By Chris Licata There may be a series of exciting pennant races going on in the world of baseball, but NCAA football continues to...

By Chris Licata

There may be a series of exciting pennant races going on in the world of baseball, but NCAA football continues to grab the headlines. Granted it has been more because of the negative actions of a handful of players, but either way it has generated an interest in the sport in early August. With that in mind it’s never to early to take a look at the big games of the 2006 season, and with the preseason Top 25 Coaches Poll recently released, the picture becomes even clearer.

Casting aside all the regular season intra-conference match ups, there are five games that every true die-hard college football fan should mark on their calendars right away. These five games could very well shape the outcome of this January’s National Title game in Arizona.

Week Two, Sept. 9 – No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes at No. 2 Texas Longhorns

Talk about starting the 2006 season with a bang. The last time the No. 1 and 2 schools locked up in the regular season was in 1996 when No. 2 Florida State defeated No. 1 Florida, making this one special right from the start. Throw in the fact that last year the Longhorns pulled off a dramatic victory against the Buckeyes in Columbus, and you got the makings of one heck of a showdown.

The Buckeyes were given the No. 1 ranking thanks largely in part to the return of gunslinger Troy Smith and explosive wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. Though their may be some questions about their defense, no team will enter the 2006 season with higher expectations.

For the Longhorns Vince Young is gone and with him goes much of the intimidation factor of their offense. Head coach Mack Brown has finally proven he can win the big game and though he may have a less talented squad this year, the defending national champs will have the benefit of playing in front of a rowdy Austin crowd.

Week Two, Sept. 9 – No. 3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish Vs. No. 19 Penn State Nittany Lions

To call Charlie Weis’ first season last year at Notre Dame a success is clearly an understatement. A successful season would have been an above-.500 record and a birth in the Gator Bowl. Instead, coach Weis and quarterback Brady Quinn were able to lead the Fighting Irish back to glory and into the Fiesta Bowl. Though they would eventually fall to Ohio State the foundation has been laid for success this season as the No. 3 ranked Fighting Irish gear up to make a run at their first national championship since 1993.

Last year Joe Paterno proved that at 80, he’s far from over the hill. The Penn State coach led the Nittany Lions from the basement of the Big Ten to an impressive victory over Florida State in the Orange Bowl. However, 2006 is a new year and with it will come more challenges. Will new quarterback Anthony Morelli finally be able to learn the system that kept him out of the starting role for the last two years? Can Penn State remain a Big Ten contender with the likes of Ohio State and Wisconsin?

This game may not have the high ranking prowess of other match ups, but it will definitely be worth watching as a gut-check for Penn State and Notre Dame regarding their ability to build off of last seasons success.

Week Three, Sept. 16 – No. 5 Oklahoma Sooners at No. 20 Oregon Ducks

How good is Oklahoma without standout quarterback Rhett Bomar? We’ll it won’t take long to find out as the Sooners head out to Eugene, Ore. to battle the Ducks. Running back Adrian Peterson is unquestionably one of the most talented players in the nation at his position, but without the threat of a passing attack he will become increasingly vulnerable to opposing defenses.

The loss of last years quarterback and team leader Kelly Clemens stings, but is not the end of the world for the Ducks. Dustin Dixon appeared in 11 games last season and started three in place of Clemens, completing 66 percent of his passes for 777 yards and six touchdowns. However, the Ducks are untested at the running back and wide receiver positions and are only returning five starters from last years defense – which was ranked third in the Pac 10.

Once again, this game will be a real test for both teams early on as to where they stand in the big picture.

Week Three, Sept. 16 – No. 11 Miami Hurricanes at No. 13 Louisville Cardinals

Two years ago when they were still in Conference USA the Louisville Cardinals walked into the Orange Bowl in Miami and for the better part of three quarters simply manhandled the Hurricanes. Though the ‘Canes eventually pulled out the win, the stage was set for this years rematch at Papa John’s Stadium in Louisville. Now the old beast of the Big East will meet the conferences new powerhouse in a match up with major BCS implications.

A Louisville win puts them in a position wear even a loss to West Virginia later in the season could set them up for an at-large BCS bid. For the Hurricanes, this September contest is just as important as they will still be only two weeks removed from their opening day showdown with rival Florida State. Larry Coker and Miami know they cannot lose two of their first three games and still have a shot at the national title, so don’t expect them to sleepwalk into this game like they did two years ago.

The Cardinals feature two potential Heisman trophy winners in strong-armed quarterback Brian Brohm and massive running back Michael Bush. If Louisville can get their inexperienced receiving corps to step up, this could be the best offense in the nation. On the defensive side of the ball, the Cardinals may have lost veteran defensive end Elvis Dumervil, but many are speculating that freshman sensation Deantwan Whitehead may be ready to move right in.

There are nothing but question marks surrounding Miami quarterback Kyle Wright. Though he helped lead Miami to an impressive 9-2 regular season campaign, the taste of LSU’s 40-3 whipping at the Peach Bowl must still linger. Tailback Tyrone Moss and tight end Greg Olsen will be back to give him a hand, but another season of high-powered Hurricane offense is less than a sure thing.

Week 13, Nov. 25 – No. 3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish Vs. No. 3 USC Trojans

The Irish were one Reggie Bush push away from possibly playing for the national title last season when they lost to the Trojans in South Bend last year. However, this year Bush and Leinart are gone, and the No. 3 preseason ranking that the Trojans are enjoying with the Irish this year is being widely regarded as nothing more than generous at best.

New USC quarterback John David Booty got some good news recently with the announcement that all-American wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett will be eligible for this season. With Jarrett back Booty has a larger margin for error and will not be expected to be perfect right away. Though it’s not as if the Trojans will be endanger of missing a bowl game, a BCS bid may not be in their future if they don’t win this game.

As previously mentioned, the Irish have the tools to build on last year’s success and make a run at the 2007 National Title. This game though is important because it could be the last hurdle on the Irish’s long road to a national championship. No matter how depleted the Trojans are, it won’t be easy for Notre Dame to walk into Los Angeles and come out with a victory.