USC faces two blue blood programs to headline the Pac-12's non-conference slate
There is no easy way around this, so let's address it up front: The Pac-12 Conference's collective non-conference schedule in 2017 isn't exactly awe-inspiring.
The conference's nine-game league schedule has been a repeated point of contention in recent years among fans, media and even coaches. Because the Pac-12 is guaranteed more Power Five games up front than counterparts from the ACC and SEC, there's some debate as to whether the league's teams should seek out additional Power Five matchups in the non-conference.
To the conference's credit, eight members play at least one Power Five opponent in the non-conference. Some scheduled high-quality Group of Five opponents with Boise State, Houston, San Diego State and Western Michigan among the dates on Pac-12 calendars. Still, the debate lives on. Just two years ago, Stanford missed the College Football Playoff as a result of playing 11 Power Five games, including taking a Week 1 trip to Northwestern. The next season, Washington faced a notoriously weak non-conference schedule and landed in the final four.
Of course, the Huskies also played a 10th Power Five game. Can a team be faulted for a Power Five opponent like Rutgers not living up to a higher standard?
That's just one of the many questions college football has yet to clearly answer in the Playoff era. The uncertainty of this brave, new world is reflected in the vastly different scheduling philosophies evident across the Pac-12 in 2017.
Sept. 2 vs. Western Michigan
Sept. 16 vs. Texas
Oct. 21 at Notre Dame
USC's non-conference schedule features a 2016 New Year's bowl game participant — and it's neither of the two blue-blood programs on the Trojans' docket.
For a second consecutive season, USC opens with a team that played in the previous year's Cotton Bowl. There's considerable difference in facing the well-oiled machine that is Nick Saban's Alabama, and taking on a Western Michigan squad that Cinderella'd its way to Arlington (and lost its head coach as a result, with P.J. Fleck heading to Minnesota). Nevertheless, the Trojans once again set the tone for the most difficult non-conference schedule in the conference with a New Year's Six opponent.
Both Texas and Notre Dame sputtered through disappointing 2016 campaigns. Charlie Strong was dismissed following the Longhorns' 5-7 finish. Brian Kelly was given another season, but the Fighting Irish need to turn it around this fall. While questions loom for both programs — how will Texas take to Tom Herman, and will Notre Dame rally around Kelly? — these are two of the biggest brand names in college football. Put them together with USC, and there's no shortage of talent on either sideline.
Sept. 2 at North Carolina
Sept. 9 vs. Weber State
Sept. 16 vs. Ole Miss
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a shorter trek from Berkeley than Sydney, Australia, where Cal football opened its 2016 season. Otherwise, though, this is one of the longest trips any team in college football will take. The Golden Bears' visit to face Larry Fedora's tough Tar Heels serves as one book-end of an impressive non-conference slate.
The other book-end in head coach Justin Wilcox's debut campaign is a home date with the SEC's Ole Miss Rebels. While Ole Miss suffered through a disappointing 2016, and now faces the looming uncertainty of NCAA sanctions, Hugh Freeze has had a consistent winner in his time in Oxford. It's a rare occasion when an SEC program ventures to California, making this one of the nation's marquee dates on the non-conference docket.
Sept. 3 (Sunday) vs. Texas A&M
Sept. 9 vs. Hawaii
Sept. 16 at Memphis
Last season's overtime loss at Texas A&M proved what college football fans across the country have been saying for years: The SEC and Pac-12 need to play more home-and-home contests. The Aggies return the favor to kick off 2017, visiting Pasadena and Rose Bowl Stadium for an intriguing matchup. Both programs have fallen shy of expectations in the last few seasons. A win over a marquee opponent in Week 1 sets the tone for the entire season.
UCLA's 2017 season — unofficially the Revenge of Josh Rosen — won't hit the road until Week 3. After Hawaii comes to town Week 2 for what should be a tune-up, the Bruins travel to Memphis for one of the most low-key difficult road trips any Pac-12 team faces. Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente built a winner at Memphis, and Mike Norvell kept the Tigers going in his first season as head coach. Memphis first made noise on the national scene in 2014, when it nearly upset a ranked UCLA team at the Rose Bowl.
Aug. 26 vs. Rice (Sydney, Australia)*
Sept. 16 at San Diego State
Nov. 25 vs. Notre Dame
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has been open about his ambitions to take the conference global. Various Pac-12 basketball teams have opened the season in China over the last few years. A team of conference basketball all-stars toured Australia in the summer of 2016. And last season, the Conference of Champions went Down Under when Cal opened 2016 against Hawaii.
This year, Stanford gets the honors of visiting Australia in Week 0 with a game against Rice. The travel required to get from the Bay Area to Sydney will be the most grueling part of a likely Cardinal romp. A road trip three weeks later against San Diego State is the much tougher matchup. Rocky Long consistently produces outstanding defenses, and running back Rashaad Penny is a star in the making.
The traditional visit from Notre Dame to caps the season. The Fighting Irish and Cardinal have played several classics in recent years, no matter if one team was up and the other down. When Notre Dame last visited The Farm in 2015, Stanford denied the Irish a College Football Playoff berth on a last-second field goal.
5. Arizona State
Aug. 31 (Thursday) vs. New Mexico State
Sept. 9 vs. San Diego State
Sept. 16 at Texas Tech
Head coach Todd Graham has found a consistent blueprint for tailoring his non-conference schedule. The Sun Devils will often open with an FCS or lower Group of Five opponent — in this case, New Mexico State — then amp up the intensity in the subsequent weeks.
That's the case in 2017, with Arizona State welcoming San Diego State to renovated Sun Devil Stadium. The Aztecs finished 2016 ranked in the Top 25 with 11 wins -- one of which came against Cal. San Diego State's 2017 team returns several key veterans, and should have an experience edge over the Sun Devils. Before Pac-12 play begins, Arizona State tests itself with a trip to Lubbock for a return match with Texas Tech.
The Red Raiders' visit to Tempe in 2016 produced fireworks in the form of Kalen Ballage's eight touchdowns.
Sept. 2 vs. Southern Utah
Sept. 9 vs. Nebraska
Sept. 16 at Wyoming
Last season's visit to Lincoln, Nebraska, for a date with the Cornhuskers effectively derailed Oregon's season. Injuries and penalties piled up, and missed opportunities on two-point conversions proved costly, beginning the Ducks' season-long slide. Nebraska's receipt for the 2016 contest highlights an interesting Oregon non-conference schedule.
Longtime Oregon State head coach Mike Riley knows Autzen Stadium well, but a matchup with Willie Taggart is new for the Husker head coach. A week after this potentially emotional showdown looms a possible trap game. Oregon goes to college football's highest elevation, over 7,000 feet in Laramie, Wyoming. The Cowboys are coming off a surprising, breakthrough season under Craig Bohl. The multiple-time FCS national championship head coach employs a physically hard-nosed style — a style that gave Oregon problems a season ago.
7. Oregon State
Aug. 26 at Colorado State
Sept. 2 vs. Portland State
Sept. 9 vs. Minnesota
Oregon State opens the 2017 season on Week 0, helping Colorado State christen its new stadium. Emotions will be running high for the Rams faithful, reveling in both the opening of a new venue, and the opportunity to host a Pac-12 opponent. With one less week of preparation and the external hoopla, an Oregon State team that closed 2016 with tons of momentum faces a potential trap.
After a date with local FCS counterpart Portland State, Minnesota returns its half of the home-and-home in a visit to Reser Stadium. The Beavers and Golden Gophers went to the wire in last season's Week 1 showdown of tenacious rodents. Minnesota has a new look this season under former Western Michigan head coach, P.J. Fleck.
8. Washington State
Yes, Washington State opens the 2017 season with an opponent out of the Big Sky. No, the Cougars are not going to extend their current losing streak against the FCS conference to three games. However, defeats against Portland State and Eastern Washington to kick off the previous two seasons should have Mike Leach's bunch on alert.
Montana State is the first of three teams to visit the Palouse on Washington State's non-conference docket. An all-home game schedule devoid of Power Five competition does dock Washington State some points, but Mountain West foe Boise State is hardly a slouch. The Broncos beat Washington State a season ago in Boise. Nevada also presents a likely challenge under first-year head coach, the Pac-12-experienced Jay Norvell.
Every other year, one of either Arizona or Arizona State plays in-state FCS counterpart Northern Arizona. This year is Arizona's turn, two seasons after the Wildcats hung 77 points on the Lumberjacks. NAU often serves as an opportunity for Arizona to fine-tune. After a dismal 2016 campaign, the Wildcats will need it with Houston visiting Tucson the following week.
The Cougars' trip to Arizona Stadium marks the highest-profile non-conference game in Tucson since the 2012 season, when head coach Rich Rodriguez scored his first signature win with the Wildcats, beating Oklahoma State. Similarly, Houston head coach Major Applewhite will be after his first marquee victory against a Power Five opponent.
Arizona's final date before Pac-12 play takes it four hours east to El Paso to face former Western Athletic Conference rival UTEP. While the Miners have been middling in recent years, UTEP has nearly sprung some upsets over Power Five opponents during late-game affairs in the Sun Bowl.
Aug. 31 (Thursday) vs. North Dakota
Sept. 9 at BYU
Sept. 16 vs. San Jose State
Thank goodness for the Holy War. Not only is the Utah-BYU rivalry much too heated and entertaining to let die a conference realignment-forced death, but without the Utes' visit to Provo in Week 2, the football program would have a non-conference schedule weak enough to rival the Utah basketball team this past season.
Utah looks to make it seven straight over BYU, in between likely blowouts over North Dakota and San Jose State.
Sept. 1 (Friday) at Rutgers
Sept. 9 vs. Montana
Sept. 16 vs. Fresno State
When it came time to evaluate resumes for the College Football Playoff, Pac-12 champion Washington drew criticism for its lackluster non-conference schedule. It's not much better in 2017, improved only slightly with last year's home game against Rutgers now serving as a road contest. The Huskies hit the road for Big Ten Country — it still feels weird writing that of New Jersey. Thanks, conference realignment — then get two home dates against FCS member Montana and the Mountain West's Fresno State.
Montana's regularly a title contender in FCS, and head coach Bob Stitt employs an innovative offensive style. Still, the Grizzlies should be no match for Washington — but may be more of a challenge than Fresno State, which is undergoing a facelift under first-year head coach and longtime Pac-12 fixture, Jeff Tedford.
How does Colorado reward itself for reaching its first Pac-12 Championship Game and finishing ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in more than decade? With a thoroughly unimpressive non-conference schedule, apparently.
OK, so most non-conference slates are mapped out years in advance. For a program that just a year ago was hungry just to go bowling, a schedule featuring two pencil-in wins and the local rivalry probably made more sense. While the customary opener with Colorado State could challenge the Buffaloes in the post-Sefo Liufau era, neither Texas State nor Northern Colorado are likely to pose much challenge when they visit Boulder.
After nine years without a bowl game, Colorado should begin Pac-12 play in 2017 already halfway to eligibility for a second straight season.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45