The Pac-12 might be the best conference in college football next season.
The 2014 season will be remembered forever as the first edition of the playoff era. But it also might be remembered as the year the SEC’s reign of terror ended. One look at early preseason top 25 polls and it’s easy to see just how deep and difficult the Pac-12 will be in ’14. Three of the top nine and six of the top 21 teams in the nation hail from the league out West. Throw in bowls teams Arizona, Oregon State and Washington State and it’s clear to see why the Pac-12 has closed the gap on the mighty SEC.
It also means that these teams will cannibalize each other — much like what happened in 2013. Additionally, the league plays the toughest out-of-conference schedule of any league as well. Below is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2014 schedules as they were finalized recently by the league. But before we jump into UCLA’s critical crossover home games, here is a breakdown of the league’s ’14 schedule as a whole.
Biggest Game in the North: Stanford at Oregon (Nov. 1)
Biggest Game in the South: USC at UCLA (Nov. 22)
Marquee Non-Conference Showdown: Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6)
Marquee Non-Conference Showdown II: Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 4)
Marquee Non-Conference Showdown III: UCLA vs. Texas (Sept. 13, AT&T Stadium)
South’s Toughest Crossover Slate: UCLA (Oregon, at Cal, at Washington, Stanford)
North’s Toughest Crossover Slate: Stanford (USC, at Arizona State, Utah, at UCLA)
League’s Toughest Schedule: UCLA
League’s Easiest Schedule: None (maybe USC)
Now, onto the team-by-team breakdown:
Arizona Wildcats (8-5, 4-5)
The Wildcats have been successful in Rich Rodriguez’ first two seasons but have yet to post a winning league record. Luckily, the Cats are 8-0 under RichRod in non-conference play and that shouldn’t change in 2014 with another manageable three games out of conference. In the league, however, things look brutal once again with road games at Oregon, Wazzu, UCLA and Utah. Arizona does get five home games, including marquee showdowns with USC, Washington and Arizona State. For what should be another mildly successful bowl team, a win over a key South Division foe at home could define the season (USC or Arizona State).
Best Non-Conference Game: at UTSA
Crossover Games: Cal, at Oregon, at Wazzu, Washington
Upset Opportunity: USC (Oct. 11) or Washington (Nov. 15)
Defining Moment: A rivalry home game with Arizona State in the season finale
Arizona State Sun Devils (10-4, 8-1)
In just his second season, Todd Graham posted the best record in the conference (8-1) but came up short against Stanford in the title game. This team will play yet another tough out-of-league slate in 2014 with Notre Dame coming to town, but getting the Irish at home is a big win for ASU. Graham is 11-3 in Sun Devils Stadium since taking over. Oregon is noticeably absent from the schedule again this year and both UCLA and Stanford must come to Tempe. The front half of the schedule is loaded as the most critical stretch of the year comes over a five-week span in which the Devils will face UCLA, USC, Stanford and Washington in October.
Best Non-Conference Game: Notre Dame (Nov. 8)
Crossover Games: Stanford, at Washington, at Oregon State, Wazzu
Upset Alert: at Oregon State (Nov. 15)
Defining Moment: Back-to-back early games with UCLA and at USC (Weeks 5-6)
Colorado Buffaloes (4-8, 1-8)
Mike MacIntyre used a soft non-conference schedule to improve Colorado from one win in 2012 to four this season (3-0 in non-con.). Yet, this team still only beat one Pac-12 foe and will have to face another brutal schedule in 2014. The South is loaded but the Buffaloes get Arizona State, UCLA and Utah all at home in Folsom Field. A win at Cal to end September could set this team up for an upset or two in the final two months, but MacIntyre will have to make headway early in the year before a nasty late-October gauntlet that features four straight at USC, UCLA, Washington and at Arizona.
Best Non-Conference Game: Colorado State (Aug. 30)
Crossover Games: at Cal, Oregon State, Washington, at Oregon
Upset Opportunity: Utah (Nov. 29)
Defining Moment: A win over Oregon State at home could give CU a 2-1 start in Pac-12 play
UCLA Bruins (10-3, 6-3)
The early frontrunner to win the South won’t have an easy path to the Pac-12 title game. Two tricky non-con games away from home (at Virginia, Texas in Arlington) get things started in 2014. The Bruins then get an off weekend before opening league play against one of the top teams in the league (at Arizona State) before back-to-back home games with Utah and Oregon. Crossover play will be difficult — Oregon, at Cal, at Washington, Stanford — but at least the two toughest games will come at home. Following a trip to Seattle in November, the Bruins get a nicely placed off weekend before finishing in brutal fashion as USC and Stanford come to town over the season’s final two weeks.
Best Non-Conference Game: Texas (Sept. 13, AT&T Stadium)
Crossover Games: Oregon, at Cal, at Washington, Stanford
Upset Alert: Arizona (Nov. 1)
Defining Moment: The final two weeks of the regular season against USC and Stanford
USC Trojans (10-4, 6-3)
Steve Sarkisian won’t slide easily into his tenure at USC. The Trojans' new head man has to face Fresno State, visit Stanford and then travel 3,000 miles to Chestnut Hill to face an improved Boston College team in his first three games. The crossover schedule offers some comfort as USC will miss both Oregon and Washington but critical road division games balance the schedule out — at UCLA, at Arizona, at Utah. A big positive aspect of USC's ’14 schedule is how spread out the three critical conference games are with Stanford in Week 2, Arizona State in Week 6 and UCLA in Week 13. Between those three games are winnable contests that could allow the Trojans to push for a Pac-12 title in Coach Sark’s first season.
Best Non-Conference Game: Notre Dame (Nov. 29)
Crossover Games: at Stanford, Oregon State, at Wazzu, Cal
Upset Alert: at Washington State (Nov. 1)
Defining Moment: USC at UCLA in the final Pac-12 game of the year
Utah Utes (5-7, 2-7)
The Utes played one of the toughest schedules in the nation a year ago and it doesn’t look like it's getting any better in 2014. Non-conference games with Fresno State and at Michigan will be tricky before conference play begins. The road conference schedule includes trips to UCLA, Oregon State, Arizona State, Stanford and Colorado while Utah gets to host Washington State, USC, Oregon and Arizona. A four-week stretch from Week 9 to Week 12 includes USC, at Arizona State, Oregon and at Stanford. There is an outside chance that Utah isn’t favored in a single Pac-12 game in 2014. Kyle Whittingham’s bunch played hard against the league’s best teams this year (UCLA, Arizona State, Stanford) but next fall doesn’t appear to be the year the Utes will return to pre-Pac-12 form.
Best Non-Conference Game: at Michigan (Sept. 20)
Crossover Games: Wazzu, at Oregon State, Oregon, at Stanford
Upset Opportunity: USC (Oct. 25)
Defining Moment: Final two weeks against Arizona and at Colorado
California Golden Bears (1-11, 0-9)
Get work done early should be the offseason theme for second-year head man Sonny Dykes. The Bears return the home-and-home favor to Northwestern to start and that might be one of the easier games on the entire ’14 slate. After a road trip to Washington State in Week 6, there are very few chances for wins as the back half of the schedule features three straight “home” games with top-tier teams Washington, UCLA and Oregon (Levi’s Stadium) before back-to-back road tests with Oregon State and USC. Wrapping up the year are home bouts with rival Stanford and BYU. To improve on their one-win campaign, Cal must pick up some wins early against Northwestern, Sacramento State (their only guaranteed win), Arizona, Colorado and Washington State.
Best Non-Conference Game: BYU (Nov. 29)
Crossover Games: at Arizona, Colorado, UCLA, at USC
Upset Opportunity: Stanford (Nov. 13)
Defining Moment: The month of September
Oregon Ducks (11-2, 7-2)
The Ducks have another chance to be a preseason top-five team and could again be the preseason favorite in the Pac-12. But to get things started right, Oregon will have to battle with reigning Rose Bowl and Big Ten champ Michigan State in a juicy non-conference tilt in Autzen Stadium on Sept. 6. A win there would catapult the Ducks into a very winnable stretch of games before the heart of the schedule gets daunting. Oregon will face UCLA on the road and Washington and Stanford at home over a four-week span to end October that will likely determine the North Division champion. Games with Utah, Colorado and Oregon State to finish isn’t all that difficult. In fact, with no Arizona State, USC and Notre Dame on the slate like Stanford has, Oregon might get the nod in the preseason solely based on scheduling.
Best Non-Conference Game: Michigan State (Sept. 6)
Crossover Games: Arizona, at UCLA, at Utah, Colorado
Upset Alert: at Washington State (Sept. 20)
Defining Moment: A visit from Stanford on Nov. 1
Oregon State Beavers (7-6, 4-5)
Barring an unforeseen upset like 2013, Oregon State should start the year in much better shape in 2014 as Portland State, Hawaii and San Diego State should all be wins. And with Colorado and Utah in the first six games as well, the Beavers could easily be 5-1 before visiting Stanford on Oct. 25. The crossover slate isn’t all that daunting other than a trip to USC in late September as Arizona State comes to Corvallis and Utah and Colorado will be picked as the worst two teams in the South. Oregon, Washington State and Cal all come to Corvallis in divisional play as well as trips to Seattle and Palo Alto will be brutal. Oregon State needs to be bowl-eligible before the final three weeks of the season: Arizona State, at Washington, Oregon.
Best Non-Conference Game: at Hawaii (Sept. 6)
Crossover Games: at USC, at Colorado, Utah, Arizona State
Upset Opportunity: Oregon (Nov. 29)
Defining Moment: The start of November with three straight winnable home Pac-12 games
Stanford Cardinal (11-3, 7-2)
A brutal schedule was enough to knock Stanford out of national title contention in 2013 but not enough to keep the Cardinal from defending their Pac-12 title. A third straight championship will be again a huge undertaking and the schedule offers no help. The Pac-12 season begins in just Week 2 as USC comes to town as the first FBS opponent Stanford will face. After Army and a bye week, Stanford travels to Washington, Notre Dame and Arizona State in a four-week span. By the time Stanford returns home from Tempe on Oct. 25 to face Oregon State and Oregon in back-to-back games, David Shaw’s bunch will either be ranked No. 1 in the nation or totally eliminated from Pac-12 contention. The back half of the schedule is “easier” but that still includes a trip to Oregon and UCLA sandwiched around an off weekend, a visit from Utah and a road trip to Cal. Stanford could once again be facing the nation’s toughest schedule.
Best Non-Conference Game: at Notre Dame (Oct. 4)
Crossover Games: USC, at Arizona State, Utah, at UCLA
Upset Alert: at Washington (Sept. 27)
Defining Moment: Weeks 5-8 with road games in Seattle, South Bend and Tempe
Washington Huskies (9-4, 5-4)
Many are pointing to the Huskies, under new coach Chris Petersen, to challenge the balance of power in the Pac-12 North. And an easy early-season schedule could be part of the reason prognosticators like Washington. Four easy non-conference games (yes, four) give way to Stanford at home in the first month of the season. Folks in Palo Alto know what happened the last time the Cardinal came to Seattle. There is a nasty road trip to Eugene on Oct. 18 to deal with but critical second-half crossover games with Arizona State (Oct. 25) and UCLA (Nov. 8) both come at new Husky Stadium. Should U of W get passed all of those tests, the final three weeks could prove helpful as Washington finishes with tricky but winnable road trips to Arizona and Washington State sandwiched around a home bout with Oregon State.
Best Non-Conference Game: Illinois (Sept. 13)
Crossover Games: Arizona State, at Colorado, UCLA, at Arizona
Upset Alert: at Arizona (Nov. 15)
Defining Moment: Facing Stanford and Oregon over a three-game span from Weeks 5-8
Washington State Cougars (6-7, 4-5)
On the back of some impressive road wins — at USC, Arizona and Cal — the Cougars made it to the postseason for the first time in a decade in 2013. To return, Wazzu will have to once again win some critical swing games. Rutgers in Seattle and at Nevada aren’t gimmies but should be wins for a team with bowl aspirations to start the year. Especially, because games with Oregon (home, Week 4) and Stanford (road, Week 7) take place in the first four weeks of conference play. Mike Leach will have to face three of the top four teams in the South again this year, making divisional swing games with Cal (home), Washington (home) and Oregon State (road) all the more important.
Best Non-Conference Game: Rutgers (Aug. 28, CenturyLink Field)
Crossover Games: at Utah, Arizona, USC, at Arizona State
Upset Opportunity: USC (Nov. 1)
Defining Moment: Between the bye weeks against Arizona, USC and at Oregon State