- The Washington Times - Monday, August 31, 2009

Imagine if money were no option, travel arrangements were taken care of and you simply could crisscross the country for an entire autumn to take in the best college football has to offer this season.

Oh, there are some restrictions, but that just makes it more fun to plan. Say it wasn’t possible to see a team more than twice (not counting a conference title game). Or that there was a 21-game limit over the 15-week season. And that it was a requirement to visit a campus in any league that made a BCS appearance in the last two seasons (hello, Mountain West and WAC).

One more thing: No doubling back to the same home field twice. Just one trip to the Horseshoe. One trek to the Swamp. One visit to Happy Valley (White Out, please!). Even a look at the Smurf Turf.

There will be rivalries, to be sure. The Red River Shootout (which should be the game’s name, political correctness be damned). The Backyard Brawl. The Civil War.

And Army-Navy. There’s no leaving out Army-Navy. It should be on any college football fan’s bucket list and certainly is a fitting final leg to this journey.

Yes, some incredible matchups were left on the cutting room floor. But it’s still a gaudy schedule, one any fan (or in the spirit of full disclosure) any reporter would happily sign on for just once.

The ride is going to be wild this fall. These just happen to be 21 games completely worth any fan’s while this season:

Sept. 3: Oregon at Boise State

Consider this the first of many national-title eliminator games. More importantly, the season starts on Boise’s blue surface. The Broncos rarely lure high-profile opponents into Idaho, so this is an immediate statement game.

Sept. 5: Alabama vs. Virginia Tech in Atlanta

It’ll take a cross-country flight to make it to the Georgia Dome in time, but it’s worth seeing whether the Crimson Tide can eviscerate an ACC favorite to start a second straight year. It’s the first chance to see whether the Hokies’ offense really is improved or just its usual muddled self.

Sept. 12: Southern California at Ohio State

The Trojans have a way of thrashing nonconference opponents when they change time zones, and it’s precisely the last thing the Buckeyes need in such a high-profile showdown. Ohio State should do better at the Horseshoe than last year’s 35-3 loss, but the advantage still belongs to Southern Cal.

Sept. 19: Tennessee at Florida

Off to the Swamp, where Tim Tebow might receive the first challenge of his senior year. Or the Gators simply could toss up another rout to quiet new Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin — who could use some silencing after a chirpy offseason.

Sept. 24: Mississippi at South Carolina

The Rebels might just face their sternest SEC road trip at the start of the league schedule. Ole Miss enters the season with plenty of buzz, but the Gamecocks’ Ol’ Ball Coach knows a little something about toppling vaunted opponents.

Sept. 26: Iowa at Penn State

It’s time for a White Out under the lights at Beaver Stadium as the Nittany Lions look to avenge their only regular-season loss of 2008. Take out Iowa’s last-second field goal, and Joe Paterno was playing for a national title in January. Expect a reversal in a raucous environment.

Oct. 3: Southern California at California

Assuming the Golden Bears don’t trip up in September, this could be the biggest Pac-10 game of the season. The Trojans seem to stumble somewhere along the way in league play, and this date with Jahvid Best and Co. in Berkeley could be Pete Carroll’s Waterloo.

Oct. 8: Nebraska at Missouri

The combined score of this game the last two years: Tigers 93, Cornhuskers 23. Now, Nebraska is on the rise, and Missouri needs to find a quarterback to replace Chase Daniel. The Thursday night atmosphere in Columbia will make it a worthwhile side trip.

Oct. 10: Florida at Louisiana State

Hopefully, this turns out to be a night game in Death Valley. If not, it’s merely the best opportunity on paper to see the Gators lose during the regular season. The last time these teams met in Baton Rouge, Les Miles watched his team attempt and convert several fourth downs late in a 28-24 victory.

Oct. 17: Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas

It’s the Texas State Fair and, in all probability, two teams likely to remain undefeated into the middle of October. The Sooners’ propensity to flub big games of late has extended into the Red River Shootout, with Texas taking three of four. For one afternoon, anyway, the old Cotton Bowl will come back to life.

Oct. 22: Florida State at North Carolina

Time to wedge another Thursday night game in, this one the first such circus at gorgeous Kenan Stadium. That makes it a crucial moment in the Butch Davis era, a meeting with one of the sport’s bluebloods on a national stage.

Oct. 24: Oklahoma at Kansas

Yes, it’s back-to-back weeks with the Sooners, but it could be their testiest stretch of the season. The Jayhawks could easily be 6-0 at this stage — but with Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Nebraska and Texas to come in a five-game stretch.

Oct. 31: Texas at Oklahoma State

Even if the highly touted Cowboys stumble in their opener against Georgia, the schedule is friendly enough for them to run the table until this Big 12 South showdown with Colt McCoy and the possibly unbeaten (or, conversely, desperate) Longhorns.

Nov. 7: Louisiana State at Alabama

It’s Saban Bowl III in Tuscaloosa, and this could turn out to be the game that decides the SEC West. In a series that unusually tends to favor the visitor, this could be Miles’ ticket back into national title contention — if the Tigers aren’t there already.

Nov. 14: Utah at Texas Christian

As tempting as it was to slot the “Holy War” as the Mountain West visit, settling for an unbeaten team from a year ago visiting the perennially stingy Horned Frogs is far too good to pass up.

Nov. 21: Ohio State at Michigan

OK, so some of the luster was taken away from this game last year, but it was only three years ago when both teams entered this Midwestern showdown undefeated. Visiting the Big House is a must, and Rich Rodriguez’s track record suggests things could be rolling late in year two.

Nov. 27: Pittsburgh at West Virginia

Finally a dip into Big East territory, where the Backyard Brawl is the best rivalry the league has to offer. Pittsburgh spoiled the Mountaineers’ national title hopes in its last visit to Morgantown, and this easily could decide the conference this season.

Nov. 28: Georgia at Georgia Tech

Could the Peach State balance of power have shifted immediately upon Paul Johnson’s arrival in Atlanta? One thing’s for certain — the Bulldogs will have waited a year to exact revenge upon what until recently was an annual punching bag.

Dec. 3: Oregon State at Oregon

One of the country’s underrated rivalries, the “Civil War” earned a larger profile once both the Beavers and Ducks became perennial bowl teams in the last decade. Oregon State’s Rose Bowl hopes were dashed last year in Corvallis; could the reverse occur in 2009?

Dec. 5: SEC championship game in Atlanta

The last three national champions have won this game, so it makes sense to check out the best the country’s top conference has to offer. Plus, it’s a possible third look at the Blessed Tebow — if you haven’t seen enough highlights throughout the year.

Dec. 12: Army vs. Navy in Philadelphia

The end of the line, and it really doesn’t get much better — at least in terms of pregame pageantry. The Midshipmen have won seven straight (by an average of 29 points), but the displays of nobility, honor and, ultimately, brotherhood sum up what the sport is supposed to be about.

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