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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Non-Conference to Watch: 8-15

The following teams enjoyed last season’s meeting so much they decided to get together for a second – or third – time in 12 months: Washington and Nebraska; T.C.U. and Baylor; Notre Dame and Michigan; and L.S.U. and West Virginia. There’s the beauty of the home-and-home schedule so common among the more prestigious members of the F.B.S., which guarantees that both sides of the date have the opportunity to host the other in front of the home fans. For Washington and Nebraska, schedules prepared years in advance could not have predicted that the pair would meet in last season’s Holiday Bowl, meaning Washington’s Sept. 17 trip to Nebraska is the rubber match of a three-game series – it is officially baseball season, by the way.

8. Missouri at Arizona State, Sept. 17. There are highly prestigious programs — including an old rival up north — who should be envious of Missouri’s consistency: at least eight wins in each of the last five seasons, including 10 victories a year ago when few expected the Tigers to factor in the national picture. Gary Pinkel can coach, pure and simple, and I can think of several B.C.S. conference positions that have opened up over the last three seasons where Pinkel would have been a far, far better choice than the coach eventually selected. But Pinkel’s happy at Missouri, which is great.

Anyway, he’ll take another team sure to be underrated nationally out west to face a team sure to be overrated nationally, even if a light bulb does turn on for A.S.U.’s returning starters. To be fair, even if the Sun Devils won’t be the nine-win team some are expecting, they’ll surely be improved. Hosting Missouri prior to the start of conference play will be a strong test — and a sign of things to come for Arizona State, win or lose.

9. Washington at Nebraska, Sept. 17. These two teams had so much their first go-round, back a September ago, that they decided to get together again in the Holiday Bowl. And they enjoyed each others’ company so much out in San Diego that they decided to meet again — with Nebraska issuing an invitation to come out to Lincoln. The pleasantries will end there for the Huskies: Nebraska was embarrassed in the Holiday Bowl, particularly by the play of its offense, and will look to make a statement in the team’s most high-profile non-conference game.

10. T.C.U. at Baylor, Sept. 3. You know what they say about major knee injuries: it’s the second year removed from reconstructive surgery, not the first, that the player in question regains his original form. Robert Griffin III will be two years removed from his A.C.L. tear this September, which is a scary thought for Baylor’s opponents in 2011 – if he wasn’t at full strength in 2010, what can Griffin accomplish this fall?

T.C.U. remains confident. The Horned Frogs took care of the Bears with ease last fall, storming out to a 30-point first half advantage and cruising down the stretch for a 45-10 win. On paper, a trip to Waco will pose a stiffer challenge; that it’s the first game for Casey Pachall, Andy Dalton’s supposed successor, will also increase the level of difficult. The onus will be on the Baylor fan base to create a home field advantage.

11. Notre Dame at Michigan, Sept. 10. Same historically elite programs, with a twist. Start with Michigan: the Wolverines open with Western Michigan, meaning the team’s first real test – you’d hope they handle the Broncos – will be the rival Fighting Irish, at home, under the lights, in what should be a nationally televised event. Welcome to big-time college football, Brady Hoke.

Notre Dame has already passed through its first-year growing pains under a new coach – one would think, at least. In fact, the Irish finished last season on such a high note that expectations for 2011 have been heightened immensely, which is both good for the program and perhaps too much to ask for this specific team. On one hand, it’s good to have high expectations back in South Bend, particularly now that the Irish have a coach more than capable of bringing the program back into the nation’s elite. On the other hand, I wonder if Notre Dame isn’t still one year away from a 10-win run; Brian Kelly still has holes to fill on this roster.

12. Oregon State at Wisconsin, Sept. 10. One thing I love about Oregon State: while the Beavers have arrived – in the sense that this program is now a consistent winner – the program still schedules as if it has something to prove, year after year, against more well-regarded competition. Last fall, it was dates with T.C.U. and Boise State. This fall, Oregon State takes on Wisconsin and B.Y.U. in non-conference play, with the game against the Cougars coming in October.

If the Beavers still do have something to prove, a road trip to Madison presents an opportunity to make some noise: Wisconsin will enter 2011 as a Big Ten favorite, thanks to Ohio State’s question marks, and with six home games to open the season should be looking at a fast start. In addition, Wisconsin won’t be overlooking Oregon State: the Badgers sandwich the Beavers with U.N.L.V. and Northern Illinois, meaning Oregon State will have their full attention.

13. L.S.U. at West Virginia, Sept. 24. It’s not quite a date with Oregon, but the Tigers would be wise not to overlook a West Virginia team that won’t be as inefficient offensively as it was a year ago during a loss in Baton Rouge. That’s putting it lightly: W.V.U. might be dangerous offensively, thanks to the university’s inspired decision to lure Dana Holgorsen into the fold with an offer to replace Bill Stewart in 2012.

Not that Holgorsen alone can lift the Mountaineers past L.S.U., particularly if the Tigers enter this game with the confidence only a season-opening win over Oregon can provide. Still, if the L.S.U. offense sputters, perhaps home field advantage and a more potent offensive scheme can lead West Virginia to an upset win – and a season-building victory, one that could propel the Mountaineers through Big East play and into a B.C.S. berth.

14. B.Y.U. at Mississippi, Sept. 3. I spoke about this game a week ago, taking note of how this game will come in under the radar over an opening weekend in the SEC defined by L.S.U.’s date with Oregon and Georgia’s with Boise State. Lost in the shuffle – and last year’s records have something to do with it – is that fact that both B.Y.U. and the Rebels badly need to start 2011 on a high note, as each hopes to quickly turn the page on a disappointing year a season ago. No, this game probably won’t impact the national race – but that hardly means it’s not a vital game for both the Cougars and Rebels.

15. Northwestern at Boston College, Sept. 3. An intriguing game, one that would be made far less intriguing should Northwestern’s Dan Persa still be sidelined by last season’s Achilles tear. He should be ready to go by September: modern medicine at work. Yet he won’t be the dynamic dual-threat quarterback he was in 2010, at least not at first, one would think. That’s a big bonus for Boston College, which has the defense to slow down Northwestern but maintains those pesky questions on offense – a healthy Persa might provide too much spark for B.C. to overcome with its own offensive attack. Of course, B.C. can avoid any questions on offense by getting more consistent quarterback play. Easier said than done: sophomore Chase Rettig has a bright future, but he needs to produce today, not next fall, to make the offense more balanced, less one-dimensional.

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  1. wildcat6 says:

    Dan Persa will be healthy and ready for BC. He’s being held out of spring practice as a precautionary measure, but all indications are he’s ahead of schedule in recovering from the Achilles tear. And there is no one – perhaps nationally – with a better work ethic than Dan Persa, multiple winner of the “Iron Cat” award for strength and fitness.

    Perhaps he won’t be as mobile or prone to take off scrambling as he was last year. But I expect Dan Persa to be armed and ready for the Eagles, and with a receiving corps as deep and talented as Northwestern’s, he should lead a formidable offense.

  2. shane says:

    Don’t count UW out just yet!

  3. Manwich says:

    It’s kind of interesting that until recently I was under the impression that Oregon State always scheduled patsies for its non-conference games.

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