Clay Helton and USC take on Notre Dame and Texas outside of Pac-12 play this fall
Pac-12 programs have been noteworthy for their willingness to play ambitious schedules in the BCS and College Football Playoff eras. The 2017 season is no exception, evident in the prominence of Pac-12 teams among Athlon Sports' "Top 25 Toughest Schedules for 2017."
The 2017 Pac-12 non-conference slate features plenty of tremendous offerings, with matchups between blue-blood programs, historic rivals, and some rare visits to dangerous Group of 5 opponents' homes.
1. USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 21)
An interesting dynamic has recently presented itself when historic rivals USC and Notre Dame play. USC has dominated the last two meetings in Los Angeles by 35 and 18 points – the latter a generous 18, as the Trojans dominated until garbage time. When in South Bend, however, Notre Dame has successfully grinded out competitive wins. That's a trend the Trojans want to reverse in 2017, in part to boost their College Football Playoff aspirations.
USC last won in Notre Dame in 2011. No coincidence that was the Trojans' last double-digit-win regular season. Conversely, the Fighting Irish's two best regular seasons under head coach Brian Kelly – 2012 and ‘15 – both included wins over USC.
This is a pivotal season for Kelly, so every win matters. Beating a bitter rival with genuine national championship hopes would be especially important for the Irish head coach.
2. UCLA vs. Texas A&M (Sept. 3)
This year is a pivotal one for the current state of both UCLA and Texas A&M football. Head coaches Jim Mora and Kevin Sumlin both arrived in the 2012 season and enjoyed immediate success: Mora reached a Pac-12 Championship Game and came a field goal shy of the Rose Bowl in Year 1, while Sumlin oversaw an 11-win team captained by Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, in that debut campaign.
Both programs have since endured slides, albeit a more dramatic one in UCLA's case. The Bruins' dip to 4-8 last season – with renowned quarterback Josh Rosen sidelined the latter half of the campaign – served to put Mora on the hot seat. Sumlin's own hot-seat status is more the result of the Aggies routinely putting together good seasons, but few great ones since that debut.
By opening 2017 with a quality opponent, one of either UCLA or Texas A&M will set the course for the entire season – and perhaps the next half-decade or so of each program.
3. USC vs. Texas (Sept. 16)
A rematch more than a decade in the making, this Week 3 clash marks the first encounter of Texas and USC since the epic 2006 Rose Bowl, played for the ‘05 season's national championship.
Each program has experienced other highs and lows in the nearly 12 years since that historic game, and the two come into the 2017 season with much different expectations. But while Texas is in the very earliest stages of a new rebuilding project under first-year head coach Tom Herman, predecessor Charlie Strong left behind more than enough talent for the Longhorns to upend some quality opponents – USC must play a great game to avoid upset.
Recent Trojans teams have struggled with early-season disappointments. Take away the name brands and the historic context of this one, and it still has intriguing implications for this reason.
4. Stanford vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 25)
It doesn't really seem to matter where in the polls either team is ranked, or their final win-loss records. When Stanford and Notre Dame get together, as they have every season since 1997 – and all but two seasons since ‘88 – the result is typically a competitive, close game.
The five games played since 2012 were decided by seven (in overtime); seven; three; two (on a last-second field goal); and seven points.
Notre Dame's last visit to Stanford produced the closest result of the recent series, and the Cardinal's come-from-behind win denied the Fighting Irish a berth in the College Football Playoff. Both teams have the pieces to be in the mix once again in 2017, making for a potentially thrilling regular-season finale.
5. Stanford at San Diego State (Sept. 16)
San Diego State head coach Rocky Long didn't shy from assessing the lack of Power 5 road trips to face Group of 5 programs when asked in 2015. Long said these teams were "afraid," and San Diego State gave one Pac-12 opponent reason for fear in 2016 when it beat Cal.
Stanford completes the final leg of a three-game, four-week swing when it arrives on Montezuma Mesa, and the Cardinal absolutely have cause for caution. Stanford opens Week 0 in Australia against Rice, travels to USC in Week 2 for a huge Pac-12 showdown, and then takes on the two-time defending Mountain West champions.
With one of the best-kept secrets in college football at running back – Rashaad Penny – and a standout defense, the Aztecs look very much like the Cardinal. Expect a physical, competitive contest as a result.
6. Utah at BYU (Sept. 9)
The always heated, most always competitive BYU-Utah rivalry took on a new look in 2016 when former Utes defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake became BYU head coach. Sitake's oversight of the Utah defense played an integral role in the Utes evolving into regular competitors in the Pac-12.
Make no mistake, however: This rivalry lacks any warm, fuzzy feelings. You will not find a more bitter rivalry in college football, and recent scores bear out the intensity. Utah's one-point win in Salt Lake City a season ago extended a five-game streak of games decided by single digits. All but one game since 2009 have been similarly competitive.
And yet, for as close as these games have been, Utah has been thoroughly dominant. The Utes aim to extend their winning streak to seven games, but it won't be easy: Sitake has what should be the most well-rounded BYU team since 2009.
7. UCLA at Memphis (Sept. 16)
Power 5 conference programs don't typically venture into a Group of 5 program's home venue. It's a high-risk proposition for the power program that does not often receive the respect due. These factors contribute to the intrigue of UCLA's Week 3 visit to Memphis. More importantly, however, is that this Memphis can absolutely beat its visitor from the West.
Former Tigers head coach Justin Fuente led one of the most impressive turnarounds before leaving Memphis for Virginia Tech. The first signs of this dramatic reversal came in 2014, when the Tigers took UCLA to the brink in the Rose Bowl. Current Memphis head coach Mike Norvell knows UCLA well, having seen the Bruins for four seasons while working as the offensive coordinator at Arizona State.
The quarterback showdown between UCLA's Josh Rosen and Memphis' Riley Ferguson is one of the most potentially exciting such matchups of the season's first month.
8. Washington State vs. Boise State (Sept. 9)
Boise State has a long and impressive track record when it comes to Pac-12 competition. Bryan Harsin has continued the trend, which really took off under current Washington head coach Chris Petersen. Recent Broncos teams knocked off Arizona in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, Petersen's Huskies to kick off ‘15, and both Oregon State and Washington State a season ago.
The Cougars' loss at Boise State demonstrated why Power 5 programs do not typically go on the road to face quality Group of 5 opponents. Washington State gets Boise State at home in Martin Stadium this time, but the threat level is no less significant. The Broncos bring a talented defense onto the Palouse, as well as rising star quarterback Brett Rypien – nephew of former Washington State standout Mark Rypien.
9. Oregon vs. Nebraska (Sept. 9)
The tone for Oregon's disappointing 2016 season was set early when the penalties, coaching miscues and other self-inflicted errors led to a Ducks loss at Nebraska.
Oregon's 4-8 finish led to Mark Helfrich's ouster, opening the door for new head coach Willie Taggart. An adept rebuilder, having engineered impressive turnarounds at Western Kentucky and USF, Taggart has the pieces for a very quick about-face with the Ducks. The performance Week 2 against a solid Nebraska squad will set Oregon on its way in this new era.
The Cornhuskers come into Autzen Stadium with one familiar face for Ducks fans — Nebraska head coach Mike Riley went 93-80 as Oregon State's head coach from 2003-14.
10. Arizona State at Texas Tech (Sept. 16)
All Arizona State running back Kalen Ballage did last year when Texas Tech visited Tempe was rolling off an NCAA-record eight touchdowns. Ho, hum. Ballage is back, and so are backfield mates Demario Richard and Manny WIlkins. Add wide receiver N'Keal Harry, and Arizona State could realistically surpass its 68-point total it notched in last season's matchup with Texas Tech.
Never mind that even Red Raiders basketball coach Chris Beard would hate to surrender 70 points; it's not the ideal hypothetical for Tech football coach Kliff Kingsbury in a pivotal season. Texas Tech has been consistently competitive in Kingsbury's time back in Lubbock, but has struggled to win the marquee games. The Red Raiders need to take advantage of playing this one at home.
Likewise, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham must establish momentum ahead of Pac-12 play. The Sun Devils have been great in the early half of recent seasons, but faded down the stretch. A slow start sets an ominous tone for Arizona State, which finished below .500 each of the last two seasons. A loss at Tech could be especially troublesome, depending on how a home game a week earlier against San Diego State unfolds – a game that could very well make this list, depending who you ask.
11. Arizona vs. Houston (Sept. 9)
To call Arizona's 2016 season trying would be a severe understatement. The Wildcats' first month included two wins and a couple of losses, but the defeats came on a last-second field goal and in overtime against quality opponents BYU and Washington.
Then, the wheels fell off. The Washington loss was the first of eight straight for the Wildcats, one after another by double digits. Arizona's 3-9 finish was its first sub-.500 season under head coach Rich Rodriguez, but the way in which UA lost was concerning. Only a blowout of rival Arizona State to cap the campaign salvaged 2016, but that win does give the Wildcats some reason for optimism heading into this season.
Houston flirted with the prospect of reaching the College Football Playoff after opening last season with an impressive win over Oklahoma. And while the Cougars suffered some surprising losses in American Athletic Conference play, a late-season rout of Louisville showed again just how good the 2016 team was. This is a different squad, with quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and head coach Tom Herman both gone, but Houston should still come into Tucson the favorite.
12. Oregon State at Colorado State (Aug. 26)
A season ago, the surprise of the Pac-12 – if not all of college football – was Colorado. The Buffaloes' surprising march to 10 wins began with a season-opening defeat of Colorado State. Oregon State's a team with the potential to be 2017's Colorado, and as coincidence would have it, the Beavers open the season with Colorado State.
Now, these are two different teams, obviously. Colorado State's expected to contend with Boise State for the Mountain West's Mountain division title in 2017, and Oregon State still has much to prove after finishes of 2-10 and 4-8 in Gary Andersen's first two seasons as head coach. But after some close losses against good competition in 2016, including Minnesota and Washington State, and consecutive wins to close the campaign, the Beavers have reason for optimism.
A Week 0 visit to Colorado State's brand-new, on-campus venue will either give further reason for optimism, or set the Beavers back in a big way.