Washington and USC may be preseason favorites, but they have different paths to the Pac-12 Championship Game
For the first time in 16 years, the reigning Pac-12 Conference champion is not one of either Oregon, Stanford or USC. The Washington Huskies enter 2017 looking to repeat as league champions for the first time since completing a trifecta in 1990-92. But the program that Washington unseated to take its place on the Pac-12 throne — looms as one potential threat. Another is USC.
It's been almost 10 years since USC's decade of dominance ended. After finishing 2016 on a nine-game winning streak, which included a road win at Washington and Rose Bowl comeback for the ages, the Trojans could be the front-runners in the 2017 Conference of Champions race. That's assuming they can endure a difficult schedule bereft of a bye week.
Non-Conference: Western Michigan, Texas, at Notre Dame
South Home: Utah, Arizona, UCLA
South Road: Arizona State, Colorado
Crossover: Stanford, at Cal, at Washington State, Oregon State
For a second consecutive season, USC's is the toughest schedule in the Pac-12. Much like last season, an ambitious non-conference slate sets the tone. The Trojans face two blue-blood programs in Texas and Notre Dame that, despite struggles in 2016, are both rife with talent. Kicking off the non-conference schedule — as well as a daunting, 12-week run without a bye — is last season's Cotton Bowl participant, Western Michigan.
USC does get some relief in that it plays a majority of its games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, including a divisional rivalry showdown with Stanford on Week 2. The Trojans avoid defending Pac-12 champion Washington, as well. Divisional crossover does make up for that somewhat, sending the Trojans to the Palouse to meet a dangerous Washington State team on just six days of rest.
Non-Conference: at North Carolina, Weber State, Ole Miss
North Home: Washington State, Oregon State
North Road: Oregon, Washington, Stanford
Crossover: USC, Arizona, at Colorado, at UCLA
Cal's non-conference schedule ranks among the toughest in the nation, with dates against the ACC's North Carolina Tar Heels and SEC's Ole Miss Rebels looming. That gives the Golden Bears a hefty 11 games vs. Power Five opponents. Cal isn't the only team in the Pac-12 facing such a task, but the Golden Bears are up against more of those on the road than at home.
The road plays an important theme in Cal's second-toughest Pac-12 schedule ranking. The Golden Bears open at North Carolina, then begin Pac-12 play with two of their first three away from Berkeley — at Oregon and at Washington — then wrap up with back-to-back roadies at Stanford and UCLA. Cal's trip to the Rose Bowl comes on short rest.
Non-Conference: Texas A&M, Hawaii, at Memphis
South Home: Colorado, Arizona State
South Road: Arizona, Utah, USC
Crossover: at Stanford, Oregon, at Washington, Cal
One could make a compelling case that UCLA has the toughest schedule in the Pac-12. After all, the Bruins face both Stanford and Washington in cross-divisional play — and both are played away from the Rose Bowl. Those are two of the standout road contests in a year that UCLA gets the more challenging end of the Pac-12's odd conference schedule. Count likely South-division contenders Utah and USC among the traveling road show.
Non-Conference: Rice (in Sydney, Australia), at San Diego State, Notre Dame
North Home: Oregon, Washington, Cal
North Road: at Oregon State, at Washington State
Crossover: at USC, UCLA, Arizona State, at Utah
Stanford sees a collection of formidable opponents away from home this season, both in and out of conference. The Pac-12 docket opens Week 2 with a trip to Los Angeles to face USC, and the next week takes the Cardinal south down the 5 to meet San Diego State. The Aztecs boast back-to-back 11-win seasons. Other road contests include a Thursday night trip to Oregon State — and weird things tend to happen on Thursdays in college football — then Washington State two weeks later.
An odd wrinkle to Stanford's schedule: It will have played its entire allotment of crossover games before seeing a single opponent out of the North. Oregon's visit to the Farm on Oct. 14 marks the first Pac-12 North contest on the Cardinal's slate.
5. Arizona State
Non-Conference: New Mexico State, San Diego State, at Texas Tech
South Home: USC, Colorado, Arizona
South Road: Utah, UCLA
Crossover: Oregon, at Stanford, Washington, at Oregon State
Arizona State's schedule is an interesting mix of potential upsets — both for and against the Sun Devils. ASU welcomes presumptive Pac-12 favorite USC to Tempe, as well as defending divisional champion Colorado. The Sun Devils also see Washington in the friendly confines of Sun Devil Stadium, where the Huskies have yet to win in 14 years.
On the flip side, San Diego State looms as a potential trap game early in the schedule, and Oregon State welcomes the Sun Devils to Reser Stadium later in the year. The Beavers denied Arizona State's Pac-12 South title bid with an upset victory in Corvallis when ASU last visited.
6. Washington State
Non-Conference: Montana State, Boise State, Nevada
North Home: Oregon State, Stanford
North Road: Oregon, Cal, Washington
Crossover: USC, Colorado, at Arizona, at Utah
Washington State's non-conference schedule checked in at No. 8 when those rankings were published a month ago, but the difficulty of the Cougars' league schedule bumps them up two spots to the upper half of the Pac-12. Washington State plays five road Pac-12 games to four at Martin Stadium. And while the home games include Stanford and USC, the Cougars must travel to Washington and Utah.
What's more, Washington State plays at Martin Stadium just once over the final month of the regular season, finishing out a grueling 11 straight weeks without a bye.
7. Oregon State
Non-Conference: at Colorado State, Portland State, Minnesota
North Home: Washington, Stanford
North Road: Washington State, Cal, Oregon
Crossover: at USC, Colorado, at Arizona, Arizona State
A recurring theme for some of these schedules ranked as more difficult: drawing five road games on the Pac-12's odd-number schedule. Oregon State's another such example. The Beavers do benefit from drawing North-division heavyweights Washington and Stanford at Reser Stadium, but seeing Cal and rival Oregon on the road could be a recipe ripe for upset. The same is true for a Week 0 non-conference date with Colorado State.
Non-Conference: Southern Utah, Nebraska, at Wyoming
North Home: Cal, Washington State, Oregon State
North Road: Stanford, Washington
Crossover: at Arizona State, at UCLA, Arizona, Utah
Oregon slides slightly from its non-conference schedule ranking, but don't mistake it for the Ducks having an easy Pac-12 schedule. However, it's a slate better tailored to getting back to the postseason than in-state counterpart Oregon State — which the Ducks have the good fortune of hosting to close out the regular season.
Yes, North leaders Stanford and Washington are both road games. But chalking those up as likely losses either at home or away means Oregon draws more of the teams it should be at Autzen Stadium. That includes Cal and Oregon State. Utah, which Oregon upset in Salt Lake City a season ago, is a great opportunity to score Willie Taggart's signature win in Year 1.
Non-Conference: North Dakota, at BYU, San Jose State
South Home: Arizona State, UCLA, Colorado
South Road: Arizona, USC
Crossover: Stanford, at Oregon, Washington State, at Washington
The good news: Utah's non-conference schedule isn't particularly daunting. The lone road game is against rival BYU, a contest played between a crowd sure to have plenty of red among it. That leads into a Pac-12 schedule in which the Utes draw five conference games at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Three of those home games come in the crucial, final stretch of the season. Utah also plays at home in four of its final six.
The bad news: Utah gets each of the Pac-12 North's likely leaders in crossover play: Stanford, Washington and Washington State. All three are Top 25-caliber, with Stanford and Washington appearing capable of occupying the top 10.
Non-Conference: Colorado State (in Denver), Texas State, North Colorado
South Home: Arizona, USC
South Road: UCLA, Arizona State, Utah
Crossover: Washington, at Oregon State, at Washington State, Cal
Barring something unforeseen in the season-opening rivalry tilt with Colorado State, defending Pac-12 South champion Colorado should waltz through its non-conference slate; hence the Buffaloes checking in at No. 12 among the conference's out-of-league schedule. However, the degree of difficulty picks up enough in the Pac-12 slate for Colorado to climb two spots. The Buffs get the short end of the uneven Pac-12 docket, which could be the difference in them once again contending for a conference title, or falling to the middle of the pack. The gap between UCLA, Arizona, Utah and Colorado could be thin, so drawing each of those away from Boulder could be trouble.
Colorado also avoids Stanford in crossover competition and hosts Washington.
Non-Conference: Northern Arizona, Houston, at UTEP
South Home: Utah, UCLA
South Road: Colorado, USC, Arizona State
Crossover: at Cal, Washington State, Oregon State, at Oregon
Arizona needs some breaks to bounce back after a dismal 2016. The uneven conference schedule working against the Wildcats this year won't help, but the Wildcats do manage to avoid each of the North's top contenders — Washington and Stanford — out of division. The North's third-most likely leader, Washington State, comes to Tucson. After last year's 62-point smashing sustained on the Palouse, Arizona might prefer avoid the Cougars this season, however.
Drawing Utah at home early on a Friday night could be Arizona's best hope of igniting some positivity heading into Pac-12 play.
Non-Conference: at Rutgers, Montana, Fresno State
North Home: Cal, Oregon, Washington State
North Road: Oregon State, Stanford
Crossover: at Colorado, at Arizona State, UCLA, Utah
Defending Pac-12 champion Washington just might have the most favorable road back to Levi's Stadium of any program in the conference. The Huskies face a light non-conference slate, then play five Pac-12 games at home to give them seven contests on Montlake in total this fall.
The schedule's also back-loaded with home games. Four of the final five are in Husky Stadium, including Pac-12 South crossover opponent Utah, and potential Pac-12 North contender Washington State. Meanwhile, USC is off the ledger altogether.