It is never too early to start looking ahead to next season. Especially now that Alabama is college football’s 2012 National Champion. This season featured huge showdowns between the ACC and SEC at the end of the year, Notre Dame battling with the Big Ten or Pac-12 all season long and a host of other important non-conference showdowns. Each and every year, a variety of intersectional matchups mold the national championship landscape or add a chapter to long and storied rivalries.
Athlon Sports starts marking up the 2013 calendar with key non-conference games to watch:
1. Georgia at Clemson (Aug. 31)
The Dawgs are a preseason Top 10 team now that Aaron Murray returns, but the defense will be replacing upwards of 10 starters. They will have to face a Tajh Boyd-Chad Morris offense that is one of the best in the nation. The Tigers will likely be the pick in the ACC and could also be a top 10 team, making the home game against the SEC power essentially a national title elimination game.
2. Oklahoma at Notre Dame (Sept. 28)
The Sooners could be the pick in the Big 12 but will need to break in a bunch of new pieces on both sides of the ball. Notre Dame will once again be a national title contender with an elite defensive line and improved offense. With revenge, historic brands and elite talent all involved in this showdown, it could easily be another national title elimination game.
3. UCLA at Nebraska (Sept. 14)
This was an epic showdown early in 2012 when the Bruins defeated the Huskers 36-30 in Week 2 of the season. It was Brett Hundley’s coming out party as the savior at quarterback for UCLA. The pressure might now be on Jim Mora’s team as the potential preseason favorite in the Pac-12 South. Nebraska could be the pick in the Big Ten's Legends Division as this early season game will feature both losers in their respective conference championship games from this fall.
4. Clemson at South Carolina (Nov. 30)
The big three SEC-ACC showdowns each year carry in-state bragging rights and historic implications. But in 2012, Florida-Florida State was the only one carrying national title importance. The best of the bunch next fall, however, could be the Palmetto State battle. Both could be picked to win their respective divisions and both could be unbeaten heading into one of the most intense rivalries in the nation.
5. Notre Dame at Stanford (Nov. 30)
Stanford has big holes to fill along its defensive front and on the offense, but has to still be considered one of the frontrunners in the Pac-12. The Irish will once again be a top 10 team, and this time, must travel to Palo Alto to deal with a team that will likely never forget how the 2012 version ended.
6. Alabama vs. Virginia Tech (Aug. 31, Atlanta)
With Logan Thomas coming back and some tweaks on the coaching staff, the Hokies almost have be better on offense in 2012. Defensively, Bud Foster’s team will always be good, but to compete with the Tide in the Kickoff Classic, Thomas will have to be the difference maker. Otherwise, Bama will make yet another statement in its season opener en route to yet another title run.
7. Notre Dame at Michigan (Sept. 7)
Brady Hoke and Brian Kelly have completely overhauled their historic programs in short order. Both are still improving and both have title hopes (National and Big Ten, respectively). This is one of the most historic battles each season and generally is one of the best games of the year.
8. TCU vs. LSU (Aug. 31, Arlington)
Gary Patterson did one of his better coaching jobs with some impressive wins without his starting quarterback in year one in a new league. The defensive line will be nasty for the Horned Frogs and they will be playing very close to home. This is what should give them a chance against the mighty Bayou Bengals. LSU is losing nearly a dozen elite players early to the NFL Draft and will be very young along the offensive line and on defense.
9. USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 19)
The Trojans have some holes to fill at quarterback and defensive coordinator, but they also have loads of young talent and yet another elite recruiting class stepping onto campus. The Irish are a preseason top 10 team and anytime these two college football bluebloods get together, fireworks tend to fly.
10. Florida State at Florida (Nov. 30)
Much like South Carolina-Clemson, this one could carry national import at season’s end once again. Both programs have big holes to fill on defense while the Noles must replace EJ Manuel at quarterback. If the Gators' offense can develop in the offseason, they will be right in the heart of the SEC East race.
11. Florida at Miami (Sept. 7)
This will be a big prove-it game for the rising Hurricanes. Al Golden has done an excellent job with a roster that started 10 freshmen and technically won the division in 2012. Miami could validate its growth and put itself on the national scene with an early home win of the mighty in-state rivals.
12. Mississippi State vs. Oklahoma State (Aug. 31, Houston)
The Bulldogs and Cowboys are both achieving at unprecedented levels and both could be sneaky good once again in 2013. The Pokes could actually be the preseason pick to win the Big 12 and will have a chance to prove it against an always solid Dan Mullen-coached team — in a fertile recruiting territory for both.
13. Boise State at Washington (Aug. 31)
This was a great bowl game in Las Vegas to end the season. Now, these two West Coast powers will do battle right out of the gate in 2013. The Huskies' defense should continue to improve while the offense has the pieces to excel. And Chris Peterson will always have the Broncos ready to go early in the year.
14. Wisconsin at Arizona State (Sept. 14)
This was a great game in Madison a few years ago and should again be a stellar non-conference tilt next year. Todd Graham has loads of weapons returning on offense and should be the favorite to win this intriguing intersectional game.
15. Notre Dame vs. Arizona State (Oct. 5, Arlington)
This should be a great test for the Irish defensive line and the Taylor Kelly-led Sun Devils offense. The strengths of both teams will go head-to-head and a win for ASU would validate them as a serious South Division contender.
16. North Carolina at South Carolina (Aug. 31)
Yet another SEC-ACC battle — but this one will have interstate bragging rights on the line. The two programs are the State-U’s in their respective Carolina, but the North version will have to play over their heads to compete with the potential SEC East frontrunner.
17. Texas at BYU (Sept. 7)
Both defenses have a chance to be the strength of their respective teams — if Texas’ athletes can finally play up to their potential. And anytime a team has to visit Provo, it must be worried about escaping with a victory.
18. Michigan State at Notre Dame (Sept. 21)
The Spartans will once again be excellent on defense and one has to believe the offense will be more two-dimensional in 2013. The Irish are what they are and have been crushing the Spartans of late.
19. Rutgers at Fresno State (Aug. 29)
The Knights will feature yet another solid defensive unit and they will have their work cut out for them in a long, cross-country trip to face an elite offense. Derek Carr has only a few national spotlight moments and this will be one of them.
20. Georgia at Georgia Tech (Nov. 30)
Tech finally got Paul Johnson a bowl win and, ideally, that will catapult the team into the offseason. The Dawgs are a big-time national title contender. Finally, it is still arguably the best named rivalry in the nation: “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.”
21. BYU at Wisconsin (Nov. 9)
Defense will rule the day in a rare late-season non-conference game for a Big Ten power.
22. Oregon at Nevada (Sept. 7)
Sans legend Chris Ault, Nevada will host one of its most high-profile opponents in Reno history.
23. Penn State at Syracuse (Aug. 31, East Rutherford)
Cuse has a new coach but has been much better of late. PSU needs to start things right.
24. Tennessee at Oregon (Sept. 14)
This won’t be a close game, but two major powers get together in Eugene early in the year.
25. Arkansas at Rutgers (Sept. 21)
Revenge factor is heavy for the Hogs, but the Knights have a national spotlight game here.
26. West Virginia at Maryland (Sept. 21, Baltimore)
The Terps are improving and WVU is replacing a ton of offensive weapons.
27. Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky (Aug. 31, Nashville)
Bobby Petrino vs. the SEC. Need I say more?
28. Western Kentucky at Tennessee (Sept. 7)
Bobby Petrino vs. an SEC team that should have hired him. Need I say more?
29. Ole Miss at Texas (Sept. 7)
Was a high-scoring showdown in Oxford in 2012, could be even better in 2013.
30. Ohio State at Cal (Sept. 14)
Tricky road game for national title contender against new coaching staff in Berkeley.
Best of the Rest:
Utah at BYU (Sept. 21)
Washington State at Auburn (Aug. 31)
Iowa at Iowa State (Sept. 14)
Northwestern at Cal (Aug. 31)
Iowa at Iowa State (Sept. 14)
Washington vs. Illinois (Sept. 14, Chicago)
Notre Dame at Purdue (Sept. 14)
Louisville at Kentucky (Sept. 14)
Northwestern at Cal (Aug. 31)
Nevada at UCLA (Aug. 31)
Syracuse at Northwestern (Sept. 7)
Nevada at Florida State (Sept. 21)
Miami at USF (Sept. 28)
Georgia Tech at BYU (Oct. 12)
Notre Dame at Pitt (Nov. 9)
Purdue at Cincinnati (Aug. 31)