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September’s Top 10 CFB Non-Conference Games

It’s only June but the 2011 college football season will be here before you know it. And the season will hit the ground running with some of the biggest programs in the country clashing this September in non-conference games. Which contests do you need to circle on your calendar? We examine.

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10. Oregon State at Wisconsin (Sept. 10)

Despite the loss of Jacquizz Rodgers to the NFL, Oregon State returns a veteran squad that should give Wisconsin a run for its money. The Badgers will contend for the Big Ten title and if uber-transfer Russell Wilson decides to go to Madison, they could jump to national title hopefuls. While the status of injured WR James Rodgers is still up in the air this fall and he likely won’t play, the Badgers better not get caught still smelling the roses from last season.

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9. Washington at Nebraska (Sept. 17)

With a stout defense and the return of quarterback Taylor Martinez, Nebraska is considered a dark horse for the national title by many experts. However, there also will be pride on the line for the Huskers. Washington upset Nebraska, 19-7, in last season’s Holiday Bowl. It was surprising since Nebraska pounded Washington, 56-21, in the 2010 regular season. While the recent history between the teams will provide some intensity, it should be noted that U-Dub no longer has star quarterback Jake Locker - meaning an upset of Nebraska would be even more startling this time. Oh, and you can expect Bo Pelini’s screaming to be in midseason form.

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8. Arizona at Oklahoma State (Sept. 10)

This rematch of the Alamo Bowl features two explosives offenses. Oklahoma State’s unit got the best of Arizona’s in the Alabama Bowl, a 36-10 victory for the Cowboys. But Arizona’s no-show in that contest should be an aberration. The Wildcats return quarterback Nick Foles, who is on his way to owning the passing portion of the school’s record books. The Cowboys feature the high-scoring combination of Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon, but don’t have offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen. Either way, expect a lot of points.

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7. Utah at BYU (Sept. 17)

The Holy War is no longer a conference game with Utah’s move to the Pac-12. This game will be important to BYU, which opens the season with Ole Miss and Texas on the road before hosting the Utes. The Cougars most likely will need this game to set their season on the right track. Utah has bigger obstacles. It has teams like USC on its schedule on a regular basis. Sure, the Utes will want to punish their in-state rivals, but the game carries more importance to BYU - putting emotions aside. Of course, that will be hard to do for either team in this biblical clash.

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6. Alabama at Penn State (Sept. 10)

Alabama trounced Penn State last season, 24-3, but those were different groups of Nittany Lions and Crimson Tide.  Quarterback Greg McElroy, wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Mark Ingram all are gone to the NFL. However, ‘Bama is still a top-five team and will be led under center by either A.J. McCarron or Phillip Sims. Penn  State will return eight starters on each side of the ball and will be able to build steam this offseason in anticipation of the early September contest. We’re sure that Joe Paterno and his staff won’t admit to looking ahead to ‘Bama’s trip into Happy Valley, but a season opener against Indiana State will allow PSU to do so.

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5. Georgia vs. Boise State (Sept. 3 at Atlanta, GA)

Boise State opened last season with a stirring win over Virginia Tech, a victory that started the hype machine for its possible spot in the BCS title game. Of course, that run never happened, but the Broncos - with quarterback Kellen Moore back in the fold - might give it another try. A win over Georgia might set them up to do so.

The Bulldogs, on the other hand, are coming off a disappointing season that ended with a bowl loss to Central Florida. Coach Mark Richt has been placed squarely on the hot seat. A loss to Boise State, from a non-BCS conference before SEC play even begins, most likely would be the beginning of the end for Richt. And the game at the Georgia Dome will feel like a home game for the Bulldogs. No pressure, coach.

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4. Notre Dame at Michigan (Sept. 10)

Every time Notre Dame and Michigan play, the game is steeped in tradition. But the 2011 version of the rivalry will be memorable no matter who wins. Both teams will wear retro-style uniforms and the contest will be the Big House’s first night game ever. On the field, Brady Hoke will try to set the tone in his first game against the Irish. And ND coach Brian Kelly no doubt will just be trying to get a win over the Wolverines, who won last year’s meeting, 28-24, despite a disastrous rest of the campaign.

Pomp and circumstance aside, the game will have an impact on the season. Notre Dame has South Florida to start and Michigan State to follow. It can’t afford to drop this game if it’s to qualify for a BCS bowl. The Wolverines have an easier start, with three home games following their meeting with ND. A 5-0 start in Hoke’s maiden voyage? It’s a possibility.

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3. LSU at West Virginia (Sept. 24)

West Virginia no doubt is dying to get on the field after its wild offseason, during which head coach Bill Stewart and his successor, Dana Holgorsen, have been embroiled in a juicy saga. Stewart’s alleged role in slinging mud on Holgorsen’s name has sent him sent out of Morgantown a year early. Holgorsen will take the reins and implement his high-powered offense.

It may benefit the Tigers that they already will have faced Oregon, which also employs an up-tempo attack. Then again, nothing may be able to prepare them for what Holgorsen has in store. The Mountaineers also will be looking for revenge after last season’s 20-14 loss in Baton Rouge. On the other side, LSU is being hailed as a favorite to win the national championship and you know Les Miles has some craziness in store for the game.

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2. Oklahoma at Florida State (Sept. 17)

With both teams shaping up to be national title contenders, this early-season game most likely will have late-season implications. Oklahoma finished very strong and is being billed as the preseason No. 1. And the Sooners didn’t just beat FSU last season, they lambasted the Seminoles, 47-17. Florida State doesn’t have Christian Ponder but does retain 20 starters from last season and a ferocious defense that won’t be embarrassed again. The ‘Noles also can coast through games against Louisiana-Monroe and Charleston Southern before taking on the Sooners. OU will need this game since its conference war against Missouri rolls around one week later. Our prediction? The winner of this game will play for the national title.

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1. LSU vs. Oregon (Sept. 3 at Arlington, TX)

These two teams, facing off in the season opener for both, could be two of the top four in the nation when the preseason rankings come out. LSU has had the entire offseason to prepare for Oregon’s fast-paced offense. The Tigers haven’t played the Ducks since 1977, so they certainly haven’t experienced the bite Chip Kelly’s version of the team can provide. LSU also is a high-powered team, but it’s unclear if it can rely on returning quarterback Jordan Jefferson. His maturation - or lack thereof - will go a long way toward figuring out whether the Tigers will be able to hang in this contest.

Strictly from an atmosphere standpoint, this will be a wild scene with two of college football’s craziest fanbases at perhaps sports’ most palatial venue - Jerry World. It’s certainly a tough way to start the season for both teams, especially for Oregon, which just finished last season with a loss in the BCS title game. Not even a warmup game for the Ducks? It’s almost as if they actually play in the SEC.

 
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