Stanford takes on what might be the most difficult non-conference schedule in the nation
Members of the Pac-12 play some of the most challenging schedules in the 2019 college football season. That much of the league plays 10, and sometimes 11, Power 5 opponents contributes to the degree of difficulty.
Stanford is taking ambitious scheduling to a whole new level in 2019, though, with one of the most impressive non-conference slates of the 21st century. The Cardinal play what's perhaps the best non-conference slate in the nation and clearly tops among Pac-12 programs — which isn't to diminish the tough schedules ahead of other teams. UCLA, which faced the toughest non-conference docket in all of college football a season ago, dives into another gauntlet in 2019.
Meanwhile, from 1-to-12, every Pac-12 program has at least one marquee opponent on the calendar.
Aug. 31 vs. Northwestern
Sept. 14 at UCF
Nov. 30 vs. Notre Dame
The combined 2018 record of Stanford's three non-conference opponents is a staggering 33-7, and five of those losses come from Week 1 opponent Northwestern. But all the nine-win Wildcats accomplished a year ago was earn a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game and then come from behind to beat Pac-12 South champ Utah in the Holiday Bowl. Notre Dame and UCF meanwhile, have not lost non-conference games since November 2017 (at Stanford, coincidentally), and November '16, respectively.
Aug. 29 at Cincinnati
Sept. 7 vs. San Diego State
Sept. 14 vs. Oklahoma
UCLA faced college football's most difficult schedule in 2018, due in large part to a brutal non-conference slate. Cincinnati, Oklahoma and Fresno State combined to win 34 games between them, and all three finished ranked in the Top 25. Fresno State's off the UCLA docket, but Mountain West replacement San Diego State has amassed a winning record every year since 2010, and won 11 games for three straight seasons from 2015-17.
Cincinnati has a roster capable of unseating UCF in the American Athletic Conference this season, and Oklahoma is Oklahoma. The Sooners will once again contend for a College Football Playoff spot.
Aug. 31 vs. Fresno State
Sept. 14 at BYU
Oct. 12 at Notre Dame
USC never shies from playing one of the nation's most ambitious schedules, and 2019 is no exception. Week 1 opponent Fresno State — the only home game of the three non-conference dates — is coming off the best season in program history. Rival Notre Dame reached the College Football Playoff last season and has the pieces necessary to do so again in 2019. Although BYU endured a disappointing 2018, LaVell Edwards Stadium is always a difficult place for visitors to win, and the Cougars' physical style awaits the Trojans one week after a similar, body-blow game against Stanford.
Aug. 30 vs. Colorado State (Denver)
Sept. 7 vs. Nebraska
Sept. 14 vs. Air Force
Opening with two rivalry games gives Colorado's non-conference slate a unique twist. If one of those rivals, Nebraska, is as good as advertised, the Buffaloes have a physical fight ahead of them in Week 2. A smash-mouth game like that one leading into a matchup against an option-offense opponent like Air Force only increases the degree of difficulty for stopping the unconventional scheme.
Aug. 31 vs. UC Davis
Sept. 14 vs. North Texas
Sept. 21 at Ole Miss
Cal takes on what can be perhaps best described as a deceptively tough schedule. Although Week 1 opponent UC Davis is an FCS program, the Aggies won 10 games and reached the quarterfinals of the playoffs. Two weeks later, the Golden Bears host Conference USA title contender North Texas and one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, Mason Fine. A road trip to Ole Miss closes out the non-conference schedule.
Aug. 31 vs. Auburn (Arlington, Texas)
Sept. 7 vs. Nevada
Sept. 14 vs. Montana
Oregon embarks on 2019 with some modest College Football Playoff buzz, and status as a front-runner in the Pac-12 race. Faith in the Ducks completing a comeback to national prominence rests largely on the experience of the roster — and they'll have to demonstrate their veteran savvy right out of the gate in a high-profile matchup with Auburn. The season-opening showdown in AT&T Stadium may be the single-most visible non-conference game for the Pac-12 in 2019. From there, Oregon hosts a Nevada team that's a dark-horse challenger in the Mountain West Conference's West division.
7. Oregon State
Aug. 30 vs. Oklahoma State
Sept. 7 at Hawaii
Sept. 14 vs. Cal Poly
Oregon State's passing defense will get a workout very early into the 2019 campaign. Year 2 of the Jonathan Smith era opens on a Friday night with the always-tough Oklahoma State Cowboys visiting Reser Stadium. Up next is a road trip to Hawaii, where the Beavers are tasked with slowing Cole McDonald — one of the top returning passers in college football. The shift in gears from the first two weeks of seeing variations on the air raid is stark come Week 3; FCS opponent Cal Poly is one of the most run-reliant teams in the subdivision.
Aug. 31 vs. Eastern Washington
Sept. 14 vs. Hawaii
Sept. 21 at BYU
Washington's schedule is bereft of a Power 5-conference opponent, one of only three such slates among the Pac-12, but it's also a good indicator of why such labels can be meaningless. Week 1 opponent Eastern Washington played for the FCS Championship in 2018, and the Eagles gave past Washington teams fits in 2011 and '14. Ensuing Mountain West and Independent opponents Hawaii and BYU are both coming off bowl campaigns, and each will throw completely different looks at the Huskies.
Aug. 29 at BYU
Sept. 7 vs. Northern Illinois
Sept. 14 vs. Idaho State
The 2018 edition of the Holy War provided one of the most memorable finishes of last college football season. Utah rallied from a big deficit in the second half to win its eighth consecutive win in the rivalry. BYU's frustration stewing for nine months should add some extra bite to this already-acrimonious series.
The Utes return home a week later to face perennial MAC contender (and defending champion) Northern Illinois. Big Sky opponent Idaho State should give Utah little trouble in the final game before conference play.
Aug. 24 at Hawaii
Sept. 7 vs. Northern Arizona
Sept. 14 vs. Texas Tech
Kevin Sumlin's second season at the helm with Arizona kicks off in Week 0, and the matchup with Hawaii could be a dandy. Cole McDonald and Khalil Tate can both light it up. Arizona gets a bye week before its every-other-year meeting with Northern Arizona, and an intriguing Pac-12 vs. Big 12 encounter (and renewal of an old Border Conference rivalry) closes out non-conference play. Tech welcomes Matt Wells in 2019, who a season ago coached Utah State to a Top 25 finish.
11. Arizona State
Aug. 29 vs. Kent State
Sept. 6 vs. Sacramento State
Sept. 14 at Michigan State
Arizona State's non-conference schedule is a one-game offering, but what a game. The Sun Devils travel to East Lansing to face Michigan State in the second half of a home-and-home that delivered a remarkable finish a season ago. Arizona State's upset in Tempe launched the Sun Devils into the Top 25 for a brief spell, but more importantly, set the tone on an expectation-defying 2018. Before taking on Sparty, the Sun Devils should face little resistance from Kent State and Sacramento State.
12. Washington State
Aug. 31 vs. New Mexico State
Sept. 7 vs. Northern Colorado
Sept. 13 vs. Houston (Houston)
Washington State endured some surprising Week 1 losses a few years ago under Mike Leach, but the Cougars have remedied those issues in more recent seasons. The Cougars should have no problem with New Mexico State or Northern Colorado before a Friday night affair with Houston. The matchup of Leach's Cougs and new Houston coach Dana Holgorsen's Coogs could provide one of the most exciting games of the college football season's early slate.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45