Pac-12 Football: Who Has the Toughest Schedule in 2014?

Kyle KensingContributor IJanuary 9, 2014

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01:  Stanford Cardinal head coach David Shaw looks on against the Michigan State Spartans during the 100th Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio at the Rose Bowl on January 1, 2014 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

In the Pac-12, nine is the magic number. It was the first of the power conferences to adopt a nine-game league schedule when the college football season expanded to 12 regular season games in 2006. The league did so then partially out of necessity with no conference championship game, but it kept the nine-game docket after expansion and the addition of a title game in 2011. 

A nine-game schedule makes for an inherently more challenging campaign, particularly given nine Pac-12 teams also play at least one power conference opponent in the nonconference slate. UCLA and USC face 11 opponents from the Group of Five with priority access to the College Football Playoff.

With an odd number of games, teams also must alternate seasons with more road contests than home. Stanford is bearing the weight of the unavoidable, uneven home-and-away scheduling a nine-game conference slate means. The Cardinal play five Pac-12 games away from The Farm—and it's not just that they're playing five road conference games, it's the teams they face that make this schedule especially ghastly.

Half of Stanford's schedule is against teams that finished the 2013 season ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25 Poll. Four of those games are in the first half of the season.

If the Cardinal are to defend the Pac-12 crown they've worn the last two years, they must be fighting champions.  

Stanford's Marquee Matchups in 2014
DateOpponentFinal 2013 Rank (AP)2013 Record
Sept. 6vs. USC1910-4
Sept. 27@ Washington259-4
Oct. 4@ Notre Dame219-4
Oct. 18@ Arizona State2010-4
Nov. 1@ Oregon911-2
Nov. 28 (Fri.)@ UCLA1610-3

Among Stanford's six ranked opponents is the annual rivalry game against Notre Dame. Stanford is one of four Pac-12 teams facing a nonconference opponent that finished this past season ranked. The others are USC and Arizona State, both of which also play Notre Dame and Oregon. The Ducks host Michigan State in Week 2. 

Though UCLA's Week 3 opponent, Texas, did not finish in the Top 25, a palpable excitement is already building around the neutral-in-name-only contest pitting the Bruins against the Longhorns—Texas' Austin campus is a three-hour drive from AT&T Stadium, the host venue.  

UCLA's Marquee Matchups in 2014
DateOpponentFinal 2013 Rank (AP)2013 Record
Sept. 13vs. Texas (in Arlington, Tex.)N/A8-5
Sept. 25 (Thurs.)@ Arizona State2010-4
Oct. 11vs. Oregon911-2
Nov. 8@ Washington259-4
Nov. 22vs. USC1910-4
Nov. 28 (Fri.)vs. Stanford1111-3

A win there validates some of the very early College Football Playoff buzz UCLA is generating. Finishing in one of the top four spots by the end of the regular season means navigating some treacherous Pac-12 waters for the Bruins. 

UCLA faces North division heavyweights Oregon and Stanford at home, but must travel to Washington and Arizona State. 

The Bruins drew the same proverbial ticket as Stanford, the perfect set of circumstances that has it facing every other Pac-12 team that ended 2013 ranked. 

Washington faces four of the other five, including the Cardinal and Bruins, both at home. The Huskies also see Arizona State in the friendly confines of Husky Stadium. In his first season, Chris Petersen has a prime opportunity to avenge 75 percent of Washington's total losses from the past year with the advantage of playing in one of the most inhospitable destinations for visitors. 

Washington also sees Pac-12 North dark-horse contender Oregon State at home. Aside from traveling to Autzen Stadium to face Oregon, seems like a pretty accommodating schedule, right? 

Championship contenders need not only concern themselves with the Top 25 matchups, of course. If the Huskies enter November in the championship hunt, Nov. 15 is a date to mark on the calendar.

That's when Washington visits Arizona. The Wildcats have a tradition of springing late-season upsets of nationally-ranked teams, which continued the past two years under Rich Rodriguez with defeats of USC the last week of October 2012, and this past November's rout of Oregon.

Its well-documented road struggles and a 33-point average margin of defeat in its last three trips to Tucson, Ariz., suggest a potential trap for a Washington team with a schedule otherwise conducive to a title run.