-by Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter)
The ink is barely dry on the 2011 college football season and Athlon Sports is already fired up about 2012.
The Sears Crystal Ball parade still has plenty of K-Marts to visit before the defending champion Crimson Tide will open practice at the Capstone next summer in an effort to win three titles in four years. But fans can bet Nick Saban is already studying film of the nation's most electric quarterback, Michigan's Denard Robinson.
That is right, two of the most storied programs in history, two 2012 national title contenders and two of the cleanest uniforms of all-time will square off in Cowboys Stadium right out of the gate next fall. Alabama-Michigan is merely the appetizer to what should be yet another stellar college football season.
Here are the top non-conference games to look forward to in 2012:
Week 1 (Sept. 1):
Alabama vs. Michigan (Arlington, Texas)
This game is almost assured of being a top ten match-up and could be the biggest non-conference game of the year nationally. The Michigan backfield combo of Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint will put a totally revamped Bama defense to the test. Alabama isn’t hurting for talent but will have to fill holes throughout the back seven — particularly at linebacker. On offense, Bama has to replace holes at RB, OC, WR and TE but will be facing a reworked Michigan defensive line. This game could have national title implications and will likely come down to quarterback play. Can A.J. McCarron build on his BCS Championship Game MVP performance, or will Shoelace excel on the fast track at Jerry’s World?
Boise State at Michigan State (Aug. 31)
While South Carolina and Vanderbilt get the 2012 season kicked off in Nashville on Thursday night, fans will likely be looking to Friday night for the first marquee match of the season. Boise State, after losing nearly a dozen senior starters from both sides of the ball, will have to go into East Lansing and compete with a team that will be very strong along the line of scrimmage. Replacing Kirk Cousins and Jerel Worthy is not easy, but the Spartans are built from the inside out — just how Mark Dantonio wants it.
Auburn vs. Clemson (Atlanta, Ga.) and NC State vs. Tennessee (Atlanta, Ga.)
These are listed together because they will be played in the same building on the same day. Both sets of Tigers should be able to score but have major questions on defense. NC State returns after a strong finish to 2011 behind quarterback and leader Mike Glennon. The Vols and Derek Dooley are in a near-must-win situation right off the bat as the hot seat in Knoxville will be closely monitored in 2012.
Other Week 1 Match-ups to Watch:
Navy vs. Notre Dame (Dublin, Ire.)
Washington State at BYU
Arkansas State at Oregon
Toledo at Arizona
Southern Miss at Nebraska
Wyoming at Texas
SMU at Baylor
Week 2 (Sept. 8):
West Virginia at Florida State
This game may never happen due to scheduling conflicts and conference realignment. But if it does, it could feature two top-ten teams. Geno Smith and his large array of talented weapons will enter 2012 as a conference contender no matter which league they are in. The media and fans, Athlon Sports included, bought into the hype surrounding this Florida State squad in 2011, and it may be hard not to get excited once again. The Noles will feature one of the most dominant, speedy and physical front sevens in all of the nation. And they will have to be good to slow Smith and company. If E.J. Manuel can stay healthy, and Jimbo Fisher can find a consistent running game, Florida State could find itself in Miami come the New Year. However, if the offensive line (which loses its best two players) doesn’t improve, the Noles could be looking at another four-loss season.
Washington at LSU
The Bayou Bengals will likely begin the season as the No. 1 team in the nation — and should have a chip on their collective shoulder after their awful showing in the title game. Washington isn’t Oregon and likely won’t be able to push around the LSU front seven, but Keith Price is uber-talented and has plenty of pass catchers coming back to challenge those electric LSU DBs down the field.
Miami, Fla. at Kansas State
Bill Snyder returns his Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback (Collin Klein) and plenty of skill talent (John Hubert, Chris Harper). And the defense in Manhattan should also be stout. But Miami fans should expect improvement in Year 2 under Al Golden, and it may all start with this potential Top 25 match-up. Snyder can bet that Golden hasn’t forgotten what happened in 2011 when KSU visited South Beach.
Other Week 2 Match-ups to Watch:
Penn State at Virginia
Oklahoma State at Arizona
Illinois at Arizona State
Iowa State at Iowa
Nebraska at UCLA
Vanderbilt at Northwestern
Wisconsin at Oregon State
USC at Syracuse
Toledo at Wyoming
Utah at Utah State
Week 3 (Sept. 15):
Notre Dame at Michigan State
The Irish defensive front should be nasty in 2012, and they will get a huge strength-on-strength test against a powerful Spartan offensive line. Notre Dame pushed around MSU in the early 2011 meeting and Brian Kelly can bet on the Spartans being fired up about welcoming the Golden Domers to East Lansing next fall.
North Carolina at Louisville
Charlie Strong has the Cardinals in a position to return to a BCS bowl for the first time since 2007. A home date with the Tar Heels means very little to either team as far as conference play is concerned, but this should be a great barometer for two teams with rising expectations.
Other Week 3 Match-ups to Watch:
Virginia Tech at Pitt
Cal at Ohio State
Texas at Ole Miss
Arizona State at Missouri
BYU at Utah
Arkansas State at Nebraska
Texas A&M at SMU
Utah State at Wisconsin
UConn at Maryland
Week 4 (Sept. 22):
Michigan at Notre Dame
Arguably the best game of 2011 featured these two teams and one improbable comeback. Michigan will have already faced Alabama at this point and could be looking to maintain its national championship momentum. Either way, Robinson will be knocked around by a physical Irish front seven that hasn’t forgotten how it lost to the Maize and Blue in 2011. Can he withstand the beating (see E.J. Manuel in the Champs Sports Bowl) and lead Michigan to another key victory over one of its rivals?
Virginia at TCU
The Wahoos are looking to keep the positive trajectory of the program going in 2011 but will be faced with a brutal non-conference slate. Mike London welcomes Penn State to Charlottesville in Week 2 and will then have to travel to TCU two weeks later before facing potential WAC favorite Louisiana Tech in Week 5. Casey Pachall and a plethora of elite offensive skill players will have the Horned Frogs offense in good shape, and the defense is always strong under Gary Patterson, so the O-line is really the only question mark. Fans will know more about these two following this juicy non-con contest.
Other Week 4 Match-ups to Watch:
BYU at Boise State
Syracuse at Minnesota
Louisville at FIU
Louisiana Tech at Illinois
Week 5 (Sept. 29):
Florida State at USF
This weekend won’t feature a huge slate of non-con action, but if Florida State is unbeaten heading down to Tampa, all eyes will be on Raymond James Stadium. If BJ Daniels can become the player USF fans believed he was when he took the starting job three years ago, USF could be a tricky out for FSU. And the inter-Sunshine State rivalries are always intriguing.
Other Week 5 Match-ups to Watch:
Cincinnati at Virginia Tech
TCU at SMU
Louisiana Tech at Virginia
Week 6 (Oct. 6):
Notre Dame vs. Miami (Chicago, Ill.)
What is the old SNL line about a Hurricane vs. Ditka? “Who wins? A Hurricane or Ditka? Ditka – unless the Hurricane is named Hurricane Ditka.” Well, Kelly isn’t quite Mike Ditka, but his defense will do its best Bears impersonation in the Windy City when Miami comes to town. Both teams will be battle-tested at this point and, hopefully for Golden and Kelly, both will have settled on a quarterback by October 6.
Other Week 6 Match-ups to Watch:
Utah State at BYU (Oct. 5)
Boise State at Southern Miss.
Week 7 (Oct. 13:
Stanford at Notre Dame
Week 8 (Oct. 20):
Cincinnati at Toledo
Week 9 (Oct. 27):
Notre Dame at Oklahoma
The Sooners schedule is largely unsettled, but one of two contests set in stone is a visit from the Fighting Irish near Halloween. Notre Dame will have played an incredible schedule at this point and will be in one of two situations: As an unblemished top five team or a bruised, beaten and mangled program that likely lacks great quarterback play. College football fans should be rooting for the former rather than the latter.
Week 12 (Nov. 17):
Wake Forest at Notre Dame
Week 13 (Nov. 24):
Georgia Tech at Georgia
The ACC-SEC rivalries are a fantastic capper to the college football season every year. But in 2012, the stakes could be much higher for a most of the programs involved. First, Georgia is a dark horse national title contender with an “easy” schedule, the best QB in the SEC and 10 starters returning to a much-improved defense. Tech could be playing to knock its rival out of the BCS national title game.
Florida at Florida State
The Noles could also enter the final weekend of regular season action in national title contention. The Gators have been shelled two years in a row by the rival Seminoles and would love an opportunity to knock Jimbo Fisher from the ranks of the unbeaten.
South Carolina at Clemson
One of the most underrated rivalries nationally takes place in the Palmetto State every year. South Carolina and Clemson could both have a single-digit ranking next to their names when they enter the final week of the season, only adding to the palpable hatred between these two programs. Sammy Watkins and Marcus Lattimore should be on full display in this one — as it could be Lattimore’s final regular season game as a Gamecock.
Other Week 13 Match-ups to Watch:
Notre Dame at USC
South Florida at Miami
Vanderbilt at Wake Forest
Related 2012 Content:
2012 Heisman Trophy Candidates
Very Early Preseason 2012 College Football Top 25
Athlon Roundtable: Who are the BCS National Title Contenders in 2012?
What To Expect from the Crimson Tide in 2012?
What To Expect from the LSU Tigers in 2012?
2012 SEC Schedule Analysis
Three Teams on the Rise in 2012
Three Teams Sliding Back in 2012
Top Non-Conference Games to Watch in 2012
Athlon Consensus 100: 2012's Top 100 Incoming Freshman