As we pointed out Monday, it's never too early to start discussing 2012 schedules.
Tuesday, we looked at the 12 most embarrassing nonconference games of the season. Today, we're going to look at the 12 best nonconference games of the season.
It's important to note that this does not include nonconference games that are played annually; some of those games would've made the list, but the idea here is to show that the occasional two-game series can lead to some mighty fine football.
One thing: The pool of games to choose from for today's story was far shallower than the pool for Tuesday's piece, which should cause every FBS AD to bow his head in shame.
12. Texas A&M at SMU on Sept. 15: Truthfully, this isn't that exciting a contest. But there isn't that much to choose from and this is a chance for a Conference USA team to beat an SEC team – and at home, no less. This also will be just the second meeting between these two former long-time rivals since the Southwest Conference disbanded after the 1995 season. It also will be the first time Aggies play at SMU since 1992, and the Mustangs haven't beaten A&M since 1984.
11. North Carolina State vs. Tennessee in Atlanta on Aug. 31: This is Game 1 in the two-game Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic (the other is Auburn-Clemson on Sept. 1). Again, this isn't exactly a scintillating matchup, but it's an important game for the Vols, especially coach Derek Dooley, who desperately needs a winning season. Both should have good offenses, but each seems likely to be questionable on defense.
10. Arizona State at Missouri on Sept. 15: A rare Pac-12/SEC regular-season matchup – made, of course, when Mizzou still was in the Big 12. How good is Arizona State going to be under new coach Todd Graham, especially offensively? Is QB James Franklin going to be ready to go for Mizzou after suffering a shoulder injury in spring practice? Again, this is not necessarily a prime matchup. But there is some intrigue.
9. Miami at Kansas State on Sept. 8: These teams met last season at Miami, with K-State making a goal-line stand to escape with the win. This should be a good gauge as to the relative strength of each team. K-State was one of the nation's biggest surprises last season, but the Wildcats will sneak up on no one this season. K-State opens with FCS foe Missouri State, so this will be the first real game of the season for the Wildcats.
8. Nebraska at UCLA on Sept. 8: We're at the eighth-best nonconference game, yet we're still not really into a must-see game. UCLA opens at Rice the week before this, and surely the Bruins will be strong enough under new coach Jim Mora to beat the Owls. Thus, the visit from the Huskers should tell a lot about the direction of Mora's new team. Conversely, it seems hard to believe Nebraska would be a Big Ten contender if it loses to the Bruins.
7. Washington at LSU on Sept. 8: Another Pac-12/SEC matchup. LSU will have opened the week before against North Texas, so a visit from the Huskies should let us know whether the Tigers will have an improved passing attack this season. Then again, the last time anyone saw Washington on the field, the Huskies were getting strafed by Baylor in the Alamo Bowl. Washington's new defensive coordinator is Justin Wilcox, who was hired off Tennessee's staff. LSU rolled up 383 yards and 28 points against Tennessee last season – and that Vols team may have had better defensive talent than Wilcox will have this season.
6. California at Ohio State on Sept. 15: Ohio State has eight home games this season, and this will be the third of four consecutive home contests to open the season for the Buckeyes. On paper, Cal is the toughest nonconference opponent for Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. The Golden Bears' offense could pose some problems. Cal's defense looks as if it will have some issues; can QB Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes' offense take advantage?
5. Auburn vs. Clemson on Sept. 1 in Atlanta: This is the second game in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic weekend. Both fan bases are expecting big seasons – but both fan bases could be left wanting. Both teams have new defensive coordinators after neither team played all that well on that side of the ball last season. Auburn also has a new offensive coordinator, and Scot Loeffler will be charged with spicing up the passing attack. These schools have played 47 times, but this will be just the fourth meeting since 1971.
4. Miami vs. Notre Dame in Chicago on Oct. 6: These teams met annually from 1971-90 (except for 1986), but they have met just once since, when they played in the Sun Bowl after the 2010 season. Each was in the top 10 when they met every season from 1987-90. While neither is at that level right now, this should be an interesting matchup. The game will be at Soldier Field, with a night-time kickoff. Both were spotty on offense last season, thanks to inconsistent quarterback play. Will that change this season?
3. Notre Dame at Oklahoma on Oct. 27: This will be just the 10th meeting in history between these programs. Notre Dame leads the series 8-1, and the Irish's win in Norman in 1957 snapped OU's NCAA-record 47-game winning streak. The teams have met once since 1968, with the Irish winning in 1999. The Irish's last visit to Norman came in 1966, when they won 38-0 as the nation's top-ranked team. This will be the Irish's only true road game from Sept. 16 to Nov. 10.
2. Boise State at Michigan State on Aug. 31: This will be just Boise State's second game against a Big Ten foe; the first came in 1997, when the Broncos fell at Wisconsin in just their second season of Division I-A football (now called FBS); it was the second game of Houston Nutt's only season at Boise. This looks to be a rebuilding season for Boise, which returns just six fulltime starters from last season, including only one on defense. Michigan State, on the other hand, has eight starters back on what should be one of the best defenses in the nation; the Spartans' offense has some questions, though.
1. Alabama vs. Michigan in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 1: Two of the most storied programs in history get together for just the fourth time; the three previous meetings were in bowls, with the most recent coming in the Orange Bowl following the 1999 season. Alabama is a lock to open the season in the top 10, and the Wolverines should be in there, too. This will be the third time in five years that Alabama has opened the season in a neutral-site game; the other two were in Atlanta.
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