Are Ya Tough Enough? (Part 1)

One of the great things about college football is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Every season is volatile with respect to the amount of personnel change on the field. But no number of blue-chip recruits or early departures can shift fan enthusiasm or the mystique of a legendary stadium.

Whether it's talent, history, or both, some programs schedule multiple contests against their favor each year. Some can't help it because of conference alliances. We'll deal with them later. For the other contests that are a little more controlled, here are 10 teams that hit the ground running ... into a brick wall.

10) Middle Tennessee State

The Blue Raiders might be from a small-time conference, but they prevented a big-time moment last year when upsetting Vanderbilt at home. That loss most likely kept the Commodores out of their first bowl game in over two decades. If MTSU wants to achieve a similar stunner, they will probably have to do it away from Murfreesboro.

After an opening week Sun Belt tussle, the Blue Raiders will head to College Park and face a retooling Maryland squad. From there, other non-conference tilts will be sprinkled throughout the season. Those include trips to Oklahoma and South Carolina, along with a chance to defend their home turf against Louisville.

9) Southern Miss

Over the last decade, the Golden Eagles have been one of the better-known names in the mid-major ranks. They've also visited some of the most intimidating venues in the sport. This year, I introduce Hattiesburg supporters to a couple of the most hospitable environments around this great nation, Gainsville and Blacksburg. Adding in a home date against NC State, three 2005 bowl winners grace the non-conference schedule.

8) Oregon

The only big-name school of this bunch. You could include USC and Colorado in the discussion of stout early season slates, but the Trojans have Nebraska and Notre Dame at home, while the Buffs have one road game and one pretty-close-to-home roadie.

The Ducks will actually reward Fresno State for the Bulldogs' "go anywhere" strategy, giving Central Cali fans a Pac-10 foe to root against. The other toughie is a rematch of the Holiday Bowl, as Oklahoma comes west to Eugene. There is already a letdown effect with the absence of former Sooner QB Rhett Bomar, but this meeting should still be a dandy.

7) Marshall

The Thundering Herd get this spot more on reputation than anything. Usually Kansas State and Tennessee are two of the most intimidating places to play. However, the two programs struggled in 2005, with both ending up at 5-6. A new coach in Manhattan could keep the Wildcats down in their state of transition. Neyland Stadium, though, should be rocking again this year.

The other non-conference game for Marshall won't go under the radar. And trust me, it would mean the world to the Herd if they could beat title-contending and in-state rival West Virginia in game one of the season.

6) Fresno State

Pat Hill has always stated that his team will play anybody, anywhere, anytime. Now, as I said earlier, he gets a little bit of reward by hosting Oregon in week two of the season. But don't think that will stop the old ballcoach from sticking to his principles. In mid-October, the Bulldogs will show up in the Bayou to battle a stocked LSU team.

The other two contests on the non-conference slate feature known names in down situations. Washington is still rebuilding under Tyrone Willingham, and Colorado State isn't the same hot ticket it was back in the '90s. It isn't Fresno's fault that these two perennial powers have fallen on hard times. Still, name-wise, this grouping is a pretty one.

5) Florida International

The Golden Panthers are only in their second year of Division I-A play (and fifth overall as a program), and as with any newcomer, they need to take their lumps. This group of games seems to do the trick. A three-game stretch toward the beginning of the year is a little tamer as visits to South Florida and Maryland, along with a home tilt against Bowling Green, give FIU some needed competition.

Getting trounced will come later in the season, but then again, that usually happens to most teams when they head to cross-town Miami and Tuscaloosa back-to-back. The good news ... they do get a week of rest between whuppins.

4) East Carolina

On this list, most teams get rewarded for showing up against one or two big-time names. However, something must be said for a school that must face a group of solid squads. That's what the Pirates have in front of them entering late 2006. All four of their opponents not only went to bowl games last winter, but won them.

ECU's non-conference (and full) season starts off at Navy (Poinsettia), continues with consecutive home games against West Virginia (Sugar) and Virginia (Music City), and concludes down the road at NC State (Meineke). Again, this pick is more vegetables (substance) than candy (flash).

3) Troy

It seems like head coach Larry Blakeney should carry around a cardboard sign saying "Have talent, will travel" or "Will roadtrip for games." In 2003, the Trojans played eight out of 12 contests on the road (of course, being a I-A independent helps). This year, the schedule was kind enough to keep a road-home ratio of 7-to-5. Unfortunately, after a home date with Alabama State, Troy will hit the road for four in a row.

Oh, and by the way, those four games will be at Florida State, Georgia Tech, Nebraska, and UAB. The destinations will provide for plenty of sightseeing, but not too much in the way of success on the field.

2) Rice

When you browse at the schedule, there may be some questions with Army standing out from everybody else. Throw the Cadets out. The Owls' non-conference slate is stacked with big names and talent on the other side of the ball. Start of the three-contest run with a trip out to SoCal to tussle with UCLA. The last game of the stretch features a tour of Tallahassee, where Florida State awaits.

Oh yeah, did I forget to mention a home date with defending national champ Texas is sandwiched in-between. Must have slipped my mind.

1) Buffalo

This was pretty much a coin flip between spots one and two. Anytime three tough games include a strong defending champ, it's hard to top. Luckily for the Bulls, they have the slate to do it. Just like Rice, Buffalo features a throw-out game in the form of winless-for-'05 Temple.

Dotted throughout the rest of '06 are a few trips to some fantastic college environments. September leaves the Bulls on the Plains of Auburn, followed by an October vacation to Boston College's Chestnut Hill, and then an outdoor escapade at Wisconsin's Camp Randall in the heart of November. One thing you can say for these MAC reps ... they sure can plan a getaway.

The preceding teams get to suffer in the short-term, but who has the toughest overall road? I'll answer that in part two. No, really. I'll look into my crystal ball and everything.

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