The Pac-12's collective strength in 2013 helped the conference gain a measure of national respect that was previously lacking. A 31-6 nonconference record that included wins over ACC, Big Ten and SEC opponents supplied the springboard the Pac-12 used to land a record six teams in the final Associated Press Top 25.
Even some losses, like Washington State's one-possession duel at eventual SEC champion Auburn, helped build the Pac-12's clout.
With the conference's national profile growing, its members must capitalize in 2014. That begins with the out-of-conference matchups, particularly the more profile dates.
Aug. 28: Washington State vs. Rutgers (in Seattle)
The first of four Pac-12 vs. Big Ten crossovers ushers in the 2014 college football season on opening night and commemorates Rutgers' first campaign in its new conference.
These are two programs with polar opposite philosophies. Rutgers staked its reputation on stout defenses, finishing top 20 nationally in points surrendered four of the last six seasons. Conversely, Washington State tied its identity to the potent, air-raid passing attack head coach Mike Leach helped make famous. Last season, the air-raid made Washington State a bowl team for the the first time in a decade.
This juxtaposition of styles should make for an interesting clash, setting the tone both for what's to come in the Pac-12 and Big Ten series.
Sept. 6: Michigan State at Oregon
The Pac-12 had some bragging rights over the Big Ten heading into January's Rose Bowl. Pac-12 teams beat their Big Ten counterparts in the Granddaddy of Them All on six out of seven occasions and opened the 2013 season with UCLA routing Nebraska, Washington blowing out Illinois and Arizona State edging Wisconsin (albeit in controversial fashion).
Michigan State did its part to silence some of that Pac-12 bravado with an impressive defeat of Stanford. The Spartans beat the Cardinal at their own game—a game that has vexed Oregon in recent seasons.
Michigan State already boasts a win over one of the two programs that have dominated the Pac-12 in the last half-decade, in Pac-12 country no less. To regain a measure of the bragging rights the conference lost in the Rose Bowl and to prove its championship mettle, Oregon cannot let the Spartans leave Autzen Stadium chanting "yes."
Sept. 13: UCLA vs. Texas (in Arlington, Texas)
UCLA head coach Jim Mora spurned reported interest in the Texas coaching vacancy, instead investing in the upward growth the Bruins have experienced in his two seasons at the helm.
The rumored feelers Texas put out to Mora makes for an interesting subplot, but there are two much more significant themes at play in UCLA's visit to the Lone Star State.
First is it marks a legitimate test of the Bruins' championship worthiness. UCLA is a trendy name mentioned in the early College Football Playoff discussion, but the buzz can go silent quickly with a loss to Charlie Strong's Longhorns.
The second important storyline for UCLA is the extension of its brand into a region Mora broached during the most recent recruit cycle. UCLA landed prospects from Texas and Louisiana, including one of the top recruits in 2014, linebacker Zach Whitley.
|Complete 2014 Pac-12 Nonconference Schedule|
|Team||Opponent 1 (Date)||Opponent 2 (Date)||Opponent 3 (Date)||Opponent 4 (Date)|
|Arizona||vs. UNLV (Aug. 30)||at UTSA (Sept. 6)||vs. Nevada (Sept. 13)||N/A|
|Arizona State||vs. Weber State (Aug. 28)||at New Mexico (Sept. 6)||vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 8)||N/A|
|Cal||at Northwestern (Aug. 30)||vs. Sacramento State (Sept. 6)||vs. Brigham Young (Nov. 29)||N/A|
|Colorado||vs. Colorado State (Aug. 30, in Denver)||at UMass (Sept. 6)||vs. Hawaii (Sept. 20)||N/A|
|Oregon||vs. South Dakota (Aug. 30)||vs. Michigan State (Sept. 6)||vs. Wyoming (Sept. 13)||N/A|
|Oregon State||vs. Portland State (Aug. 30)||at Hawaii (Sept. 6)||vs. San Diego State (Sept. 20)||N/A|
|Stanford||vs. UC Davis (Aug. 30)||vs. Army (Sept. 13)||at Notre Dame (Oct. 4)||N/A|
|UCLA||at Virginia (Aug. 30)||vs. Memphis (Sept. 6)||vs. Texas (Sept. 13, in Arlington, Tex.)||N/A|
|USC||vs. Fresno State (Aug. 30)||at Boston College (Sept. 13)||vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 29)||N/A|
|Utah||vs. Idaho State (Aug. 28)||vs. Fresno State (Sept. 6)||at Michigan (Sept. 20)||N/A|
|Washington||at Hawaii (Aug. 30)||vs. Eastern Washington (Sept. 6)||vs. Illinois (Sept. 13)||vs. Georgia State (Sept. 20)|
|Washington State||vs. Rutgers (Aug. 28, in Seattle)||at Nevada (Sept. 6)||vs. Portland State (Sept. 13)||N/A|
Oct. 4: Stanford at Notre Dame
Notre Dame and Stanford has only been a rivalry for about a generation, but in recent years it's become one of the more exciting nonconference series in college football.
"It's great for us, I think it's great for Notre Dame and I think it's great for college football," Stanford head coach David Shaw said before the two teams met last November.
Notre Dame and Stanford are two programs that have returned to national prominence, boast top-notch academics and in their last meeting at Notre Dame Stadium, added a dash of bad blood to their rivalry.
A controversial call at the goal line ended Stanford's last trip to Notre Dame in 2012 and kept the Cardinal out of the BCS Championship discussion at season's end.
The Fighting Irish went on to play for the national title for the first time since 1988. Stanford won its first Rose Bowl in more than 40 years.
Nov. 8: Notre Dame at Arizona State
Payback for both itself and the Pac-12 is at stake when Arizona State hosts Notre Dame in a late-season tilt. Pac-12 teams lost just six nonconference games last season; Notre Dame accounted for two of those defeats, including a 37-34 decision against Arizona State in Arlington, Texas.
Had that outcome gone the other way, Arizona State would have been a strong contender for an at-large bid to one of the BCS bowls, which would have been the program's first and only in the system's history.
The Sun Devils had to fight to keep this game on the docket. After brokering a five-game partnership with the ACC, Notre Dame nearly canceled its trip to Tempe, Ariz., which would have denied its fanbase a trek down Mill Avenue and cost Arizona State an opportunity to win a marquee nonconference game.
Nov. 29: Notre Dame at USC
Few rivalries in college football are as storied as Notre Dame and USC, though the series goes through interesting ebbs and flows wherein one program dominates for prolonged stretches.
Before Pete Carroll left USC for the NFL and the NCAA levied heavy sanctions against the Trojans, they won eight straight from 2002 through 2009.
However, Notre Dame has claimed the Jeweled Shillelagh three of the last four seasons. Last year's 14-10 Fighting Irish win marked the program's first back-to-back victories in the series since 2000 and 2001. Notre Dame also boasts a two-game win streak at the Coliseum, seeking to extend that streak to three for the first time since winning five straight in Los Angeles from 1984 to 1992.
There is no telling what the 11 games leading up to Steve Sarkisian's first encounter as USC's head coach with Notre Dame have in store, but he can ingratiate himself to the fanbase with a defeat of the Fighting Irish.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer.