Ranking the Pac-12's Toughest Non-Conference College Football Schedules in 2018

UCLA's difficult opening month includes a trip to Norman to face defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma

The 2018 Pac-12 Conference out-of-league schedule features some exciting matchups with traditional rivalries, marquee road games and some of the most intriguing Power 5 vs. Group of 5 games in college football this season.

 

Much of the Pac-12 plays 10 power-conference games as a result of the nine-game league slate, but many of the best non-conference games pit Pac-12 teams against strong Group of 5 teams. A few to watch include Stanford and Arizona State against San Diego State, UCLA hosting Fresno State, and Arizona traveling to Houston.

 

But don't confuse these games with a dearth of great Power 5 vs. Power 5 dates. Starting with Washington's Week 1 showdown against Auburn, the Pac-12 collectively plays a powerful ledger before diving into conference play.

 

1. UCLA

Sept. 1 vs. Cincinnati

Sept. 8 at Oklahoma

Sept. 15 vs. Fresno State

 

Along with crosstown rival USC and Notre Dame, UCLA is one of just three programs in FBS to have never played a Football Championship Subdivision opponent. That makes for some challenging non-conference lineups typically, and the 2018 slate may be the Bruins' most difficult in recent memory.

 

Week 1 opponent Cincinnati is still on the mend after the disastrous Tommy Tuberville era. However, as UCLA's Week 3 matchup demonstrates, just one season can make a world of difference. Fresno State visits the Rose Bowl after a surprise run to the 2017 Mountain West championship, and the 2018 Bulldogs return a bevy of talent. Jeff Tedford had success against UCLA for much of his tenure at Cal, and gave Chip Kelly's Oregon teams a few scares. The defensive-minded Bulldogs should be a tough out.

 

Sandwiched between is a marquee road trip to Oklahoma. The reigning Big 12 champions and national semifinalists lose Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, but return enough talent to be right in the mix of the national conversation once again.

 

2. USC

Sept. 1 vs. UNLV

Sept. 15 at Texas

Nov. 24 vs. Notre Dame

 

USC almost always plays a challenging non-conference slate, and 2018 is no exception. The Trojans' annual date with Notre Dame brings the Fighting Irish to Los Angeles in what could be a College Football Playoff play-in game for both teams.

 

Of course, the stakes of that Thanksgiving weekend showdown depend on results for the preceding 12 weeks. In USC's case, that includes a high-profile road trip to Texas for a rematch of last season's instant classic in the Coliseum. Sam Darnold led a final-minute drive to force overtime, and Christian Rector forced a huge turnover to down the upset-minded Longhorns in 2017. Could another memorable tussle between these blue-blood programs be on the horizon?

 

3. Arizona State

Sept. 1 vs. UTSA

Sept. 8 vs. Michigan State

Sept. 15 at San Diego State

 

The last time Arizona State welcomed a Big Ten opponent into Sun Devil Stadium, ASU scored a controversial, upset win against Wisconsin in 2013. That win served as a prelude to the Sun Devils winning the Pac-12 South. Perhaps when Michigan State travels to the Valley of the Sun in Week 2, it will have similar implications. Certainly a win would plant a prominent pitchfork in the college football landscape for first-year head coach Herm Edwards, as the Spartans will likely be ranked in the top 20 come Sept. 8.

 

Arizona State follows up its showdown against Michigan State with a shot at redemption from 2017, traveling to face San Diego State. The Aztecs KO'd the Sun Devils in Tempe last season behind a monster game from Rashaad Penny. San Diego State head coach Rocky Long said in 2015 Power 5 conference opponents often avoid road trips to Group of 5 programs out of fear of losing. San Diego State beating Pac-12 North champion Stanford last season lends credence to the theory.

 

The Sun Devils have not avoided such games, however, and it nearly cost them at UTSA in 2016. The Roadrunners come to Tempe this season with a sneaky challenger to score a Week 1 upset.

 

4. Stanford

Sept. 1 vs. San Diego State

Sept. 15 vs. UC Davis

Sept. 29 at Notre Dame

 

A fourth-quarter blackout of SDCCU Stadium high... lighted?... a physical bout between Stanford and San Diego State last season, which the Aztecs won. The Cardinal get their shot at revenge in the season opener of 2018, the first of two marquee non-conference dates that pit Stanford against similarly built, hard-hitting opponents.

 

In the other, the Cardinal make their every-other-year trip to Notre Dame for what could be a top 20 showdown with the Fighting Irish. Last season's stunning fourth quarter powered a lopsided Stanford win. Each of the previous three meetings were decided by single digits, however. Every game at Notre Dame Stadium since 2012 has similarly gone down to the wire.

 

5. Washington

Sept. 1 vs. Auburn (Atlanta)

Sept. 8 vs. North Dakota

Sept. 29 vs. BYU

 

Those who tired of the campaign against Washington's 2017 schedule can take heed; the Huskies open this season with arguably the most important non-conference matchup of the season. Washington kicks off a season with College Football Playoff potential against an opponent with similarly realistic ambitions. And while the Chick-Fil-A Classic is technically a neutral field date, Auburn will effectively be playing a home game.

 

Washington comes home a week later for a tune-up opposite Big Sky Conference opponent North Dakota from the FCS ranks, and wraps at the month's end against BYU. The Cougars were down in 2017, but head coach Kalani Sitake is a proven defensive mastermind with Pac-12 coaching experience.

 

6. Colorado

Aug. 31 vs. Colorado State (Denver)

Sept. 8 at Nebraska

Sept. 15 vs. New Hampshire

 

Few programs play two rivalry games before the end of summer, but that's the schedule ahead of Colorado to kick off 2018. The Buffaloes draw in-state rival Colorado State in the customary Week 1 spot, meeting in Denver. The Rams have a talented squad under fourth-year head coach Mike Bobo.

 

The next week, Colorado reignites a rivalry from the Big 8/12 days, which ended with the Buffs' move to the Pac-12 — and Nebraska's move to the Big Ten. This former Thanksgiving weekend matchup is now an intriguing date on a loaded Week 2, with the Cornhuskers looking to score a meaningful win under new head coach Scott Frost, and Mike MacIntyre aiming to get Colorado back on track after a disappointing 2017.

 

While Colorado closes the non-conference slate with a game it should win, don't sleep on New Hampshire: The Wildcats are fixtures of the FCS playoffs.

 

7. Oregon State

Sept. 1 at Ohio State

Sept. 8 vs. Southern Utah

Sept. 15 at Nevada

 

No Pac-12 team faces a more difficult non-conference matchup than Oregon State in Week 1. The Jonathan Smith era kicks off with a road trip to Ohio State, where Urban Meyer has a national championship contender yet again.

 

It gets easier from there, but not so much the Beavers can take anything for granted. Their Week 2 opponent was a surprise, breakout team in the FCS a season ago, and could contend for the Big Sky championship again. Oregon State follows it up with a second road date on its non-conference slate, a rarity among Power 5 teams. The Beavers face a rebuilding Nevada team in Reno to close out their out-of-league docket.

 

8. Arizona

Sept. 1 vs. BYU

Sept. 8 at Houston

Sept. 15 vs. Southern Utah

 

Arizona played some notoriously bad non-conference schedules in recent years, but the 2018 slate picks up some steam to welcome Kevin Sumlin as the Wildcats' new head coach. Arizona opens at home against a BYU team coming off a dismal 2017, but that should be much improved with some returning talent and a new offensive coordinator.

 

The biggie of Arizona's 2018 non-conference schedule is its Week 2 trip to Houston. Sumlin coached some excellent teams at Houston, including a near-BCS buster in 2011 that featured two-time (2009, '11) Heisman Trophy dark horse, Case Keenum. Sumlin has another potential Heisman contender in his debut at Arizona, Khalil Tate, but the dynamic quarterback must find a way to avoid the grasp of Houston's own Heisman-caliber performer, defensive lineman Ed Oliver.

 

Southern Utah, which plays a pair of Pac-12 opponents in 2018, should be a preseason Top 25 team in the FCS.

 

9. California

Sept. 1 vs. North Carolina

Sept. 8 at BYU

Sept. 15 vs. Idaho State

 

Cal enjoyed a surprising first season under head coach Justin Wilcox, which peaked with a strong showing against a challenging non-conference schedule. Expectations will be higher for the 2018 Golden Bears. Reaching a bowl game likely comes down to running the table against a manageable out-of-league slate.

 

Rebuilding North Carolina begins its pursuit of redemption under head coach Larry Fedora, returning the favor of Cal's trip to Chapel Hill last year. The Tar Heels are the lone Power 5 opponent on the docket, but a Week 2 trip to BYU could prove as challenging as many power-conference pairings. Even in down years, like that which the Cougars endured in 2017, Provo is a tough place to win.

 

10. Utah

Aug. 30 vs. Weber State

Sept. 8 at Northern Illinois

Nov. 24 vs. BYU

 

Utah opens 2018 in its customary Thursday night spot, facing in-state FCS counterpart Weber State. Weber State's Big Sky peer North Dakota gave Utah a handful for one half in last year's opener, but don't expect the Utes to struggle in this one.

 

Utah book-ends its schedule with non-conference matchups, moving its traditional Holy War rivalry game against BYU to Thanksgiving weekend. The Cougars will have their new identity fleshed out by then, making it a potentially tougher matchup than in still-competitive September games over recent years.

 

However, the most intriguing date on Utah's non-conference schedule is a road trip to Northern Illinois. A few other Pac-12 programs travel to Group of 5 opponents, but Utah's game at Northern Illinois takes the Utes out of the Western United States. Rod Carey will have a Mid-American Conference championship contender in 2018.

 

11. Washington State

Sept. 1 at Wyoming

Sept. 8 vs. San Jose State

Sept. 15 vs. Eastern Washington

 

Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl won three national championships at FCS power North Dakota State and instilled a physical approach in Laramie that is the stylistic opposite of Washington State. If the Cougars leave Laramie with a win, it should be smooth sailing to a 3-0 non-conference record.

 

San Jose State struggled mightily in 2017 and has a long way to go before being competitive against power-conference competition. Eastern Washington beat Washington State in 2016, the second consecutive Week 1 loss the Cougars suffered to Big Sky opponents in as many years. But with coaches Beau Baldwin and Troy Taylor leaving EWU for Pac-12 programs — Cal and Utah, respectively — this is a different Eagles bunch.

 

12. Oregon

Sept. 1 vs. Bowling Green

Sept. 8 vs. Portland State

Sept. 15 vs. San Jose State

 

Texas A&M balking at a two-game series left Oregon scrambling to fill up its 2018 dance card. The result for head coach Mario Cristobal's debut season is an underwhelming non-conference schedule with two Group of 5 teams and an FCS opponent that all finished below .500 in 2017.

 

On top of this, the Ducks do not leave Autzen Stadium until the end of September.

 

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

Event Date: 
Saturday, May 5, 2018 - 17:25

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