Tough Pills to Swallow (Part I)

The dog days of August usually mean a couple of things: buzz and heat. Buzz does not refer to that swarm of bees and hornets that have made a home in your flowerbed since June. And heat isn't concerning those sweltering temperatures that made spectating unbearable at the PGA Championship and in several pro baseball cities.

I mean the heat of anticipation for Saturdays over the next three months. I'm talking about the buzz of whether Florida, LSU, West Virginia, and Texas have enough talent to override USC. All part of the annual simmering and sizzling buildup which flows into yet another season of college football.

Thanks to no actual exhibitions on the field, hype, opinion, and unwavering hope take the spotlight. Our discussions are the preseason. From top teams to bowl scenarios, it's all of our hot air that gives the game such a presence. That said, I present my roundtable topic ... my annual installment of the toughest schedules for the upcoming season.

Part one, as always, features mostly the smaller brothers of the Division I-A family. They may be better off in the long run for stepping up against big bro, but they'll take their share of lumps on the way.


This is the annual "big fish in a small pond" pick. There were many worthy candidates to fill the role. Florida State will go to Colorado and Florida, while playing a neutral site game against Alabama. Kansas State starts the season at Auburn and ends it out west against Fresno State. Even crosstown rival USC has two impressive road tilts with Nebraska and Notre Dame.

But the Bruins edge all the rest out with their combination of home games against the reigning Mountain West Conference champs (BYU) and "America's Team" (the Irish). Add in a roadie at one of the more steady and prolific programs since 2000 (Utah), and Karl Dorrell better keep his team on their toes. Watch out for Utah contest. That has trap game written all over it.

6) Fresno State

Despite last year's speedbump season, the Bulldogs still hold by coach Pat Hill's mantra that they'll play any team anywhere. That doesn't change for 2007, as the other successful program from the WAC gets a chance to show its stuff at two fairly well-known venues.

The first week of this two-game stretch will take FSU to the southland, where the College Station's 12th Man will be waiting with open arms and shock collars as they hope their Aggies provide a beatdown. The next week requires less travel, but just as much fortitude, with the Bulldogs making a stop at cozy Autzen Stadium in Eugene. Oregon was another team that had a disappointing 2006, but a lot of returning talent in a stadium where the fans literally hover over you makes this trip a daunting one.

The good news for Fresno? They actually get another bigger fish to play in Central Cali. After inviting Oregon in last year, Kansas State will come calling in November. The Wildcats might still be rebuilding, but they should be back on the rise (remember, they did beat Texas late last year).

5) Louisiana-Monroe

The first of four Sun Belt teams on this list (that conference really knows how to pick 'em, don't they?), the Warhawks' tough slate is more known for history than the present. They will branch out to teams with storied pasts who have fallen a little off the beaten path lately, but should be on the way back to possible future glory.

It starts with a trip to that eastern "Death Valley" (which, at this rate, might feel worse than its western namesake by the time ULM arrives) for a week two game against Clemson. After that comes a contest against Texas A&M at Kyle Field. And, later in the season (Nov. 17th), Monroe gets to walk into that buzzsaw of hype that is the new Nick Saban regime at Alabama.

And what better way to help these three programs get back on the right track than to take one for the team ... or should I say their teams. Oh, and the Warhawks could also help the resurgence of Tulsa football when they host the Golden Hurricanes to open up the season on Aug. 30th.

4) Arkansas State

If there are two places where you don't want to be a visitor for Southern football, the Indians definitely have them on the '07 schedule. It all starts the first weekend of the season when they take on Texas in Austin. If 90-plus thousand rabid fans isn't enough to get the blood pumping, then how about a six-figure count? That's what awaits ASU when they go to Knoxville for a week four date with Tennessee.

However, the other highlight on the Indians' out-of-conference slate could be looked at as a sleeping giant. If you talk about the more successful programs over the past 10-or-so years, I wouldn't fault you if your answer included Southern Miss. With a 78-45 record, six bowl wins the last decade, and only two non-conference losses at home since 2000 (Nebraska and Cal), this is not a team you'd really want to face, especially if they're in the race for a bigger bowl berth.

3) Utah

One of the nation's surging programs (mid-ranks or overall, for that matter) has the luxury of getting big names on their schedule while competitive enough to take them down. The Utes aren't hiding out-of-conference this year, which I definitely applaud.

Two out of their first three games will feature big boys from the Pac-10. The first game is at Oregon State, a program that could be back on the rise after their fantastic run to end last season. The other is that home date against UCLA, a team that is picked by many as second-best on the left coast.

The juiciest matchup of their non-conference schedule could hit smack dab in mid-season, when the Utes head east to tangle with Louisville. I see this program vs. program tale of the tape as similar to the Liberty Bowl a few years back, when the Cardinals took on another mid-major power in Boise State. With an upset win early, Utah could definitely be 4-1 going to Papa John Stadium.

2) Florida International

It's not enough to be considered the worst team in Division I-A. FIU is looking to keep that status on lockdown with their group of non-conference games. Contests in Happy Valley (Penn State), Miami (no, not Ohio), and Fayetteville (get ready for a whole bunch of Darren McFadden) won't help end the nation's (current) second-longest losing streak.

Heck, with a team that's trying to rebuild talent and its image, even two games against more middling programs (at Kansas and home to Maryland) aren't the best recipe for success. At least the Panthers can be tops in this regard. Well, almost tops.

1) Troy

Like I eluded to last year, Larry Blakeney might be the new version of Fresno's coach Pat Hill. Due to their small stature, they have to play anyone (and everyone) anywhere (usually at their place). Since joining Division I-A in 2001, the Trojans have played in the following locations:

Lincoln, NE (three times)
Miami and Tallahassee, FL
Baton Rouge, LA
Manhattan, KS
Atlanta, GA
Fayetteville, AR
Columbia, MO
Columbia, SC
College Park, MD
Charlottesville, VA

Not a bad list of opponents for a team to be a "puff pastry" against. This year, the list expands a little more. A return trip to Arkansas gets the season underway on September 1st. The fun one comes a week later. A date in the Swamp with the defending national champion Florida Gators.

The second new stop could provide some intrigue, as the Trojans head to Athens to take on Georgia on Nov. 3rd. With the Bulldogs already slated to play conference foes Alabama and Auburn, they could lay claim to owning their neighbors to the west with a sweep. Of course, it could be the other way around if Troy could pull the upset. A home date against Oklahoma State rounds out a well-balanced plate of tough meat for the Trojans to chew through in 2007.

One thing's for sure. These smaller schools will at least add to their own historical legends by playing the "giants" of their game. But as far as cementing popular legend with an upset or two, that's for another day. Say, starting in about two weeks?

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