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The Pac-12's Top 15 Must-See Games of 2016

Defending Pac-12 champion Stanford will be a part of several marquee matchups this fall

The 2016 season marks the 10-year anniversary of the Pac-12 becoming the first major conference to implement a nine-game league schedule. A rigorous conference slate has helped maintain rivalries, and often resulted in Pac-12 teams navigating some of the most challenging and most entertaining schedules in college football.

 

The upcoming campaign is no exception. In fact, the conference collectively boasts some of the most stacked dockets in the nation for 2016. That means plenty of must-see contests every weekend from Labor Day through Thanksgiving.

 

Related: Predicting the Pac-12's Biggest Upsets in 2016

 

Paring down the conference's most exciting dates to just 15 proves about as difficult as navigating a Pac-12 schedule unscathed – a feat no team has accomplished in a regular season since 2010. Nevertheless, let's give it a try.

 

1. Stanford at Oregon (Nov. 12)

The winner of this burgeoning rivalry has won every Pac-12 championship since 2009, save one — and that exception came last season, when Oregon beat eventual conference champion Stanford in a decision that ostensibly denied the Cardinal a berth in the College Football Playoff.

 

Stanford returns to Eugene with revenge in mind. Exacting that revenge in Autzen Stadium is a tall task, however. The always raucous Oregon crowd will make things hard on the visitors. Assuming this late-season showdown impacts the Pac-12 North race — and given recent results, why wouldn't it? — the atmosphere should be electric.

 

2. USC vs. Alabama (Sept. 3 – Arlington, Texas)

The toughest schedule in all of college football this season kicks off, appropriately enough, against the defending national champion. USC runs through an absolutely brutal gauntlet in 2016, beginning with the Cowboys Classic matchup against the Crimson Tide.

 

USC's showing against the preseason No. 1-ranked Tide sets the tone for the entire season. Should the Trojans win, championship buzz returns to Los Angeles. A lopsided loss, as has befallen other Week 1 Alabama opponents like Michigan in 2012, can be a major setback.

 

3. Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 15)

The average margin of victory in this cross-country rivalry is a scant 4.8 points per game since 2012. The home team has won every game in that time, with Stanford's last-second field goal a year ago keeping Notre Dame out of the College Football Playoff picture.

 

Despite its earlier place on the schedule than the 2015 installment, as is customary of the California dates in this series, similar implications could be tied to the 2016 edition.

 

4. Washington at Oregon (Oct. 8)

Washington's become a trendy pick to end the combined Oregon-Stanford reign atop the Pac-12, but the Huskies are tasked with dethroning the Ducks in more ways than one this season. Washington has not beaten its border rival since 2003.

 

Doing so in Autzen Stadium might be difficult, though five of the Ducks' last seven conference losses came at home. If Washington's defense can figure out how to slow down Royce Freeman, who went for 138 yards rushing in the 2015 matchup, the streak might finally end.

 

5. Oregon at USC (Nov. 5)

The Ducks return to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the first time since 2012, when Kenjon Barner paced Oregon to what was then the highest point total any USC team allowed an opponent ever (a 62-51 Ducks victory).

 

Oregon's offense may or may not have the same kind of firepower in 2016 as it did four years ago, but the USC defense should be markedly better. Coordinator Clancy Pendergast's scheme could be the difference in USC winning its first over the Ducks since 2011.

 

6. Stanford at Washington (Sept. 30)

Washington's pursuit of its first conference championship since 2000 begins early in the campaign with the defending champs. While Stanford's monopolized the Pac-12 title the last half-decade, along with Oregon, the Cardinal have not been untouchable against Washington.

 

The Huskies beat Stanford early in the 2012 campaign, and both the ‘13 and ‘14 contests went down to the wire. Given the recent precedent of matchups in Seattle, expect another nail-biter for this Friday night treat of a game.

 

7. USC at Stanford (Sept. 17)

USC recaptured the advantage in this historic rivalry, winning hard-fought and low-scoring games in both 2013 and ‘14. The victory in the Coliseum three seasons ago denied Stanford a shot at the BCS Championship Game.

 

In a pair of meetings last season, however, the scoring picked up and the Cardinal won both by double-digit margins, improving their record to 6-2 against USC since 2009.

 

8. Stanford at UCLA (Sept. 24)

Stanford stands as one tree UCLA has not been able to cut down over head coach Jim Mora's successful tenure there. Last year's Cardinal win launched Christian McCaffrey into the Heisman discussion, and marked the Bruins' eighth consecutive loss in the series. Five of those defeats have come since 2012, Mora's first year at the helm.

 

Reversing its fortunes against Stanford could make or break UCLA's efforts to win its first conference championship since 1998.

 

9. UCLA at Texas A&M (Sept. 3)

A potentially pivotal season at UCLA opens with a bang. The Bruins return to the Lone Star State, where they are undefeated since 2012, winning games against Rice, Virginia Tech (2013 Sun Bowl), Texas and Kansas State (2015 Alamo Bowl). Their Week 1 date with Texas A&M marks the first true road game in Texas since the Bruins blasted Rice to open the 2012 campaign, however.

 

A&M's talented defense poses a stiff challenge to a revamped UCLA offense, while the Bruin defense must shut down an Aggie offense coordinated by a former Bruin assistant, Noel Mazzone.

 

10. USC at Utah (Sept. 23)

USC's last trip to Salt Lake City ended in heartbreak, as the Utes outlasted the Trojans in a defensive slug-fest. Last year's return match in the Coliseum was all USC, with the Trojans routing Utah to end its perfect start.

 

This year's meeting falls earlier on the calendar, functioning more as a pace-setter in the Pac-12 South race than a turning point. USC's turnaround of six days from playing at Stanford to visiting Rice-Eccles Stadium makes this one of the more difficult back-to-backs on the Pac-12 schedule.

 

11. Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 26)

USC dominated this, one of the most storied rivalries in all of college football, for the better part of the 2000s. Since the decade turned, however, Notre Dame holds a 3-2 edge after holding off a Trojans rally in Clay Helton's first game as interim head coach. Helton's since removed the interim qualifier, and the verdict of his first full season guiding the ship should be close to complete by the time the Fighting Irish head west.

 

12. Washington State at Boise State (Sept. 10)

Washington State will not sneak up on opponents this season after winning nine games in 2015, the program's high since the ‘03 season. The Cougars have commanded college football's full attention, and they have an opportunity to step up to the next level in 2016.

 

Boise State's the first FBS test on the slate — though Week 1 FCS opponent Eastern Washington has a track record for testing Pac-12 opponents in recent years. Washington State could start 0-2 just as easily as it could 2-0, especially with Boise State looking to continue its winning ways against Pac-12 competition and build a case for College Football Playoff contention.

 

13. USC at UCLA (Nov. 19)

Last year's Crosstown Showdown functioned as a de facto Pac-12 South championship. USC earned its way into its first conference title game with a dominant performance, ending the Bruins' three-year run as the top team in Los Angeles.

 

USC's stifling defense forced Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen into three turnovers, a season high for the ballyhooed freshman. Rosen will have no shortage of motivation to bounce back against his rivals this time around.

 

14. Washington at Utah (Oct. 29)

Two of the stingiest defenses in the Pac-12, if not the nation, kick off Halloween weekend in fitting fashion. This one could be a house of horrors for both teams' quarterbacks.

 

Depending on your source, this one might be a preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game a little more than a month later — in which case, its ranking here at No. 14 is way too low. However, the overachievers of the South and hyped up-and-comers of the North must prove their title worthiness in the two months leading up to this point.

 

15. USC at Washington (Nov. 12)

Washington's shocking upset of USC last October in the Coliseum closed the book on one era in Trojan football — it was Steve Sarkisian's last game as head coach — and effectively launched the hype for the 2016 Huskies.

 

New Trojans offensive coordinator Tee Martin will have a handle on his unit by the time the Trojans visit Husky Stadium, but points come in short supply against Washington's defense. Few teams learned that lesson quite as dramatically as USC a season ago.

 

Best of the Rest
Texas Tech at Arizona State (Sept. 10)
UCLA at BYU (Sept. 10)
UCLA at Colorado (Thursday, Nov. 3)
Arizona State at Arizona (Nov. 25)
BYU at Utah (Sept. 10)
Arizona vs. BYU (Sept. 3 — Glendale, Ariz.)
Cal at San Diego State (Sept. 10)
UCLA at Arizona State (Oct. 8)
Arizona State at USC (Oct. 1)
Washington at Arizona (Sept. 24)

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

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