If there is one league in college football this season that needs to take it easy in the non-conference slate, it’s the Pac-12.
Larry Scott has built what could be the best conference in college football in 2014 and it would make sense for most of the programs to take it easy outside of their league. But, for most of the contenders out West this fall, that couldn't be further from the truth.
The Pac-12 will play marquee showdowns with the Big Ten, Big 12 and three times with Notre Dame. Here are the best non-conference games to watch in the Pac-12 this fall:
1. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6)
It cannot be overstated what a win for Michigan State in this game would mean for the Big Ten. So Oregon cannot overlook the rebuilt Sparty defense early in the year or the Ducks could be knocked out of playoff contention by Week 2. The schematic chess match between Marcus Mariota and Mark Dantonio's defense should be fascinating to watch. It's a classic Big Ten-Pac-12, offense-defense showdown that should feature two top 10 teams. It might be the best non-conference game of the year regardless of conference.
2.Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 4)
This historic rivalry has been elevated in recent years after a memorable overtime goal-line stand for Notre Dame in 2012 and a physical 27-20 victory for Stanford a year ago. Only four times have both teams been ranked at the time of the meeting (28 total games) and three of those have come in the last three meetings. A fourth straight meeting of two ranked teams is likely to happen again this year and a playoff berth could be on the line this time around.
3. Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 29)
The battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh will take place for the 86th time in 2014 with both teams eyeing a trip to the postseason. The Irish lead the series 45-35-5 — including the vacated 2005 USC victory — and Notre Dame has won two straight and three out of four overall. Both teams enter the season ranked in the top 15 and by season’s end, each could be positioned to play for a national championship. Which means, only one is likely to get that chance once they meet on the final weekend of the regular season.
4. Texas vs. UCLA (Sept. 13, Arlington)
UCLA has South Division title hopes and possibly more as Brett Hundley enters his third season under center. Texas will be three weeks into the Charlie Strong Era in Austin and will provide a nasty early-season test for the Bruins on a “neutral field” in Dallas. The Longhorns will be a much more disciplined and focused team under the new regime, so if the Bruins expect to compete for a playoff spot this fall, an early season slip-up must be avoided.
5. Notre Dame at Arizona State (Nov. 8)
It’s not a traditional rivalry like USC or Stanford but a visit from Notre Dame in early November is must-see TV for all college football fans. The Irish beat the Sun Devils 37-34 a year ago in Arlington, giving Notre Dame a perfect record in three total meetings with Arizona State. Todd Graham’s defense is going through a major overhaul this offseason but should be settling in by the time Brian Kelly’s offense gets to Tempe. Expect fireworks from both sides.
6. Colorado vs. Colorado State (Aug. 29, Denver)
West of the Mississippi, this is one of the more heated and underrated rivalries in the college game. And with two quality, semi-new head coaches in Jim McElwain (3rd year) and Mike MacIntrye (2nd year), this game should develop into a M(a)cShowdown every year in Denver. Colorado State won (22-17) two years ago before MacIntrye got the Buffs back on track (41-27) last fall.
7. Big Ten Round-Robin (September)
The Big Ten and Pac-12 won’t just face off in Eugene or the Rose Bowl this year. Utah visits Michigan on Sept. 20. Washington State and Rutgers will meet in Seattle on Aug. 28. And Illinois will visit Washington on Sept. 13. While there is no marquee team in the bunch, there are conference bragging rights on the line in this trio of Big 5 games. Both Michigan and Utah expect to be respectable teams and fans certainly haven’t forgotten the last time the Utes visited the Big House. In 2008, Utah, led by quarterback Brian Johnson, topped the Wolverines 25-23 en route to a perfect season.
8. Nevada at Arizona (Sept. 13)
Neither team is an elite squad nationally but both offenses are traditionally extremely productive and entertaining to watch. The Wolfpack are expected to be a contender in the Mountain West Conference's West Division and Arizona is trying to get over the hump in the Pac-12 South. This might be the best non-conference game Rich Rodriguez has played since arriving in Tucson — he’s 6-0 in non-conference play and 8-10 in Pac-12 games in two years.
9. USC at Boston College (Sept. 13)
The Trojans' three non-conference foes in 2014 will all be rematches from a year ago (Fresno State not listed here). Boston College and Heisman finalist Andre Williams went out to L.A. last September and got crushed 35-7. Despite that loss, Steve Addazio still took a two-win team from 2012 and led them to seven wins. Despite losing Williams, Boston College could sneak up on USC early in the year if the Men of Troy aren’t careful.
10. UCLA at Virginia (Aug. 30)
Wait, a preseason top 10 team in the nation visiting a bad ACC team with a head coach that is teetering on the brink of unemployment? Well, backed into a corner, Mike London and the Cavaliers pulled a huge upset over BYU in the season opener last year at home. To have a chance against UCLA, London and the Wahoos better pray for more rainy conditions. Or else the Bruins will do what Oregon did to Virginia in Week 2 (which was a 59-10 win).