Many of the toughest schedules in the 2016 college football season reside out West. A nine-game conference schedule certainly contributes to the degree of difficulty many Pac-12 teams face in the upcoming campaign, but plenty arranged challenging non-conference slates, as well.
In fact, some of the most anticipated non-conference games in the 2016 season feature Pac-12 squads.
1. USC vs. Alabama (Arlington, Texas — Sept. 3)
Despite being two of the most historically powerful and extensively decorated college football programs, Alabama and USC have not been on the mountaintop at the same time in a few decades. The Crimson Tide are there now as defending national champions, while the Trojans try to get back there under their third, full-time head coach in three years, Clay Helton.
Still, when two of the all-time great programs clash on opening weekend, it's cause for celebration.
This also is a rare opportunity for USC, in one game, to vault itself back to the forefront of the national conversation.
2. Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 15)
Just 19 combined points separated Notre Dame and Stanford in the last four installments of this cross-country rivalry. The last two meetings in South Bend — both Fighting Irish wins — came down to a controversial overtime call (2012) and final-minute, red-zone stand (2014).
Both Stanford and Notre Dame harbor realistic College Football Playoff aspirations in 2016, and each feature potential Heisman Trophy contenders (2015 runner-up Christian McCaffrey for the Cardinal, quarterbacks Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer for the Fighting Irish).
And, after the bizarre ending that kept Notre Dame out of last year's Playoff down on The Farm, the Irish have payback in mind.
3. UCLA at Texas A&M (Sept. 3)
Meetings between Pac-12 and SEC programs, played in honest-to-goodness college venues, are all too rare. Kudos are in order for UCLA and Texas A&M opening the season at Kyle Field for an intriguing, cross-conference showdown.
Both the Bruins and Aggies enter the campaign as potential dark-horse challengers to their conference championships, though how each adjusts to offseason staffing changes will determine the full capacity of their potential.
Interestingly enough, the changes each underwent are directly tied: UCLA parted ways with offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who is now at Texas A&M.
4. Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 26)
One of the game's most storied rivalries adds its 88th installment on Thanksgiving weekend. The outlook for both teams heading into 2016 is foggy; Notre Dame's a popular pick for Playoff contention, while USC caps a treacherous schedule with a fitting bang.
Should the Irish still be in national title contention on the final weekend, spoiling that would be quite the coup for the Trojans. However, two of the last three meetings in the Coliseum went to the Fighting Irish.
5. UCLA at BYU (Sept. 17)
UCLA's willingness to hit the road for marquee, non-conference dates separates it from much of college football. Whether that hurts or helps the Bruins' long-term plans will obviously play out over the course of the season, but navigating such difficult terrain early on could give UCLA an inside track on the Playoff.
Going to Provo, Utah, just two weeks after visiting College Station is about as difficult as it gets in the first month of the season (not to mention Stanford coming to the Rose Bowl a week later). If UCLA can somehow escape September undefeated, it will have a serious stake to No. 1.
6. Washington State at Boise State (Sept. 10)
No matter if the head coach was Chris Petersen, or now Bryan Harsin, Boise State's been an albatross for Pac-12 opponents. The Broncos opened 2015 beating Washington in Petersen's return to the Smurf Turf, and they get another home shot at the other side of the Apple Cup, Washington State.
The Cougars continue to fly under the radar, picked fourth in the crowded Pac-12 North despite rising to nine wins a season ago. Washington State's 2015 success was predicated in large part on its ability to win big games away from the Palouse; continuing that trend into 2016 with a win at Boise State could vault the Cougars to a huge season.
As for Boise State, adding another Pac-12 notch to its belt could give the Broncos an inside lane on the Group of Five's New Year's Six bowl bid — if not a surprise Playoff spot, should the stars align perfectly.
7. Oregon at Nebraska (Sept. 17)
This date would have been a homecoming for former national championship-winning Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost. However, the Oregon offensive coordinator left Eugene for the head coaching position at UCF.
Instead, the Ducks renew an old rivalry with longtime Oregon State head coach Mike Riley, now entering his second season at Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers struggled somewhat adjusting to new schemes under Riley and his staff, but salvaged a sub-.500 season with a Foster Farms Bowl defeat of UCLA. Nebraska should be improved in 2016, and the always-packed Memorial Stadium will prove inhospitable to an Oregon team still seeking clarity at quarterback and on defense.
8. Texas Tech at Arizona State (Sept. 10)
Arizona State's best season (2013) since coming one play shy of the 1996 national championship ended unceremoniously with a Holiday Bowl loss to Texas Tech.
A possible receipt comes almost three years later, with largely new players on both sides of the ball. Still, head coaches Todd Graham and Kliff Kingsbury remain. Their presence on opposing sidelines promise fireworks.
Both teams can and will push the tempo offensively. How Arizona State's blitz-reliant defense handles the Tech take on the air-raid could provide a crystal ball into the Sun Devils' Pac-12 season.
9. BYU at Utah (Sept. 10)
Other rivalries might match the intensity of the Holy War, but no two programs can claim to dislike each other more than BYU and Utah.
It's only right these in-state foes face off, but those tensions put the series on the temporary hiatus. The Las Vegas Bowl intervened to salvage the Holy War last December, with Utah riding a huge first quarter to stave off a BYU comeback. After the near-miss of last season, the Cougars will surely be hungry to make a statement now.
The ante's upped this time around, too, with former Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake returning to Rice-Eccles Stadium as head coach of the Cougars. His approach promises a physical slug-fest — just the kind of recipe needed for some rivalry game fireworks.
10. Arizona vs. BYU (Glendale, Ariz. — Sept. 3)
BYU loaded up on Pac-12 competition in 2016, part of the Cougars' effort to build a Playoff resume through their independent schedule. The only way the Cougars will get a crack at their first national title in 32 years is with a clean sheet, which Arizona aims to spoil right out of the gate.
The Wildcats stumbled through a disappointing 2015. The encore to one of the best years in program history (2014) was marred by injury and ugly losses away from home. Still, Arizona finished above .500 for the fourth time under head coach Rich Rodriguez, and an offseason to recuperate should have the Wildcats in a better place for 2016.
11. Kansas State at Stanford (Sept. 1)
Stanford's bid for a Playoff appearance last season soured early, the result of losing to a purple-clad bunch of Wildcats. Now, Kansas State isn't Northwestern, but Bill Snyder's 'Cats pose the Cardinal a very real, early-season threat.
The perennial overachievers at K-State visit The Farm at a most opportune time. Stanford will still be adjusting to life without Kevin Hogan, the team's starting quarterback for the previous four years. The Cardinal also break in new contributors in the receiving corps.
After the Wildcats finished ranked near the bottom for all passing defenses nationally a year ago, Stanford will need to be able to attack that secondary. How effectively it does Week 1 could set the tone for the season.
12. Colorado vs. Colorado State (Denver — Sept. 2)
In-state rivals Colorado and Colorado State have had some memorable games over the years, even as the Buffaloes struggled and the Rams fell from the heights reached under legendary coach Sonny Lubick.
Both should be improved from 2015, with Mike Bobo entering his second year at Colorado State, and Mike MacIntyre boasting his best roster since taking over at Colorado in '13. But this, MacIntyre's fourth year, is a pivotal one.
The Buffs need to make a bowl game run, and winning in the opener against a quality opponent is paramount. The Pac-12 landscape is crowded, leaving little margin for error if Colorado is to reach that six-win mark. Given their non-conference slate also includes a trip to Michigan on Sept. 17, the Buffs are best serve opening the season 2-0 before heading to the Big House, then embarking on the Pac-12 docket.