The 2017 college football season ended on a decided downturn for the Pac-12. A 1-8 record in bowl games left an ugly impression of the conference, referenced frequently during the past seven months.
The good news? A variety of challenging, high-profile non-conference games sets the Pac-12 up to rebound quickly. Starting on opening weekend of 2018, the Pac-12 plays some of the most exciting matchups of the campaign.
Games against opponents from the Big Ten, Big Ten, SEC and some intriguing dates with Group of 5 powers headline the Pac-12's collective non-conference docket.
1. Washington vs. Auburn (Sept. 1 in Atlanta)
Initial standing in the College Football Playoff race and perception of the Pac-12 on the national college football landscape ride on Washington's Week 1 date with Auburn. Both the Huskies and Tigers will be ranked in the Associated Press top 10 when they meet in Atlanta, the epicenter of SEC Country.
Both of these teams lost their last time in this city, though for Auburn, the burden of a season-ending, two-game losing streak to Georgia (SEC Championship Game) and UCF (Peach Bowl) exacerbates the high stakes already on the line for this matchup. Gus Malzahn may have his best all-around team since the 2013 national runners-up, but Chris Petersen's Huskies look to be the best bunch to don purple-and-gold since 1991.
2. Stanford at Notre Dame (Sept. 29)
Each year in the Stanford-Notre Dame cross-country rivalry provides a hotly contested showdown. Last year's Stanford win on The Farm was one of the series' stranger entries, with the Fighting Irish -- then still harboring narrow playoff aspirations -- leading in the second half. However, a Cardinal flood inundated Notre Dame with three touchdowns over the first five minutes of the fourth quarter.
That night was a coming-out party of sorts for Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello. Assuming he's back to full strength by Week 5, and 2017 Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love is still chugging along, the Cardinal will again test a Notre Dame team with realistic playoff goals.
3. USC at Texas (Sept. 15)
The first meeting between USC and Texas since ... well, the greatest college football game ever played ... did its best to live up to the 2006 Rose Bowl's lofty standard. A defensive struggle in which Texas took the lead in the final minute -- only for Sam Darnold to lead the Trojans down the field for an overtime-forcing score -- a turnover made the difference. Christian Rector's forced fumble at the goal line set up the win for USC in Los Angeles.
Missed opportunities will surely be on the mind of Tom Herman's Longhorns when they welcome USC to Austin. Texas may have its best team in nearly a decade this season -- though that buzz has preceded the Longhorns in other campaigns of late. A big win is vital to jump-starting Texas' aspirations to compete for a Big 12 championship. USC may still be ironing out its offensive situation sans Darnold at this juncture, making this matchup with a top-flight defense a pivotal showdown.
4. USC vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 24)
Notre Dame has had its playoff hopes dashed in Thanksgiving weekend trips to California two of the past three seasons. However, those two losses came at Stanford. Perhaps the same dynamic will be at stake for the Fighting Irish when they come to Los Angeles for the regular-season finale this year?
Notre Dame has not won at the Coliseum since 2012, but the Irish were down in both '14 and '16 when suffering blowout losses to the Trojans. The forecast for Brian Kelly's Irish heading into 2018 is favorable; more so than for a USC team in something of a rebuilding state. However, the defending Pac-12 champion Trojans are good enough that conference media voted them to win the division this year despite heavy turnover on offense.
Credit a stacked defense with playmakers like Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin. The defense will buoy USC throughout the campaign heading into this finale.
5. Arizona State vs. Michigan State (Sept. 8)
Strange things happen in the desert in the late summer. Pegged to finish near the basement of the Pac-12 South ahead of the 2017 season, Arizona State quickly silenced critics with wins over Oregon and Washington, both ranked in the Top 25 during their visits to Sun Devil Stadium.
Tempe has been inhospitable to early-season visitors for several years running, including the rare challengers from the Midwest. A controversial win over Wisconsin in 2013 marked Arizona State's last matchup with a Big Ten opponent. Michigan State's journey to the Valley of the Sun presents the Sun Devils their first opportunity to turn heads after the eyebrow-raising hire of Herm Edwards as head coach. The Spartans head into 2018 dark-horse challengers for the College Football Playoff, returning most of their starters from a team that dismantled Washington State at the conclusion of 2017.
6. Arizona at Houston (Sept. 8)
Storylines abound in Arizona's trip to Houston, a low-key gem on a loaded Week 2 docket. The trip marks first-year Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin's return to UH after having coached the Cougars to some of their best years since the dissolution of the Southwest Conference.
Sumlin arrives in Houston with one of the most talked-about players in all of college football, quarterback Khalil Tate. Tate's run into the record books last season rejuvenated Wildcats football, and Tate is one of the leading dark-horse contenders for this year's Heisman Trophy.
In that same conversation with Tate is Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver. Oliver anchoring the interior of a talented Cougars defense gives Houston its identity in the second year of Major Applewhite's tenure.
7. UCLA at Oklahoma (Sept. 8)
Expectations are high for first-year UCLA head coach Chip Kelly, who in four seasons as Oregon head coach lost just seven games. The Bruins dropped eight and seven in each of the past two seasons, and must replace a host of standout players like quarterback Josh Rosen. All this is to say perhaps expectations for immediate contention out of a Kelly-led UCLA should be tempered.
And you can throw that disclaimer out the window if the Bruins somehow upset Oklahoma in Week 2.
UCLA unveils its new look a week earlier against Cincinnati, but a visit to Norman provides the first real test of the Kelly era. The Bruins get the Sooners early in the post-Baker Mayfield era, which could work to their advantage -- not that UCLA has many advantages woven into the schedule.
One of the toughest schedules in all of college football, Kelly joked at Pac-12 Media Day that the Bruins squeezed the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers into the docket.
8. Stanford vs. San Diego State (Aug. 31)
A temporary electrical outing at SDCCU Stadium last September preceded a fourth-quarter rally for San Diego State vs. Stanford, the former of which won its third consecutive game over a Pac-12 opponent. Rocky Long has built one of the most consistent and formidable Group of 5 programs on Montezuma Mesa, reaching double-digit wins each of the past three seasons.
Last season's Aztecs' win over Stanford featured Heisman runner-up running back Bryce Love, as well as San Diego State's should-have-been-a-Heisman finalist running back Rashaad Penny. Penny is gone, but talented Juwan Washington looks poised to continue the lofty production typical of San Diego State running backs in the Long era. San Diego State will again boast an outstanding defense, so expect a physical showdown when these teams kick off the campaign.
9. Utah at Northern Illinois (Sept. 8)
Name the most successful programs in college football over the past 15 years or so, and Northern Illinois may not immediately spring to mind. But starting with a breakout 2003, in which the Huskies upset Maryland and Alabama over the first month, Northern Illinois has been a consistent threat to win double-digit games and contend for the Mid-American Conference championship. In fact, Northern Illinois appeared in a remarkable six consecutive MAC Championship Games from 2010-15.
The *cough* drought of two seasons could come to an end in 2018, with Rod Carey returning a veteran lineup on both sides of the ball. And there may be no bigger statement for the only MAC program to ever crash the BCS party than with a win over Pac-12 title contender Utah. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham described the Huskies as a "blue-collar, tough, physical outfit," so the similar styles should make for an intriguing clash.
10. Arizona State at San Diego State (Sept. 15)
San Diego State's aforementioned and ongoing winning streak against the Pac-12 includes a 30-20 win at Arizona State last September that felt more lopsided than the final score. Rashaad Penny scored on touchdowns of 95 yards on a rush; 99 yards on a kickoff return; and 33 yards on a reception.
While Penny is gone, the Aztecs' veteran offensive line could give a somewhat new-look Arizona State defense trouble once again. But one advantage for the Sun Devils: Their new defensive coordinator, Danny Gonzales, previously held the same position at San Diego State.
Gonzales and SDSU alum Herm Edwards can expect a challenge when their team arrives on the Mesa. San Diego State relishes the rare opportunity to host Power 5 programs -- programs Rocky Long said in 2015 are "afraid" to take road games with Group of 5 opponents.
11. UCLA vs. Fresno State (Sept. 15)
The perhaps under-the-radar gem on UCLA's challenging schedule is a Week 3 date with defending Mountain West Conference West Division champ, Fresno State. The Bulldogs engineered the greatest single-season turnaround of the 2017 campaign, climbing from the depths a season earlier to reach the Top 25 at one point and come a score away from winning the league crown.
Former Pac-12 head coach Jeff Tedford gave Chip Kelly's Oregon team fits in the Ducks' national runner-up 2010 campaign. With a veteran lineup on both sides of the ball, Fresno State should contend for the MW championship again -- and be a thorn in the Bruins' side one week ahead of Pac-12 play.
12. Oregon State at Ohio State (Sept. 1)
Oregon State's 2017 went almost as dismally as possible -- and the only reason for the "almost" qualifier is a last-minute effort to stave off FCS member Portland State for the sole win on the Beavers' slate.
What chance do the Beavers have of upsetting reigning Big Ten champion and perennial powerhouse Ohio State in new head coach Jonathan Smith's first game back with Oregon State? Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas has the Beavers as a staggering 39-point underdog. But this is college football, where the unexpected becomes ordinary each and every Saturday. What better way for the 2018 season to commence than with a monumental upset on the first Saturday?
"I'm very excited to be able to play on a big stage like that against a top 10 team," said Beavers linebacker Whetzel. "I just see it as a huge opportunity to showcase my skills."
To quote professional wrestler James Ellsworth: Any man with two hands stands a fighting chance.