better than Arizona's, but Arizona's defense is better than Oklahoma State's. How much better is what matters, as this has the earmarks of a shootout.

9. Arizona State at Illinois
When: Sept. 17
The buzz: Arizona State played a pitiful non-conference schedule last season, but that's not the case this season; this is one of two Sun Devils games on this list. This is one of five Big Ten/Pac-12 regular season games this season, and it matches a dark-horse Pac-12 contender against a Big Ten team that could be a pleasant surprise if QB Nathan Scheelhaase develops into a competent passer.

8. LSU at West Virginia
When: Sept. 24
The buzz: LSU won by six in Baton Rouge last season, and now WVU gets a chance to return the favor in Morgantown. Both will be coming in off tough road games -- WVU at Maryland and LSU at Mississippi State. Indeed, this will be LSU's fourth game of the season and the third one away from home. We should have a good idea by this time of the season how WVU's offense looks under new coordinator Dana Holgorsen. We also should have a good idea by this time how LSU QB Jordan Jefferson is responding to new Tigers coordinator Steve Kragthorpe.

7. Alabama at Penn State
When: Sept. 10
The buzz: These teams met amid much fanfare last season, but the game was as boring as the teams' helmets with the Tide winning 24-3. Each has a weak opponent in the opener, so this will be a truer measure of each team's worth. Both should be strong defensively, so will either offense be able to move the ball consistently?

6. BYU at Texas
When: Sept. 10
The buzz: BYU opens with three Big Six opponents in a row, including this visit to Austin. BYU finished 2010 strong while Texas limped home. The Longhorns open with Rice, so this matchup with the newly independent Cougars will be the first real test of the season. BYU should be quite good on offense, but the defense could have some issues, especially in the secondary. Can a tweaked Texas offense, now coordinated by former Boise State assistant Bryan Harsin, take advantage?

5. Missouri at Arizona State
When:Sept. 10
The buzz: Mizzou has two tough road games in September >-- this trek to the desert and a Sept. 24 visit to Norman, Okla. Arizona State will be a trendy pick to win the Pac-12 South, and its defense will be going against a rebuilt Mizzou offense. Mizzou may have to rely on its defense early in the season. Arizona State opens against FCS member UC Davis, meaning we won't really know much about the Sun Devils' offense until this matchup.

4. Ohio State at Miami
When: Sept. 17
The buzz: Ohio State won by 12 last season in Columbus in a game in which Miami QB Jacory Harris threw four interceptions. This will be the first home game for new Hurricanes coach Al Golden, and it's part of a tough opening stretch in which UM plays six bowl teams from last season in its first seven games. Ohio State will be without coach Jim Tressel and five key players, including QB Terrelle Pryor, RB Dan Herron and WR DeVier Posey.

3. Boise State vs. Georgia in Atlanta
When: Sept. 3
The buzz: Boise State traveled east to play the Bulldogs in 2005 and got hammered, 48-13, in Athens. This one will be at the Georgia Dome, and we don't think the Broncos will get hammered like that again. Boise State seems likely to open the season in the top 12, while Georgia looks as if it will be a fringe top-25 team in the preseason. There are some questions about Boise's secondary, but there are more questions about Georgia's wide receivers. Boise QB Kellen Moore is going to enter the season as a top Heisman contender, but those hopes would be dealt a big blow if the Bulldogs prevail in what should be a highly partisan crowd. Boise beat Virginia Tech in its opener last season and spent the bulk of the season as a national title contender; the same thing would happen this season if the Broncos can beat Georgia.

2. Oklahoma at Florida State
When: Sept. 17
The buzz: These teams played in Norman last season, and Oklahoma drilled the Seminoles by 30. This one is in Tallahassee, and this FSU team should be better than last season's. Indeed, this should match two top-10 teams, and a victory by the Seminoles over OU -- which should be the preseason No. 1 -- would be concrete evidence that FSU is back among the elite.

1. LSU vs. Oregon in Arlington, Texas
When: Sept. 3
The buzz: Last season, Cowboys Stadium was the site of the Oregon State-TCU season opener. That was an important game, but not as important as this. Oregon played in the 2010 title game, and LSU has designs on playing in the 2011 version. Both should open this season in the top 10. Oregon has a rebuilt defensive line, and LSU should have no problems running right at the Ducks. While the Ducks also will have a rebuilt offensive line, LSU is replacing both starting defensive tackles and star MLB Kelvin Sheppard. And Oregon does have QB Darron Thomas and a deep group of tailbacks headed by LaMichael James. James is a Texas native, as is reserve Lache Seastrunk, a redshirt freshman who should make his college debut in this showdown.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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