With the beginning of the BCS several years back, many of the big-name schools have begun to realize the importance of playing a quality non-conference schedule. While some are still reluctant to line up opponents from other BCS conferences, many do set up matchups with teams from the non-BCS leagues who are often just as dangerous.
As I glanced over the September schedule, a number of these potentially dangerous games immediately jumped out. Now keep in mind, I'm not necessarily predicting any of these to actually take place. However, don't be surprised to see one or two of these huge early-season upsets shock the nation.
Toledo over Iowa State - August 31
As has been the case in each of the past few years, the Cyclones are expected to be right near the top of the Big XII North standings this fall. But before they take on any conference foe, they'll have to battle the Rockets on a season-opening Thursday night. Toledo is, as always, a favorite in the MAC West, even without graduated QB Bruce Gradkowski. Star RB Trinity Dawson is also gone, but coach Tom Amstutz always has his team ready to play and August 31 should be no exception.
Kent State over Minnesota - August 31
The Flashes won just a single game all year in 2005, but eighteen starters return and things are expected to go much better in coach Doug Martin's third year on campus. This game, though also scheduled on a Thursday night, is a bit different from the one above because it will be played on Flashes' home turf. Minnesota lost star RBs Laurence Maroney and Gary Russell, so the pressure will be on returning QB Bryan Cupito to lead an always high-powered Gopher offense.
Hawaii over Alabama - September 2
The Tide was known for its stout defensive play and QB Brodie Croyle's poise under center last year, but with six of the team's top seven tacklers gone and Croyle graduated, there will be some adjusting to be done in Tuscaloosa this fall. Problem is, there won't be much time for that as the pass-happy Hawaii squad comes to town in week one, led by QB Colt Brennan who threw for more than 4300 yards a season ago. The Warriors have been bowling three of the past four years and look to start on the trail to another postseason trip early on in 2006.
Northern Illinois over Ohio State - September 2
While the Buckeyes are an early favorite to make a run at the national title this fall, getting by the Huskies in week one might not be as easy as it looks at first glance. NIU RB Garrett Wolfe is arguably the best back in the country after dashing for nearly 1600 yards and 16 scores in '05. Solid senior QB Phil Horvath has already dealt with the atmosphere at places like Michigan, Northwestern, Maryland, and Iowa State the past couple years, and if he can catch OSU looking ahead to week two at Texas, the Huskies might pull off the upset.
Akron over Penn State - September 2
The Zips are fresh off their 2005 MAC title run and their first bowl trip in nearly 30 years. Seventeen starters are back from that squad, including QB Luke Getsy who led the team's comeback victory over Northern Illinois in that conference championship battle. Though the Nittany Lions made a BCS run a season ago, expectations aren't quite as high this fall, and they'll be trying to break in a new QB before the week two trip to Notre Dame. PSU can't afford to look too far head.
UCF over Florida - September 9
Coach George O'Leary appears to have the UCF program back on track after taking the squad to a seven-win CUSA season and the team's first bowl game in history last fall. Capturing a huge win against an in-state BCS program would be the next step for the Knights. The Gators will be fresh off a tough battle with Southern Miss the week before but can't afford to look past UCF to a week three road trip to SEC East rival Tennessee. If they do, star QB Steven Moffett and big-time RB Kevin Smith could take advantage.
Nevada over Arizona State - September 9
While Boise State and Fresno State get most of the attention in the WAC, Nevada has worked their way up the standings in recent years and made their mark in 2005 when they went 7-1 and tied for the league title. Fourteen starters are back this fall, led by star QB Jeff Rowe who threw for nearly 3000 yards and 21 TDs a season ago. A week one battle at conference rival Fresno State will tell a lot about the Pack before they visit ASU, who themselves have two tough road trips to Coloardo and California scheduled right after their battle with Nevada.
San Diego State over Wisconsin - September 16
In 2003, UNLV went into Madison and stunned the Badgers. Now a few seasons later, fellow MWC member San Diego State will attempt to do the same. Expectations are high for the Aztecs this fall as they return 13 starters from a team that was just one win short of bowl eligibility last fall. Among those back are QB Kevin O'Connell and star RB Lynell Hamilton. UW, meanwhile, will be replacing top RBs Brian Calhoun and Booker Stanley, as well as each of their top six wideouts and head coach Barry Alvarez. Looking ahead to the road trip to Michigan the next week is obviously not an option.
Toledo over Pittsburgh - September 30
Scheduling high-quality BCS opponents gives you a chance to pull some big-time upsets, and that's exactly the opportunity Toledo has this fall. The Rockets knocked off Pittsburgh back in 2003 and will try to pull out another huge victory over the Panthers in 2006. Coach Dave Wannstedt can't afford to have that happen, though, as his first-year team went just 5-6 and did in fact lose to a MAC team in 2005, dropping a six-point road decision at Ohio. Though expectations are higher in Pittsburgh this fall, they can't afford to take any win for granted at this point.
Houston over Miami - September 30
The Hurricanes are another early favorite for the 2006 national title, but nothing would burst that bubble quicker than a home loss to the Cougars. UH returns sixteen starters this fall, including star senior QB Kevin Kolb who threw for more than 3200 yards and 19 scores a season ago. This will be the Canes' second straight tough non-conference battle, as they'll have taken a trip to Louisville two weeks before. How that game goes could set the tone for this one.