MORGANTOWN-With the new College Football Playoff system replacing the Bowl Championship Series, strength of schedule may be the lead topic of discussion for the 13-person committee that was selected to pick the four programs that will battle for the 2014 national title.
West Virginia University's trio of non-conference foes includes one program that played for a national championship last season, one that has captured three out of the last five BCS titles and a program that is hoping that a move to a different conference (the Big Ten) will help it become a contender for one of those coveted spots.
The Mountaineers open head coach Dana Holgorsen's fourth season in Morgantown against an Alabama team that will represent the old gold and blue's toughest opening opponent ever.
WVU opened the 1998 campaign at Milan Puskar Stadium against an Ohio State University program that was expected to play for a national title.
Not even a sold-out crowd at Mountaineer Field would be enough for WVU to overcome a Buckeye squad destined to finish among the country's elite.
The 34-17 setback was followed by four consecutive victories, but not even a 5-2 mark in the Big East would be enough to get WVU back into the BCS hunt as Don Nehlen's squad was relegated to the Insight.com Bowl, where it dropped a 34-31 decision to Missouri.
As difficult as that opener was, however, it pales in comparison to the unit that West Virginia native Nick Saban will bring to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta for the second of two games that make up the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic.
The Crimson Tide, which was a field goal return away from playing for a third straight national title, is coming off of a rare, two-game losing streak - Alabama lost to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl - nd will enter the 2014 season with a new player under center for the first time in three years.
"I didn't think the consistency on offense was what I would've liked for it to have been today," Saban said following the team's spring game. "We did make some plays, but there wasn't the consistency that you would like to see in the offense."
The loss of A.J. McCarron was apparently solved when Alabama native Jake Coker elected to leave Florida State University this summer once he completed his undergraduate degree and join the Crimson Tide for the upcoming fall.
In the meantime, senior Blake Sims put together an impressive spring, culminating with a 13-of-30 for 178 yards and one touchdown effort in the spring game. Running back T.J. Yeldon was selected as the game's most outstanding player after rushing for 95 yards on the day and one touchdown.
Also making his bid to open the season at quarterback against the Mountaineers' secondary was Cooper Bateman, who finished the day with 156 yards and a touchdown on 11-of-24 passing.
No matter who the starting quarterback is, West Virginia's defense will have its hands full with Yeldon and an offensive front that will be listed as one of the top units in the country. Offensively, Holgorsen's team will face a Crimson Tide unit that will be looking for a little redemption following a somewhat lackluster performance in 2013.
Linebacker D.J. Pettway and defensive lineman Jonathan Allen came out of the spring as the Tide's biggest playmakers. Allen was credited with six tackles, two quarterback sacks and a blocked field goal while Pettway made one of the game's biggest plays when he returned an interception 29 yards for the game's first touchdown.
Normally, Mountaineer fans would look at WVU's second non-conference opponent, Towson State, and see cupcakes in their eyes. Hopefully, that won't be the attitude of the players as the Tigers are coming off of a 35-7 loss to North Dakota State in the NCAA's FCS Championship Game.
Rob Ambrose's sixth Towson squad will provide more than "just another test" for the Mountaineers as the Tigers have captured 29 victories since Ambrose came, won back-to-back CAA championships and have been in the field for two FCS playoffs-including last year's runners-up performance.
Top rusher Terrance West (413 carries, 2,509 yards, 41 touchdowns) is gone, but that does not mean the Tigers' offense will be inept. Junior quarterback Connor Frazier and sophomore running back Darius Victor (98 carries, 629 yards, 7 touchdowns) appear poised to take over the offense while the defense looks for replacements for the unit's top two tacklers-Telvion Clark and Monte Gaddis.
West Virginia's final non-Big 12 opponent will be a familiar one-Maryland.
The Terrapins, under the leadership of former University of Connecticut head coach Randy Edsell, will be looking to vault into their new home-the Big Ten-with an unblemished non-conference mark, and own a 37-0 victory over their border-state foes from a year ago.
Making matters worse, especially if you are a Mountaineers fan, is the return of starting quarterback C.J. Brown (166-of-282, 2,242 yards, 13 TDs), receivers Levern Jacobs (47-640, 3 TDs), Stefon Diggs (34-587, 3 TDs) and Deon Long (32-489 1 TD) as well as running back Brandon Ross (166-776, 4 TD).
Defensively, the Terrapins bring back their top five tacklers in Sean Davis, Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree, Matt Robinson and William Likely from a unit that forced six turnovers (2 interceptions, 4 fumbles) in their lopsided win over WVU at M & T Bank Stadium.
Even the most diehard fans, however, are hoping for a 1-2 mark when West Virginia opens Big 12 play against Oklahoma at Milan Puskar Stadium. If the mark dips to 0-3, this team will be in major trouble and even a repeat of last year's 4-8 mark might not be in the cards.