Author’s note: This is the first installment of a three-part series analyzing Pac-12 football schedules for fall 2017.
First up: Pac-12 South
Second: Pac-12 North
Third: Most important non-conference games for the conference as a whole.
- Western Michigan (home, week 1)
- Texas (home, week 3)
- Notre Dame (road, week 8)
Pac-12 home games: Stanford (2), Oregon State (6), Utah (7), Arizona (10), UCLA (12)
Pac-12 road games: California (4), Washington State (5), Arizona State (9), Colorado (11)
North teams missed: Washington & Oregon
The Trojans don’t have their bye until week 13, or as it’s known for everyone else, rivalry week. Due to the alternating matchups in the final week of the season against Notre Dame by Stanford and USC, somebody has to sit out the final week of Pac-12 play, and it’s usually the other one. Last year, while USC hosted Notre Dame in the final week, Stanford hosted Rice in a very unusual low-prestige conference game to end the year. This year, USC decided they would rather just take a bye than try to find an opponent for the final week, so the Trojans play on 12 straight weeks. One thing that could be a significant advantage, though: if USC makes the Pac-12 championship game, they will have extra time to prepare for the North winner.
USC’s week 3 matchup with the Longhorns is the first big chance for new Texas head coach Tom Herman to take the national stage against a big-time opponent. Although I do believe that down the line Herman will be able to return Texas to national prominence, game 3 of year 1 is probably a bit too much to ask for what would be a pretty major upset, as USC is likely to be a preseason top-5.
Western Michigan’s glorious run to the Cotton Bowl last year is very unlikely to be equaled this year, as the team lost a number of senior starters and their head coach, as PJ Fleck ended up taking the top job with the University of Minnesota. WMU should still go bowling, as one of the strongest teams in the Mid-American conference, but I would hesitate to even say that they will win the MAC West division: Toledo is a sneaky-good team. WMU probably wins 8 or 9 games, but I doubt this game is close.
USC’s conference schedule is not as intimidating. Toughest road trip is either to Boulder or Pullman, neither of which should be too difficult if the Trojans as a team can play up to the talent level of the individuals. Furthermore, USC and Washington, the preseason co-favorites in the Pac-12, do not play each other in the regular season. Week 14, perhaps?
- Texas A&M (home, week 1)
- Hawaii (home, week 2)
- Memphis (road, week 3)
Pac-12 home games: Colorado (5), Oregon (8), Arizona State (11), California (13)
Pac-12 road games: Stanford (4), Arizona (7), Washington (9), Utah (10), USC (12)
North teams missed: Washington State & Oregon State
Right off the bat, the Texas A&M vs. UCLA matchup at the Rose Bowl will ensure that the loser’s season is ruined. Jokes aside, both Jim Mora and Kevin Sumlin are under considerable fire right now. UCLA getting off to a strong start by taking out the Aggies would be a big boost for the conference as a whole moving forward, as any win against the SEC West is a marquee win.
Even if the Bruins aren’t playing well at all, Hawaii should pose no threat. UCLA played poorly last year and still rolled against a UNLV team that looked better than the Warriors. But the week 3 trip to Memphis is a big-time trap game, particularly if UCLA has gotten off to a hot start. The Houston Cougars have drawn most of the attention in the AAC West the last few years, but both Tulsa and Memphis have been really solid under-the-radar teams.
From the standpoint of trying to ensure bowl eligibility, this schedule actually lines up alright for UCLA. Three of the Bruins’ five road games come against the preseason top 3 teams in the conference, so I’d be fairly surprised to see UCLA go anything other than 0-3 against Stanford, Washington, and USC. But other than those games, nothing looks too bad. Beat Hawaii, California, and the Arizona schools. Then UCLA just needs two wins from a significant group of winnable games: vs. TAMU, at Memphis, vs. Colorado, vs. Oregon, and at Utah.
Note: I’m not saying that UCLA’s goal is bowl-eligibility. But UCLA missing a bowl for a second year in a row would be a really bad look for the conference, and would also probably lead to the end of the Jim Mora era in Pasadena. The Bruins should absolutely be shooting for more, and I think they may get it. But 6 wins, some way or another, is non-negotiable.
- FCS Northern Arizona (home, week 1)
- Houston (home, week 2)
- UTEP (road, week 3)
Pac-12 home games: Utah (4), UCLA (7), Washington State (9), Oregon State (11)
Pac-12 road games: Colorado (6), California (8), USC (10), Oregon (12), Arizona State (13)
North teams missed: Washington, Stanford
Notable: This non-conference schedule would set up quite nicely for a second-tier Pac-12 team (somebody along the lines of Utah, WSU, UCLA, Colorado, or Oregon). An easy starter game to get off on the right foot. Hosting a talented but not outstanding Houston team in week 2, a squad that would provide a nice home test for that second tier of teams. A winnable road game in El Paso that helps build confidence for playing away from home headed into conference play.
One problem: The Wildcats are not one of the many teams in the large second tier of Pac-12 football teams. I’m not sure they’re even in the third tier – I think Oregon State and Arizona State should be decent this year. For a year where any win will be welcomed, if Arizona can get 2 of these first 3 games, beating NAU and then either pulling the home upset of the Coogs or knocking off the Miners in West Texas, that would be a completely acceptable start to the year for UA. 1-2 unfortunately seems just as likely, though.
The good news for Arizona in conference play? The two teams that don’t play the Wildcats are Washington and Stanford, the consensus preseason top-2 teams in the North division. I don’t expect Arizona to make the games with Wazzu and the Ducks super-competitive, either, but I think there’s a decent chance those games could be close. A home date with the Beavers and a road trip to Berkeley are definitely winnable. But in order to even sniff bowl-eligibility, Arizona would need to win almost every winnable game.
- New Mexico State (home, week 1)
- San Diego State (home, week 2)
- Texas Tech (road, week 3)
Pac-12 home games: Oregon (4), Washington (7), USC (9), Colorado (10), Arizona (13)
Pac-12 road games: Stanford (5), Utah (8), UCLA (11), Oregon State (12)
North teams missed: Washington State, California
Notable: I’m interested to see what San Diego State looks like, now that all-everything running back Donnel Pumphrey is gone. There will be two chances for the Pac-12 to take on SDSU early, as the Aztecs come to Tempe in week 2, then they host Stanford a week later. I’m fairly sure the Devils will be the underdogs here, but playing San Diego State as early as possible is nice. Whenever you play a good team, but one that just lost their best player, getting them in the first couple of weeks while they’re hopefully still trying out new strategies is ideal.
The final non-conference game for the Devils comes in Lubbock. In case you forgot, the Arizona State-Texas Tech matchup last year in the Valley of the Sun was one for the ages. ASU won a massive shootout 68-55, with Kalen Ballage tying the NCAA record by scoring 8 (eight!) touchdowns in the Devils’ win. Will this be a well-played game? Eh, probably not. But I bet it will be a very entertaining sequel.
The in-conference schedule for ASU is tough. Just looking at the first 5 games in Pac-12 play, I don’t see any wins. Oregon, Stanford, Washington, Utah, and USC is as close to murderer’s row as it gets out West. Getting to five wins seems within reason. But I don’t know how the Devils go further than that.
- FCS North Dakota (home, week 1)
- Brigham Young (road, week 2)
- San Jose State (home, week 3)
Pac-12 home games: Stanford (6), Arizona State (8), UCLA (10), Washington State (11), Colorado (13)
Pac-12 road games: Arizona (4), USC (7), Oregon (9), Washington (12)
North teams missed: Oregon State, California
Notable: As a fan of college football (and college athletics in general), I’m very happy that Utah and BYU have resumed playing the Holy War on a regular basis. There are plenty of early-season matchups in college football that feature good teams. But the vast majority of the good rivalries, conference and non-conference, are played mid-October or later. Having a Holy War to look forward to in early September is awesome.
In conference play, Utah’s schedule is very well-constructed for getting to 7 or 8 wins, but poorly constructed for any chance at a big season. In a year where the Utes get to host Colorado (and therefore play only 4 conference road games), two of those games are at the preseason co-favorites: at USC in mid-October, at Washington in the second to last week of the year. But that means that 5 of the remaining 7 conference games come in Salt Lake City. The only road game for Utah that looks winnable, but not a must-win, is a trip to Eugene at the end of October. Getting to host the games against Washington State, UCLA, and Colorado is very helpful. And don’t forget hosting Stanford, at altitude, coming off a bye week.
- Colorado State (neutral site – Denver, week 1)
- Texas State (home, week 2)
- FCS Northern Colorado (home, week 3)
Pac-12 home games: Washington (4), Arizona (6), California (9), USC (11)
Pac-12 road games: UCLA (5), Oregon State (7), Washington State (8), Arizona State (10), Utah (13)
North teams missed: Oregon, Stanford
Notable: Coming off a massive breakthrough season that took the Buffs to a 10-win season and the Pac-12 South title, the non-conference schedule is much more doable this time. Last year, one of the more impressive performances by CU early in the year was in a losing effort at the Big House, when Colorado took a big lead early on the Wolverines, only to be derailed by injuries at the QB position and special teams woes. No such difficult matchups In non-conference this year, as the Buffaloes take on rival Colorado State in Denver to open the season (as usual), followed by home games against the Texas State Bobcats and Northern Colorado Bears. I would be quite surprised to see Colorado at anything besides 3-0 headed into the Pac-12 opener vs. Washington.
One tricky part of Colorado’s conference schedule is the opposite of the positive part I mentioned in Utah’s schedule: most of the games against similar 2nd-tier teams come away from Boulder (road trips to UCLA, Washington State, and Utah). The 4 conference home games are against the elite (Washington & USC) and the bottom-feeders (Arizona & Cal). In order to pick up a winning conference performance, Colorado likely would have to win at least 1 of those mid-level road games, as well as the trips to Corvallis and Tempe.