Everyone is familiar with the myriad of traditional out-of-conference rivalries between such heated foes as Clemson and South Carolina, Florida and Florida State, Georgia and Georgia Tech, Iowa and Iowa State, Kentucky and Louisville, and Notre Dame and Southern California.
Likewise, we all are aware of this season's more intriguing match-ups between unfamiliar opponents scheduling rare showdowns, including California and Tennessee, Georgia and Colorado, Louisville and Miami (Florida), Marshall and West Virginia, U.C.L.A. and Utah, Notre Dame and several of the Golden Domers' opponents, and, of course, Ohio State and Texas.
Nevertheless, there remain a few non-conference matchups that continue to fly at least somewhat under the radar. Here are 10 non-traditional out-of-conference games being played this season that you might not have noticed . . . but should:
Northwestern at Miami (Ohio) on August 31
The mood of the season opener for the Wildcats and the RedHawks is apt to be somber due to the recent death of Randy Walker, who coached at both schools and whose sudden passing is bound to have a huge emotional effect on the visiting team.
In the last 11 years, Miami (Ohio) has gone 3-0 against Northwestern and only one of those games was close. This will mark the first time that a Big Ten team has traveled to Oxford since an Orange Bowl-bound Iowa squad narrowly escaped with a 29-24 win in 2002.
Throw in the fact that my revised radical realignment proposal would have put both teams in the Southern Division of the new Midwestern Conference and you have the makings of an exciting clash to open the first Thursday of the fall campaign.
Minnesota at California on September 9
Regular season meetings between Big Ten and Pac-10 schools always offer an extra dash of intrigue due to the two leagues' longstanding association with the Granddaddy of 'Em All, which has played host to the champions of the respective conferences in all but four of the last 60 seasons.
Furthermore, each of these programs has shown marked improvement in recent years. The Golden Gophers have attended bowl games in six of the last seven seasons after having failed to play a game after November 25 in any of the dozen autumns from 1987 through 1998, whereas the Golden Bears, who won more than seven games in a season just twice in the 26 years prior to 2002, have won 33 games in four years under Jeff Tedford.
Cal will be tangling with a Big Ten opponent in September for the sixth time in a seven-season stretch and Minnesota will be playing an early season non-league road game against a B.C.S. conference team for the first time since traveling to Waco to take on Baylor in 2000. A rare September test for the Gophers provides an interesting matchup as Glen Mason's team takes on a band of Berkeley Bears fresh off of a road trip to Rocky Top.
Oregon at Fresno State on September 9
College football fans have become accustomed to seeing the feisty Bulldogs take on major conference opponents, but we are not used to such clashes taking place in the Raisin Capital of the World.
Since losing to U.C.L.A. by a field goal in September 2000, the West Coast Bulldogs have gone 10-8 (including bowl games) in outings against the big boys, posting a 3-0 ledger against Pac-10 squads at home during that span.
Will Pat Hill's team go all in with its emotional chips the way F.S.U. did against U.S.C. last November? How will the Ducks deal with facing a challenging out-of-conference opponent on the road one week before hosting Oklahoma in Eugene? Just how ghastly will Oregon's attire be for this contest? Whichever way it goes, the plot is bound to thicken.
Maryland at West Virginia on September 14
One highly respected voice in the blogosphere has already hinted at an upset in the making in this Thursday night game.
Although most sports fans wouldn't consider Maryland-W.V.U. a rivalry, these two teams have a lot of history together, as the Mountaineers and the Terrapins will be tangling for the 28th time in the 27 years since Don Nehlen's first season as the head coach in Morgantown in 1980. (In 2003, the two teams met in the regular season before having a rematch in the Gator Bowl.)
West Virginia is looking to claim its third straight series win after dropping four straight to the Terps to start the Rich Rodriguez era. Despite winning 34 of his first 43 games in College Park, Ralph Friedgen has presided over 11 losses in his last 18 outings. Both teams have something to prove in what will be the season's first major test for each of them.
Arizona State at Colorado on September 16
A stellar Saturday of college football kicks off with this clash, to which a certain element of interest is added by virtue of the speculation concerning the Buffaloes' prospects for joining the Pac-10.
Add to that the fact that Dan Hawkins will be facing a B.C.S. conference opponent for the first time as the head coach at Colorado and, while you're at it, toss in the timing of the game, as well. The Buffs will be coming off of a September 9 showdown with in-state rival C.S.U. in Denver and looking ahead to a September 23 outing against the Red and Black between the hedges before beginning Big 12 play.
This could be a defining game for Colorado, as well as for a Sun Devil squad that, reminiscent of Michigan, went 7-5 in 2005 yet saw seven of its 12 outings decided by 10 or fewer points. This game will offer an early indication whether either team will be able to make some noise in 2006.
Nebraska at Southern California on September 16
The Cornhuskers' last meeting with a Pac-10 team was a 48-10 victory over Arizona State to start the 2002 season. Prior to that game, the Big Red Machine had posted a dominant 102-12 record over the course of the previous nine seasons; since that day, though, Nebraska has stumbled to a middling 29-20 ledger.
The Trojans' last outing against a Big 12 team is a bit of a sore subject in Troy, as it ended U.S.C.'s 34-game winning streak. Bill Callahan pays a return visit to his old N.F.L. stomping grounds for this clash of conflicting styles as Hollywood takes on the Heartland and the dominant team of the 1990s faces the dominant team of the 21st century (so far).
Oklahoma at Oregon on September 16
We found out in last year's Holiday Bowl that the Ducks weren't as good as advertised and the Sooners were better than we thought.
Bob Stoops's troops have seen a fair amount of the Pac-10 lately, having recently squared off against Oregon (during the regular season in 2004 and in the Holiday Bowl last year), Southern California (in the Orange Bowl following the 2004 season), U.C.L.A. (in 2003 and 2005), and Washington State (in the Rose Bowl following the 2002 season), but this contest should make it clear whether, and to what extent, last season's Sooner stumble was an aberration.
Texas Tech at Texas Christian on September 16
Perhaps mindful of the widespread and warranted criticism of their out-of-conference scheduling, the Red Raiders opted for an upgrade this season, but they didn't travel far to do it; six of Texas Tech's 12 regular season opponents call the Lone Star State home, including the alphabet soup of S.M.U., U.T.E.P., and T.C.U.
The Big 12 squad from Lubbock will need to beat its former Southwest Conference foe to give Mike Leach's squad some legitimacy . . . but the same can be said for the Mountain West squad from Fort Worth, as well. The victor gets credibility along with bragging rights and, if the prevailing squad wins convincingly, national rankings will be raised as well as eyebrows.
Boise State at Utah on September 30
This is simply the biggest out-of-conference battle between mid-major teams of the 2006 campaign. The Broncos probably will come into this contest with chips on their shoulders due to the perception that the M.W.C. is superior to the W.A.C. I suspect the fact that the Western Athletic Conference's upper echelon (including the Utes) broke away to form the Mountain West in 1999 doesn't sit well with B.S.U. and its fellow members of the jilted league, either.
Both teams will need the win to prove that they have returned to their 2004 form, particularly if neither team succeeds in upsetting the Pac-10 opponents appearing on their respective early September schedules.
Fresno State at Louisiana State on October 21
The schedule sets up nicely for the Bayou Bengals, who get breaks both before and after battling the Bulldogs. L.S.U. will face Florida in Gainesville on October 7 but host Kentucky in Baton Rouge one week later, then the Fighting Tigers get a bye week before attempting to avenge themselves upon the Volunteers in Knoxville on November 4.
Why, then, should Louisiana State be nervous?
Because, following their trek to the Bayou, the West Coast Canines get an 11-day layoff within which to prepare for Boise State. Fresno State hasn't tangled with an S.E.C. opponent since opening the 2003 season with a 24-6 loss on Rocky Top and, over the course the decade from 1996 to 2005, the Bulldogs went 2-0 against the A.C.C., 1-3 against the Big Ten, 2-5 against the Big 12, 5-9 against the Pac-10 . . . and 0-2 against the Southeastern Conference.
You can bet Pat Hill wants this one badly and, if the Bulldogs give the Tigers the same game they gave Southern California a year ago, Les Miles's ineptitude could put the visiting team over the top as F.S.U. squares off with L.S.U.
Those are a few of the more underappreciated non-conference outings on the 2006 schedule, but, if I happened to miss one or two other good games flying under the radar, feel free to let me know in the comments below.