As the college football season draws near, Athlon Sports is making sure fans know exactly when and where to tune in this fall. Here are the Pac-12's top 30 must-see football games for the 2012 season:
1. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Oregon at USC
The West Coast Game of the Century is easily the top football game west of the Mississippi this fall. In fact, when all the dust settles on the college football regular season, it could easily be the No. 1 football game played this fall. Two special offenses, a Heisman Trophy candidate, national title implications and the revenge factor from a terrific 38-35 showing last fall makes this must-see TV on Nov. 3. Fans better hope that the greedy television executives don't play the game at the exact same time as LSU-Alabama — which should decide the other half of the BCS national championship game on the exact same day. The Trojans are the pick since the game happens at home and they won last year, however, the Ducks' defense will be improved and good enough to win down in L.A. The scoreboard operator better do some stretching before the opening kick-off.
2. Week 3 (Sept. 15) USC at Stanford
While the top game out West is easy to pinpoint, the rest of schedule is loaded with very similar contests. With USC and Oregon as the clearcut picks to win the league, the next biggest game would have to be the top opportunity for an upset. At this stage, the Trojans' trip to Stanford feels like the toughest test for either team. The Cardinal have played very well against the Trojans over the last half decade, they play a physical brand of football that matches up well with USC, the game is at home on The Farm and it comes in only Week 3 of the season. Obviously, Stanford's quarterback play will have to be solid to win, but the ball-control ground game will give them a chance at a huge upset.
3. Week 6 (Oct. 4) USC at Utah
Thursday night. Primetime TV. Sold out road game against a very well coached team. This also is a recipe for an upset for the Trojans who will face the best team in the South in Week 6. This was a tricky 23-14 win for the Trojans last year in Week 2 where Jordan Wynn actually went toe-to-toe with Matt Barkley and held his own. The John White-led ground game had yet to get rolling and should be good enough at home to keep Barkley and Company off the field. Within the division, this is easily the biggest game of the year. Should Utah pull off the upset, it could be the biggest game of the year nationally.
4. Week 5 (Sept. 27) Stanford at Washington
Both programs have aspirations to challenge Oregon in the North this fall and both should creep up on 10 wins. Stanford has crushed the Huskies the last three meetings and has won six out of seven in the series. Without Andrew Luck, however, Washington and Keith Price have closed the gap significantly. The key will be the growth of the Husky defense after allowing 65 points last year and 105 total points in the last two meetings. Getting the game at home in Seattle may give the Dawgs the bump needed to end the Cardinal's winning streak.
5. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Notre Dame at USC
These two historic rivals will do battle for the 83rd time when they meet on the final week of the regular season. While USC won last year and has claimed eight out of the past nine in the series, Notre Dame actually won the last the time they met in The Coliseum, 20-16 in 2010. Matt Barkley led a balanced offensive attack last fall to the 31-17 win in South Bend. USC rushed for 219 yards and posted 224 through the air. If the Irish expects to win out West again, it will have to muster more than 41 rushing yards.
6. Week 12 (Nov. 17) Stanford at Oregon
Stanford-Oregon has decided not only the "North," but also the Pac-12 championship for back-to-back seasons and it could be the case once again in 2012. The Ducks have won two straight and eight out of nine in the series and the game returns to Autzen Stadium this fall. If the Cardinal expect to challenge Oregon in the North, its stacked linebacking corps will have to play better against the high-powered Ducks — a team that has scored 105 points in the last two meetings.
7. Week 7 (Oct. 13) USC at Washington
The Huskies feel like a team that will spoil at least one season. While Washington may not be ready to enter the championship fray, Steve Sarkisian has them poised to take the next step. A home win over USC would be the marquee win on his resume to date. It will be a tall task, however, as the Dawgs have to face Stanford, Oregon and then USC on consecutive weeks. This was a 40-17 romp by the Trojans last fall in Los Angeles.
8. Week 6 (Oct. 6) Washington at Oregon
The Huskies own the all-time series lead pretty handily, but Oregon has dominated the last decade by winning eight straight in the rivarly. The top two Northwest programs could be the best two teams in the division and a trip to L.A. for a Pac-12 title could be hanging in the balance. That said, the game hasn't been competitive since Washington won back in 2003, so if Coach Sark's bunch wants to continue its rise up the league's hierarchy, it must play better defense against the Ducks.
9. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Stanford at Notre Dame
Notre Dame is an honorary member of the Pac-12 when it comes to scheduling as it faces Stanford and USC each year. The Cardinal won 28-14 last year and will face a much tougher test on the road this fall. The team doctors better get the ice baths ready, however, as the Irish front seven and the Stanford offensive line are set to smash heads for 60 minutes. Moved up six weeks on the schedule from last year, this mid-season test will be a huge game for both teams trying to prove themselves this fall.
10. Week 5 (Sept. 29) Oregon at Washington State (Seattle, Wash.)
The Ducks have won five straight and seven out of eight in the lop-sided North Division battle. The Cougars have shown signs of life of late, however, by scoring 51 points in the last two contests. With Mike Leach stepping into a relatively veteran and stable offense with pieces in place to implement his passing attack, the Cougars' upset chance might come against Oregon. The over/under on total offensive snaps between Chip Kelly and Leach is 180.5.
11. Week 3 (Sept. 15) BYU at Utah
Arguably the best-named rivarly game in all of the nation, fans of the Holy War will need to embrace 2012 because after this meeting, the series will be put on hold for a few years. The Cougars should be solid on offense but will have to play more physical football to defeat the arch-rival Utes.
12. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Stanford at Cal
The Big Game could have some added value this fall as Jeff Tedford needs a big season to stabilize his employment and Stanford tries to replace the next John Elway. The Bears played very well on the road last fall, losing 31-28 in Palo Alto. The Big Game shift across the bay this year.
13. Week 13 (Nov. 23) Washington at Washington State
The Apple Cup is back! Keith Price vs. Jeff Tuel. Steve Sarkisian vs. Mike Leach. Marquess Wilson vs. Kasen Williams and Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. There will be no shortage of big plays, big points and, ideally, rich dramatics. The Huskies have won three straight Evergreen Showdowns.
14. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Utah at UCLA
If either the Utes or Bruins want to (somehow) topple USC off the top slot in the South, winning this game will be imperative. The Utes dominated this game last fall 31-6, but as the game shifts back to Westwood, new coach Jim Mora Jr.'s instilled toughness into his Bruins should make this a tighter affair. Especially, considering the stakes.
15. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Utah at Washington
This game could feature the top two challengers to USC and Oregon in their respective divisions. The Xs and Os battle between Kyle Whittingham and Steve Sarkisian should be fun to watch. The Huskies won 31-14 last fall.
16. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Arizona at UCLA
South Division pecking order game featuring new faces on the sidelines for the Wildcats and Bruins.
17. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Oregon at Cal
Ducks faced toughest test of 2010 regular season when they visited Cal two years ago.
18. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Washington State at Stanford
One of the league's top defenses against what should be one of league's top offenses.
19. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Cal at Washington State
Marquess Wilson vs. Keenan Allen? Yes, please.
20. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Stanford at UCLA
Battle could feature No. 2 in both divisions as well two tough-minded coaches.
21. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Oregon at Oregon State
The Civil War is a wildly underrated rivarly that has been one-sided of late.
22. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Washington State at Utah
Ground and pound with Star defense against high-flying Cougars passing game.
23. Week 10 (Nov. 2) Washington at Cal
Intriguing pecking order game in the North features two excellent passing attacks.
24. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Nebraska at UCLA
Tough, physical test for Bruins at home. A true barometer for both teams.
25. Week 1 (Aug. 30) Washington State at BYU
Big points in Mike Leach debut on Thursday night in primetime.
26. Week 12 (Nov. 17) USC at UCLA
Major SoCal rivarly should be much closer than the 50-0 blowout of last fall.
27. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Washington at LSU
Keith Price will test Honey-less Tigers secondary early in the year. Husky defense isn't ready, however.
28. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Arizona State at Arizona
Nasty in-state rivarly should be competitive after 31-27 affair last year.
29. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Arizona at Utah
The winner could be the top challenger to USC. Utes won 34-21 last fall.
30. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Washington at Arizona
Two fast-tempo offenses in a game with bowl implications should be fun for fans.
Athlon Sports Must-See TV for 2012:
Athlon Sports Pac-12 Predictions and Team Previews: