On September 14, Pac-12 football will define its season. One day, 11 games and a potential for rising respect is on the line. So is an embarrassing black eye.
The league could have a banner day, going 11-1. It could also be the victim of some major upsets.
A brief look at the more interesting matchups:
Oregon vs. Tennessee
New Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich will have had two games under his belt and will probably be a little looser on the sidelines when his team squares off against the Volunteers.
Tennessee is a program in flux. Butch Jones is the program's fourth head coach since 2008. The Volunteers' defense surrendered nearly 189 yards per game last year, while the Ducks rushed for an average of more than 315 yards per game. This one may be over by the half.
Stanford at Army
Stanford will play Army at Michie Stadium in West Point, N.Y. The Black Knights went 2-10 last year, and although they return a lot of veterans, this Cardinal team is just too good for them to mount a serious challenge.
Oregon State at Utah
The Beavers were very good last year but had some hiccups, losing to Washington, Stanford, Oregon and Texas in the Alamo Bowl. They return seven starters from an outstanding defense. The receiving targets for either quarterback Cody Vaz or Sean Mannion will have to step up to replace Markus Wheaton and Colby Prince.
It would be hard to fathom Utah having two consecutive losing seasons. Opening conference play a week prior to your rivalry game with BYU sounds like the perfect trap game. One of these Pac-12 teams will have to lose, and it looks like it will be the Utes.
Washington vs. Illinois (at Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.)
The Fighting Illini are recovering from a 2-10 season and only return four defensive starters. The Huskies return 18 starters and should beat Illinois by double digits. But Washington has struggled to put away inferior teams. In 2012 Washington beat San Diego State 21-12 and Cal 21-13, but lost 28-26 to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
The Huskies usually have a very difficult schedule, but they get a break this year. With a very soft schedule, Washington should contend for the North Division title. Head coach Steve Sarkisian's overall record at Washington is 26-25, so he needs to post a 10-win season this year. Another seven-win season may not cut it anymore.
Cal vs. Ohio State
Ohio State (12-0) taking on Cal (3-9) will not be very compelling. Urban Meyer's Buckeyes are bowl eligible this year and face a Bears team that only returns half of its starters. They also have a new offense under new head coach Sonny Dykes.
This game is still important. Since Cal is in the North Division, it has to play Oregon and Stanford as well. Pollsters may have to choose between Ohio State, Stanford and Oregon to play the SEC champ in the BCS title game.
How Ohio State fared against Cal compared to Stanford and Oregon could swing some votes. Ohio State should win this game, but it will have to be a convincing win if it wants to keep Oregon or Stanford at bay.
USC vs. Boston College
USC is 3-0 against Boston College. The Trojans should beat the Eagles unless they have not recovered from last year's 7-6 season. Boston College went 2-10 last year, but it also lost some close games: 41-32 to Miami, 22-13 to Northwestern and 30-23 (OT) to Virginia Tech.
The good news for the Trojans is that the Eagles averaged less than a 100 rushing yards per game. The front seven will not get tested much. The Trojans' secondary is a different issue.
After playing Hawaii and Washington State, the cornerbacks should feel comfortable in defending the pass. This contest should be a victory for USC, but Boston College, under new head coach Steve Addazio, should provide plenty of offensive fireworks.
Arizona State vs. Wisconsin
After an opening bye week and a thumping on Sacramento State, the Sun Devils may be a bit flat. This game also precedes Arizona State's game at Stanford.
Trap game? Yes.
Wisconsin is under new head coach Gary Andersen (Utah State) and he inherits a team returning 14 starters. The Badgers' offense should be more creative with Andersen's style of play, but the Sun Devils' front seven will probably dominate the game.
The Sun Devils should win at home in stifling heat. A loss would downgrade the Pac-12's South Division.
UCLA at Nebraska
Last season the Bruins shocked the Cornhuskers 36-30. Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini is 30-6 at home. Two consecutive losses to UCLA may put Pelini on the hot seat. A win by UCLA should set the tone for the battle for the Pac-12 South.
If the Pac-12 goes 3-1 against the Big Ten on Sept. 14, that could help bolster its stock in the polls. Expecting Cal to beat Ohio State is a tall order—expecting Washington to beat Illinois is not.
If UCLA and Arizona State take care of business and beat Big Ten heavyweights Wisconsin and Nebraska, the Pac-12 will have had a banner day.
Colorado vs. Fresno State
Last year Fresno State beat hapless Colorado 69-14. The beating by the Bulldogs should not be as bad this year, but Buffalo fans should still not expect a win. Fresno State may go undefeated this year.
The Buffaloes will be better this season, but better means beating rival Colorado State and an FCS team. Last year Colorado lost to Colorado State and Sacramento State.
Sept. 14 projections
Oregon beats Tennessee
Stanford beats Army
Oregon State beats Utah (conference game)
Washington beats Illinois
Ohio State beats Cal
USC beats Boston College
Arizona State beats Wisconsin
UCLA beats Nebraska
Fresno State beats Colorado
Washington State beats Southern Utah
Arizona beats Texas San Antonio
The Pac-12 should go 8-2 in non-conference play and 9-3 including the conference game.
Circle your calendars for Sept. 14. Alabama plays at Texas A&M, and that should be a great game, but the Pac-12 will be serving up some fireworks all day long.
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