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A dozen non-conference games to look forward to in 2022

As we embark on the long, dark tunnel of the college football offseason, let these games serve as your light.

The 2021 college football season has been laid to rest, and now we play the waiting game. Winter is upon us and, though it will eventually give way to spring and summer, here in the college football world we live in a time of 8-month winters. 

As we embark upon the 8-month journey from the end of one season to the beginning of another -- don't worry, it'll only feel like 12 -- let these 12 games be the light at the other end of this long, dark tunnel. 

(Rankings based on Stewart Mandel's preseason top 25.)

12. No. 22 Houston at UTSA (Sept. 3)

Ten FBS teams won at least 12 games in 2021. The only non-conference meeting between two of them will occur at the Alamodome. 

11. Penn State at Auburn (Sept. 17)

Last year's date in Happy Valley had the look and feel of a massive, inter-sectional non-conference game -- GameDay! ABC prime time! -- and it ended up being... a game of 6-7 and 7-6 teams. Still, the return visit marks Penn State's first trip to an SEC stadium since 2010 and Auburn's first home game ever against a Big Ten school. 

10. West Virginia at No. 11 Pitt (Sept. 3)

What's better than the long-awaited revival of a bitter rivalry? One side not really wanting to play the game.

In the first Backyard Brawl since 2011, Pitt will look to build off its first ACC championship, while WVU looks for the biggest win yet of the 4-year Neal Brown era. 

9. No. 20 Cincinnati at No. 17 Arkansas (Sept. 3)

Two teams that met all their goals in 2021, now looking to the next stage of program building. Cincinnati brings a 22-game regular-season winning streak to Fayetteville. 

8. No. 12 Baylor at BYU (Sept. 10)

The 2022 Big 12 title race looks to be the most wide-open ever, and the defending champions should start in pole position. The visitors in Provo are coming off the first AP top-5 finish in school history, and the hosts have won more games over the past two years (21) than anyone west of Lafayette, La. 

7. No. 25 Oklahoma at Nebraska (Sept. 17)

AD Trev Alberts deemed Scott Frost's 2021 season to be horseshoes and hand grenades, where close enough counted. At some point he'll have to beat someone, anyone with a pulse, and what an opportunity to reward his administration and his fan base's faith with a victory over the Big Red's biggest historic rival, in Lincoln. (NU is 7-1 against OU in Lincoln, dating back to 1989.)

After a couple of soft-openings against UTEP and Kent State, this will be Brent Venables' full, national debut as Oklahoma's head coach. 

6. Miami at No. 6 Texas A&M (Sept. 17)

A&M lost half the starting lineup -- including the entire D-line -- from a team that finished 2021 unranked, and so naturally they'll begin 2022 in or around the top-5. It's yet another example of the hype outrunning the production in the Jimbo Fisher era.

Mario Cristobal's national debut -- the 'Canes open with Bethune-Cookman and Southern Miss -- is a showcase opportunity for the most heralded recruiting class ever. 

5. Florida State vs. LSU, at New Orleans (Sept. 4)

The loss to UCLA in their sissy blue shirts was the beginning of the end for Ed Orgeron. A rebuilding Florida State represents the beginning of the beginning for Brian Kelly. 

Kelly went 3-2 against the 'Noles at Notre Dame, winning his final three, but this will be the first meeting between LSU and FSU since 1991. It's a massive, massive opportunity for Mike Norvell, who enters this game with eight wins in two seasons at Florida State, and two against Power 5 teams that finished with winning records. 

4. No. 4 Utah at Florida (Sept. 3)

Woah! Who outside Salt Lake City and Gainesville knew this was happening? Billy Napier's Gators debut also happens to be Florida's first home game against a Pac-12 foe since 1982, and Utah's first SEC road trip since '84. While Napier looks to get his program off the ground, Kyle Whittingham will look to take his team back to Las Vegas (for the Pac-12 title) and then to Glendale (for a CFP semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl). 

3. No. 1 Alabama at Texas (Sept. 10)

After beginning his career with 24 straight victories over his former assistants, Nick Saban has now lost two of three. Can Steve Sarkisian turns this into a trend? Eh, probably not. Sark has been hard at work re-tooling his roster, but it's still too early to expect Texas to compete against the team that will be the overwhelming favorite to win the 2022 national title.

Still, it's a clash of the No. 2 and No. 6 winningest programs ever, and the first in Austin in a full century. It's also an opportunity game for both programs. For Texas, an opportunity to show improvement from when the last time the nation paid attention, when they lost to Kansas at home. For Bama, an opportunity for shock and awe as Bryce Young, Will Anderson and co. begin their assault on the '22 title. 

2. No. 16 Oregon vs. No. 3 Georgia, at Atlanta (Sept. 3)

There simply is not a more difficult task for a first-time head coach than facing the defending national champions in Game 1 at their home-away-from-home. There also isn't a rookie coach more prepared for that task than Dan Lanning. In fact, it's not a stretch to say Ducks head coach Dan Lanning will know his opponent as well or better than his own team. Georgia will be the heavy favorite in this bout of heavyweights, but Lanning's familiarity with Georgia's roster and its coaches -- technically speaking, it'll be his 54th straight Georgia game -- will provide ample opportunity to hit his former team with some jabs and uppercuts they won't see coming.

1. No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 2 Ohio State (Sept. 3)

It's Marcus Freeman's first game leading his own Notre Dame team, against his alma mater. It's college football's third- and fourth-winningest programs all-time, meeting for the seventh time ever, and just the third in the Horseshoe. It's the Midwestern program that styles itself as college football's biggest national brand (Notre Dame) taking on the Midwestern program that has become college football's biggest national brand (Ohio State). 

And if all that's not enough, how about this #Nugget: the season we just put to bed began with two top-5 teams meeting in Week 1. The victor of that game won the national title.