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The Pac-12's Top 17 Must-See Games of 2017

Myles Gaskin

Myles Gaskin

The nine-game conference schedule, historic non-conference matchups and some upset potential dates highlight a loaded 2017 slate in the Pac-12 Conference.

The new season begins with lofty expectations for a few teams out west, namely reigning champion Washington and Rose Bowl winner USC. Both are ranked in the top 10 of the first Associated Press Poll. However, the Pac-12 features perhaps more depth throughout the conference than at any time before, making for a potentially chaotic campaign.

No shortage of College Football Playoff-altering dates line the calendar, starting immediately in September. With some big-time matchups falling on the initial few weeks, the course for unpredictability could very well be charted early.

1. Washington at Stanford (Nov. 10)

Stanford's visit to Husky Stadium marked a changing of the guard, with Washington handing the Cardinal a beating unlike any the team's sustained in David Shaw's six seasons as head coach.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Stanford
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

Whether that was a temporary indicator of the Pac-12 North power structure or the first step in a longer reign for the Huskies will be revealed in the rematch. Stanford hosts this time in the pivotal, late-season stretch. This could well decide the divisional title – and given every Pac-12 Championship since the conference's expansion has gone to the North, chances are good the winner also will win the league.

2. Stanford at USC (Sept. 9)

Stanford and USC are two of the longest standing Pac-12 members, each boasting impressive lineage with Rose Bowls, Heisman Trophy winners and Hall of Famers. Only recently has the annual series developed into what could be considered a rivalry, however.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Stanford

With the Cardinal winning five of six from 2007-12, eight of 11 in the past decade and carrying a three-game winning streak into this year's installment, the pressure's on USC to deliver against an opponent that has had the Trojans' number.

3. USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 21)

USC enters 2017 with realistic College Football Playoff expectations. What could be more gratifying for the Trojans' historic rival than to derail those hopes? Well, aside from bouncing back from the 4-8 finish Notre Dame endured a season ago, which ended with a lopsided loss at USC.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Notre Dame
College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

There's certainly precedent for non-conference losses denying Pac-12 teams national title opportunities: It happened to Oregon in 2011 (LSU), Stanford in '12 (Notre Dame) and Stanford in '15 (Northwestern). What's more, USC has lost its last two times visiting South Bend.

4. Washington at Colorado (Sept. 23)

Don't think the Buffaloes didn't have this Pac-12 Championship Game rematch in the back of their minds all offseason. Colorado gave Washington a competitive first half before turnovers set up easy Husky scores.

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College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

Flying under the radar in preseason predictions – Pac-12 media tabbed Colorado to finish fourth in the South division it won a season ago – the Buffs have a prime opportunity to declare they're not done just yet.

5. USC at Washington State (Friday, Sept. 29)

Commonly cited as a potential trap game for preseason Pac-12 favorite USC, the Trojans' first visit to Washington State since 2014 should be a matchup of Top 25-ranked opponents – so long as both handle their business in the first four weeks of the season.

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College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

Washington State broke out of its decade-long doldrums in 2015, contending for the Pac-12 North title down the stretch. The Cougars played a de facto North championship game against rival Washington last season. With one of the most veteran lineups in the Pac-12, Washington State has the pieces to shock the conference.

6. USC at Colorado (Nov. 11)

USC's the odds-on favorite to win the Pac-12 South in 2017, but the penultimate week of the Trojans' regular season pits them against the defending divisional champion. 

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College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

The Trojans were dominant in all phases of last year's meeting at the Coliseum, save the scoreboard. The Buffaloes were within a score at the final horn, the result of USC miscues. Similarly, USC had to overcome mistakes to escape Boulder with a win in 2015. Interestingly, Colorado has never beaten USC – however, the last two decisions went in the Trojans' favor by just seven combined points.

7. Stanford at Utah (Oct. 7)

Staggered divisional schedules have kept these two, similarly constructed teams apart since 2014. In their last meeting, Utah won a defensive slugfest for the second consecutive year; the 2013 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium served as a jumping off point for where the Utes are now, which is in regular contention among the Pac-12's best.

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College Football Top 25 Rankings: Stanford

Both the Cardinal and Utes enter 2017 with modest buzz. One or both could sneak up to win their divisions, so expect a championship kind of vibe for this one.

8. Stanford at San Diego State (Sept. 16)

Stanford plays an absolutely grueling schedule for the first month or so, traveling to Australia in the opener; facing rival USC on the road two weeks later; heading to Utah the first weekend of October; and sandwiched in between is a visit to America's Finest City – a visit that could well be no vacation for the Cardinal.

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College Football Top 25 Rankings: Stanford

San Diego State' has won 22 games over the last two seasons, and wears the proverbial belt as two-time defending Mountain West Conference champion. This year's squad may well be the best Rocky Long has had at San Diego State, giving this matchup the potential for a landscape-shaking upset.

9. Washington State vs. Boise State (Sept. 9)

In much the same vein as Stanford's matchup with San Diego State, Washington State's Week 2 home date against Mountain West contender Boise State has intriguing upset possibility. Though these Broncos may not be at the level of past Boise State squads that threatened to crash the national title landscape, Bryan Harsin does have his best team since the 2014 Fiesta Bowl-winning bunch. On paper, this looks like a stronger squad than the one that beat Washington State in Boise a season ago.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Boise State
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What's more, Washington State has been prone to non-conference home losses of late. Whether Washington State has turned the corner to full-fledged Pac-12 title contender or not may be revealed in this intriguing non-conference date.

10. UCLA at Memphis (Sept. 16)

UCLA faces a gauntlet in the non-conference, opening with Texas A&M, hosting a potential breakout team in Hawaii, then traveling for a rare road date against a Group of 5 power. Memphis began breaking out as a Group of 5 program to watch in 2014, first commanding national attention in a valiant effort at UCLA. The Tigers have since become stalwarts in the American Atheltic Conference, and may well be poised to win an automatic berth in one of the New Year's Six bowls.

College Football Rankings: Memphis Football
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In order to reach that milestone, the Tigers need a marquee win. They enjoy some advantages in this marquee opportunity, hosting UCLA with an early kickoff time. Riley Ferguson's performance against a new-look UCLA secondary will tell the story –both of the day, and perhaps the Bruins' prospects for the impending Pac-12 slate.

11. Stanford vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 25)

The cross-country rivalry between Notre Dame and Stanford really kicked into high gear in 2012. The Fighting Irish's controversial, overtime win kept Notre Dame's BCS championship hopes alive – while effectively extinguishing Stanford's.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Notre Dame
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Stanford

The Cardinal delivered a receipt in 2015 with a last-second Conrad Ukropina field goal that lifted Stanford to victory, and denied Notre Dame a berth in the College Football Playoff. Both matchups continue a trend in which all but one meeting for the last half-decade has been decided by a single possession.

12. Washington State at Washington (Nov. 25)

The 2008 Apple Cup was a showdown of historic futility, with Washington and Washington State limping in as Pac-10 bottom-dwellers. In 2016, the in-state rivalry matchup determined the Pac-12 North's placement in the conference championsip game.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington
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Indeed, things have changed for these programs. Both remain likely contenders for the Pac-12 championship, and the 2017 Apple Cup once again could be the last pit stop on the way to Santa Clara.

13. UCLA at Utah (Friday, Nov. 3)

UCLA and Utah have built up an interesting competition over recent years. Since 2013, the road team has won every game – including Utah escaping a shootout in the Rose Bowl last season behind a record-setting performance from running back Joe Williams.

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The 2017 installment commands the national stage on a Friday night. Both the Utes and Bruins could factor into the Pac-12 South title race, making this date in the final month of the schedule absolutely pivotal.

14. USC vs. Texas (Sept. 16)

Texas and USC have not met since a fateful, January night in 2006. Still considered the greatest game ever played by many – including a few members of this current USC team – the 2017 rematch simply won't be able to meet its standard. However, this is an interesting measuring stick for both teams.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Texas
College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

USC is widely regarded a playoff contender, while Tom Herman's been tasked with getting Texas back to that level. He inherits plenty of talent from Charlie Strong, so this Week 3 showdown should provide a barometer for the Longhorns' chances to win immediately under the new regime.

15. Colorado at Oregon State (Oct. 14)

Colorado emerged from several seasons of losing in 2016, building on the promise of competitive losses the season prior and experience up and down the roster. If the Pac-12 is to produce a similar Cinderella story this season, look no further than Oregon State. Gary Andersen's 2017 roster is his most experienced, and has had time to acclimate to the schemes and strategies.

College football rankings: Oregon State
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Fittingly, one of the Beavers' opportunities to grow into this year's Colorado is with a home date against last year's breakout squad.

16. Oregon at Arizona State (Sept. 23)

Arizona State and Oregon are two programs at different points in their identity. The Sun Devils need to shake things up after two straight losing seasons under head coach Todd Graham, while Oregon's entrusted the program's future to Willie Taggart. For the Ducks, an early-season visit to the desert is an opportunity to set the course on the right direction for the years to come. For the Sun Devils, an opponent that has been a routine foil has make-or-break potential for the current regime.

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College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oregon

17. Stanford at Washington State (Nov. 4)

First place in the Pac-12 North was on the line when Stanford last visited Washington State – and the Cougars would have left that night with top billing, were it not for some late-game heroics out of Christian McCaffrey and Kevin Hogan. Mike Leach's bunch broke through last season with a rout over an injury-depleted Cardinal side.

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College Football Top 25 Rankings: Stanford

The two teams will jockey for positioning in the division once more in this first outing of the season's final month. Of note: These are two of the best offensive lines in all of college football.

Best of the Rest:

18. UCLA at USC (Nov. 18) 

19. Washington State at Utah (Nov. 11) 

20. Oregon at UCLA (Oct. 21) 

21. Utah at Arizona (Friday, Sept. 22) 

22. Arizona State at Texas Tech (Sept. 16) 

23. Houston at Arizona (Sept. 9) 

24. Utah at USC (Oct. 14) 

25. San Diego State at Arizona State (Sept. 9)

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