June 7, 2010

Monday with Mike: September statements

We're just a bit past Memorial Day and still about a month to Independence Day, but we're still getting mighty antsy as we count down the days to the start of the 2010 season (it's 86, by the way).

To help pass the time, here's a look at 12 non-conference statement games in the first month of the season. This by no means is a comprehensive list of all the good non-conference games in September, but it is a good primer on games with more than conference bragging rights on the line.

Sure, conference bragging rights are on the line in these, but delve a little deeper and these become even more important.

Next week, we'll take a look at statement games within conference play.

SEPTEMBER NON-CONFERENCE STATEMENT GAMES
Pittsburgh at Utah, Sept. 2
The buzz: Pitt will head into the season as the favorite to win the Big East. Utah likely will be picked second in the preseason Mountain West polls. A Utes victory would serve as more ammunition for the MWC and would be a blow to the Big East and to Dave Wannstedt. Plus, a win in this one means Utah likely would be 8-0 when it plays host to TCU on Nov. 6. If Utah beats Pitt, expect the Utes to be in the national title discussion until their matchup with the Horned Frogs.
Connecticut at Michigan, Sept. 4
The buzz: We would not want to be Rich Rodriguez if the Wolverines open the season with a loss to Connecticut. Thus, there's a lot on the line for Michigan in this one. As for UConn, the Huskies look to have the pieces in place to strongly contend for the Big East title. A win in the Big House would serve further notice that the Huskies are for real.
LSU vs. North Carolina in Atlanta, Sept. 4
The buzz: This is a monster game. UNC's defense is supremely talented, with as many as six potential first-round NFL draft picks. That is bad news for an LSU offense that couldn't get out of its own way for most of last season. Big advantage to UNC. Conversely, UNC's offense was basically as inept as LSU's last season, and LSU's defense is going to be good this season. Big advantage to LSU. This should be a low-scoring, defense-minded affair with a lot of subplots. One of the biggest is how LSU fans would feel about Les Miles if the Tigers open with a loss -- and to an ACC team, at that. On the other hand, big things are expected from the Tar Heels this season. A UNC loss would mean Butch Davis' program isn't likely to have the breakthrough season many expect. It's hard to imagine a bigger first-week game. Yet
Boise State vs. Virginia Tech in Landover, Md., Sept. 6
The buzz: This is a bigger first-week game. A lot of folks don't want to believe in Boise State, but if the Broncos go cross-country and knock off a Hokies team that could have some early season issues on defense, there's a great chance Boise could finish unbeaten again. Given that the Broncos seem extremely likely to open the season in the top three or four of the polls, an unbeaten Boise team would be squarely in the mix for the national title. And before everybody gets all hot and bothered, I don't think Boise could go unbeaten in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Mountain West, Pac-10 or SEC this season. But in one game, the Broncos have enough talent -- and also have the coaching staff -- to beat anybody. This one is important to the Hokies, too. They have slipped a bit from their perch as the biggest bully in the ACC. Losing in their backyard to Boise would lead to a perception -- and, heck, maybe have a basis in reality -- that they are just another ACC team these days. This one is on Labor Day night, so start preparing now to make time to watch it.
USF at Florida, Sept. 11
The buzz: This is the first meeting between the teams, and it's unlikely they'll meet that often. USF already has beaten Florida State and would like to add the Gators -- the state's No. 1 program right now -- to its victims' list. Conversely, this will be the first real opponent for Florida this season, and the Gators would like to show their offense is a force to be reckoned with despite the loss of Tim Tebow.
Florida State at Oklahoma; Miami at Ohio State, Sept. 11
The buzz: We're lumping these two together because the two former powers from Florida are trying to get back among the elite. And what better way to do it than go on the road and knock off elite teams. Wins would be huge for the Seminoles and Hurricanes -- and for the ACC. Conversely, if you're OU or Ohio State, the losses may not be that damaging. Wins would serve as proof that FSU and UM were back among the elite, and there's no harm -- well, not that much -- in losing to elite teams. Still, losing at home would sting some.
Oregon at Tennessee, Sept. 11
The buzz: Take a dispassionate look at Tennessee's schedule, and what you come up with isn't pretty for Vols fans. This is a program that, right now, lacks a proven quarterback, a proven running back, a proven offensive line, a proven defensive tackle, a proven playmaker at linebacker and a proven playmaker in the secondary. Otherwise, Lane Kiffin (and, to be fair, Phil Fulmer) left the Vols in great shape. Oregon will be expected to win in Knoxville. If the Ducks lose, it will reflect poorly on them and on the Pac-10 as a whole.
Penn State at Alabama, Sept. 11
The buzz: It's rare when Penn State has something to prove, but this is a case where that holds true. Alabama will go into the season as the preseason No. 1. Penn State seems likely to be No. 4 in the Big Ten. A win by Penn State would be huge for the Big Ten. You wouldn't hear any SEC fans denigrating the league if the Nittany Lions were to win in Tuscaloosa.
Houston at UCLA, Sept. 18
The buzz: Houston is tremendous offensively but rancid defensively. UCLA has had numerous issues on offense but has been solid defensively. Houston beat two Big 12 teams early last season (Oklahoma State and Texas Tech) to garner a lot of attention, and beating the Bruins in the Rose Bowl would garner more attention. But if UCLA were to win, Houston essentially fades into the background for the rest of the season while the Bruins would be seen as being on an upward tick. A win by the Bruins over Houston would add a lot of spice to a Sept. 25 visit by UCLA to Texas. Conversely, a UCLA loss to Houston renders the visit to Austin basically meaningless.
USC at Minnesota, Sept. 18
The buzz: Minnesota hasn't had a marquee victory in, what, 50 years? This is a prime chance for the Golden Gophers, who are heading into their fourth season under coach Tim Brewster. This will be the third game for new Trojans coach Lane Kiffin, and if his team were to lose this one panic would ensue.
Nebraska at Washington, Sept. 18
The buzz: This is -- by far -- Nebraska's toughest non-conference game. It also might be the Huskers' toughest road game, period. The outcome of the Sept. 4 BYU-Washington game will shape the perception of this one. If Washington were to lose to BYU, everything would be on the line for Nebraska in this one -- and a loss would be ultra-damaging. But if Washington were to win at BYU, this becomes a huge showdown with a lot on the line for both teams. In that scenario, a win by the Huskers would show they are top-10 material. A win by the Huskies would show they're back to where they expect to be.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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