September: True to their nature, the Ducks waste very little time before getting to the tastiest parts of their early schedule. After tuning up with the Vernon Adams Custody Battle on Sept. 5, the Ducks fly to East Lansing for a huge rematch with Sparty. That win was enough to help the Ducks build a playoff-caliber resume last year, and this year promises to be an even stiffer challenge, given the road location and the fact that it'll be their starting QB's (Lockie or Adams) second career start. After that, the Ducks return home for a game against Georgia State before opening up Pac-12 play with Utah in Autzen Stadium. That's a pretty solid opening month, even with two gimme home wins included. The Michigan State date stands as probably the toughest non-conference true road game for any Pac-12 team, with only USC's visit to South Bend really very comparable.
October: Should be a breeze for the Ducks until the month's final Saturday. They start with a road trip to Boulder for what should be an easy win. They then get the Apple Schools, WSU in Eugene and then the Huskies in Seattle. Emotion will be running high in Seattle, but really the Ducks should not be pushed in either of these three games. That all sets up Oregon's trip to Tempe to face Arizona State. This game should have major ramifications on the Pac-12 South race, since the Sun Devils get the Ducks and the Wildcats do not. The Ducks get their bye week before heading to the desert for the Thursday Night showdown with Arizona State. Even at that, October should be a month for Oregon to get its ducks in a row (sorry, couldn't help it) before a busy November.
November: Despite getting three of its four November games at home, Oregon faces its toughest three-game stretch of the year to close 2015. After demolishing Cal in Eugene, the Ducks head to Stanford on Nov. 14 before returning home to face USC and Beaver Nation in succession. Cal and Oregon State don't stand as obstacles on paper, but those middle two games will likely determine Oregon's postseason fate. Still, better for the Ducks to get those games at the end of the year, and to have minimal travel involved during the closing stretch.
Toughest Home Game: Nov. 21 vs. USC
Toughest Road Game: Sept. 12 @ Michigan State
Biggest Trap Game: Nov. 7 vs. Cal
Nice Break: The Ducks skip Arizona, who has beaten them two of the last three times they've played.
Tough Break: Breaking in a new quarterback with their toughest road game of the year in Week 2.
Verdict: Challenging but very doable. They basically have four tests, spread out over three months: The Spartans, Sun Devils, Cardinal, and Trojans. That USC game should be unbelievable, just like the Ducks' last encounter with USC in the Coliseum in 2012. That game was a 62-51 thriller, and with Cody Kessler leading a loaded (as always) Trojan offense, Oregon's defense will be severely challenged even within the confines of Autzen Stadium. Considering what Oregon's returning, 10 wins may be the low end of the expectations, pending they get their QB situation settled.
September: After the obligatory dress rehearsal with Weber State, Coach Gary Andersen gets a throwback to his Big Ten roots with a trip to face Captain Comeback in Ann Arbor. The Beavers then return home to face a pair of Bay Area schools. San Jose State should help the Beavers recover from whatever happens in The Big House, and then Stanford comes calling to open Pac-12 play in Reser Stadium. Oregon State will be breaking in a new quarterback just like the Ducks, but the Beaver's choice will have far less experience than either Jeff Lockie or Vernon Adams. We bring this up to emphasize that playing a Coach as rugged as Jim Harbaugh and then a team as rugged defensively as Stanford should provide very revealing early returns on the Beaver offense. Three or more wins this month may put Oregon State's expectations at a much higher level than where they currently reside.
October: The Beavers get their bye week following the game against Stanford before they must negotiate a road-intensive October. Oregon State treks to Tucson to play Arizona and then to Pullman to take on the Cougars. After that, they get their one home game of the month against Colorado. October ends with a trip to Rice-Eccles Stadium to face Utah. The Buffaloes should fall in Corvallis, and if Oregon State can slip out of the Palouse with win, 2-2 would be a fine result for this month. Should they drop one of those two, it could be a long march to Halloween for the Beavs.
November: UCLA arrives in Cow Valley to kick off November, which is a tough way to follow up a game against Utah. Oregon State then goes on the road to play Cal before hosting Washington. Cal should provide a severe test for Oregon State's defense and although the Huskies should be beatable especially at home, OSU's next opponent sets that encounter up as a potential trap. The Beavers will attempt to win in Eugene for the first time since 2007. This projects as another 2-2 month for Oregon State, which should be enough to get the Beavers into a bowl in Coach Andersen's first year. The Duck game also comes on a short week, as it's slotted for Friday Nov. 27. Tough to get ready for your rival the day after Thanksgiving and on a short week, but then again the Ducks have the exact same task.
Toughest Home Game: Sept. 25 vs. Stanford (Over UCLA only because the Cardinal visit on a Friday and it's early in the year)
Toughest Road Game: Nov. 27 @ Oregon
Biggest Trap Game: Nov. 21 vs. Washington
Nice Break: Oregon State leaves the state only once in the final month of the year.
Tough Break: Road games in the two toughest venues in the league.
Verdict: Gary Andersen is headed straight into the deep end in his first year in the Conference of Champions. There are reasons to be optimistic that the Beavers, who went 5-7 last year, can improve by one or two games in Andersen's rookie season, but anything beyond that would have him in serious contention for Coach of the Year honors.
September: Stanford opens in Evanston against Northwestern in a game they should win, but it's always tough to start on the road. They return home to play Central Florida and then it gets real. Conference play opens in week 3 in the Coliseum, as Kevin Hogan gets his last chance to beat a USC team that will almost certainly be ranked in the top 10 (probably top 5) when the Cardinal comes calling. A tricky trip to Corvallis (Friday Night game) follows on the heels of the USC game and sets the pattern for Stanford's quirky 2015. The Cardinal plays consecutive road games, then gets three home dates, then consecutive road games again, punctuated with three more consecutive home dates. As it was last year, the USC game will be the barometer for the Cardinal's season. As such, a vastly revamped defense swims in some deep water early with very high stakes on the line.
October: Stanford's bye week splits home dates against Arizona (on Oct. 3) and UCLA on a Thursday night. The Bruins will have plenty of vengeance on their mind, not just from last year's crushing season-ending defeat in Pasadena, but from an overall losing streak that now spans seven straight games. The test against Arizona will likely be another trial for the defense. After that, Stanford gets Washington, once again at Stanford Stadium. The timing of this one makes it a game of concern, as Stanford will have run the Pac-12 South gauntlet only to face what in theory will be a lesser opponent at home. The month concludes with a Halloween visit to the Palouse, where one can only hope Mike Leach dresses like a Pirate for the occasion.
November: Stanford gets a road trip to Boulder to face Colorado before the Main Event of its 2015 begins. Three games at Stanford Stadium against Oregon, Cal, and Notre Dame. When a game known as "The Big Game" is the least anticipated in a homestand, you know there are some monsters on the marquee. The Oregon game will almost certainly clinch the Pac-12 North for the winner, and Notre Dame could be a de facto playoff elimination game when it's played in its traditional Saturday after Thanksgiving slot. Stanford went 2-1 in Andrew Luck's Senior year the last time it closed a season with these three in 2012.
Toughest Home Game: Nov. 14 vs. Oregon
Toughest Road Game: Sept. 19 @ USC
Biggest Trap Game: Nov. 7 @ Colorado
Nice Break: The Cardinal stays home for the holidays.
Tough Break: Three very ornery and challenging guests crash during those holidays, but I'll go with having to open conference play a week earlier than any other team (besides USC) and doing so against the country's most talented team. Maintaining the Weekender comes at a price.
Verdict: This schedule certainly plays to a College Playoff bid should the Cardinal win enough games. The road game against USC looms as far and away the most difficult challenge away from Stanford Stadium, and this is unquestionably the most difficult home slate in the Pac-12 from top to bottom. Getting Oregon at home can only help Stanford's chances after they were swarmed in Autzen last season. Bottom line is that we will find out if an experienced offense can carry an inexperienced defense farther than last season, when those identities were reversed.
September: The Bruins kick off the Josh Rosen (or Jerry Neuheisel) Era in the Rose Bowl against Virginia, a team from a power conference that hasn't shown much power in recent years. The Cavaliers went from 2-10 in Coach Mike London's first year to 5-7 last season. One of those seven losses was a 28-20 season opening loss to the Bruins last year that could well have been a Virginia win were it not for a rash of Cavalier turnovers. A trip to Sin City to face UNLV follows and then the Bruins round out their non-conference slate against Brigham Young. The three teams were 15-23 in 2014, but the Cougars won 8 of those 15, so it's safe to say that the Bruins haven't exactly scheduled boldly, though Virginia is an ACC school who may have looked more enticing when the schools agreed to play one another. We'll see just how well that slate prepares the Bruins, because the final September Saturday brings them to Tucson for a stiff test against Arizona to open Pac-12 play.
October: UCLA continues its toughest three-game stretch of the year on Oct. 3 when they return to the Rose Bowl to play Arizona State. The Pac-12 South won't be won by October 3, but the Bruins could certainly have lost it by then. The bye week then bridges the Bruins towards the rematch against Stanford on the Farm. If UCLA sweeps this stretch, they will almost certainly by in national playoff contention come November. The rest of October plays as a much smoother ride, as UCLA plays a second straight Thursday against Cal and then stays home with nine days to prepare for Colorado on Halloween. Only the weirdness of the schedule poses any serious threat to the Bruins in the back half of October.
November: The regular season's final month begins with a trip to Corvallis to play Oregon State and then the Bruins play their final home game in the Arroyo Seco with a second serving of Cougars (WSU this time). If UCLA has handled its business up until this point, it will certainly have earned its way into the postseason, because they have what is probably the toughest finish in the conference this year. The Bruins go to Salt Lake to play Utah and then return to Los Angeles to face USC in the Coliseum. If the Arizona schools are out of it, this is the Pac-12 South Championship game. The Bruins have not lost to USC in three seasons, and their ascent now collides with the most fortified Trojan roster since Jim Mora took over. This is a strong contender for game of the year in the Pac-12.
Toughest Home Game: Oct. 3 vs. Arizona State
Toughest Road Game: Oct. 15 @ Stanford
Biggest Trap Game: Nov. 14 vs. Washington State
Nice Break: October includes the bye week and no trips outside California, including three home games.
Tough Break: Hands down the toughest closing two-game stretch of any Pac-12 team.
Verdict: They skip Oregon just as Arizona does, and they get ASU at home. If Rosen is what everybody thinks he is by the time conference play starts, the Bruins should be pushing 10+ wins again this season.
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