The California schools take the field in 2016 with the winds of change blowing through all four respective teams one way or the other. Three of the squads will have new starting quarterbacks (Stanford, Cal, USC), while UCLA will have a new offensive coordinator. That hasn’t impacted their boldness in scheduling however, and this quartet may have the most impressive and daunting sets of opponents in the conference, even the nation. They have all scheduled boldly in the non-conference to say the least, and that’s not even factoring in that the special “Weekender” clause means they will all play each other per tradition. So who’s got it toughest? Let’s take a look.
September: Stanford graciously lets its fans open up its first gift of 2016 on the Eve of the first Saturday of the season. A Friday night date against venerable Bill Snyder’s Kansas State Wildcats gets the season underway. After that, a peculiar bye week follows, allowing the Cardinal 14 days in which to prepare for the arrival of USC to Stanford Stadium. Right after that Stanford closes out the month with tough road trips to Pasadena to play the Bruins and then to Seattle on a short week to take on the Huskies.
Bottom Line: The entire first half of the season is brutal for Stanford, as tough as any schedule in the conference, and this stands up as one of the toughest opening months even including a bye week. Stanford will be breaking in a new starting quarterback(s?) as well as three new starters on the offensive line. Cardinal fans remember 2014, where similar inexperience led to a very rocky road before the squad caught fire to close out the season. Kansas State doesn’t project to be a great team, and USC is a program in flux, but they’ll still be bringing an incredible amount of talent and a coach in Clay Helton who didn’t show very well as soon as he secured the full-time gig. The Bruins feature a returning star at quarterback who requires no introduction to Stanford fans. We’ve harped on the quarterback and O Line inexperience, but The Chosen Rosen will pose a serious threat to Stanford’s revamped defense, as will Jake Browning and the Huskies. The real swing game, as it’s been for the past few years, is the tilt with the Trojans. If Stanford handles that game, 4-0 is in play. Stanford’s been beating UCLA for years, though that’s no guarantee under these circumstances. But coming right back to play the Huskies on a short week, on the road? This looks like 3-1 to me.
October: The gauntlet continues as the Pirate brings his feisty Cougars into Stanford Stadium, and then the Cardinal heads back out onto the road for a third time in four weeks. The even year pilgrimage to South Bend has been extremely unpleasant the last couple years for Stanford, and Notre Dame is gonna be loaded this year. The back end of the month sees the Cardinal host Colorado and then once more head out on the road for a Tucson tussle with Rich Rod’s Wildcats.
Bottom Line: Stanford’s defense gets put to the test once again with a returning Luke Falk as well as a strong stable of running backs. This game was the Come to Jesus moment for Stanford’s 2015 team, and it was so challenging because Cougar D Coordinator Alex Grinch made a tactical commitment to shutting down McCaffrey and got a ferocious performance from his pass-rushing defensive linemen, one they were hard-pressed to duplicate in their other games. That left Hogan running as the tactical counter, and #8 delivered them out of the treacherous claws of the Cougar upset bid. Don’t expect a defensive performance like that again, although the Cougar secondary should be much improved (as will Stanford’s). As for Notre Dame, Stanford is going to be similarly loaded, but the crucial factor is that the Irish are showing up with two proven quarterbacks, and we don’t know right now if Stanford is even gonna have one. This one looks like a bridge too far for the Cardinal at the moment. Stanford under David Shaw has done a great job at both circling the wagons and beating up on teams it’s supposed to beat. Given that, the Cardinal handles Colorado and Arizona. It’ll be a hard-fought 3-1, but I see 3-1 nonetheless.
November: Stanford comes home from Tucson in time to feast on the Beavers before heading to Eugene for the showdown with the Ducks. The Big Game follows and this year it’s in Berkeley. Stanford then concludes its regular season with a home game against the Rice Owls.
Bottom Line: Big Game stands as the swing game this month. Stanford should beat Oregon State and Rice. Until Stanford proves it can remember how to defend Oregon (something clearly forgotten the last two seasons), the trip to Eugene stands as the most likely loss this month. Cal has yet to get to a place where it matches up physically with Stanford. Is this the year where Cal gets past the Cardinal? Don’t bet on it. I like what David Shaw will surround his first-year starter with better than what Cal is surrounding its starter with in 2016. 3-1 once again for Stanford, which gets the record to 9-3.
California Golden Bears
September: Say one thing about Cal: They’re gonna lead the conference in frequent flyer miles after the season’s first month. The Bears open in Sydney, Australia to play Hawaii, and then return stateside for a true road game against San Diego State, followed by the home half of its Texas two-step.
Bottom Line: Cal gets what amounts to an extra bye after the Australia trip, but San Diego State is no joke. That game could be very difficult for the Bears. Texas should also be a handful for Cal, who then open conference play at Arizona State. Three road trips in four games to start the season? Ouch. Cal goes 2-2 here, but a 1-3 start is not out of the question. I think SDSU and ASU get them, while they take down the Rainbows and the Longhorns.
October: This month features two road trips for Cal as well as two challenging home games. The Utes come to Strawberry Canyon to start the month. A trip to Corvallis follows, after which the Oregon Ducks come calling. The game this year is scheduled for a Friday night in Memorial Stadium, as opposed to Levi’s Stadium in 2014. The Bears then get a strange turnaround, coming back on a Thursday to take on USC at the Coliseum.
Bottom Line: Utah upended the Bears last year in Salt Lake City, in a game that was close despite Jared Goff throwing approximately 47 interceptions. The Utes come west this year, but Cal has no Goff. Utah is always one of the more physical teams in the conference, Cal not so much. Let’s say the Bears find a way to eke this one out, and Oregon State well….yeah. Oregon will stomp the Bears per recent history, and Los Angeles will be “Lost” Angeles for the Bears as well. USC as always can be anything from juggernaut to train wreck, and this shapes up as a better matchup for Cal than it’s been in years past. Nevertheless, venue matters. My spider sense is telling me I could easily flip-flop my picks or the Utah and SC games, but it adds up to 2-2 either way.
November: This is a very challenging but travel-limited month for the Bears. They host Washington and then head out for their final road game of the season in scenic Pullman. After facing the Cougars, Cal comes home to host The Big Game against Stanford and then the Bruins.
Bottom Line: Cal brackets two losses with wins in the final month. Home field should be enough to get them past Washington and UCLA. The big variable in these games of course is the the stakes that these teams have left to win. If UW makes it this far still in contention for the North, Cal may face a different version of the Huskies. Nevertheless, I’ll take the Bears. A road trip to Pullman seems like a big ask, and as mentioned above, I don’t think Cal is quite ready to take back the Axe this year. In this year’s Battle Over the Same Fight Song, I think the Blues get the best of the 8-Clappers this year. 6-6 is the call for Cal.
September: The Bruins hit the road, and it will be interesting to see how hard the road hits back. They open in SEC Country to kick off 2016, taking on Texas A&M in College Station. They get their one non-conference home game against UNLV the following week, before going back out on the road to take on BYU in Provo. The month ends with Stanford returning to the Rose Bowl for UCLA’s Pac-12 opener.
Bottom Line: It’s very good that the Bruins are one of the five teams in the league with a returning quarterback, and that he’s quite possibly the most confident player in the league. Two very tough road games. Let’s say UCLA splits them, takes care of the Rebels, and falls to Stanford (If for no other reason than I know my audience).
October: UCLA starts off with the Desert schools, first hosting Arizona and then traveling to Tempe to play Arizona State. The Bruins stay on the road the next week before hitting the Palouse to take on Wazzu. Their final game of the month is date in Pasadena with Utah. The Bruins then get the last Saturday of the month off for their bye week in advance of a Thursday night game.
Bottom Line: UCLA looks like 2-2 here, though not necessarily along venue lines. I think they’ll beat Arizona at home and they could go to Tempe and beat the Sun Devils. I don’t see them beating Washington State on the road, but this where it gets tricky. They’ve played Utah tough over the years, but I could see the Utes winning in Pasadena just as probably as the Bruins winning in Tempe. Consider it the swing game for UCLA. 3-1 is a possibility, but again, 2-2 is the safest bet.
November: UCLA starts on a Thursday in Boulder against the Buffs. They are then home for both Oregon State and USC before they close with Cal in Berkeley.
Bottom Line: The Bruins will handle the two lightweights in the conference, and I also expect them to take back the Victory Bell. They fall short in Berkeley, as mentioned above. 3-1 is the pick, with the toss-up being the rivalry game with the Trojans. Add it all up and you get 7-5. That could potentially be enough to win the Pac-12 South.
September: As most know, the Trojans open up in Dallas against Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide. They come home to take on Utah State before going on the road to play Stanford and then Utah.
Bottom Line: Good Grief. Say what you will about USC, they are jumping straight into the deep water. I don’t see how they hold up for 60 minutes against Alabama’s offensive and defensive fronts. Utah State is a cupcake we can all begrudge them. The game with Stanford, as always, forks the destinies of both teams. I think the Cardinal gets it done at home, and then you have a Utah team that will be tough to figure, but Salt Lake is a very tough venue. To make matters even more challenging, the game against Utah comes on a short week. Their talent might get them a win here, but it’s really 2-2 at best for the Trojans and 1-3 a very probable outcome.
October: The Trojans return home for dates with Arizona State and Colorado, before going to Tucson to play the Wildcats. The final game of the month is against Cal at the Coli.
Bottom Line: This is the soft center of a brutal overall schedule. If USC has any sort of divisional title aspirations, this needs to be a four-win month. Recent history has shown USC doesn’t really sustain excellent play for month-long stretches, but they will here. Note how big the bandwagon gets when the Trojans win four straight this month.
November: Oregon visits the Coliseum to start November. After that, the Trojans have two difficult road trips to Seattle and then up the 110 to the Rose Bowl. The season ends with Notre Dame closing the season with its traditional even-year visit to Southern California.
Bottom Line: Gulp. Oregon has had its way with USC spanning four head coaches now, and even if the Duck defense declines from its already low standing of 2015, SC should have trouble winning this one. Since I’ve already got them losing to UCLA, I’m tempted to argue for a win in Seattle. It’s certainly the most winnable game they’re gonna play this month, but I am still skeptical. As far as Notre Dame goes, the Irish have far more certainty at quarterback (at least now in June) than USC. The Irish win this and send USC to 0-4 for the month, which gets them to 5-7 or 6-6 best case. That’s an incredibly disappointing season for USC, but against this schedule, for once it would be hard to blame them for struggling.
Toughest September: USC. All four of these teams push themselves out of the gate to respectable levels, my Gawd. Alabama?!?! Unless the 1970 teams show up to play this game, as a Trojan friend says, “Good Night Now.” And that’s just the beginning.
Toughest October: Stanford has the toughest single game of the month in South Bend plus a game against Washington State, then a road game in Tucson. Cal has the Ducks, Utah, and a road trip to the Coliseum for USC. I’ll give the nod to the Bears here.
Toughest November: USC. See above.
Toughest Overall Schedule: See above the above.
Softest Overall Schedule: Again, all of these teams have some pretty rigorous slates to negotiate, but if there’s a softest of the four, it’s Cal, slightly softer than UCLA because a neutra site game in Australia vs. Hawaii is no comparison to a true road game in College Station.