This final cluster of schools are the hardest to handicap. Even the fact that two of them feature returning quarterbacks (Colorado and Arizona) doesn’t really help in terms of game-by-game prediction. That being said, we can certainly look at the schedules respective of the rest of the slates in the league. What’s in store for the Desert Schools and the “Stepchildren?” Let’s take a look.
September: Rich Rod is notorious for friendly non-conference scheduling, so for him, trekking to Glendale to play BYU is a huge step out onto the limb. The Cougars are almost always a salty (sometimes dirty) bunch, so this will be a test for an Arizona team not noted for its physicality. Home games against Grambling State and Hawaii follow before the Pac-12 opener, in Arizona Stadium against Washington.
Bottom Line: Arizona doesn’t leave the state but twice before November, and not once this month. They should scrape by BYU and handle the two cupcakes. Washington will have the unfamiliar pressure of being a road favorite, and I wouldn’t put it past the wily Rich Rod to get a win here, but I’m not betting on it. 3-1 overall and 0-1 to start league play for the Kitties.
October: With the Pac-12 now firmly in control of Arizona’s schedule, it gets real. October begins with road trips to UCLA and then to Salt Lake City to face Utah. After that, Arizona comes home to face USC and Stanford, with a bye week separating those home dates.
Bottom Line: On the plus side, Arizona gets a bye week this year after forsaking one in 2015. After that, it’s hard to be optimistic about the prospects here for a defense that gave up 40.3 points per league game and loses its best player. Sure, the Wildcats are not likely to lose the half dozen or so linebackers it lost last year, but are sure that’s a good thing? Their best chance to win this month appears to be USC, but again, remember context. They’ll be returning from back-to-back roadies the last of which will have been against Utah, a notoriously physical team. It’s doubtful Arizona will be favored in any of these games, and Vegas will be proven right. 0-4 for Arizona this month.
November: Arizona starts this month in the Palouse, then gets Colorado in Tucson. After that, it’s the final roadie of the season (and only fourth all season) in Cow Valley for a date with the Beavers. That leaves the Territorial Cup at home against Sparky to round out the season.
Bottom Line: This month is not nearly as daunting for Arizona. They should grab wins against Colorado and Oregon State. Wazzu in Pullman is asking a bit too much, which leaves the Territorial Cup. I have no idea about Arizona State, so this isn’t coming with too much confidence, but I’m gonna say Rich Rod bests his hated nemesis Todd Graham. 3-1, but a 2-2 record with a loss to ASU wouldn’t be a shock. That gets the Cats to 6-6 or 5-7 for the year.
Arizona State Sun Devils
September: ASU, like their Tucsonian Brethren, eases into football season. Home games against Northern Arizona and Texas Tech start off 2016, and then Sun Devils play a true road game in the Alamodome against UTSA. Pac-12 season opens at home against Cal.
Bottom Line: Texas Tech has been Fremeau Indexed as the 68th-best program in the country the last five seasons, so while they haven’t cratered since the Pirate’s departure, they aren’t exactly blazing saddles in Lubbock these days. This is the only even “maybe” challenge on ASU’s non-conference schedule, and it doesn’t really seem like it’s intended to be. ASU rides out to a 3-0 start. Cal in Tempe? That seems doable. 4-0 for the Sun Devils.
October: This month alternates road-home all month, starting with a trip to the Coliseum to play USC. After that, ASU gets a home date before hosting the Bruins. It’s off to Boulder after that before hosting Washington State and finally a trip to Eugene to play the Ducks.
Bottom Line: It’s a ramp-up of sorts for the Sun Devils, sort of an inverted bell curve. I hedged my bets when talking about ASU-UCLA in the Bruin schedule preview, but let’s stay consistent and say the Bruins put down the Devils. That gets them to USC, where another Hail Mary ending seems unlikely. You might argue that it might not be necessary, but considering the Trojans just signed a free agent grad transfer from Utah to bolster its defensive line, and that they have four preseason All-Americans, I am again gonna stay consistent and say ASU goes 0 for the L.A. schools. That brings the oasis game against Colorado. It is a roadie, but I expect the Sun Devils to get this one done. They better, because though they get Washington State at home, the Pirate plunders the desert before sending ASU off to a certain defeat in Eugene. 1-4 in October for ASU.
November: ASU gets its bye week before hosting the Utes. After that, it’s a trip to Washington before the Territorial Cup Throwdown in Tucson.
Bottom Line: Utah is a tough team, but I’m going to say ASU finds a way to get this done. I don’t see them winning in Seattle or Tucson. It’s 1-2 for the month, so 6-6, which makes sense, since I have really no idea what to expect here. ASU has been the 29th rated team over the last five years, so Graham’s built something respectable, and he’s triggered the stadium upgrades this season and a massive infusion of cash into the program. Last year they basically scored 36 a game (3rd in the Pac-12) and allowed 36 a game (9th). You’d expect a Graham defense to step up, but the offense is gonna be challenged to replace Mike Bercovici. Yeah, let’s say 6-6.
September: Colorado opens up with the rivalry special against Colorado State on Friday September 3 in Denver. After that, it’s a home game against the Idaho State Bengals before ramping up slightly to play Michigan in Ann Arbor. The month concludes with the league opener in Eugene.
Bottom Line: “Ok... got this... Double Gulp.” That’s my look at the four games to start the season for the Buffs. I expect them to be better under Mike MacIntyre this season, but that opener is a big game for them, because if they slip, the win over Idaho State may be the only one they get all season. Let’s say they beat the Rams and the Bengals. After that, it’s blowout city in both Ann Arbor and Eugene. 2-2 to start for Colorado.
October: Colorado gets its absolute best shot at a win in Pac-12 play when they start October by hosting Oregon State. After that, the Buffs head out to L.A. to play USC, come home to host Arizona State, and then travel to Stanford.
Bottom Line: Home field should help Colorado avoid a winless Pac-12 season, and it better, because after that, the Buffs are in trouble. They drop the rest of the games this month for a 1-3 record. Maybe, maybe, maybe they give ASU trouble, given the Sun Devils’ defensive issues, but I still think they’re a year away from going from bothering to beating teams in the Pac-12.
November: Colorado gets a bye week before a Thursday game at home against UCLA. Ten days later it’s a trip to Tucson against Arizona. The season finishes with home games against Washington State and Utah.
Bottom Line: 0-4. The best hope is UCLA if they get a blizzard to hit Boulder during game time. Other than that, I’d like them at home against Arizona, but not so much on the road. Wazzu and the Utes? Faggedabowdit. 3-9 overall for the Buffs.
September: The Utes get it poppin’ on a Thursday at home against Southern Utah. After that, it’s the resumption of the Holy War again at Rice-Eccles. The last non-conference game of the year sends the Utes to San Jose State before they kickoff Pac-12 play with the Trojans.
Bottom Line: BYU and Hawaii are frequent sights on Pac-12 schedules these days. The Cougars are a pain to play, but Utah should be able to parlay homefield into a win, which puts them at 3-0 to start the season. Getting USC at home with a first-year starter coming off games against Alabama and Stanford seems ideal. I hedged on this one the first time around, but let’s say that Utah gets this one and starts 4-0.
October: Utah heads to Berkeley before hosting Arizona to begin October. After that, it’s back-to-back trips to play Oregon State and UCLA. Finally, the Dawgs bark their way into Salt Lake City to close the month.
Bottom Line: I have Cal eking out a win over the Utes. Utah will take down Arizona at home and Oregon State on the road. They should play UCLA tough in Pasadena, and I was essentially undecided the first time around. That goes for the home game against UW. Final verdict: 3-2 for the month. We can debate the UCLA/UW games Lionel Richie style, but I’m gonna say it’s a split one way or the other.
November: Utah gets a bye week, followed by a road trip to ASU, a home game against Oregon, and then the finale against Colorado.
Bottom Line: The Ducks obviously loom, but the trip to ASU won’t be easy, either. Just a page ago I said ASU takes it, and my hypocrisy knows some bounds, so let’s stay with that. After a disappointment in the desert, Utah finishes the year with wins over Oregon and Colorado. They get Oregon right after the Ducks play Stanford, who always gets its pound of flesh from opponents even in defeat. 2-1 for the month. 9-3, which I concede is very heady for a team replacing its quarterback, but I have faith in Kyle Whittingham and the physical culture he’s cultivated in Salt Lake. This is your Pac-12 South champion.
Toughest September: Colorado
Toughest October: Arizona
Toughest November: Colorado
Toughest Overall Schedule: Colorado
Softest Overall Schedule: Arizona