Ranking the Pac-12's Toughest Schedules
A month into the college football season, the rankings have gone through some changes.
Three overrated pretenders (Michigan, Wisconsin and Arkansas) have fallen, one (Oregon State) has risen and three (Arizona, USC and UCLA) have risen and fallen only to rise again.
Now, there are still a few questions about the Pac-12 that, when answered, will allow us to determine which Pac-12 team has the strongest (or scariest, depending on how your team is doing right now) schedule.
First, where does Southern Cal belong? My gut says the Trojans still take the South, but the Bruins and Sun Devils may make some noise before all is done. Speaking of the Sun Devils, where does one put Arizona State in a Pac-12 power ranking? Many have ASU fifth or sixth, but the Sun Devils could easily be third or fourth.
Many questions remain unanswered as the calendar flips to October. But, as of now, which teams look like they will truly run the gauntlet in Pac-12 play this year?
These five teams have the toughest road to the title.
5. Washington Huskies
This last slot was difficult to place. I considered USC and Colorado. Both have schedules of similar difficulty. USC's is loaded with good teams at the end of the season. Colorado's is toughest in October and November. But several of its toughest opponents play the Buffaloes in Boulder.
I wanted to put the Huskies lower (or higher, I suppose). They have three Top-10 teams (LSU, Stanford and Oregon) on their schedule in their first five games, and their October schedule is no cupcake buffet. But they close with an easy November that, with the early-season win over Stanford, should give them at least seven wins.
Washington lost to LSU in Baton Rouge and has road games at Oregon and Arizona State. But USC and Oregon State have to visit Seattle in October and hope they don't end up like Stanford.
4. California Golden Bears
At times, such as against Ohio State in Columbus, Cal looked like a 7-5 team, but the Bears choked against earlier and easier competition, and now they are reeling, looking for a Pac-12 win somewhere, anywhere. Their schedule, however, isn't forgiving. It has seven ranked teams, possibly eight, with Arizona State on the cusp.
Only three of those games are away, which is bad. Why bad? Isn't a home game against a great opponent usually a good thing? Well, if you are the Bears and are expected to get crushed, wouldn't you rather get crushed on the road and save the games you might be able to win for home, in your brand-new stadium?
Instead, the Bears' best hope of snagging that Pac-12 victory is in Pullman against Washington State on Oct. 13.
What's even worse about the Bears schedule is that there are no breaks. Though they need time off, they go at it every week. The longest span between games is November 2nd to November 10th. They face the Washington Huskies and then the Oregon Ducks.
3. Stanford Cardinal
Though they've taken a lot of heat for their lack of offense in last week's loss at Washington, I have to hand it to the Cardinal: they don't choose to take the easy road.
After the first two games (easy victories over San Jose State from the WAC and Duke from the ACC), Stanford's ride is rough, with seven ranked or previously ranked opponents, split into chunks of four and three at a time.
Four of those ranked games are away (Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA) and the other three are at the Farm. They've already dropped one away from home, so the Cardinal have to hope their sputtering offense doesn't become a trend when on the road.
And you know what's really annoying (for a Stanford fan, anyway) about that loss to Washington (well, other than the loss)? It feels like they wasted their off week. Now they just have to ride it out.
2. Oregon State Beavers
Not many were expecting Oregon State to make a turnaround quite as sharply as it has. Now every game on a Pac-12 schedule with the Beavers is suddenly scary.
And it's not like Oregon State is rising on the backs of lesser foes. The Beavers' first big game (and really, their first game) was against the overrated No. 13 Wisconsin Badgers. But at the time, we didn't know this, at least not quite. Wisconsin had trouble the week before against Northern Iowa, as it looked like David was slapping Goliath all around the field).
Next, the Beavers toppled UCLA in the Rose Bowl. Then they headed into the desert against an angry Arizona team looking to bounce back from a humiliating defeat to Oregon. The Wildcats almost won, until Oregon State QB Sean Mannion stole it from them on a stunning last drive.
With so many high-profile victories, one almost forgets that they were all hard-fought, two of them on the road. But that's the way the Beavers roll, as evidenced by their roller-coaster ride of a schedule.
Of their seven ranked matchups, five are away (and the Civil War with Oregon doesn't really give them home-field advantage).
How long the Beavers can sustain their drive is anyone's guess. But the Pac-12 is on alert: Look out for Oregon State.
1. Arizona Wildcats
Washington and Oregon State have gotten attention for their rough September and October schedules, probably the roughest in all of college football, some pundits claim.
That has to mean that no one has looked at Arizona's schedule because... well, words can't capture it. Take a look: Toledo, Oklahoma State, South Carolina State, No. 2 Oregon, No. 14 Oregon State, No. 18 Stanford, Open Date, No. 23 Washington, No. 13 USC, No. 25 UCLA, Colorado, Utah, Arizona State.
That's right. In a seven-week stretch, from September 22nd to November 3rd, Arizona has six ranked teams on its schedule, three of which have been in the Top 10 (with the Beavers on the cusp), with half of those games on the road.
I, for one, am impressed with how well Rich Rodriguez, Matt Scott and company have endured against such a difficult slate. One can easily imagine that if the big games were a bit more spread out, the Wildcats might have a chance to pull off upsets similar to what they did against Oklahoma State.
As it is, even the open date hardly seems like enough of a buffer to regroup and heal, The 'Cats are already battered and thinned two games into this rigorous stretch.
Can they keep it together to the end and earn a bowl berth, or will the gauntlet destroy them?
I expect we'll know the answer by the end of this month.