USC-Ohio State tops list of 10 best early non-conference games

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It may still be July, but college football will be here before we know it. The season kicks off Thursday night, Sept. 3, and while that first month's unquestionably heavy on snoozers like Florida versus Charleston Southern and Texas versus Louisiana-Monroe, there are more than a few juicy intersectional matchups sure to get the blood pumping.

Here are the 10 best nonconference matchups over the season's first three weeks:

Yes, last year's blowout at the Coliseum proved anticlimactic, and yes, both teams lost a bunch of big names from the past few years. But these two tradition-laden programs rarely have trouble reloading and will both be ranked in the top 10 yet again.

The Buckeyes should stand a better chance than last year, what with sophomore QB Terrelle Pryor's development (he alternated with Todd Boeckman in last year's matchup) and the fact USC will be relying on an untested signal-caller, most likely third-year sophomore Aaron Corp. Then again, the latter may not matter, given the Trojans' last three QBs -- Matt Leinart (at Auburn), John David Booty (at Arkansas) and Mark Sanchez (at Virginia) -- all routed BCS-conference foes in their first career road starts.

Following up on last year's 'Bama-Clemson matchup, the new Chick-fil-A College Kickoff in Atlanta is quickly establishing itself as a prime-time reincarnation of the old Kickoff and Pigskin Classics. (Organizers have already booked Tennessee and NC State for 2012.)

Both teams figure to sit in the top 10 -- possibly as high as No. 5 -- come kickoff, and both figure to field dominant defenses. Last year, the Tide's 34-10 rout of the then ninth-ranked Tigers set the tone for a surprising 12-0 run. An impressive showing by this year's victor could elicit similar expectations for the rest of the season.

For whatever reason, ESPN has tapped South Carolina-NC State for its Thursday night opener yet again, but this year the nightcap (10:15 p.m. ET) is a far bigger attraction. It's Chip Kelly's debut as Ducks head coach and a national spotlight opportunity for dark-horse Heisman candidate QB Jeremiah Masoli, last seen shredding Oklahoma State for four touchdowns in the Holiday Bowl.

It's an even bigger game for Boise, which rarely hosts such high-profile contests on Bronco Stadium's blue turf. Coming off a 12-0 regular season in which then freshman QB Kellen Moore emerged as the nation's 12th-rated passer, the Broncos are widely regarded as the most viable candidate to be this year's "BCS buster." But to make good on that promise, they'll need to win this one.

Imagine if this game had been played last year. Georgia NFL first-rounders Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno would have been on the field with Oklahoma State's likely 2010 duo, Dez Bryant and Russell Okung (not to mention fellow Cowboys stars Zac Robinson and Kendall Hunter).

As it is, Mike Gundy's team will face a Bulldogs team in transition, but don't bet on the Cowboys delivering a 35-14 beating like Georgia did to them in Athens two years ago. Mark Richt's team is still deeply talented, particularly on defense, and stud sophomore wideout A.J. Green should provide a spark offensively.

The Cougars entered last season with BCS aspirations before getting demolished by TCU and Utah. This year's team may be better suited to handle high expectations thanks to a more experienced defense and prolific QB Max Hall's return. Only one problem: The Cougars have to face the Sooners -- and then the Florida State Seminoles two weeks later.

The first college game at the Dallas Cowboys' new $1.1 billion stadium will also be the first opportunity to watch returning Heisman-winner Sam Bradford operate behind the Sooners' rebuilt offensive line. Those who watched last year's BCS title game will recognize plenty of other familiar names, including TE Jermaine Greshman, DT Gerald McCoy and RB Chris Brown.

College football's two all-time winningest programs both suffered a 3-9 record in one of the past two seasons, yet the curiosity factor will inevitably beckon most of us to our TV sets anyway. This game will allow one of these rebuilding programs to make an important statement about its future and cause further indignation among the other squad's followers.

The Irish, behind junior QB Jimmy Clausen and nine other returning offensive starters, are looking to continue the momentum from their Hawaii Bowl blowout with a big road win. Michigan is looking to jumpstart its offense, most likely with true freshman Tate Forcier at quarterback. An upset here would be a huge boon for second-year coach Rich Rodriguez.

No one could accuse the Hokies of scheduling lightly; in addition to this game and the opener against Alabama, Frank Beamer's club takes a November visit to defending Conference USA champ East Carolina, which knocked off the Hokies in last year's season opener.

This will be an important contest for second-year Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, who has Huskers fans believing they're on the verge of a long-awaited breakthrough following last year's season-ending four-game winning streak. Preseason All-America DT Ndamukong Suh leads a defense that figures to be improved. But it's awfully tough for a visitor to win at Lane Stadium, unless that visitor's Matt Ryan.

In September, Oregon plays Boise State, Purdue, Utah and Cal. No wonder Mike Bellotti got out when he did. If the Ducks survive that opener in Boise, then presumably handle Purdue, they'll have a chance to bolt pretty high in the polls by knocking off last year's Sugar Bowl champs and moving to 3-0.

Meanwhile, the Utes will surely be under the microscope coming off their second undefeated season in five years and the BCS political controversy that followed. After starting with Utah State and San Jose State, this will be their first big test. Utah lost nearly every big offensive star from last year's 13-0 team, but returns seven starters from last year's No. 11 defense.

Give the Seminoles credit. Yes, they still schedule some patsies (including Jacksonville State this season), but over the past three seasons they've played road or neutral-site games against Alabama and Colorado (in addition to the annual Florida game), and now they're traveling all the way to Provo to face a dangerous BYU team.

FSU's defense will feature a bunch of new faces this season, which will undoubtedly cause nightmares for defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews. His defenses never seem to slip too far, however. On the other side of the ball, the Seminoles' much-improved offensive line will look to impose its will against a potentially soft Cougars defense.

For the second straight year, the Pirates are taking on all comers. Last year they knocked off Virginia Tech and West Virginia but fell to NC State and Virginia. The Mountaineers and Hokies are back on the schedule this fall, but so, too, is the state's flagship program.

The teams last met in 2007, and ECU won, 34-31. Skip Holtz's program has made tremendous strides since then, winning its first Conference USA title last season. But Butch Davis ended a seven-year bowl drought at UNC last season, and many believe the Tar Heels will emerge as a top 20 team this season. Their defense, in particular, could dominate.