For Strength of Schedule's Sake, Pac-12 Has MUST Wins on Non-Conference Schedule
If the USA Today Coaches Poll is correct, No. 1 Alabama will play No. 2 Ohio State on January 6 at the Rose Bowl in the final BCS Championship Game.
In that scenario, the Pac-12 will be left out of the title game again.
But will it?
Assuming it will take a loss to dislodge the Crimson Tide from their No. 1 perch, Alabama's unusually weak schedule makes an unbeaten regular season likely, if they can beat Texas A&M, with or without Johnny Manziel, in College Station on September 14. The Tide's SEC schedule does not include SEC East powers Georgia and Florida, and its nonconference slate features it opener against Virginia Tech at the Georgia Dome and home games against Colorado State, Georgia State and Tennessee-Chattanooga.
Ohio State's schedule is even weaker than Alabama's. In addition to their slate in the largely mediocre Big Ten, the Buckeyes have Buffalo, San Diego State and Florida A&M at home and Cal on the road.
The bottom line is this: Alabama and Ohio State should be favored in all of their regular-season games.
That leaves No. 3 Oregon and No. 4 Stanford, the Pac-12's highest-ranked teams, in a precarious position in pursuit of a berth in the BCS title game. Unless Alabama or Ohio State falters, Oregon and Stanford figure to be on the outside looking in when the final BCS rankings are announced.
Only if Pac-12 teams prevail in a series of challenging non-conference games and elevate the conference's strength of schedule, a factor in the BCS computer polls, does a Pac-12 team stand a chance of leapfrogging an unbeaten Alabama or Ohio State in the final BCS rankings.
Pac-12 teams are going to have to help each other by winning these key matchups.
Washington State vs. Auburn
Cougars head coach Mike Leach recently said that "the bottom half of the Pac-12 is better than the bottom half of the SEC," according to the Los Angeles Times. That opinion will be put to the test on August 31 when Washington State, 3-9 a year ago, visits Auburn, which also finished 3-9.
If Washington State can give Auburn a good game on the road in a very hostile stadium, it will enhance the Pac-12's SOS while harming the SEC's.
Oregon vs. Virginia
After a presumed thumping of Nicholls State in its season opener, the Ducks will travel to Virginia on September 7. The Cavaliers are better than their 4-8 record in 2012. They beat Penn State 17-16, Miami 41-40 and gave Virginia Tech a scare before losing 17-14.
Playing a BCS team on the road in a non-conference game will help Oregon. That same weekend, Alabama is on a bye and Ohio State hosts San Diego State. A second-straight rout by Oregon could move it closer to No. 2 Ohio State.
Tennessee vs. Oregon
This is a critical game for Oregon. Most fans will be watching Alabama vs Texas A&M on September 14. If Oregon beats Tennessee in its usual Oregon fashion and Alabama struggles with Texas A&M, Oregon could move up in the polls.
This game also serves as a benchmark for team comparisons. Alabama plays Tennessee on October 26. Two highly ranked teams sharing a common opponent are ideal for pollsters determining the order of their rankings.
Oregon State vs. San Diego State
The Beavers travel to San Diego on September 21. Assuming Ohio State takes care of San Diego State on September 7, this game between Oregon State and San Diego State will have ramifications for the Pac-12 and the Big Ten. Comparisons between Oregon State and Ohio State will be discussed.
Who will have the more impressive performance against San Diego State? The more impressive win will bolster that league's credibility. Ohio State struggling at home and Oregon State shutting down San Diego State on the road would bode well for the Pac-12.
Boise State vs. Washington
The Huskies have to win this game. Another embarrassing loss to Boise State—Oregon lost to Boise State in 2009—will diminish the Pac-12's street cred. Washington lost to Boise State 28-26 in 2012's Las Vegas Bowl. That may have been a fluke.
If Washington loses to Boise State on August 31, it will not be a fluke—Boise State will have proven it is the better team. In that case, Stanford and Oregon's SOS will drop since they both play Washington.
Northwestern vs. Cal
Cal opens with Northwestern on August 31. Cal went 3-9 last year while Northwestern finished 10-3 and beat Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Northwestern should win this game, but if Cal is able to put up a good fight, it will help help Oregon and Stanford. They play Cal as well.
One of Ohio State's toughest games this season will be playing at Northwestern. If a rebuilding Cal can stay with Northwestern, a Buckeyes' victory over Northwestern may not be as impressive as once thought.
Ohio State vs. Cal
This game's importance is obvious. A loss to Cal—or any team, for that matter—takes Ohio State out of the BCS Championship game. Ohio State won't lose, but Cal's new Bear Raid offense might give the Buckeyes fits. A close game will help the Pac-12's SOS, especially if Oregon and Stanford beat Cal decisively.
Washington vs. Illinois
This is the Huskies' chance to give Ohio State's SOS a major blow. Ohio State plays at Illinois on November 16. Washington plays Illinois in Chicago on September 14. Both teams should win, but Washington beating Illinois on the road would make Ohio State's win on the road less impressive.
Wisconsin vs. Arizona State
The Sun Devils have a great opportunity to make a run at a BCS Championship game berth starting on September 14. If they can beat Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in four consecutive weeks, they could be ranked near the top of the polls. That will help the Pac-12's SOS and hurt Ohio State's since the Buckeyes play the Badgers two weeks later.
Nebraska vs. UCLA
Another Pac-12 vs Big Ten matchup on September 14 pits UCLA at Nebraska. In 2012, UCLA stunned No. 16 Nebraska, winning 36-30. Ohio State does not play Nebraska. If Ohio State wins the Leaders Division and Nebraska loses to UCLA but wins the Legends, the two will meet in the Big Ten championship game.
How strong will the Big Ten's SOS be? Ohio State could go 13-0 and not play for the national title. If four of Ohio State's opponents lose to four Pac-12 teams, pollsters would likely swing their votes toward the Pac-12 champion if it had an identical record to the Big Ten champion.
Notre Dame vs. USC, Arizona State vs Notre Dame (Arlington, Texas) and Notre Dame vs. Stanford
Notre Dame could be a problem for the Pac-12. An Irish sweep of the Pac-12 is obviously the worst possible outcome. A Pac-12 sweep of Notre Dame could also be undesirable because Notre Dame then would probably not be ranked high when the regular season concludes.
If Notre Dame beats Michigan, Purdue and Michigan State, the Big Ten's SOS will take a free fall. If Arizona State, Stanford and USC beat Notre Dame, the Pac-12 may score major points in the computer polls.
Notre Dame could help or hurt the Pac-12. The Fighting Irish are that X factor. Their record impacts not only the Pac-12 but also the Big Ten's SOS.
The BCS rankings are determined by the USA Today Coaches Poll, Harris poll and the BCS computers. Each poll counts for one-third of the composite BCS rankings. The Pac-12 may have to rely on the computers for help.
If the Pac-12 is dominant in its non-conference games, its top teams will be rewarded. Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA or USC could be playing in the Rose Bowl on January 6 if they can get a little help from their friends.
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