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

Clay Helton

Clay Helton

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The Pac-12's nine-game conference schedule places a premium on non-conference scheduling. It also exposes differing ideologies on just how to schedule out-of-league matchups when faced with Power Five dates already built into 75 percent of the schedule.

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

Some of the Pac-12's teams play all FCS or Group of Five opponents, building up to the nine-game challenge posed by the league.

Some teams opt for an 11-game Power Five slate — for better or worse. Losing at Northwestern in Week 1 a year ago ostensibly kept Pac-12 champion Stanford out of the College Football Playoff. In the same vein, the Cardinal's willingness to schedule ambitiously seemingly carries weight with the Selection Committee.

Stanford again plays a non-conference gauntlet in 2016, but the toughest such slate in the Pac-12 may well be the toughest in all of college football.

* - neutral site

1. USC

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Sept. 3 vs. Alabama (Arlington, Texas)

Sept. 10 vs. Utah State

Nov. 26 vs. Notre Dame

Never mind the Pac-12, USC may have the most difficult non-conference schedule in the nation.

The Trojans play the rare 11-game Power Five schedule by virtue of non-conference dates with a pair of thusly designated opponents. That in and of itself is challenging enough.

Add that those Power Five opponents, Alabama and Notre Dame, won the national championship and came a field goal shy of reaching the College Football Playoff a season ago. Both are likely preseason Top 10 selections entering the 2016 campaign.

USC's reprieve comes in the form of a Utah State team that regularly ranks among the nation's best in defense.


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Sept. 3 at Texas A&M

Sept. 10 vs. UNLV

Sept. 17 at BYU

UCLA joins Notre Dame and rival USC in an exclusive club of programs to have never scheduled FCS/Div. I-AA competition. While that fact alone lends credence to the idea that UCLA plays a tougher non-conference slate than most, the Bruins have upped the ante in 2016.

UCLA hits the road twice, starting with a foray into SEC country against Texas A&M. There, Jim Mora's squad sees former Bruin offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who joined Kevin Sumlin's Aggie staff this offseason.

The Bruins also travel to BYU, one of the more hostile environments for visiting teams in the West.

3. Stanford

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Sept. 2 vs. Kansas State

Oct. 15 at Notre Dame

Nov. 26 vs. Rice

Stanford head coach David Shaw took pride in his team's challenging 2015 schedule, which included 11 regular season contests against the Power Five.

The 2016 Cardinal see a similar slate, opening with Kansas State from the Big 12 before the customary date with Notre Dame.

Each year since 2012, the Stanford-Notre Dame meetings have been nip-and-tuck battles. Both reached New Year's Six bowl games in the 2015 campaign, and could be primed to do so once again.

4. California

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Aug. 27 vs. Hawaii (Sydney, Australia)

Sept. 10 at San Diego State

Sept. 17 vs. Texas

Cal's trip to Australia, where the Golden Bears play Hawaii, opens the 2016 college football season. That Week 0 contest poses a unique challenge, as it gives Cal an early bye week, which could be a false-start of sorts before two tests in the remaining non-conference slate.

A rematch of last year's wild one against Texas brings the Longhorns to Berkeley. Charlie Strong is in a pivotal third season at UT, and a road win in Pac-12 country would give his team much-needed momentum.

The Golden Bears' trip south to San Diego State might be the most intriguing of the three non-conference dates, given Aztecs head coach Rocky Long unabashedly said Power Five programs are "afraid" to play Group of Five opponents on the road.

The Aztecs are coming off their first undisputed Mountain West championship, and return a lineup capable of a repeat.

5. Oregon State

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Sept. 1 at Minnesota

Sept. 17 vs. Idaho State

Sept. 24 vs. Boise State

Gary Andersen returned to Big Ten country in his first season as Oregon State head coach, visiting Michigan. In his second year, Andersen again returns to the league he briefly occupied as head coach of Wisconsin, this time playing one-time rival Minnesota.

The Beavers' visit to Minneapolis and a home date with a tough Boise State squad headline Oregon State's non-conference docket. Idaho State is the only game that can be penciled in as a win. Given how the Beavers struggled a season ago, a 1-2 start before beginning league play could spell a rough year ahead in Corvallis.

6. Oregon

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Sept. 3 vs. UC Davis

Sept. 10 vs. Virginia

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Sept. 17 at Nebraska

Oregon draws two Power Five opponents in non-conference play, including one headed by a familiar face.

The Ducks' trip to Lincoln to face Nebraska at Memorial Stadium will be made without former national championship-winning Cornhusker Scott Frost, who left his offensive coordinator post at Oregon for the head coaching gig at UCF. Instead, Mark Helfrich can look forward to a reunion with Mike Riley, longtime head coach of rival Oregon State.

Virginia comes to Autzen Stadium in the return match of a 2013 meeting in Charlottesville. Virginia's in the infancy of a rebuild under first-year head coach, former BYU sideline general Bronco Mendenhall.

7. Colorado

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Sept. 2 vs. Colorado State (Denver)

Sept. 10 vs. Idaho State

Sept. 17 at Michigan

When Colorado last visited the Big House, this happened:

Mike MacIntyre should surely like to see a repeat, as he searches for his breakout season heading the Colorado program. Michigan's one of the tougher opponents on the Buffs' docket, including the Pac-12 slate.

Colorado may not need a victory in Ann Arbor to bowl, but the Buffs cannot afford a loss to in-state rival Colorado State. The Buffs and Rams have played several nail-biters in recent seasons. A win there sends Colorado into the conference season above .500. Expect little resistance from Idaho State.

8. Arizona State

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Sept. 3 vs. Northern Arizona

Sept. 10 Texas Tech

Sept. 17 at UTSA

Former Border Conference counterpart Texas Tech visits the refurbished Sun Devil Stadium in the highlight of a middling non-conference schedule. The Big 12's Red Raiders shocked Arizona State in the 2013 Holiday Bowl when these teams last met, and Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury comes to Tempe with perhaps his best team since becoming the program's head coach that same year.

Arizona State plays Northern Arizona, as it has historically every-other-year, and the Sun Devils visit UTSA. Head coach Todd Graham has been diligent about planting the program's flag in Texas.

Against a rebuilding UTSA, the result should be much more favorable for the Sun Devils than in their last visit to the Lone Star State. Arizona State lost a blowout to Texas A&M in Houston last September.

9. Washington State

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Sept. 3 vs. Eastern Washington

Sept. 10 at Boise State

Sept. 17 vs. Idaho

Washinton State's season-opening loss last season to Portland State marked a rare setback against a Big Sky foe — the Cougars hadn't lost such a contest in more than a half-century. Lo and behold, here comes the Big Sky's benchmark program of the last half-decade, Eastern Washington, ready to challenge the Cougars once more.

On paper, Washington State should handle its in-state brethren. The same goes for nearby Idaho, which makes the short jaunt to the Palouse from Moscow for the first time since Mike Leach and Paul Petrino clashed.

The true test on Washington State's out-of-conference schedule is Boise State's visit to Martin Stadium. After a disappointing 2015, the Broncos reload with a lineup capable of earning the Group of Five's New Year's Six bowl bid. That contest could expose Washington State as either a Rose Bowl contender or Pac-12 pretender.

10. Utah

Sept. 1 vs. Southern Utah

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Sept. 10 vs. BYU

Sept. 17 at San Jose State

The temporary end to the Holy War cease-fire highlights an otherwise middling non-conference slate for Utah.

The Utes play a road game against a Group of Five opponent, San Jose State, which is becoming an increasing rarity.

The BYU date is plenty intriguing beyond just the rivalry angle. December's Las Vegas Bowl featured a raucous finish after Utah built a huge, early lead.

San Jose State and in-state FCS foe Southern Utah shouldn't challenge the Utes, though.

11. Arizona

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Sept. 3 vs. BYU (Glendale, Ariz.)

Sept. 10 vs. Grambling State

Sept. 17 vs. Hawaii

Arizona's played some of the softer non-conference schedules among Pac-12 programs in recent years. The coming season's slate picks up in intensity somewhat with a neutral-field date against BYU, but 2016 still marks four consecutive non-conference seasons in which the Wildcats go without a Power Five matchup.

Morever, because the BYU game is to be played in Glendale's University of Phoenix Stadium, the Wildcats will not leave the Grand Canyon State in the non-conference slate.

12. Washington

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Sept. 3 vs. Rutgers

Sept. 10 vs. Idaho

Sept. 17 vs. Portland State

Washington plays a trio of home games before embarking on a difficult Pac-12 schedule. FCS member Portland State, which made a surprise run to last year's playoffs, stands out more than the Huskies' dates against Idaho and Rutgers. The Vikings beat more Pac-12 opponents in 2015, after all.

Rutgers is in rebuild mode this season and should pose resurgent Washington little trouble. While Paul Petrino's team at Idaho is his best since arriving, the standard the Vandals have set in recent years is low. Washington should cruise to 3-0 in non-conference play.

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