A race to the title kicks off with a loaded opening week
With a late start to the 2020 season, Pac-12 football is going to be a mad dash to a finish. The truncated schedule as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic might mean a shorter season, but it should be no less exciting — and in some ways, even more so.
The entire campaign is made up from the insanity of Pac-12 After Dark. But how about Pac-12 With Breakfast? Games kicking off at 9 a.m. local time add a new element to this year's slate out west. Assuming all goes according to plan, the coming weeks should be entertaining for Pac-12 faithful.
12. Arizona State at Colorado, Nov. 21
Arguably the most significant win of Mel Tucker's lone season at Colorado came at Arizona State. Alex Fontenot shined in the Buffs' 34-31 win; he's the primary returner from that team who came up big in the ASU game, with both Steven Montez and Tony Brown graduated.
Still, Karl Dorrell inherits some gems in his first season in Boulder. The late November weather there will provide Arizona State with an icy welcome, and this could be one of the biggest upset alert dates on the 2020 Pac-12 calendar.
11. Oregon at Washington State, Nov. 14
A heroic, end-of-game drive for Oregon last season snapped its losing skid to Washington State at four games. The stars of that drive, Justin Herbert and Juwan Johnson, are gone, but Washington State is undergoing its own overhaul with Nick Rolovich replacing Mike Leach as head coach.
How the Cougars adapt to the Run-and-Shoot offense after eight seasons operating out of the Air Raid will shape this early-season showdown.
10. Washington at Stanford, Dec. 5
Both Washington and Stanford have staked their identities around hard-nosed, defensive-oriented football. They were so successful, the conference as a whole largely followed suit. With both programs facing some question marks on offense, defense will again determine their place in the Pac-12 pecking order.
9. Stanford at Oregon, Nov. 7
The first half-decade of the post-USC dynasty period of Pac-10/12 football belonged to Oregon and Stanford. With seven consecutive conference titles between them, the annual meeting between the two became something of a default championship game. Stanford's coming off its first sub-.500 finish since the season before that run began, but a lengthy offseason to heal up should have the Cardinal looking more like Cardinal teams of old when they visit Autzen Stadium in Week 1.
While the Ducks did not get to play their loaded non-conference slate, opening with this heated contest out of the blocks will test a new-look offense sans Penei Sewell and Herbert.
8. Washington at California, Nov. 7
Two of the most bizarre games of the past two Pac-12 seasons were Cal wins over Washington. Odd circumstances aside — in particular last year's win after a lengthy lightning delay — the Golden Bears defense deserves the credit for beating the Huskies at their own game. Cal will aim to make it three straight on opening week and take an important, inside track on the sprint to this year's Pac-12 Championship Game.
7. Utah at Arizona State, Nov. 28
When Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes were assigned fellow newcomer Colorado as a sort of default rival. In its first decade of conference membership, however, Utah's annual series with Arizona State has grown heated enough for some of each fanbase to embrace an unofficial rivalry name on social media: The Unholy War.
Maybe it's a coincidence, maybe not, but either way, the Pac-12 scheduling this season's edition for Thanksgiving weekend — traditionally rivalry week — lends some credence to the budding rivalry.
6. Stanford at California, Nov. 27
Cal claimed The Axe last year for the first time since 2009. In 2020, defending the Axe could be the Golden Bears to their first-ever Pac-12 Championship Game appearance. The same could well be true of Stanford.
Despite the Cardinal's dip in 2019, David Shaw-coached teams have proven more than capable of overachieving. The longer offseason should have Stanford much healthier for this year's Big Game.
5. California at Arizona State, Nov. 14
Cal's perfect start to 2019 came to a halt when Arizona State visited Berkeley. After losing quarterback Chase Garbers to injury midway through the contest, the Golden Bears offense sputtered. The bad taste lingering for almost 14 months will carry Cal into Tempe for the rematch.
Arizona State fed Eno Benjamin to the tune of 100 yards and three touchdowns in last season's win. He's gone, but the stage for Jayden Daniels to shine is set against one of the nation's premier defenses.
4. USC at Utah, Nov. 21
Four of the past five Pac-12 South champions have been one of these two programs — though not always the winner of this game. Utah remained winless all-time at the Coliseum with last season's defeat but held serve the rest of the regular season to reach a second consecutive Pac-12 Championship Game.
The Trojans, who have not won in Salt Lake City since 2012, may need to replicate last year's stellar passing attack to produce a similar result.
3. Oregon at California, Dec. 5
Top-flight defenses collide in what could well determine the North. Cal gave Oregon's offense fits last season in Autzen Stadium, and the 2020 Ducks don't have Justin Herbert to flip the switch this time around. However, the Oregon defense this coming campaign retains enough of the playmakers responsible for last season's success to make this another rock fight.
2. Arizona State at USC, Nov. 7
As freshmen, quarterbacks Kedon Slovis and Daniels both wowed. They head into the 2020 season as the conference's most hyped playmakers; either could emerge in the truncated Heisman race, but a strong start is paramount. Slovis and Daniels lead USC and Arizona State into an opening-week showdown, set for a most unusual 9 a.m. local time kickoff at the Coliseum. The road team has won each of the last three in the series, including Arizona State's win in Los Angeles during Herm Edwards' debut 2018 campaign.
Last season, USC escaped Tempe with an end-of-game stop.
1. Washington at Oregon, Dec. 12
Arguably the most bitter rivalry in the West has also evolved into the most important for the Pac-12 North race. Mario Cristobal embraced a philosophy borrowed in part from his time on Nick Saban's Alabama staff, with a look very similar to that of Chris Petersen's for Washington.
The last two meetings, both Ducks wins, came down to the very end. Oregon won in overtime with a CJ Verdell touchdown the last time at Autzen Stadium, while Herbert led a monumental comeback in the second half last season in Husky Stadium. Expect more fireworks this year, particularly with a possible Pac-12 Championship Game bid on the line.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.