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September showdowns may go a long way toward deciding conference championships

While there aren't that many compelling early-season non-conference matchups this season, they do have a certain cachet to them. There's nothing like seeing an SEC team with national title aspirations playing a Big Ten team with national title aspirations in September – like Alabama taking on Michigan on Sept. 1 in Arlington, Texas.

Usually, though, teams have to win their conference title before they can worry about winning the national title, and there are some conference games in September that will have a huge bearing on various league races.

Here's a look at the 10 best.

10. Florida at Tennessee, Sept. 15

Buzz: This used to be one of the most eagerly awaited rivalry games. Every season from 1990-2007, both were ranked in the top 25 at kickoff, and both were top-10 teams 10 times from 1990-2002. The rivalry has lost a lot of luster of late, though, and the loser of this one would be in real danger of finishing in the bottom half of the SEC East this season. The winner, on the other hand, likely would be in the hunt for the division crown for at least a few more weeks. This is a matchup of strength vs. strength (Tennessee's offense vs. Florida's defense) and big question vs. big question (Florida's offense vs. Tennessee's defense).

9. Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech, Sept. 3

Buzz: This one is Labor Day night (ESPN, 8 p.m. Eastern kickoff). Virginia Tech will go into the season as

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Frank Beamer's defense will get a tough test in the opener. (AP)

the ACC Coastal Division favorite, but Georgia Tech can usurp the Hokies as the team to beat in the division if it can win in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech has won four of the past five in the series. An advantage for the Hokies is that a veteran defense will have all the offseason time it needs to prepare for the Yellow Jackets' triple option; preparing for Georgia Tech during a normal week is hectic, though the Hokies held the Jackets to their second-lowest rushing total of the season last fall (243 yards). But a disadvantage for the Hokies is that a rebuilt offense (just three returning starters) gets no time to work out the kinks. Georgia Tech looks especially strong in its back seven on defense.

8. Georgia at Missouri, Sept. 15

Buzz: This will be Missouri's first SEC game and it comes against a team that seems likely to be in most preseason top 10s. (Geography be damned, it's an SEC East game, to boot, and one of two trips this season Georgia will make to a town named Columbia as the Bulldogs also play at South Carolina). By the time this one kicks off, it's fair to assume that Mizzou players and coaches (and fans, too) will be tired of reading about whether the Tigers will be able to handle the week-to-week grind that is the SEC. Missouri's high-powered offense should test Georgia's defense, which could be one of the nation's 10 best. How will Georgia's offense fare against a questionable Tigers defense?

7. LSU at Auburn, Sept. 22

Buzz: This will be LSU's SEC opener; Auburn plays Mississippi State on Sept. 8 in its league opener. This also will be LSU's first road game of the season, and three of LSU's first four league contests come on the road (Florida and Texas A&M are the others, with a visit from South Carolina also looming in the first half of the conference schedule). LSU has won four of the past five in the series; Auburn's lone win in that span came in 2010, when it won the national title. LSU will head into the season in the top three of every poll, but Les Miles' team won't be winning any titles if they fall on the Plains. In addition to having an opportunity to pull an upset, Auburn also should look at this game as an opportunity to regain some national prominence. Yes, Gene Chizik's team won the 2010 national title. But Auburn also has lost at least four games four times in the past five seasons, including three seasons with at least five losses.

6. Ohio State at Michigan State, Sept. 29

Buzz: This will be the first Big Ten game for new Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer, and it comes against what might be the league's best team. This also will be the first road game for Ohio State, which plays just four times away from home this season. Defenses ruled the day when these teams met last season, with Michigan State winning 10-7. Both defenses again should be strong – and both offenses have concerns. Michigan State hasn't beaten the Buckeyes in back-to-back seasons since Nick Saban's final two seasons (1998-99) in East Lansing .

[Related: Bill O'Brien has no regrets about taking Penn State coaching job]

5. Clemson at Florida State, Sept. 22

Buzz: These look to be the two best teams in the ACC. They also happen to be in the same division, so this matchup could determine who wins the league's Atlantic Division. Clemson has won four of the past six and six of the past nine in the series. But FSU has won three of the past four vs. Clemson in Tallahassee. Clemson should have the best offense in the league; FSU will have the best defense. So, who wins the battle between FSU's offense and Clemson's defense? That could determine the game – and the division title.

4. Wisconsin at Nebraska, Sept. 29

Buzz: The Badgers manhandled the Huskers last season, winning 48-17. Can Nebraska get some payback in this one (it'll be on ABC, with an 8 p.m. ET kickoff)? This is the conference opener for both. It's also Nebraska's homecoming, which means there will be even more red than usual. (Wisconsin's colors also are red and white, so what do Badgers fans wear to differentiate themselves?) Wisconsin will be the preseason favorite in the Big Ten's Leaders Division; Nebraska looks to be the third-best team in the Legends Division, behind Michigan and Michigan State. A Huskers win would show the Legends is far better than the Leaders this season.

3. USC at Stanford, Sept. 15

Buzz: This is the Pac-12 opener for both, and it already has been picked as a national telecast for Fox

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Matt Barkley can make an early Heisman statement against Stanford. (AP)

(7:30 p.m. ET kickoff). USC is going to head into the season atop many polls, thanks to the return of QB Matt Barkley, the preseason Heisman frontrunner. USC will have an extremely productive offense, but there are some concerns about the defense, especially the line. Stanford has two gimmes to open the season (San Jose State and Duke), so this will be the Cardinal's first true test without QB Andrew Luck. This is a chance for the Cardinal to prove it still can be a major player in the conference race.

2. Texas at Oklahoma State, Sept. 29

Buzz: The Big 12 opener for both teams. It will be hard to take the loser seriously as a league title contender. Texas leads the series 22-4, but Oklahoma State has won the past two after losing 12 in a row to the Longhorns – and both the wins came in Austin. This starts a murderous three-game stretch for Texas, which plays West Virginia and Oklahoma after it meets the Cowboys. There are zero questions about the Longhorns' defense, but there are ample questions about the offense. Oklahoma State lost QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon, both of whom were first-round picks. Still, Oklahoma State still should have a prolific offense. But the Cowboys' defense needs a ton of improvement. That sets up nicely, then: Oklahoma State's high-powered offense vs. Texas' stout defense and Texas' questionable offense vs. Oklahoma State's sieve-like defense.

1. Alabama at Arkansas, Sept. 15

Buzz: This is the SEC opener for both. It also will be the first real game for Arkansas, which opens with FCS member Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Monroe. That means it will be the first true test for the Hogs without Bobby Petrino calling plays. Alabama has won five in a row in the series. An Arkansas win means the Hogs would become SEC West title contenders – which means they also would become national title contenders. This is the second big game in September for the Tide, which opens with Michigan in Arlington, Texas. Wins over the Wolverines and Hogs almost certainly would mean Alabama would be 8-0 when it travels to play LSU on Nov. 3.

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