We've just dipped under triple digits in the countdown to college football, and one of the most anticipated and examined aspects is the schedule. With the alternating and unbalanced schedule now established in the Pac-12, timing and location now play a bigger role than ever before. There are all kinds of ways of evaluating a schedule. Some teams want a legit non-conference slate to prepare their team for the rigors of conference play and especially if they are college football playoff contenders. Other teams prefer to ease into conference play with a diet of cupcakes that minimize the risk of injuries and stay the effects of attrition. Experienced teams don't mind going on the road early if it means home cooking towards the end of the year, while young teams often prefer to play their tougher early games at home before getting the confidence to win on the road. With so many teams dealing with high expectations (especially in the Pac-12 South) and half the conference in flux at the most crucial position, the schedule is going to play a huge role in determining who meets in Santa Clara and who plays beyond that in 2015. Let's take a look, team-by-team, and see what the slate has in store.
September: Count Rich Rod amongst those who like to grease the rails into conference play with nary a challenge to his Wildcats. Arizona opens at home with UTSA, travels to Nevada-Reno, and then returns home to pound Northern Arizona before things get super real in Game 4. Jim Mora's UCLA Bruins come to town Sept. 26 for an early Pac-12 South Showdown. Arizona will have revenge on its mind for last year's defeat, a 17-7 affair at the Rose Bowl that was by far the Wildcats' weakest offensive effort of the season. In no other game did they score less than 26 points.
October: After the UCLA game, Arizona will head out for its first Pac-12 roadie, a trip down Galvez Street on October 3 to take on Stanford. The last time Arizona played in Arrillaga's House, the Cardinal came away with a heart-stopping 54-48 overtime win in Josh Nunes' best game ever as Stanford's starting quarterback. The rest of the month gets much easier after that. Arizona has home games against Oregon State and Washington State, as well as roadies to Colorado and Washington. Husky Stadium is a tough venue, but the team doesn't project to be very strong this season. The home games should be no problem, though that's rarely the case in this conference. On paper, this is as smooth a 4-game stretch as one could ask for in 2015, and it sets the stage for a brutal November closing act.
November: Arizona could be 8-1/9-0 heading into the final month of the season, but they will earn anything they get after that. On Saturday Nov. 7 they head to Troy to take on USC, then come right back to Tucson to face the always rugged Utah Utes. That leads up to the Territorial Cup Showdown with the Sun Devils in Tempe to close out regular season play on Nov. 21. Arizona State shapes up as a strong Pac-12 South contender this year, and they will certainly be looking to fork Wilbur after last year's disappointing loss in Tucson. Arizona has its way for the first two months of the year, but this stands as one of the toughest closing acts in college football as of now.
Toughest Home Game: Sept. 26 vs. UCLA
Toughest Road Game: Nov. 7 @ USC
Biggest Trap Game: Nov. 14 vs. Utah
Nice Break: No Oregon.
Tough Break: No bye week.
Verdict: No schedule in this conference is a breeze, but things are lined up nicely for Arizona heading into the final stretch. If they can split that Bruin-Cardinal back-to-back or even win both and avoid toe-stubs against the soft center of their schedule, they should have plenty to play for in November, where winning any two of its final three would be very impressive. For Arizona's entire schedule, click here.
Arizona State Sun Devils
September: Coach Todd Graham has certainly scheduled tougher than his counterpart down South. Arizona State opens up the season with an SEC opponent in Texas A&M in the "neutral" confines of Houston's NRG Stadium. The Aggies went 8-5 last year and ended their season with a postseason victory over West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl. After that they get Cal Poly and then New Mexico on a short week (Friday night). While Arizona gets UCLA on September 26, ASU will also have its hands full on that Saturday as Steve Sarkisian brings USC into Tempe. The Sun Devils are going to need to be ready early if they are going to get more than two wins in the season's first month.
October: The very next week, Arizona State begins October with UCLA in the Rose Bowl. After a palate cleanser in Tempe with Colorado, they make the treacherous trip to Salt Lake City to take on Utah. This shapes up as a brutal stretch for Arizona State that the bye week partially mitigates. After Utah on Oct. 17, Arizona State gets twelve days to get ready to host Oregon on Thursday, October 29. It wouldn't be hard to see a 1-3 month even for a team as talented as Arizona State. In contrast to Arizona, the meat of the schedule comes right in the middle, but that does set up a less challenging final act of the year.
November: Following that brutal October, the Sun Devils get an Apple State respite, with a trip to Pullman and then a home date vs. the Huskies to start November. That sets up the home game against Arizona. There is some trickiness to the end: A road trip to Cal after the Territorial Cup. This is the very definition of a trap game even though it comes at the end of the year. Best guess is that if ASU beats Arizona and is playing for huge stakes, they will maintain their focus and handle the Bears. Lower stakes and/or a letdown loss against Rich Rod, and they may very well check out before arriving in Strawberry Canyon. Even with the Arizona showdown, this is by far the easiest month of the schedule for Arizona State.
Toughest Home Game: Oct. 29 vs. Oregon
Toughest Road Game: Oct. 17 @ Utah
Biggest Trap Game: Nov. 28 @ Cal
Nice Break: The bye week between their two toughest games of the year.
Tough Break: The Letdown Special with Cal? Actually, I'll go with having the L.A. schools back-to-back.
Verdict: The Sun Devils have a tough schedule that gives no quarter whatsoever and demands that they are ready to go from the get-go. This is a talented team that returns a senior quarterback, and if they make it to November with their biggest goals intact, they have a great shot at a 10+ win season. That's a big "if," though. Scheduling A&M was their choice and they should be applauded for it. The Pac-12 Home Office did the Sun Devils no favors, however. There will be no asterisks if ASU navigates a path to Santa Clara with this slate.
California Golden Bears
September: Cal should be 2-0 after home dates with Grambling and San Diego State to start the year. That sets them up for consecutive road games in Austin and Seattle. We don't know what to expect from Texas this year, but give Coach Sonny Dykes credit for scheduling a name and a true road date before conference play commences. The trip to Seattle could be tough, but the Bears are going with Jared Goff at quarterback while Washington will be breaking in a new quarterback. This early in the year, that makes a big difference. The Bears could easily be 3-1 after the first month of the year.
October: The Bears would be well-served to win three or more in September, because after making an appetizer of Washington State on Oct. 3, they are gonna be hard-pressed to find another win this month. They have road trips to Utah and UCLA split by their bye week, then they await the arrival of USC and thousands of Bros and Sorority Trojans who will never make it out of the Marina District in time to reach Strawberry Canyon. We will know just how much Cal's defense has improved (if at all) after October, and we will also know exactly how good Goff is. An elite team would struggle with this month, and Cal, however improved, is not an elite team heading into 2015. Hide the women and children, Oski.
November: After that, all Cal has to do is go over the river and through the woods to be mauled by Oregon in Eugene. The Bears return home to face Oregon State before they go across the Bay for The Big Game. Their season ends with a home date at Memorial Stadium against Arizona State. A 2-2 November would be an accomplishment given this slate. The Oregon State game is no gimme, by the way, and it's always tough to play a game right after rivalry weekend, especially against a talented opponent. Cal hasn't beaten Stanford in Stanford Stadium since Andrew Luck's first year as a starter on the Farm, and they last won Eugene in 2007.
Toughest Home Game: Oct. 31 vs. USC
Toughest Road Game: November 7 @ Oregon
Biggest Trap Game: Nov. 14 vs. Oregon State
Nice Break: 12 days to get ready for UCLA on a Thursday, then 9 days to get ready for their next game vs. USC.
Tough Break: The two toughest road venues in the conference in Rice-Eccles Stadium and Autzen Asylum.
Verdict: The bad news for Bear fans is that Cal may very well be improved this year and it still may not show up in very many wins. Best case scenario is that Cal gets all four in September, takes care of the North Divison "State" schools and makes it to bowl eligibility. An upset of Stanford is the most likely of extremely unlikely wins other than the six previously mentioned. And that's presuming no major injuries for the Bears. Any sort of bad luck in this (or any other) regard, and Cal may be in for a long final eight weeks of 2015.
September: It's hard to fault Colorado for the three-course tasting menu of patsies it's gathered for the first four games of the year. Colorado opens in Honolulu, then hosts UMass, Colorado State, and Nicholls State. Now, Colorado State will be no pushover at all, and you never know what can happen to a team in the Rainbow State. The Buffaloes have lost two of the last three against the Rams, and given their struggles since joining the Pac-12, they shouldn't be looking past anybody at this stage. Coach Mike McCarthy knows this, and will probably have the Buffs ready to show they've taken steps this offseason to be competitive in conference play.
October: It would be good if Colorado got a few wins in September, because it's unlikely they will be favored in a single one of their Pac-12 games. They open in Boulder against Oregon on Oct.3, then go to Tempe to face ASU, back home to Boulder to face Arizona, then on the road to Corvallis and Pasadena. The Arizona game could be an upset chance given it's at home, and I'd be more optimistic about Oregon State if the Buffaloes didn't have to travel, but I just don't see them winning a conference road game this year. Three road games in five weeks, and the two home dates are against last year's Pac-12 Championship participants. This all comes with no bye week, by the way.
November: The good news is that Colorado opens up the final month with two home games. The bad news is that they are against Stanford and USC. In fact, the Buffaloes may have the most challenging home conference schedule in the Pac-12. After that come road trips to Pullman and Salt Lake. Colorado should be able to give the Cougs a game, but on the road they will almost certainly be underdogs even in Pullman and definitely in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Toughest Home Game: Oct. 3 vs. Oregon
Toughest Road Game: Oct. 10 @ Arizona State
Biggest Trap Game: Sept. 26 vs. Nicholls State
Nice Break: The Buffaloes don't leave the state in the season's first month except for a trip to Hawaii. Not bad living at all.
Tough Break: Getting their most winnable conference games (Washington State and Oregon State) on the road.
Verdict: I mean, no version of a Pac-12 schedule was going to be great for Colorado, but that brutal home slate sets up as a major challenge for a program not lacking in major challenges. Two or more conference wins would be a legit achievement.
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