It’s all very subjective, of course, but more than three weeks from the start of the college football season, what isn’t? Herewith, we rank each Pac-12 non-conference schedule, easiest to toughest, with the number of 2013 bowl teams it’s facing listed in parentheses:
12, Washington (0). At Hawaii, Eastern Washington, Illinois, Georgia State. No matter how you slice it, it seems inevitable that the Huskies get the booby prize here. Most years, if you said you’re going on the road to play a Mountain West team, and hosting one from the Big Ten, that’s more than respectable. Except in this case, it’s recently downtrodden Hawaii, and lately miserable Illinois. Throw in Georgia State (coached by ex-UW-under-Willingham assistant Trent Miles), and what’s it all mean? For starters, that the best non-league game on the slate is Eastern Washington, which is ranked No. 2 in FCS by the coaches, and under no circumstances, should be taken lightly.
11, Oregon State (1). Portland State, at Hawaii, San Diego State. The next four on this list were tough to break down; they’ve each got a moderate amount of treachery facing them – i.e., a game it appears they could lose. PSU, in a 6-6 year in 2013, lost its last two, 43-42 to Sacramento State and 42-41 to Eastern Washington. Hawaii is expected to be improved after a 4-20 start under Norm Chow, and I suppose any trip of 2,500 miles has its challenges (for Washington as well, obviously). San Diego State is the most daunting game – it blew out Buffalo in the Famous Idaho Potatoes Bowl last year – but the Beavers have the Aztecs in Corvallis.
10, Colorado (1). Colorado State, at Massachusetts, Hawaii. CSU always presents an immediate challenge, and it has capable QB Garrett Grayson back from the New Mexico Bowl win over WSU but suffered key attrition in MWC defensive player of the year Shaquil Barrett (LB), center Weston Richburg and running back Kapri Bibbs. What’s a Pac-12 team doing playing a game at UMass, which is a short-timer in the Mid-American East? The Minutemen are coming off a 1-11 season. Hawaii lost five games by a TD or less.
9, WSU (1). Rutgers (at CenturyLink Field), at Nevada, Portland State. Rutgers, which lost to Notre Dame in the Pinstripe Bowl, has a lot of people back, but still has quarterback issues. Nevada could be a tricky one, returning QB Cody Fajardo, plus 10 defensive starters, and WSU didn’t fare so well the last time it faced a Mountain West team. Lots of connections to our state on the Portland State coaching staff: Ex-Husky Nigel Burton is head coach, former UW linebacker Lester Towns is LB coach and recruiting coordinator, offensive line coach Steve Morton has worked at both schools and Malik Roberson coached defensive line under Paul Wulff.
8, Arizona (1). UNLV, at Texas-San Antonio, Nevada. I was in Vegas recently, and the season over-under win total on UNLV was four, which doesn’t say much about the Rebels. The game to watch for here is UTSA, which not only is (a) an FBS team, but (b) went 6-2 last season in Conference USA and is now bowl-eligible for the first time. No doubt the ‘Zona game will be something of a crusade there. The Nevada game is a rematch of the Wildcats’ crazy 49-48 comeback win in the New Mexico Bowl.
7, Arizona State (1). Weber State, New Mexico, Notre Dame. Now we get into the schools playing a big-time opponent. No, not Weber. Last year, the Wildcats lost 70-7 to Utah and then 70-6 to Utah State. New Mexico was 3-9 last year but seems to be on the right track under Bob Davie. And you have to like a team with a running back named Crusoe Gongbay. The Sun Devils get Notre Dame in November, as Brian Kelly enters his fifth season with a 37-15 mark.
6, Stanford (1). UC-Davis, Army, at Notre Dame. The Cardinal’s challenge is slightly more troublesome than ASU’s, in that it has to go to South Bend. Meanwhile, Cal-Davis was 5-7 last year. Army played Stanford to a 14-point loss last year at West Point, as a 30-point underdog, and has 16 starters back from a 3-9 team. As for the Irish, this good stat from Athlon: A big problem the past two years has been poor red-zone performance – just 53 touchdowns in 105 trips. Kelly has promoted Mike Denbrock, a Willingham assistant at Washington, to offensive coordinator.
5, Cal (1). At Northwestern, Sacramento State, BYU. Northwestern had a five-year bowl streak snapped when it went 5-7 last year but it has 17 starters returning, including experienced QB Trevor Siemian. Sac State was also 5-7, and it has recent wins over both Oregon State and Colorado. BYU was 8-5 in 2013 and has sturdy QB Taysom Hill back but must replaced rugged linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
4. UCLA (1). At Virginia, Memphis, at Texas (in Arlington). You could make the case the Bruins have it harder than this, simply because they have to travel great distances twice. Virginia has a lot back, but it went 2-10 and was winless in the ACC last year. Memphis was 3-9 and gets 17 starters back. Texas might not have any players left at the rate first-year coach Charlie Strong has been jettisoning them. Either Mack Brown was running a country club down there, or Strong is the biggest hard guy in that state since Bear Bryant roamed Texas A%M.
3. Utah (2). Idaho State, Fresno State, at Michigan. Believe it or not, Idaho State hasn’t won a road game since 2006. I’ve seen that described as a 45-game road losing streak, but I can only get to 43 in going over it (not trying to say things aren’t bleak in Pocatello). In either case, it’s ghastly. Fresno State could be a deadly game for the Utes, who simply must get to the conference season 2-1 and don’t figure to help their cause at Michigan, though they won there in ’08. It should help that Utah has a bye between Fresno State and Michigan, lest the Fighting Whittinghams look ahead to the Big House.
2. Oregon (1). South Dakota, Michigan State, Wyoming. I slotted the Ducks up here because of the sheer weight of the Michigan State game, one that could have major implications for the first college playoff. State won the Rose Bowl last January, and while it loses stars like CB Darqueze Dennard and LB Max Bullough, it retains the quarterback, Connor Cook, and the offense is expected to be improved. Meanwhile, South Dakota went only 4-8 in scoring a scant 209 points last year, and Wyoming is under new management, as FCS whiz (North Dakota State) Craig Bohl takes over.
1. USC (3). Fresno State, at Boston College, Notre Dame. It’s certainly not a crazy-hard schedule, but it’s the only one in the league against three bowl teams of 2013. Thing is, it’s Fresno State without quarterback Derek Carr, and BC minus 2,000-yard rusher Andre Williams. But Everett Golson returns to quarterback Notre Dame, which is itself facing what some believe to be the toughest schedule in the country.