Ranking the Pac-12's Toughest 2016 College Football Schedules

Defending champion Stanford and USC both face uphill climbs to return to the Pac-12 title game.

Unprecedented parity has transformed the Pac-12 landscape, turning a conference once dominated but just one or two teams into a wide-open free-for-all.

 

That trend should continue in 2016, with no clear front-runner for the league championship standing out on paper. All of last season's top performers, including reigning champion Stanford, must address sizable voids left by departing players.

 

An open race should for a wildly competitive and entertaining campaign. Some teams have schedules more conducive to making a run to the top, while others must endure a grind to win out.

 

* - neutral site

 

1. USC

Non-Conference: Alabama*, Utah State, Notre Dame

South Home: Arizona State, Colorado

South Road: Arizona, Utah, UCLA

Crossover: at Stanford, Cal, Oregon, at Washington

 

A brutal schedule starts and ends with teams that played in New Year’s Six bowl games a season ago. One just happens to be defending national champion Alabama.

 

Between dates with the Crimson Tide and Notre Dame, USC draws the three best teams from the North in cross-divisional play

– Oregon, Stanford and Washington – and gets just two South division foes at home.

 

2. UCLA

Non-Conference: at Texas A&M, UNLV, at BYU

South Home: Arizona, Utah, USC

South Road: at Arizona State, at Colorado

Crossover: Stanford, at Washington State, Oregon State, at Cal

 

Power Five conference programs will often take advantage of their status by playing more home dates than road. UCLA gets an even six on each side, with two challenging contests away from the Rose Bowl in non-conference play, and some trap contests in the Pac-12 slate.

 

3. Stanford

Non-Conference: Kansas State, at Notre Dame, Rice

North Home: Washington State, Oregon State

North Road: Washington, Oregon, Cal

Crossover: USC, at UCLA, Colorado, at Arizona

 

Stanford often plays one of the more ambitious schedules in college football, typically facing 11 power-conference opponents. The 2016 campaign is no exception.

 

This is Stanford's year to draw more road games than home in Pac-12 play, and that includes treks to Oregon and Washington -- two teams likely to contend for the North division crown. The Cardinal avoid Utah in cross-divisional play, but travel to UCLA.

 

4. Oregon

Non-Conference: UC Davis, Virginia, at Nebraska 

North Home: Washington, Stanford

North Road: Washington State, Cal, Oregon State

Crossover: Colorado, Arizona State, at USC, at Utah

 

Autzen Stadium was recently the Pac-12's most feared venue, but losses there last season to Washington State and Utah, and Arizona in 2014, have worn the veneer somewhat. Defending home field is critical -- particularly with pivotal, North division games against Stanford and Washington coming in Eugene.

 

Oregon's road docket is challenging. The Ducks travel to USC and Utah in divisional crossover competition, trek to Martin Stadium to visit Washington State, and go to Lincoln, Neb., for a marquee, non-conference date with the Cornhuskers.

 

5. Colorado

Non-Conference: Colorado State*, Idaho State, at Michigan

South Home: Arizona State, UCLA, Utah

South Road: USC, Arizona

Crossover: at Oregon, Oregon State, at Stanford, Washington State

 

Colorado’s gained a lot of invaluable experience and suffered repeated heartbreak, dropping several close games in 2015. The 2016 Buffaloes return with one of the Pac-12’s most veteran rosters, and a real chance to finally break out under head coach Mike MacIntyre.

 

Doing so means braving a challenge schedule, which sends Colorado to Michigan, Oregon and Stanford.

 

6. Washington

Non-Conference: Rutgers, Idaho, Portland State

North Home: Stanford, Oregon State

North Road: Oregon, Cal, Washington State

Crossover: at Arizona, at Utah, USC, Arizona State

 

Chris Petersen returns an experienced lineup for what could be a breakout season at Washington. The Huskies have the pieces to contend for their first conference championship since 2000, but must do so against an imbalanced road schedule.

 

Drawing 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game participants Stanford and USC is big, but Washington must try to snap its 13-year losing skid against rival Oregon in Autzen Stadium. The Huskies do avoid UCLA in divisional crossover.

 

7. Oregon State

Non-Conference: at Minnesota, Idaho State, Boise State

North Home: Cal, Washington State, Oregon

North Road: Washington, Stanford

Crossover: at Colorado, Utah, at UCLA, Arizona

 

Gary Andersen endured a rough introduction to the Pac-12, going winless in his first season at Oregon State. The Beavers get the benefit of more home games than road in the conference, including a potentially rebuilding Cal and an unknown Arizona.

 

The Beavers' non-conference slate is challenging, opening with a visit to Big Ten country at Minnesota, and Boise State coming to Reser Stadium.

 

8. Utah

Non-Conference: Southern Utah, BYU, at San Jose State

South Home: USC, Arizona

South Road: UCLA, Arizona State, Colorado

Crossover: at Cal, at Oregon State, Washington, Oregon

 

The imbalanced conference schedule works against Utah this year, sending the Utes to Arizona State -- where they have struggled since joining the Pac-12 in 2011 -- and to dangerous Colorado. The Buffs have played Utah close every year in their rivalry week matchup.

 

Utah draws quality North division foes Oregon and Washington at home, and travels for more manageable dates with Cal and Oregon State.

 

9. Arizona State

Non-Conference: Northern Arizona, Texas Tech, at UTSA

South Home: UCLA, Utah

South Road: USC, Colorado, Arizona

Crossover: Cal, Washington State, at Oregon, at Washington

 

Arizona State's results at Sun Devil Stadium last season were decidedly better than on the road. Drawing UCLA and Utah in Tempe bodes well, as well as home rematches of late-season losses at Cal and Washington State.

 

Facing an imbalanced road schedule in 2016, with critical South division matchups at USC and Arizona, and trips to face North division heavies Oregon and Washington, this season's Sun Devils will need to win more on the road.

 

10. California

Non-Conference: Hawaii*, at San Diego State, Texas

North Home: Oregon, Washington, Stanford

North Road: Oregon State, Washington State

Crossover: at Arizona State, Utah, at USC, UCLA

 

No team in the Pac-12 will rack up as much mileage as Cal, based solely on the Golden Bears’ Week Zero matchup with Hawaii in Australia. However, it's their home slate that warrants attention.

 

Texas, UCLA, Oregon, Washington and Stanford all visit Berkeley in 2016. Any of the latter three could win the North, but Cal has a prime opportunity to score a division-altering win at home.

 

11. Arizona

Non-Conference: BYU*, Grambling State, Hawaii

South Home: USC, Colorado, Arizona State

South Road: UCLA, Utah

Crossover: Washington, Stanford, at Washington State, at Oregon State

 

Arizona’s non-conference schedules have been anything but daunting in recent seasons, though the addition of a neutral site game against BYU ups the ante some for 2016.

 

After easing into conference play with paycheck games against Grambling State and Hawaii, Arizona faces a much more favorable league slate than the season ago. The Wildcats draw a bye week in the heart of Pac-12 play, which they didn’t have in 2015, and they get five home games in conference.

 

12. Washington State

Non-Conference: Eastern Washington, at Boise State, Idaho

North Home: Oregon, Cal, Washington

North Road: Stanford, Oregon State

Crossover: UCLA, at Arizona State, Arizona, at Colorado

 

A landmark 2015 season may have laid the foundation for Washington State to return to the Pac-12 title hunt for the first time since the early 2000s. The Cougars play a favorable non-conference slate, bereft of Power Five competition -- though a road game at Boise State is perhaps more challenging than most Power Five dates.

 

In league play, the road breaks down nicely for a surprise run to Levi's Stadium and the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Cougars host Oregon, UCLA and Arizona -- all teams they beat on the road last season. Stanford's a tough road date, but Washington State draws a winnable Oregon State game away from the Palouse.

 

— 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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