As expected, the Pac-12 announced Wednesday the league’s 2014 football schedule. We won’t know starting times until the spring (the more attractive games), and as usual, we won’t know a lot more of them until the fall, when TV satisfies its 12-day and 6-day windows on the fly.
For Washington and Washington State, the most prominent news is that the Apple Cup returns to a slot on the Saturday after Thanksgiving — which isn’t the traditional, old-school, Saturday-before-Thanksgiving that many of us grew up on, but I think it’s an improvement over the Friday games of the past two years, especially when the game is in Pullman. That’s a day that visits all sorts of hardships on people trying to accommodate the holiday weekend with long travel, and incorporates the problem of WSU students having to be on campus perhaps more than 48 hours earlier than they would otherwise off Thanksgiving break. A Saturday game should alleviate a lot of that angst.
Onward, then, to the league: Probably the most obvious feature is the day-after-Thanksgiving game between Stanford and UCLA — which could have heavy implications. It could pit the two divisional champions, and that would be an exact replica of what happened in 2012, with the two playing only six days before they met for the conference title.
It was my impression that the league sought to address those late cross-division games after the 2012 experience, but it appears nothing was changed, as the conference release Wednesday said the terms were “approved by the Pac-12 (athletic directors) to maintain the late-season games between Stanford/USC and Notre Dame.”
— There are four Thursday-night conference games (plus three teams opening the season Aug. 28 on Thursday night, including Washington State) and four on Fridays, including that Stanford-UCLA meeting and Arizona-Arizona State, which resumes sort of a traditional Friday showing on Thanksgiving weekend. All Washington games are on Saturdays.
— The teams that get five home league games: Arizona, Cal, Colorado, Oregon State, UCLA, WSU.
— The teams that have four league home games: Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford, USC, Utah, Washington.
— Returning to its Friday-night slot of the first two years (in 2011-12) is the league-championship game Dec. 5.
— WSU’s annual Seattle game features Big Ten newbie Rutgers and is probably the most appealing matchup of the opening weekend.
— USC visits Stanford Sept. 6 in the huge early-season headliner, Steve Sarkisian versus David Shaw, mandatory eight-count. USC has lately had early league games, and its stumble against WSU last Sept. 7 greased the skids for the firing of Lane Kiffin.
— Oregon hosts Rose Bowl champion Michigan State, also on Sept. 6. That appears, from the vantage point of Jan. 8, 2014, to be the best non-league matchup.
A glimpse at what awaits each team, alphabetically:
Arizona — Cushy start, with UNLV, Texas-San Antonio, Nevada and Cal before October. The next two, though, are Oregon and USC.
Arizona State — Sun Devils, who had a wicked early gauntlet in 2013, this time have a UCLA-USC-Stanford-Washington circuit from Sept. 25 to Oct. 25, two at home, two on the road.
Cal — It begins pretty manageably, but starting Oct. 18, the Bears run into UCLA, Oregon, OSU, USC and Stanford in order.
Colorado — Needs to amass wins early, because it also has a heavy stretch from Oct. 18 on — at USC, UCLA and Washington at home, at Arizona, at Oregon.
Oregon — Ducks miss USC, and their annual titanic against Stanford is Nov. 1 in Eugene. The Ducks have Cal before that one, so that should help (Stanford has OSU).
Oregon State — Beavers might have the oddest schedule, not hosting a league game until Oct. 18, but starting with that day, playing five of their last seven at Reser Stadium, including three straight Nov. 1-8-15 against Cal, WSU and ASU, something that doesn’t always bode well for fan support on the back end.
Stanford — Cardinal opens with three straight before a key game in Seattle Sept. 27. With the USC game early, Stanford will know a lot about its league fate before October.
UCLA — Bruins have a soft road stretch Oct. 18-25 with Cal and Colorado. They get a nicely timed bye Nov. 15 before meeting USC and Stanford the final two weekends of November.
USC — Trojans are relatively front-loaded, with a seemingly mild stretch starting Oct. 18 with Colorado, Utah, WSU and Cal before they meet UCLA.
Utah — Early game at Michigan reflects the two-year pullback from the BYU series (which Utah can justify because it seems to annually thrust aside BYU). Like 2013, the schedule is again back-loaded, with, beginning Oct. 25, USC, ASU, Oregon and Stanford consecutively.
Washington — Huskies have four straight home games in September. Overall, they have what appear to be the harder teams at home and the lesser ones on the road, usually a good recipe for a mature team with aspirations (it was just the opposite in 2013, and I think a detriment to an upheaval of Stanford/Oregon in the Pac-12 North).
WSU — Cougars have a terrific home schedule, with Oregon, Cal, Arizona, USC and Washington.
Herewith, a highly subjective rating of each team’s non-league challenges, toughest to easiest:
1. USC. Trojans have Notre Dame, with Everett Golson returning at QB, at season’s end, and they host Fresno State a week before a big game with Stanford. They also have to go to Boston College a week after playing the Cardinal.
2. Utah. The toughness of a schedule is intertwined with the state of your own program, and in the Utes’ case, that means urgency after a 9-18 start in the Pac-12. Utes have Idaho State, Fresno State and they’re at Michigan.
3. Cal. See premise under No. 2. Bears must open at Northwestern, and they host BYU in their last game. Those are two likely defeats, so they’ll appreciate Sacramento State.
4. Stanford. The fact the Cardinal has Notre Dame on the road contrasts with games against UC-Davis and Army.
5. UCLA. Bruins have Texas at Jerry Jones‘ Arlington palace, open at Virginia and host Memphis. You could make a case for a higher spot for them on the toughness scale, but they should win all three.
6. Oregon. Michigan State game in Eugene will draw all sorts of national attention. Ducks also have South Dakota and Wyoming.
7. Arizona State. ASU has a home date with Notre Dame Nov. 8, not the optimum time to be playing the Irish. The other two are gimmes against Weber State and New Mexico..
8. Oregon State. Beavers host bowl winner San Diego State, go to Hawaii and also host Portland State.
9. Colorado. The opener with Colorado State is always high-intensity. The Buffs also travel to UMass (why, you might wonder) and host Hawaii.
10. Washington State. Cougars get Rutgers Aug. 28 in Seattle, a place that hasn’t been very kind to them lately. But they’ll be favored in all three non-league games, including those against Nevada (on the road) and Portland State. Getting all of them is important, because Colorado is a “miss” again on the WSU schedule.
11. Washington. Not much meat on the bones with this schedule — at Hawaii, Eastern Washington, Illinois and Georgia State (Georgia State?) But Eastern is always ready to play Pac-12 teams from its own state.
12. Arizona. Wildcats in the practice of annually scheduling three wins. They appear to have accomplished that again with UNLV, Texas-San Antonio and Nevada.