If the Pac-12 remains on the sidelines of the College Football Playoff for a fifth consecutive year this upcoming season, it won't be due to a lack of nonconference opportunities. With Oregon playing at Ohio State (Sept. 11), Washington playing at Michigan (Sept. 11) and USC playing a trio of non-league foes that finished 28-4 last season, the conference's front-runners will have some chances to prove their mettle on the big stage.
But the league docket evens things out when it comes to ranking the strength of schedule for the league's teams and actually does some favors for that trio. Each Pac-12 team plays four of the six schools from the opposite division during a nine-game league slate, and that uneven number of games leaves half the conference's schools with five conference road games versus just four home games.
Those factors play a role in deducing whose schedule is toughest, as do particularly daunting stretches that feature consecutive games against difficult opponents. With kickoff just two months away, let's break it down team-by-team to see who has the hardest and easiest schedules in the Pac-12 this season.
|The Cardinal are the only team in the Pac-12 facing three power conference opponents in non-league play as they take on Kansas State, Vanderbilt and Notre Dame. Stanford's league slate is also tough since the Cardinal must play the top four projected teams from the Pac-12 South. Getting Oregon and Washington at home is nice, but there are no breaks anywhere on this slate aside from an Oct. 23 open date.|
|Aside from a season-opening date with Northern Colorado, there really aren't any sure victories for the Buffaloes. Texas A&M and Minnesota await on Sept. 11 and Sept. 18, respectively, before a challenging league slate begins. This squad showed its competitive mettle during a 4-2 debut campaign under Karl Dorrell, but playing Washington and Oregon out of the North will be a hefty test for a team breaking in a young quarterback.|
|A Sept. 4 home game with LSU highlights UCLA's nonconference slate, and the Bruins face a loaded league schedule that includes the following unenviable stretch: at Washington (Oct. 16), vs. Oregon (Oct. 23) and at Utah (Oct. 30). The Bruins don't play either the North's projected bottom-feeders in Washington State or Oregon State and play five league road games. If this squad is going to finally turn a corner under Chip Kelly, it will have to beat some quality foes.|
|The Wildcats face a sneakily tough opening salvo with BYU and San Diego State on the docket to begin the Jedd Fisch coaching era. A date with Northern Arizona before league play looks like a sure victory, but the league schedule does Arizona no favors. The Wildcats play five conference road games and must face Pac-12 North stalwarts Oregon and Washington.|
|Starting with a game at Purdue will be a challenge for the Beavers, but they should be able to handle Hawaii and Idaho to enter league play 2-1. Unfortunately, OSU must play Pac-12 South front-runners Arizona State, Utah and USC in a league slate that features five road games. Replacing one of those three opponents with Arizona would make the path to bowl eligibility much more feasible for coach Jonathan Smith's squad.|
|Washington State should start 2-0 with games against Utah State and Portland State, but then comes a three-game stretch against USC, at Utah and at California that will provide a stiff test. With the Trojans, Utes and Arizona State all on the schedule from the Pac-12 South, racking up wins will be tough for second-year coach Nick Rolovich. A Nov. 19 home game vs. Arizona looks appetizing, but it's sandwiched between road games against Oregon and Washington.|
|Nevada and TCU are solid nonconference tests for Cal, and the Bears must play Washington and Oregon on the road. The good news: Cal gets to play Arizona and Colorado in cross-division action while missing quality Pac-12 South squads Utah and Arizona State.|
|A veteran Utes team has a relatively manageable nonconference slate featuring Weber State, BYU and San Diego State. Pac-12 play brings a mixed bag as Utah misses Washington out of the North but must play Oregon in a potential high-stakes game on Nov. 20. The Utes are fortunate to have a bye week before playing at USC on Oct. 9.|
|USC's nonconference schedule is among the more difficult in the league as it features games against San Jose State, Notre Dame and BYU. Those three combined to go 28-4 last season and will test the Trojans. However, USC gets a likable conference draw by avoiding both Washington and Oregon in cross-division play. With five conference home games on the docket, this squad has a manageable path to Pac-12 title game.|
|You might think a schedule that includes a Sept. 11 road game at Ohio State would be the toughest in the Pac-12, but the Ducks' other two nonconference games -- Fresno State and Stony Brook) -- should be easy victories. Oregon also misses USC and Arizona State out of the Pac-12 South and gets to play five league home games. The Buckeyes may be a CFP roadblock for Oregon, but there's not much standing in the way of the Ducks marching to a league title appearance.|
|Games against Southern Utah and UNLV should be easy victories to start things off, and playing at BYU on Sept. 18 is a game the Sun Devils should be favored to win as the Cougars are replacing a ton of production. Yes, it's true that playing USC and Washington in consecutive weeks to begin November will be rough, but ASU gets five league home games in total and misses Oregon from the Pac-12 North.|
|It's debatable whether Washington has the roster to win the Pac-12 North and compete for a CFP bid, but there's no doubt the Huskies have a schedule conducive to meeting those goals. Though a Sept. 11 game at Michigan will be a test, it's a winnable challenge that won't wreck the season if it results in a loss. Washington avoids USC and Utah in cross-division play and gets Oregon at home in a Nov. 6 contest that could decide the division.|