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Ten games to watch in 2004

From Rockets-Gophers to Horned Frogs-Cardinals, our TV guide

Posted: Wednesday August 4, 2004 10:20AM; Updated: Wednesday August 4, 2004 10:20AM

By Gennaro Filice,

As you peruse the national TV schedule for the 2004 season, we offer 10 of the season's best matchups, in chronological order:

  Marion Barber
Minnesota's Marion Barber III ran for 1,196 yards in 2003.
Elsa/Getty Images
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8/5  Return of the RBs
8/6  The true freshmen
8/10  SI's Top 25
8/11  ACC preview
8/12  Big 12 preview
8/13  Big East preview
8/16  Big Ten preview
8/17  Pac-10 preview
8/18  SEC preview
8/19  C-USA, Mt. West, MAC
8/20  Inds., WAC, Sun Belt
8/23  SI's All-Americans
8/24  SI's Heisman Preview
8/25  Bowl Projections
8/26's Crystal Ball
8/30  Power Rankings

1. SEPT. 4 - TOLEDO AT MINNESOTA (9 p.m., ESPN2): Big Ten teams hate dropping games to the pesky MAC, but in a shootout like this, anything can happen. Having graduated their entire defensive line, the Rockets will struggle to stop the Gophers' dual rushing attack of Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney. Minnesota's attack-first defense may be exposed by Bruce Gradkowski's big arm and Toledo's trio of experienced ball-catchers. Both teams have high expectations for '04, and this game will show if the hype is valid.

2. SEPT. 6 - FLORIDA STATE AT MIAMI (8 p.m., ABC): This Monday night season opener will be the third 'Noles-'Canes meeting a little more than 10 months -- but this will be the first time they collide as ACC foes. The contest carries huge significance for two underachieving signal-callers. Will Chris Rix ever beat Miami? (FSU hasn't prevailed in this rivalry since 1999.) Is Brock Berlin the right man behind center for the 'Canes, or is it time for much-hyped redshirt freshman Kyle Wright to take over? One team's national title hopes could be crushed just 60 minutes into the season.

3. SEPT. 18 - LSU AT AUBURN (3:30 p.m., CBS): In each of the past two meetings between these teams, the home squad has won convincingly, 31-7. This season's matchup features what should be the two most prolific running attacks in the SEC. "Cadillac" Williams and Ronnie Brown have excelled for Auburn, combining for 1,753 yards in 2003, while LSU's Justin Vincent established himself last season with a monster second half that culminated in a 117-yard, Sugar Bowl MVP performance. A notable matchup will take place on Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell's weak side, where 6-foot-9, 340-pound left tackle Marcus McNeill will try to stop one of the nation's best defensive ends, LSU's Marcus Spears, who's no slouch himself at 6-6, 295.

4. OCT. 2 - LSU AT GEORGIA (3:30 p.m., CBS): Will this be a regular-season preview of the SEC Championship game for the second straight year? Quite possibly. Last season, the Tigers eked out a 17-10 home victory over the Dawgs in September, but then stomped Georgia 34-13 in the SEC title game. In those two meetings, UGA quarterback David Greene threw five interceptions and lost a fumble. Greene will be facing two of the best cover corners in the country in the Tigers' Corey Webster and Travis Daniels.

5. OCT. 9 - TEXAS VS. OKLAHOMA (Noon, ABC): In the past four years, Texas has become known as one of the nation's biggest underachievers -- a tough label for a team that's lost just seven regular-season games in that span. Archrival Oklahoma helped create Texas' stigma, beating the Longhorns four times. Bob Stoops owns Mack Brown on the field and he's really starting to outshine him off it, too, as Oklahoma snagged two of the nation's most coveted recruits -- running back Adrian Peterson and quarterback Rhett Bomar -- out of Texas high schools. Star linebacker Derrick Johnson and the rest of the 'Horns' defense will have their hands full with the Sooners' offense, which returns 10 starters, including Heisman Trophy winner Jason White.

  Aaron Rodgers
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the pass-happy Bears will have to travel to the Trojans' turf in 2004.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

6. OCT. 9 - CAL AT USC (TBA): The only team to beat the Trojans in 2003, Cal returns 17 starters including one of the nation's best pitch-and-catch combos, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and receiver Geoff McArthur. But USC boasts as much talent as any team in America. The key to this game will be the performance of USC's offensive line, which returns just one starter (right guard Fred Matua). If Cal coach Jeff Tedford wants to pull off a second straight upset over the Trojans, he'll need to attack the USC O-Line, neutralizing a handful of backfield stars, including Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. The winner of this game most likely will be crowned Pac-10 champ, and Cal has not won an outright conference title -- or played in a Rose Bowl -- since 1958.

7. OCT. 16 - MISSOURI AT TEXAS (TBA): Ever since Michael Vick led Virginia Tech to the national championship game in his redshirt freshman season, America has become obsessed with "the new-age quarterback." This game showcases two of the best multifaceted quarterbacks in college football. The Tigers' Brad Smith is a legitimate Heisman contender, while the Longhorns' Vince Young looks to gain a better grasp of the offense and enjoy a breakout year. With a solid performance against a Missouri defense that returns nine starters, including all four defensive linemen, Young could ascend to star status in front of the home crowd in Austin.

8. NOV. 10 - TCU AT LOUISVILLE (7 p.m., ESPN2): If the Horned Frogs can win at Texas Tech on Sept. 18, they should be undefeated going into this game, meaning the mid-major pipe dream -- a BCS bid -- would be alive and well. TCU holds a perfect 3-0 record against Louisville, although the teams haven't played since 2001. But this will be the best Cardinals team the Horned Frogs have encountered. Bobby Petrino's squad returns 17 starters and is paced by its senior quarterback, Stefan LeFors. The game's most intriguing matchup will be Louisville wide receiver J.R. Russell vs. TCU defensive back Mark Walker; both seniors, these two are the premier players at their respective positions in Conference USA.

  Steve Breaston
Steve Breaston ranked ninth in the nation in punt returns in '03.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

9. NOV. 20 - MICHIGAN AT OHIO STATE (1 p.m., ABC): Michigan's new quarterback -- most likely sophomore Matt Gutierrez -- should be relatively seasoned by this point of the season, but the pure, unadulterated hatred directed at the Wolverines by the 100,000-plus fans in "The Shoe" is not something a green signal-caller can prepare for. For the first time in four years, the Buckeyes face their bitter rival without Craig Krenzel. Whomever the Buckeyes have behind center -- either Troy Smith or Justin Zwick -- will have to play smart against the fastest and most athletic defense ever at Michigan. This game likely could serve as the de facto Big Ten Championship Game for the second year in a row.

10. NOV. 25 - WEST VIRGINIA AT PITTSBURGH (7:30 p.m., ESPN): Many believe that since Miami and Virginia Tech (and next year, Boston College) left the Big East, the weakened conference's winner doesn't deserve an automatic BCS bid. Regardless, the bid still exists, and it's a safe bet that the Backyard Brawl will decide which team receives it. The Mountaineers have the league's most talented team and its most explosive trio in quarterback Rasheed Marshall, running back Kay-Jay Harris and wideout Chris Henry. If the Panthers wish to successfully defend their home turf, they'll have to keep this a low-scoring affair. Pittsburgh's offense is depleted, returning just three starters.

And two more games with important storylines:

CROOM'S RETURN - NOV. 6 - MISSISSIPPI STATE AT ALABAMA (TBA): Before the 2003 season, Alabama hired Mike Shula over Sylvester Croom, who ended up in Starkville a year later. Although he would never admit it, beating the alma mater would be very special to Croom, who was passed up for the Tide job despite being the more experienced candidate. The game also means a lot for Shula, who's already on the hot seat due after a 4-9 debut in '03.

BCS BUSTER - NOV. 20 - BYU AT UTAH (TBA): There's a good chance that BCS folks will be watching this game with heightened blood pressure because, if Utah plays to its potential, its record could be unblemished heading into this season finale. Quarterback Alex Smith flourished last season under first-year coach Urban Meyer and his spread offense, and Smith could exploit BYU's inexperienced back eight. The Cougars were uncharacteristically dormant on offense last season -- averaging just 16.2 points per game -- and they'll get creamed in this game if the offense remains anemic. But BYU's never been one to shy away from a shootout.

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