FORT WORTH, Texas — Late December and early January. That’s when top-five teams should get together for a nonconference game, right?

Not anymore.

With neutral-site marquee games such as Saturday’s Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas, featuring Oregon and LSU, fans no longer have to wait for the bowl season to watch traditional powers from different conferences battle.

“You’re talking about No. 3 Oregon vs. No 4. LSU, on the first weekend of the regular season,” Cotton Bowl president Rick Baker said. “It’s a Pac-12-SEC matchup like last year’s championship game, and that’s part of the draw. This is the biggest game of the weekend, and perhaps one of the biggest matchups of the whole season. This is huge right out of the gate, something you don’t always see so early.”

The Cotton Bowl, which now has its offices in Cowboys Stadium, manages all of the college games in the venue, including the Cowboys Classic, the Southwest Classic and TCU games.

“We have been very fortunate to be able to work with the Cowboys and have access to this facility like we do,” Baker said. “The ultimate goal is to have as many college games here each season as there are Cowboys games. There have been so many great college football teams that we’ve had come through here to play in the regular season, and we hope to see it grow.”

While some top programs have played traditionally — the Texas-Oklahoma rivalry game was once a nonconference game — only recently have elite programs agreed to suit up against each other early in the season.

“You’re seeing a lot more investment from the TV networks like ESPN and Fox,” Baker said. “They want good games to show on television. This is certainly a game that the network helped the Cowboys put together, and so is the Georgia-Boise State game in Atlanta. A lot of it is a desire to have these kinds of big games every weekend. Sometimes, until you get to the conference season, you need a little help setting up these types of matchups.”

Baker said when the NCAA added a 12th game to the college football schedule, it opened the door for teams to begin scheduling neutral-site games. And while ranked schools still have a few cupcake games on their schedules, the top teams are more willing to play strong teams from other conferences. The result with this year’s Cowboys Classic is must-see TV.

There are other big games. Alabama faces Penn State for the second year in a row. USC and Ohio State played in 2008-09. Texas A&M will play Arkansas at Cowboys Stadium on Oct. 1. It’s the third consecutive meeting between the teams, but this year, each starts the season in the top 15.

“I think, with the BCS system, teams are understanding how playing strong nonconference opponents can really help them in the long run,” Baker said. “It can impact how they’re perceived all season long, not only by the fans, but by the media as well. When you’re in the college football business, these games are great.”

In addition to the Tigers and Ducks, Saturday night has another big-time matchup. No. 5 Boise State will play No. 19 Georgia in Atlanta.

“I think these games are good for the game,” Baker said. “It gets people’s attention from the first weekend on through. All of us in the bowl business like to advertise that college football has the best regular season in sport. All of it has to do with each game’s importance.”

The Cowboys Classic started in 2009 with No. 3 Oklahoma losing to No. 20 BYU. Last year, fans watched No. 7 TCU defeat No. 24 Oregon State.

This year’s game is sold out, with close to 90,000 fans expected, including standing-room-only tickets.

“It’s one of the biggest games this team has been in so far,” LSU junior receiver Rueben Randle said. “I think all players like having a challenge, so we like the big matchups. I think starting off against a great team like Oregon is the best way to start a season and show what you are about. It’s good for college football.”

At Oregon, quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James said they can hardly wait to step out on the Cowboys Stadium field to take on a highly ranked team.

“We wouldn’t want to have it any other way,” said James, a Heisman candidate. “If we’re supposed to be one of the best teams, then we don’t want to open up with somebody just to get a ‘W’. That’s not the way it should be. I don’t want us to do that; I want us to go out and play the best team available.”

Thomas has been looking forward to the Cowboys Classic since he learned of the matchup more than a year ago.

“A game like this lets you know where you are from the jump,” he said. “It’s a big test for us, and we are all excited to kick off. We don’t like playing a team that we could beat up on really easy. We want to compete.”

Next year, the Cowboys Classic will feature two more elite programs: Michigan, which has more wins than any other school, and Alabama, which has the most recognized national championships with 13. Two years from now, Cowboys Stadium will host a game between Notre Dame and Arizona State.

“Our goal is to have this game become a tradition with two of the nation’s top teams playing. (Jerry Jones’) vision has always been to have big-time college games here,” Baker said. “The neutral-site games are getting bigger, and more and more schools will start to play in them, especially in special venues like Cowboys Stadium.”


MAKING the marquee

Elite college football teams are moving to tougher nonconference schedules. Here is a look at the top matchups this season (with last year’s records):

Sat., LSU (11-2) vs. Oregon (12-1) It’s an opening-week battle between top-five teams, each with national championship aspirations.

Sat., Boise State (12-1) vs. Georgia (6-7) Boise State again tries to prove it belongs in the national spotlight. It opened last year by beating Virginia Tech.

Sept. 8, Oklahoma State (11-2) vs. Arizona (7-6) The Cowboys host a Pac-12 team in the Thursday night prime-time slot.

Sept. 10, Alabama (10-3) at Penn State (7-6) No. 2 Crimson Tide gets tested in tough road environment.

Sept. 17, Florida State (10-4) vs. Oklahoma (12-2) Top-ranked and favored to win it all, Oklahoma has a tough test on the road at the ACC’s best, No. 6 Florida State.

Sept. 17, Miami (7-6) vs. Ohio State (12-1) A rematch of the 2002 national title game is now a battle of teams mired in NCAA violations. The result is must-see TV.

Sept. 24, West Virginia (9-4) vs. LSU (11-2) The Tigers play what is likely to be their second ranked nonconference opponent on the road.

Oct. 1, Texas A&M (9-4) vs. Arkansas (10-3) The third Southwest Classic has two ranked teams plus an Aggies-SEC tussle amid conference alignment rumors.


(c)2011 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Visit the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at

Distributed by MCT Information Services

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on MCT Direct (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):