Ten Under the Radar Games for Early 2006
Kentucky at Louisville, September 3. A Labor Day weekend Bluegrass State tradition. On paper, this one shouldn't be close--it should be an early opportunity check out the offensive machine that is Brian Brohm, Michael Bush and Louisville. But Kentucky always seems to hang around in this one, so don't be surprised when you look up from your grill on Sunday evening to see this one close in the fourth quarter.
9. Texas Tech's September Texas Tour. OK, so this isn't one game, but in it's first three games, the Red Raiders play SMU, at UTEP and at TCU. SMU came on strong at the end of last season, UTEP's Jordan Palmer is poised for a big senior season and the Horned Frogs are coming off an 11-1 campaign. Plus, I'm betting all three have a bit of an axe to grind with their in-state BCS big boy. There are rumblings in Lubbock about making a run at the Big 12 title, given the uncertainty at quarterback at Oklahoma and Texas, but Texas Tech could lose some
momentum out of the gate if they stumble in one of these three. And my guess is they do.
8. Colorado at Georgia, September 23. Last year, Dan Hawkins took his highly touted Boise State squad into Athens thinking upset, only to see his team fall apart in the first quarter on its way to an old fashioned shellacking. He returns this year in his first season at Colorado. Again, on paper, Georgia has the talent to win this one, but quarterback questions abound in Athens. Will Matthew Stafford be starting by this point or will Joe T-3 have solidified the starting role? And just what will the zen-master Hawkins have up his sleeve for his return to Athens?
7. Iowa State at Iowa, September 16. The Cyclones derailed the Hawkeyes national championship aspirations early last season with a 23-3 stunner at home. This year Iowa State makes the return trip, and both teams have conference title aspirations, and the early season in-state tilt could give the winner a lot of momentum heading into early conference play.
6. Maryland at West Virginia, September 14. We all know about West Virginia. They're this year's media darlings. And why shouldn't they be? With Pat White, Steve Slaton and company, they should be able to put up a ton of points--and they'll be super fun to watch. This game against Maryland is their first step onto the national spotlight--a Thursday night ESPN game--and their first test against a legitimate opponent. Maryland has talent, though a lot of it is young talent, and Ralph Friedgen's seat is getting just a bit warm in College Park, leading the Fridge to take over the reigns of the offense. This could be a Thursday night shoot out in Morgantown.
5. USC at Arkansas, September 2. The Hogs traveled to Los Angeles last September and got embarrassed 70-7, in a game that wasn't that close (if that is even possible). This year, USC travels to Fayetteville for its first game in the post-Leinart/Bush/White era. That's enough to watch, in and of itself, but there's optimism in Hogland, even with sensational RB Darren McFadden doubtful for the game. Will five star recruit Mitch Mustain win the starting quarterback job? Can the Hogs pull the upset and launch themselves into the SEC West race?
4. Michigan State at Pittsburgh, September 16. Drew Stanton vs. Tyler Palko. Two of the better quarterbacks in college football face off in a game that may sort out which of these teams can be a contender and which will remain a middle of the road pretender. Both should be undefeated coming into this one (Pitt does face a test in Virginia in its opener), and both rightly have major bowl aspirations. Which quarterback shines the brightest will likely decide this one.
3. Central Florida at Florida, September 9. This isn't the laugher the Gators may have been expecting it to be. In 2004, the Black Knights went 0-11, and didn't have much hope for the 2005 campaign. But George O'[fill in the joke]Leary brought UCF back from the dead and led the Knights to the CUSA championship game and a bowl game last season. With an improved recruiting class and legitimate athletes in Kevin Smith and Steven Moffett on the offensive side of the ball, UCF has bowl aspirations again this year. Also, you can only imagine how much UCF has wanted to get one of Florida's Big 3 on the field--and you can bet the Knights might be playing this one with a bit of a chip on their shoulders. For the Gators, it's the legendary year two under Urban Meyer--the year he's done dynamic things at both Bowling Green and Utah. Chris Leak is a senior and there's a ton of talent around him (particularly on the defensive side of the ball). The Gators better buckle their chin straps for this one. They can't get caught peeking ahead one week to their rivalry game with Tennessee, because you know UCF has had this date circled for years.
2. Troy at Florida State, September 9. This one has trap game written all over it. Florida State opens the season on Labor Day, then plays Troy on a short week, before heading into the Bowden Bowl with highly touted Clemson on September 16. Add to that the fact that Florida State, despite having a somewhat proven starting quarterback in Drew Weatherford, a big talent at running back in Lorenzo Booker and speed and size in its receiving corps, is a team still looking for an offensive identity under coordinator Jeff Bowden. Openers at Miami aren't usually a good way to establish such an identity. Plus, there's talent at Troy in spots, and the Trojans aren't afraid to play anyone. If FSU doesn't have it's head on straight, this one could be a HUGE surprise early in the season.
1. California at Tennessee, September 2. In any other year, there is no way this game can be labeled under the radar. But, Tennessee is coming off a losing season and Cal was simply above average. The Vols are hoping to show folks early that last year was an aberration, and Cal is looking to establish itself among the nation's elite. There's obviously still talent in Knoxville, particularly in the trenches. The question is whether Erik Ainge can bounce back from a bumpy 2005, and whether skill players like RB Arian Foster and WR Robert Meacham can step up and put points on the board for a team that failed to score 30 points one time last season. Cal will bring its ground attack to Rocky Top in the form of the two-headed monster that is Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett. The only question in Hippie-land is who will be handing them the ball, Nate Longshore or Joseph Ayoob. If Cal can come out of Knoxville with a win, it may steamroll it's way to Pac Ten title and even...gasp...the BCS Championship Game.
The best thing about the 12 game schedule is that it gives most teams an opportunity to schedule a higher profile non-conference game they otherwise would have avoided.
We all know about the big ones. Ohio State at Texas. Nebraska at USC. Notre Dame's early season run of Georgia Tech, Michigan and Penn State. Most of us know about the games a notch below those like Oklahoma at Oregon and Miami at Louisville.
To stop there would be short-sighted. Here are ten "under the radar" non-conference games to keep an eye on during September: