College football's pre-conference schedule is filled with duds (Wisconsin-Northern Iowa, anyone?), but there are always a few games that are not to be missed. Some of this year's best feature the Big Ten's entrants in the preseason Top 25.
This trio of early-season contests is the best of the lot for Big Ten competition:
1. Sep. 1: Michigan vs. Alabama (at Arlington, TX)
The Cowboys Stadium Classic hasn't exactly built up a tradition to match either of this year's participants, but the eighth-ranked Wolverines and second-ranked Crimson Tide will certainly make for a good show. Michigan star Denard Robinson, one of the nation's most exciting players three years running, will make even Alabama's mighty defense sit up and take notice.
For all Robinson's highlight-reel talent, though, the Wolverine quarterback will be hard-pressed to make enough plays to beat the reigning national champs. The Tide lost too much talent to match last year's historic defensive performance, but returnees such as Damion Square and C.J. Mosley (plus a dangerous offense featuring tailback Eddie Lacy) will start 'Bama's season off on the right foot.
2. Aug. 31: Boise State at Michigan State
Decorated signal-callers Kirk Cousins and Kellen Moore may be gone, but replacements Andrew Maxwell and (probably) Joe Southwick will have their share of weapons in their new jobs. Both offenses are likely to lean on veteran runners, with Le'Veon Bell (Spartans) and D.J. Harper (Broncos) set to rack up carries.
Of course, how many points that offensive talent will produce is another question entirely, as both the No. 13 Spartans and the No. 24 Broncos have plenty of defensive firepower as well. Look for the veteran Michigan State linebacking corps—featuring Denicos Allen and William Gholston—to make the difference in a low-scoring Spartan win.
3. Sep. 8: Nebraska at UCLA
If this meeting were taking place in Lincoln, a UCLA squad that finished 6-8 last season wouldn't have a shadow of a prayer against the No. 17 Cornhuskers. However, with the Bruins holding the home-field advantage, this showdown of scintillating ground games should be a genuine battle.
Bruin senior Johnathan Franklin, off a 976-yard season in 2011, will need a monster game to keep up with Nebraska tailback Rex Burkhead (1,268 yards and 15 touchdowns). Of course, the real story on the ground here will be the quarterbacks, as UCLA's senior tandem of Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut tries to match the eye-popping exploits of Husker star Taylor Martinez—and comes up just short in a shootout win for Nebraska.