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Ranking the Toughest Games on USC's College Football Schedule in 2015

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USC has not factored into the national championship race since 2008. If the Trojans are to end that drought in 2015, they’ll have earned it by navigating one of the most treacherous schedules in college football.

Related: Why USC Will or Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2015

After opening with a pair of Sun Belt Conference opponents, USC tackles a meaty docket that's punctuated with several potential College Football Playoff teams.

The Trojans’ championship mettle will undoubtedly be tested in head coach Steve Sarkisian’s second year at the helm. Here are USC's 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult.

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12. Sept. 12 vs. Idaho

Establishing depth is key to USC’s Pac-12 and Playoff aspirations. Idaho presents Sarkisian with a prime opportunity to get second- and third-stringers live snaps ahead of the conference slate.

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11. Sept. 5 vs. Arkansas State

Arkansas State will compete for a Sun Belt Conference championship in 2015, but the Red Wolves will be hard-pressed to challenge USC in Week 1. The Trojans’ season of high expectations should start with an emphatic defense of their home turf.

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10. Oct. 8 (Thursday) vs. Washington

Sarkisian’s first meeting with a program he headed for five seasons comes with inherent potential for distraction. However, the Huskies are in something of a rebuilding mode under second-year coach Chris Petersen and shouldn’t pose too much of a threat to the Trojans in this Thursday night affair.

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9. Nov. 13 (Friday) at Colorado

USC has had no problem with Colorado since the Buffs joined the Pac-12 in 2011, and last year’s rout culminated in quarterback Cody Kessler throwing a USC-record seven touchdown passes.

Colorado returns a bevy of players for what should be head coach Mike MacIntyre’s best team since arriving in Boulder. Getting the Trojans at home on what’s sure to be a frigid November night helps the Buffs’ upset bid. So, too, does drawing them between marquee matchups with Arizona and Oregon.

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8. Oct. 24 vs. Utah

Last season’s meeting in Rice-Eccles Stadium was an instant classic, with the Utes scoring a game-winning touchdown on the final possession.

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The Utes are dark horses in the Pac-12 South race, playing a physical style that could pose USC trouble just one week removed from the rivalry matchup with Notre Dame.

7. Oct. 31 at Cal

Golden Bears quarterback Jared Goff nearly led a fourth-quarter comeback against USC last season. This year, the third-year starter captains a much more experienced Cal team that could be the surprise contender in the Pac-12 title hunt.

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6. Nov. 7 vs. Arizona

A blocked field goal in the waning seconds staved off an Arizona rally to upend the Trojans last season in Tucson. The defending Pac-12 South champion Wildcats will be itching to exact payback for that narrow defeat. A win here is critical for USC’s divisional chances, particularly with a tough final stretch to the month likely determining the race.

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5. Sept. 19 vs. Stanford

Few series in college football have been as exciting or as fiercely contested as USC vs. Stanford. The Trojans have won the last two meetings after the Cardinal took four straight from 2009-12. Stanford should have a much-improved team from last year’s eight-game winner, and the victor in this conference opener gets an immediate, inside track on returning to the Pac-12 mountaintop.

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4. Oct. 17 at Notre Dame

USC’s 49-14 rout of the Fighting Irish last November was the series’ most lopsided outcome since a 38-3 shellacking in 2008.

Don’t think those lumps Notre Dame took a year ago will be easily forgotten. A presumably healthier, more experienced Irish lineup has the look of a possible Playoff team and promises to give USC a better game this time around.

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3. Sept. 26 at Arizona State

After going winless against UCLA from 1997 through 2010, the Sun Devils are winners of three of the last four, including last season’s Hail Mary finish in the Coliseum.

Arizona State’s high-tempo offense and aggressive, blitz-happy defense can pose problems for the Trojans, especially if the early-season heat of Tempe impacts the visitors to Sun Devil Stadium.

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2. Nov. 28 vs. UCLA

UCLA is a winner of three straight in the Crosstown Showdown. All of those Bruins victories have come by double digits.

Reclaiming the Pac-12 means winning the South. Winning the South means reclaiming Los Angeles, but the Trojans will be trying to do so against a bunch of Bruins who only know victory in this rivalry.

1. Nov. 21 at Oregon

Voters in the Pac-12’s preseason media poll tabbed USC to edge out defending champion Oregon for the 2015 league title. Here’s a chance for the Trojans to validate that vote of confidence.

Oregon took over USC’s place as the conference’s heavyweight over the last seven years, but this season’s encounter could well determine the direction of the Pac-12 for the next decade. 

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