By Dylan Davis

Top 5 Rivalry Games: Rivalry games are the lifeblood of collegiate athletics. Every year stadiums around the country are filled up to see their teams square off against their most hated rivals. Some of these games will decide conference championships and BCS games, while others will merely be hard-hitting, physical grudge matches for in-state bragging rights. (Note that all rankings are according to the Preseason AP Top-25 poll.)

  1. #1 Oklahoma at #8 Oklahoma State (December 3): Last season, this match up was what college football should be: high scoring, hard hitting and featured one of the best plays of the year. Oklahoma was finally able to outpace the Cowboys by a score of 47-41. This year’s showdown figures to be much of the same as both teams head into the 2011 season as title contenders in the Big 12 as well as nationally. As late as this game is in the season is, this could be the de facto Big 12 title game. Oklahoma State brings back the explosive combination of Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden, while Heisman favorite Landry Jones will have Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills to exploit the Cowboys secondary. This game might end up coming down to whoever has the ball last.
  2. #15 TCU at #7 Boise State (November 12): While this may not be the most storied rivalry in college sports, the past few years have seen TCU and Boise State play memorable bowl games as high ranked teams time after time. This year, the two foes will meet as Mountain West rivals for the first, and since TCU is leaving for the Big East after the season, the last time, and the stakes are even higher. The 2010 Fiesta Bowl was the first ever match up of two non-BCS opponents in a BCS bowl, and Boise was able to pull out a 17-10 squeaker over the Horned Frogs. I expect much of the same this time around, as Kellen Moore will have plenty of time to get to know his new receivers by the time the Frogs visit the Smurf Turf. The Frogs did lose Andy Dalton at quarterback and Jeremy Kerley at receiver to the NFL, but they are once again loaded on defense and their running game should be top notch. If this season is anything like the last few years, the prize for this winner could be a first ever trip to the BCS title game.
  3. #5 Florida State at #23 Florida (November 26): Both of these Sunshine State programs positively ooze with pageantry and tradition, but after losing a combined 9 games last season, this game could be even more important than usual. If Florida State is able to knock off Oklahoma early in the season (we’ll get there) and Florida can navigate a (relatively) weak SEC East, this rumble in Gainesville could be for more than bragging rights. With Miami having some minor compliance issues and USF not up to the standards of the rest of the state, this game could tip the scales in terms of recruiting and a top-10 ranking for either side.
  4. #22 Georgia vs. #23 Florida (October 29 in Jacksonville): The last few years have seen the likes of Knowshon Moreno, Matthew Stafford and Tim Tebow grace the game formerly known as The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, but the games haven’t always been barn burners: expect that to change in 2011. While 2007, 2008 and 2009 provided no results of single digit victories, last year’s game was an overtime victory by the Gators that set up this year’s slugfest between two SEC East rivals. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray showed promise in his freshman season, and I expect a breakout year from the Tampa native. Florida brings in Charlie Weis to run an offense filled with explosive playmakers, and if John Brantley does a reasonable Notre Dame-era Brady Quinn impression, expect the Gators to be near the top of the conference standings, not to mention national rankings, when the teams meet.
  5. #18 Notre Dame at #6 Stanford (November 26): The path of these two teams have been almost exactly opposite over the past five seasons. In 2006, Stanford was 1-11 and considered one of the worst programs in the country. Over in South Bend, Notre Dame was a Reggie Bush nudge and a triple overtime loss to Michigan State away from playing for a national title in 2005. Since that year, these two rivals have done a complete 180-degree turn in terms of their performances on the field. Stanford lost only one game last year while having the Heisman runner-up in Andrew Luck. Notre Dame, on the other hand, was relegated to the Sun Bowl. This year looks like much of the same for Stanford, as they have a preseason top-10 ranking and the future #1 overall pick. The Irish, however, seem poised to return to their pre-Jimmy Clausen days of national prominence. While I’m not completely sold on Dayne Crist as the savior at quarterback, the Irish defense looks like it could be a suffocating unit, while Brian Kelly always seems to find a way to put up points. As the last game of the season for both squads, expect them both to fighting for their BCS lives, if not a spot in the championship game.

Top 5 Non-Conference Games: These games are not only extremely important in helping clear up the national title picture, they also lend a hand in figuring out which conference will be top dog in 2011. (Note the lack of Big (L)East teams).

  1. #3 Oregon vs. #4 LSU (September 3 in Dallas): This is far and way the most important game of the 2011 season for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, both of these teams start the year in the top 5 and a win would immediately vault either one into serious consideration for the national title game. While a loss certainly wouldn’t eliminate either team, it would put a serious dent in their bowl plans. Secondly, this is a battle for conference supremacy. The SEC has been college footballs top dog ever since Florida took home the 2007 national title, but the PAC 12 has started to insert itself into the conversation. Oregon had a chance to give a huge boost to the conference against Auburn last year in the title game, but the SEC prevailed for its fifth straight crown. If the Tigers defense can shut down the Quack Attack and emerge with a victory, that would go a long way towards making it six in a row for the conference down south.
  2. #1 Oklahoma at #5 Florida State (September 17): While both Florida State and Oklahoma did not fulfill their preseason expectations in 2010, this rumble in Tallahassee will be an early indicator of both teams national prominence. While Oklahoma has been almost impossibly dominant at home, having won 37 of their past 38 in Norman, they have stumbled away from Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. If any team has a chance of beating the Sooners before their season finale match up with Oklahoma State, it’s the Seminoles. Talented dual-threat quarterback E.J. Manuel will finally be handed the reins for FSU, and he may be the most talented running QB prospect since Pat White. If Florida State beats the Sooners, expect to see a lot of hype for them as a national title pick, and for Manuel as a possible Heisman contender.
  3. #7 Boise State at #22 Georgia (September 3): If this game is anything like the 2005 showdown between the hedges, I wouldn’t even tune in. With that being said, Kellen Moore and the Boise defense have enough big-game experience that it may be nearly impossible for them to get blown out no matter who they play. Just like the LSU-Oregon game, this match up will go a long way towards public perception of the SEC. If Georgia handles the Broncos, it will boost the SEC even more, while dealing a horrible blow to fans of non-BCS schools everywhere. However, if the Smurf Turfers can lay the smack on a revamping Georgia squad that only has one quality running back (freshman Isaiah Crowell), that would open the door for another run at a BCS title for Boise, as well as boost the perception of other teams not in a Big Six conference.
  4. #2 Alabama at #25 Penn State September 10): It should not surprise any college football fan to see the SEC show up on this list yet again. This game will be a rematch of last year’s 24-3 smack down that Alabama laid on Penn State in Tuscaloosa. While Alabama lost Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and Greg McElroy to the NFL draft, the Crimson Tide have oodles of talent just waiting to step up and fill those holes. A potentially great defense will back a Trent Richardson-led offense in their quest for a second national title in three years. With all of that being said, this will be only the second start for whoever lines up under center for the Tide, and it will be in one of the loudest stadiums in the country in Happy Valley. Before Penn State lost a heartbreaker to Florida in last year’s Outback Bowl, the Nittany Lions had picked up steam towards the end of the season. If they can shock Alabama early, they could very easily make a run for the first ever Big 10 title game.
  5. Arizona at #8 Oklahoma State (September 8): This game is on the list purely for the offensive potential of these two squads. Both of these offenses were in the top-10 in passing yards last season (while neither were top 40 in points against) and both feature top-5 quarterback-wide receiver combinations. While Oklahoma State is the highler ranked team, I could see this turning into a game like Auburn-Arkansas or Oregon-Stanford last season: namely, a lot of points and dizzying amount of yards.

Top 5 Conference Games: These are the games that create legends among players and teams. Winning conference games is the best way to reach a BCS bowl, and these are the five most important this season.

  1. #3 Oregon at #6 Stanford (November 12): While the inaugural PAC 12 championship game is not until December 3, this game could very well decide the conference winner and a possible BCS title game entrant. Last season, Stanford raced out to a 24-3 lead against the Ducks in Eugene before Oregon stormed back to lay down a 52-31 beat down on the Cardinal. This year, I expect both of these teams to return locked and loaded and this contest could be among the year’s best. If Oregon can slip by LSU in the opener, expect both teams to be top-5 when they meet in Palo Alto. While Andrew Luck and company will have the revenge factor and home field advantage on their side, Oregon may have the better team. I expect a lot of points once again and a down-to-the-wire thriller.
  2. #11 Nebraska at #10 Wisconsin (October 1): When the Big 10 schedule was released, this game looked like it would be pretty important in deciding the conference. Now that Ohio State has shot itself in the foot with multiple sanctions and an untested quarterback, this game could decide the conference. While there’s a possibility of the two meeting in the conference championship, this game (like all the others on this list) could vault the winner into the upper echelon of teams in the country. While Russell Wilson has experience leading North Carolina State the past few years, both he and Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez have question marks. Whichever one plays more consistently will probably lead his team to victory.
  3. #23 Florida at #4 LSU (October 8): 8953183-standardFlorida will be coming off a very difficult contest against Alabama the week before while LSU will have already played Oregon, Mississippi State and West Virginia away from the Bayou. This should set up a clash of two experienced teams that always seem to play classic games. Other than a 2008 thrashing by the Gators, every game these two teams have played since 2002 has been entertaining and tight throughout. Both of these defenses should be good enough to keep this game close and a special teams or offensive miscue could very well decide the winner.
  4. #2 Alabama at #4 LSU (November 5): This is the first of two potentially great games on this day, and if both teams hold true to form, it could decide the strongest division in football, the SEC West. Last years clash saw Alabama fall to the tenth ranked Tigers in a 24-21 squeaker. Anyone who knows Nick Saban’s coaching style will realize that the loss will most likely be bulletin board material for the Crimson Tide the entire season. A big game form Trent Richardson could push the Tide to another SEC title game and could put Richardson at the head of the Heisman race.
  5. #9 Texas A&M at #1 Oklahoma (November 5): This is one of the riskier picks on the list, as Texas A&M could either boom or bust this season. The Aggies finished last season strong with a Cotton Bowl berth against LSU and they return quarterback Ryan Tannehill and a slew of talented runners. Their defense could be an issue, they lost number 2 overall pick Von Miller, and there’s no telling if anyone will be able to pick up the slack. If the Aggies can slip past Oklahoma State and Arkansas early in the season, they will be primed for this match up in Norman. As shown earlier, the Sooners have been almost completely unbeatable at home in recent years, but all streaks have to end sometime right?

 

That’s all the time for this week, check back in on Monday for a look into the recent scandals at Ohio State and Miami and also a preview of all the sleepers, busts, conference champions for this upcoming season, plus my national title pick. Have a great weekend.

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