Photo courtesy of Michigan Athletics
By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
(Sports Network) - A look at the calendar shows that there are just over 60 days remaining before the college football regular season gets underway.
While the majority of the focus right now is on the newly announced four-team playoff for the FBS, for now the regular season is still vitally important to any team's national title hopes. Many times it is the games against non- conference opponents that can make or break a team's chances. Here are the most intriguing, and potentially influential non-league tilts on this year's schedule.
ALABAMA vs. MICHIGAN
Many teams, especially ones coming off a national title, schedule more winnable games for the first weekend of the season. Not the Crimson Tide, who will not only play a Michigan team that will undoubtedly be among the nationally ranked, but will play them in a neutral site in Arlington, Texas. Alabama returns only three starters from a defense that ranked No. 1 across the board last season. That defense will be thrown right into the fire against the Wolverines, who have explosive quarterback Denard Robinson, as well as running back Fitz Toussaint leading a squad that was highly productive last season.
MICHIGAN STATE vs. BOISE STATE
Kirk Cousins and Kellen Moore have both moved on to greener pastures in the NFL, so both of these teams will be breaking in new quarterbacks in this opening-week showdown. Moore was the anchor of one of the greatest stretches for a college football program while at Boise State, finishing with a 50-3 record as a starter. Junior Joe Southwick will face the pressure of following in those rather large footsteps. For the Spartans, Andrew Maxwell takes over for Cousins, who led MSU to a triple-overtime victory over Georgia in the Outback Bowl last season, and was selected in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
CLEMSON vs. AUBURN
The battle for supremacy among Tigers of the south will also be part of the opening weekend this season. Clemson opened last year with eight straight wins, including a 38-24 decision over this same Auburn squad. Clemson then stumbled a bit, but still managed to win the ACC title. This season could be even better for Clemson, which has a ton of talent at the offensive skill positions in quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington and wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Meanwhile, Auburn is still trying to find its identity since winning the 2011 National Championship. A win for either team could propel them into the early BCS conversation.
NC STATE vs. TENNESSEE
While other opening weekend games on this list will get the majority of the country's attention, this matchup shouldn't be ignored. Both of these teams are on the fringe of being competitive on the national stage, and both have the talent to make some noise and surprise some people in their respective conferences. NC State has one of the best secondaries in the country led by cornerback David Amerson, while Tennessee has experience up and down the roster, especially on offense where eight starters return.
LSU vs. WASHINGTON
On paper this sets up as an easy home win for LSU against a west coast team that hasn't finished a season ranked in the Top-25 since 2001. But Washington is ready to take the next step after two straight bowl appearances while bouncing in and out of the national rankings over the last two years. Quarterback Keith Price has all the talent (242-of-362, 3,063 yards, 33 TDs in 2011) to cause problems for the LSU defense, which was dominant last year and should be again in 2012. This could just be a bump in the road for LSU, or it could result in a surprise derailment of the Tigers' national title hopes.
OKLAHOMA vs. NOTRE DAME
Fast forward from week one to Halloween weekend for this tilt. Last year was another mediocre 8-5 season for Notre Dame, but with two years under his belt it's time for head coach Brian Kelly to push the Fighting Irish further into the national spotlight. Otherwise, the Kelly era might go the same way as those of his predecessors, Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham. He'll have a tough time of it this year with the difficult schedule facing Notre Dame, which includes a trip to Norman to take on Heisman Trophy hopeful Landry Jones and a Sooner squad with serious national championship aspirations.
CLEMSON vs. SOUTH CAROLINA
Clemson certainly isn't messing around with the schedule this season, with its annual pairing with South Carolina being one of two games against arguably the nation's top conference. The Gamecocks will be an even tougher test at the end of the season as one of a number of SEC schools that have a legitimate shot at not only a BCS berth, but the national championship game. South Carolina could be better than last year's 11-2 squad with dark horse Heisman hopeful Marcus Lattimore returning to the backfield. If things go well the rest of the season, this bout could push one team over the edge.
FLORIDA STATE vs. FLORIDA
Another storied in-state rivalry will take place on the last weekend of the regular season, and this could be one of the most meaningful Sunshine State showdowns in years. Florida is still looking for its next great quarterback, but with nine starters back on a defense that ranked eighth in the country last season in total yards allowed, if either Jacoby Brissett or Jeff Driskel can take the next step, the Gators could be playing for a BCS bid in this one. On the other side, Florida State seems to be on the rise as well under head coach Jimbo Fisher. Could the Seminoles, who ranked fourth nationally in total defense last season and have a favorable schedule, be in the national title conversation when they head to The Swamp? Time will tell.