Welcome to the Wild West. Two straight seasons in which half of the Pac-12 Conference’s members finished ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25 commanded national attention and respect. This year, the Pac-12 opens with six of its 12 programs ranked in AP’s preseason poll.
Such a collection of quality teams means an array of excellent games on the upcoming docket. The Pac-12 title race can turn on any week, as last year’s wild South division proved. Four of the South’s five teams that were in the mix last November are ranked to open 2015.
Whichever team emerges from the South is tasked with taking the crown from Oregon. The Ducks are primed to run-and-gun their way back into College Football Playoff contention.
1. USC at Oregon (Nov. 21)
USC and Oregon are the media’s preseason picks to win their respective divisions. Just two weeks before the prognosticators have the Ducks and Trojans tabbed to meet at Levi’s Stadium in the Pac-12 Championship Game, they’ll face at Autzen Stadium.
2. Oregon at Michigan State (Sept. 12)
No other non-conference game on the 2015 slate pits two Top 10 teams against one another. Expect a Playoff atmosphere in East Lansing nearly four months before the real postseason tournament. A second-half rally in Michigan State’s visit to Autzen Stadium last September helped lay the foundation for Oregon’s run to the national title game.
3. UCLA at USC (Nov. 28)
Crosstown rivals UCLA and USC could both be in the mix for a Pac-12 Championship Game bid when the Bruins make the trek from Westwood to the Coliseum. Such high stakes would only add fuel to what is arguably the West’s marquee rivalry. Also at stake: UCLA’s three-game win streak under head coach Jim Mora, who has yet to lose to the Trojans.
4. Oregon at Arizona State (Thursday, Oct. 29)
Arizona State’s expressed goal of winning a national championship gets put to the test against the Pac-12 team that’s been closest to the mountaintop in the last decade. The Ducks have not danced with the Sun Devils since 2012, so expect Arizona State’s rowdy home fans to give Oregon a fitting greeting for this Thursday night affair.
5. Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (Sept. 5, in Houston)
Pac-12 vs. SEC games are to college football what DC-Marvel crossovers are to comics. These rare events give ardent fan-boys and fan-girls fleeting bragging rights to tout their favored brand. In this case, the featured showcase pits The Flash against Quicksilver – that is to say, two sides that move fast.
6. Arizona State at UCLA (Oct. 3)
The winner of Arizona State-UCLA every year from 2011 through ‘13 played in that season’s Pac-12 Championship Game. Last year snapped that streak, but the Sun Devils and Bruins were both still in the divisional title hunt. Expect similar implications again in 2015.
7. Arizona at Arizona State (Nov. 21)
Arizona and Arizona State have had since 1899 to cultivate a bitter and history-rich rivalry, but only since Arizona State’s Todd Graham and Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez came into the Grand Canyon State has the Duel in the Desert had championship stakes.
8. Stanford at USC (Sept. 19)
Starting with coaching rivals Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll in 2007, Stanford vs. USC has developed into a fun series marked by close finishes and memorable moments. The Trojans defend a two-game winning streak after losing the previous four.
9. USC at Arizona State (Sept. 26)
Fireworks ensued in each of the last two meetings, both Arizona State wins. Former USC head coach Lane Kiffin was fired following the 2013 encounter, while the Sun Devils beat the Trojans on a Hail Mary last year. This year’s edition could provide more early-season drama.
10. Oregon at Stanford (Nov. 14)
From 2010 through ‘13, the Oregon-Stanford game functioned as a de facto Pac-12 championship. Each season’s winner later claimed the conference title. That streak continued last year, though the Cardinal no longer factored into the championship race. Stanford head coach David Shaw had Oregon’s number in 2012 and ’13. With the matchup returning to The Farm, can the Cardinal make it a third win over the Ducks in four years?
11. UCLA at Stanford (Thursday, Oct. 15)
Finally breaking through to the Pac-12 championship means for UCLA means finally clearing the Stanford hurdle. Mora is 0-4 against Shaw, with two of those losses effectively denying the Bruins a conference title or shot at the conference title.
12. Michigan at Utah (Thursday, Sept. 3)
Harbaugh’s return to the Pac-12 comes as head coach of his alma mater, the Big Ten’s Michigan Wolverines. Host Utah has fallen into the background amid the buildup to this one, though the Utes dominated last year’s matchup in The Big House. Another win sets Utah off into 2015 on the right foot, as it looks to be the Pac-12 South’s dark horse title contender.
13. Arizona State at Utah (Oct. 17)
Arizona State is the only Pac-12 South team Utah has yet to defeat since joining the conference in 2011. It’s certainly not for lack of trying – the Utes came within a score each of the last two years, including last season’s overtime finish in Tempe.
14. Arizona at Stanford (Oct. 3)
The philosophical styles clash between Rodriguez’s up-tempo offense and Shaw’s NFL-influenced strategy has been tested just once. These teams last met in 2012 in a game Stanford won in overtime.
15. USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 17)
Recent installments of this storied rivalry haven’t exactly been befitting the series’ illustrious history. The 2013 edition, for example, was an ugly, plodding mess. Last year’s contest in Los Angeles was a lopsided rout. Still, with both USC and Notre Dame expected to contend for College Football Playoff bids in 2015, October’s meeting promises a return to the glory days.
Best of the Rest:
16. UCLA at Arizona (Sept. 26)
17. UCLA at Utah (Nov. 21)
18. Arizona at USC (Nov. 7)
19. Cal at Utah (Oct. 10)
20. USC at Cal (Oct. 31)
21. Arizona at Colorado (Oct. 17)
22. Utah at USC (Oct. 24)
23. Cal at Stanford (Nov. 21)
24. Cal at Texas (Sept. 19)
25. BYU at UCLA (Sept. 19)