Utah looks to make its mark as the team to beat in the South early in the 2018 season
An October night in Tempe, Arizona, serves as reminder that anything can happen on any Saturday of Pac-12 football.
Arizona State's defeat of Washington last season shook up both the Pac-12 and national landscape in a profound way. The upset also followed the conference M.O. in recent years. Shocks and surprises are guaranteed along the way, oftentimes a byproduct of the phenomenon that is #Pac12AfterDark.
Both in non-conference and league play, the 2018 Pac-12 schedule features plenty of opportunity for upset. Although pinpointing truly earth-shaking upsets is a difficult endeavor -- who really had Arizona State over Washington last season, anyway? -- the potential for underdogs to flourish exist in the following contests.
5 and 6. Colorado over Nebraska and UCLA, Sept. 8 and 28
Colorado fell one game shy of bowl eligibility in 2017. And while the result of any one of seven losses changes the postseason for the Buffaloes, their loss Sept. 30 at UCLA might be the most gut-wrenching. The Bruins used a late-game score to elevate past Colorado; UCLA finished the regular season 6-6 and in the Cactus Bowl, while Colorado spent the holidays at home.
That narrow defeat should be looming large for Mike MacIntyre's squad when UCLA comes to Boulder on Sept. 28. The buzz for this Friday night affair will depend largely on each teams' performance over the preceding four weeks. A rough start against a brutal schedule may temper some of the hype surrounding Chip Kelly's debut season with UCLA. Colorado faces a much more manageable slate leading up to the Bruins' visit, but a win Sept. 8 at Nebraska could be the difference in Colorado entering 3-0 with a chance at generating some real exciting, or putting the Buffs against the wall in pursuit of a bowl bid.
The good news for Colorado, when it renews a classic Big 8/12 rivalry with current Big Ten member Nebraska, the Buffs get the Cornhuskers early in the Scott Frost experiment. The former UCF coach oversees a large-scale rebuilding project in Lincoln, making Nebraska ripe for Colorado to score a signature, non-conference win.
4. Stanford over USC, Sept. 8
Depending how Week 1 shakes out and our friends in Las Vegas evaluate these two teams, this may not end up qualifying as an actual upset. All the same, USC's two wins over Stanford a season ago, including December's Pac-12 Championship Game, could influence the forecast for the 2018 installment. What's more, of all games on the conference's September docket, this may have the most profound impact in terms of shaping the two divisional championship races.
USC will still be adjusting to life after Sam Darnold when it visits The Farm. In contrast, the Stanford offense should be working fluidly with Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love leading the way. The question will be K.J. Costello's health; if he's at 100 percent, this will provide the ultimate litmus test of Stanford's title-contending bona fides. USC brings one of the nation's most talented defenses, returning such noteworthy starters as Cameron Smith, Christian Rector and breakout playmaker John Houston Jr.
3. UCLA over Arizona, Oct. 20
Six years ago when Chip Kelly was at Oregon and Kevin Sumlin was just beginning at Texas A&M, the prospect of these head coaches facing off was tantalizing. It comes to fruition in 2018 under different circumstances, but the results should be exciting all the same.
Arizona embarks on 2018 with realistic aspirations to win the Pac-12 South, as Sumlin inherits a well-stocked roster in his first season. Kelly faces different circumstances at UCLA; the Bruins face uncertainty up and down the roster. Still, UCLA should be a dangerous team, and history suggests Arizona should be concerned.
UCLA has been a consistent problem for Arizona, winning every matchup from 2012-16. The Wildcats have not won at the Rose Bowl since 2010.
2. Arizona State over Michigan State, Sept. 8
Late summer brings unpredictable monsoon rains to the state of Arizona. Get caught in the wrong place while out for an evening drive, and your car might be inundated in flood waters. In the rainy season is an apt metaphor for Arizona State games coinciding with this part of the season.
Sun Devil Stadium has been home to plenty of memorable, early-season upsets. Last season's aforementioned defeat of Washington ranks among the most landscape-altering upsets of 2017, while '18 visitor Michigan State can look to Big Ten Conference mates for other noteworthy examples. Arizona State jump-started its run to the 1997 Rose Bowl with a shocker against defending national champion Nebraska in the opening month of that season. In much more recent times, Wisconsin saw its hopes dashed on a stormy final drive.
Michigan State enters 2018 as one of the most veteran teams in the country. Mark Dantonio has a squad capable of returning to the College Football Playoff, but the Spartans' title hopes could be dashed as fast as a monsoon lightning bolt strikes when they take on Manny Wilkins and Co.
1. Utah over Washington, Sept. 15
Washington needed a rare late-game miscue last year against Utah to escape on a last-second field goal, 33-30. The Huskies' narrow win continued a recent trend of nail-biting finishes between these two programs -- no surprise, given the similar styles and approaches head coaches Chris Petersen and Kyle Whittingham employ.
With Utah having the benefit of home-field advantage in this season's installment, a possible (if not likely) preview of the 2018 Pac-12 Championship Game could go Utah's way. This looks to be the best offense the Utes have had in their Pac-12 tenure, with dual-threat talent Tyler Huntley ready to make a star-turn at quarterback. Zack Moss returning at running back also gives the Utes a nice balance.
However, this one comes down to defenses. These are two of the conference's best, and the hard-hitting war of attrition one can expect adds a potential difference-making element when considering the high elevation of Rice-Eccles Stadium.