So many college football games are dependent on context. Timing and location can mean everything. Michigan State and Utah certainly knew when (early) to play Oregon. The Ducks were breaking in Vernon Adams Jr. to the program, and the Spartans and Utes certainly took advantage of it. Adams was lost in the Utah game, and not having him against Washington State certainly helped the Cougars win the game that ultimately helped decide the Pac-12 North in Stanford’s favor.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the schedules of the Pac-12 teams, starting first with the northern-most schools, against whom Stanford went 3-1 this past season.
One of two teams to beat Stanford in 2015, the Ducks have now trashed Stanford’s defense in consecutive seasons, and they get the Cardinal in a November showdown in the Autzen Asylum. Before that, however, they have to navigate one of the tougher schedules in the Pac-12.
September- The Ducks don’t mess around, and after a tune-up opener against UC Davis (I mean, what Power 5 team could possibly lose to them??) on opening Saturday, the Ducks host Virginia and then travel to Lincoln to entertain old foe Mike Riley. Neither of these teams are coming off great seasons. The Cavaliers are 18-38 the last five seasons, and Nebraska, at 39-23, rates as the 27th best program in the country over the last five years based on the FEI index. The Ducks then end the month by hosting Colorado in Eugene.
Bottom Line: Just like last year, Oregon will be breaking in a new quarterback, as well as playing without stand-out defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. Given that, it’s fortunate that they have three home games in four to start the season. 4-0 is likely, but that trip to Lincoln could be perilous given Riley’s familiarity with Oregon and it’s the first road date for whoever emerges as the Ducks’ starter at QB.
October- Despite getting their bye week this month, Oregon still has four games in October. After blasting Colorado to open Pac-12 play, it goes from 0 to 100 for the Ducks. They travel to Pullman to face the rising Washington State Cougars, who of course bring back Luke Falk and hope to stake their claim in a division that’s had a two-headed landlord since its inception. After the Cougars, Oregon comes home for another talented team on the uptick, Chris Peterson’s Washington Huskies. After that, the Ducks get their bye and then travel to Berkeley to administer their annual throttling of California. The month ends at home against Arizona State. If they survive the Washington schools, the back end of the month appears to present some smoother sailing.
Bottom Line: I just don’t see Oregon navigating the Washington schools perfectly. Worse case, they go 2-2, but more likely, I see 3-1, with those games against Cal and ASU being games against first-year starters, as opposed to the Apple Schools, who both return quality signal callers.
November- Based on last season’s results, this month certainly appears rigorous. The Ducks start the final month of the season in the Coliseum, a venue where they’ve had their way recently, but USC is still USC, and if they are able to establish a measure of stability under Clay Helton, this shapes up as a glamour game on the Pac-12 slate. Right after that, they get Stanford in Eugene. These two teams have won every Pac-12 North title ever, and if Stanford gets its QB situation established, this could be another classic much as the ‘15, ‘13, and ‘12 games have been. It gets no easier for the Ducks as they get to travel to Salt Lake City right after the game with Stanford. Finally comes the Civil War with the Beavers, who are still miles away from Pac-12 North contention.
Bottom Line: The crazy part of this month is that every single team involved will be playing a first-year starter. November could go any which way for Oregon, but with two roadies, and the two most physical teams in the Pac-12 back-to-back, my point about timing seems relevant here. I think the Ducks’ ceiling is 3-1, with 2-2 a pretty reasonable outcome. So best case for Oregon, 10-2, but I think we are looking at 9-3 here for the Ducks, which could very well be enough for contention in the North this year.
Oregon State Beavers
September- As a Pac-12 bottom feeder, the early part of the schedule carries a different kind of urgency in Corvallis, because at a certain point the Beavers will certainly be underdogs in essentially every game they play, so the opportunity to actually win a game becomes that much more precious. Compounding things is the fact that Oregon State gets its bye in September, the least useful month in which to get your week off. The Beavers have a true road opener against a Big Ten foe, Minnesota. The Gophers 6-7 2015 earned them an FEI ranking of 67, so while not a traditional powerhouse, this stands as a daunting task for Coach Gary Andersen in his 2nd year in Cow Valley. After their bye week, Oregon State hosts a pair of Spuds, Idaho State and Boise State. Playing at home, you’d think the Beavers would be good for at least one win in the two. They’d better be, considering what comes in the next two months.
Bottom Line: 1-2 is a distinct possibility depending on how decent Boise State turns out to be, but 2-1 seems likely. They drop the game to the Gophers and split at home.
October- Pac-12 play starts benign enough, with a trip to fellow doormat Colorado and then a home game against Cal. The Beavs and Buffs went down to the wire last year in Corvallis, with Colorado winning a 17-13 anesthetic of a game. Cal torched OSU 54-24, but the Bears no longer feature the #1 pick in the NFL draft, so this game should play a bit closer at Reser Stadium. After that, things get rough. OSU gets Utah at home and then closes the month with the Apple schools. Those final three will all see Oregon State’s opponents as huge underdogs, again putting the onus on those first two October games.
Bottom Line: Best and most realistic scenario is 1-4, with either the Cal home game or the Colorado road game as a chance for a win. 0-5 is very much in play, sadly for Benny.
November- It gets no easier in the season’s final month for OSU. They start with road trips to Stanford and UCLA, then close with home games against Arizona and the Ducks. Any win this month would be a major season-ending boost for the Beavs, who don’t stand to see much improvement record-wise in year two under Coach Andersen.
Bottom Line: 1-3 would be respectable with this closing slate, but 0-4 is definitely plausible. The home game against Arizona could be their best and final shot at outscoring someone in 2016. So best case on the season for OSU would probably be five wins, which would be a tremendous accomplishment coming off a 2-10 season. More likely is a repeat of 2-10, but why not be optimistic? Let’s say Beavs go 3-9 this year.
September- Everybody’s Pac-12 North Preseason Darlings certainly don’t seem to have many obstacles to start the season. Coach Kris Petersen has not exactly scheduled boldly in 2016. The Huskies open with presumed whoopings of Rutgers, Idaho, and Portland State, all in Husky Stadium. They then get a road test to start conference play at Arizona. This will be the rare Pac-12 game that features two returning quarterbacks this season, so expect some difficulty in the desert for the Dawgs, who nonetheless should stand a good chance of winning their first four games. It gets tough in a hurry, though, as the Huskies close the month by hosting Stanford. Factor in that the Stanford game comes on a Friday, so the Huskies will have a shorter week of prep. We’ll know everything we need to know about Washington after their first five games.
Bottom Line- Anything less than 4-1 is a disaster, and if they are serious about contending for the North, they need to win that Arizona game. They get a chance to kill the King to close out September, and they have the advantage of a returning quarterback over the Cardinal. And once more, context rules, because they get tossed from the Cardinal Frying Pan into the Eugene Fire to start the next month.
October- After their trip to Eugene, things get a bit more pleasant for a while. Washington gets its bye week (nice timing coming off games against Stanford and Oregon) and then Oregon State in Seattle. The month closes with a challenging road trip to Utah to play the Utes. Essentially we have a soft middle bracketed by arguably the two toughest road trips in the conference.
Bottom Line- If Washington’s standing after two months, they stand to be in contention for not just the Pac-12 North, but possible playoff consideration. They will be playing against a first-year QB in Autzen, but this will be Jake Browning’s first trip to the Asylum. Will he be ready? I just am not sure Washington’s ready to win two games the magnitude of Stanford and Oregon back-to-back. I think we are looking at 1-2, though if Utah remains unsettled at QB by the end of the month, I like the Huskies’ chances at 2-1.
November- After their trip to Salt Lake, the Huskies head to Berkeley to take on Cal. Last year, Cal was able to escape Husky Stadium thanks in part to the inexperience of Browning, who threw two interceptions as a true Freshman and couldn’t quite keep up with Jared Goff. With Goff gone, Cal gets home field but the Huskies get the advantage at quarterback as Cal will be the team with the first-year starter. This is a tough game to handicap, especially this far out, but it certainly stands as one of the more winnable road games for Washington. After that, the Dawgs return home to host USC and Arizona State. Washington’s win over the Trojans last year in the Coliseum was a significant win for Head Coach Chris Petersen in his second year. The Sun Devils come to town right after the Trojans, setting Washington up for a potential let down on the heels of the high profile Trojans and right before the Apple Cup, which may mean more than it has in many, many years.
Bottom Line- If Washington is truly the contender many think they are, this is the time for them to be hitting their stride. It’s just hard to imagine them making the kind of leap that sees them running the table here. There are too many obstacles they’ve not yet encountered to like them in all four of these games, even though they all seem winnable individually. I think three wins would be great but two seems more likely. UW steps up this year, but not all the way to the top of the division. 8-4 or 9-3 is the call here.
Washington State Cougars
September- Three softies and a bye get 2016 underway for The Pirate’s Crew, although it’s unlikely that the Cougars are looking at Eastern Washington as much of a “softie” after last season’s stunning opening game loss to Portland State. Nevertheless, Washington State will be heavily favored in all three games it plays this month, first against EWU, then on the road against Boise State and home once more for cross-state neighbor Idaho. The Cougars get an early bye after that, but considering how October begins, it’s rather strategically placed.
Bottom Line- If the Cougars are the contenders many believe they can be with Luke Falk returning at quarterback and a rising defense, they shouldn’t break a sweat running out to 3-0 to start the season.
October- The Cougars open Pac-12 play with the first two shots at the Kings of the Pac-12 North. They host an Oregon Duck team who will be looking for some getback after dropping last year’s game in Autzen Stadium. Afterward, they head down to the Peninsula to take on Stanford. After those two huge challenges, October gets a bit more palatable. Washington State welcomes Josh Rosen and UCLA to Martin Stadium, then goes out on the road to play Arizona State and Oregon State.
Bottom Line- This is the defining month of the year for the Cougars. Are they really ready to step up and beat Oregon and Stanford back to back? That’s a very tall order, even with the advantage of having Falk while the Ducks and Cardinal break in new quarterbacks. I think they split those two, then drop either the home game against UCLA or the roadie against Arizona State. They’ll handle Oregon State, but I’m saying 3-2 for the Cougars, which is no shame with this slate.
November- Two home games against likely defensive underachievers kick off November. Washington State gets Cal and Arizona on consecutive weekends in Martin Stadium. After that, it’s a road trip to Boulder to play the Buffs, followed by the big rematch with Washington to close out the year at home in the Apple Cup.
Bottom Line- Is there an upset chance for Colorado here? It’s the game before the Apple Cup, it’s on the road, November in Boulder....I’m gonna say no, but not with a ton of confidence. This shapes up as a 3-4 win month for Washington State. The question becomes, will that be enough to win the North? I just have a feeling that like their rivals from Seattle, they are still a year away from their best shot at the division (assuming Falk stays). Somewhere in here they are gonna be upset. I think it’s 9-3 at best, with 8-4 the most likely outcome.
Toughest September: Oregon. The only team to test itself with multiple Power 5 opponents (including a true road game in a tough environment vs. Nebraska) in the non-conference schedule.
Toughest October: Washington State. Starting Pac-12 play with Oregon and Stanford is the equivalent of the first 90 seconds of fighting MIke Tyson on NES. Washington State will have to be at its best right away if it’s going avoid getting knocked out of the race in the Pac-12 North. They don’t have to go 2-0 to stay in contention, but they can’t start 0-2 and realistically compete for the league. After that dealing with Josh Rosen right after that will be a stiff challenge for The Grinch’s defense.
Toughest November: Oregon. Road trips to USC and Utah, sandwiching the showdown with Stanford, and then the Civil War. On the plus side, the Ducks will have the most amount of time to acclimate their first-year starter before they face the toughest part of their schedule. However, this remains one of the toughest months any team in the league will have to face.
Toughest Overall Schedule: Oregon
Softest Overall Schedule: Washington State. Yes, they get the brutal October, but they get UCLA at home, the Ducks at home, the Huskies at home, and two of the road games are against the weakest teams (Colorado and Oregon State) in the conference.
This grouping is likely to dish out the usual Pac-12 Cruelty against one another, with the big three (Ducks, Huskies, Cougars) all feasting on the Beavs, though if any of them were to slip up against Oregon State, it could be a crippling blow to their title chances. Depending on what you think of Boise State, this is one of the weaker clusters of non-conference scheduling. Until UW and WSU prove they are ready to knock off the Ducks, the pick for best record here is Oregon. Will the Ducks have enough to take the North? Stay tuned for Part 2, which focuses on the California schools.