College Football 2011: Top Non-Conference Pac-12 Games
Everyone living in the two westernmost time zones (Pacific and Mountain) are jacked up for the new and improved PAC-12. The evolution of the conference under Larry Scott has provided recent, interesting discussion about divisions, TV contracts, and the conference championship.
However, the PAC-10 has always been known for its desire to face tough non-conference opponents while avoiding the multiple patsies who plague other AQ leagues. The inception of the PAC-12 is no different.
Following, are the Top 10 PAC-12 non-conference games for the upcoming 2011 season. Notice the majority of the games are on the road, making this coming year difficult for the PAC-12 to succeed among its peer conferences. Also notice that September 17th is the measuring stick day for the PAC-12, as a number of key games in this list are that day. Apologies to Cal and Washington State... you just don't have the most interesting non-conference schedule this year.
10: Colorado @ Ohio State (Sept 24)
Four games into Ohio State's season, five of their players (including Terrelle Pryor, Dan Herron, and DeVier Posey) will still be serving their suspension due to "Tatgate." The time of this game is the interesting dynamic at play, as Colorado will have had some real game experience under their new coach and QB.
Will Ohio State's 'fill-ins' be seasoned by now, or will they be frazzled possibly by their previous games (including Miami in Week 3)? Having this game at the Horseshoe certainly helps Ohio State, but an upset is possible.
9: Utah @ Pittsburgh (Sept 17)
The second game in this home and home series pits PAC-12 against Big East. Last year's game was opening weekend and was sloppy, with the Utes coming away with a 27-24 victory in OT.
Pittsburgh loses two of their offensive weapons in Baldwin and Lewis, but return their QB Tino Sunseri and RB Ray Graham. Utah is trying to find a starting RB between 4-star recruit Harvey Langi, transfer John White, and international rugby star, Thretton Palamo. Also of concern, is whether starting QB Jordan Wynn recovers from his shoulder surgery. Expect the front seven of the defense to be at a superb level already, and potentially tops in the conference.
8: Washington @ Nebraska (Sept 17)
The rubber match game between two teams who played twice last year. In their first matchup, Nebraska completely handled UW, 56-21. Taylor Martinez ran all over the UW defense, and Jake Locker infamously went 4-20. Jake Locker is no more, and UW has to continue to improve with a new QB.
In their bowl match, Nebraska likely suffered a "rematch" hangover (losing 19-7), being that it not only played UW earlier in the year, but also because it had played in the Holiday Bowl the previous year. Despite these excuses, there are high expectations for Nebraska.
Be cautious though, as they lost a lot of defensive personnel, RB Roy Helu, Jr., and All-American kicker Alex Henery (if you think the kicker isn't a big deal, realize that with their defense, a lot of games get decided by a few kicks). Also, what is the status of T-Magic? Are we getting the one who started the year, or ended the year?
7: Arizona @ Oklahoma State (Sept 8)
A Thursday game, likely with the nation watching. There is an interesting parallel between these two teams as of late, as both have been near the top of their conference but neither has broken through.
Expect Oklahoma State to have more firepower, as they return QB Brandon Weeden and high profile WR Dez Blackmon. Arizona could still be gaining its confidence back from their dismal losing streak that finished their last season. Look for QB Nick Foles to further develop this year, but will U of A step into the realm of excellent teams in the PAC-12 or be just a really good team again?
6: Notre Dame @ Stanford (November 26)
Another rematch game from last year pits Notre Dame at Stanford. Last year, Stanford easily put away ND 37-14. It will be interesting to see how this game plays out with it being so late in the schedule.
Will Stanford be in the PAC-12/national conversation at this point or will they have already suffered a setback from last year's overwhelmingly positive season, and the departure of their coach, Jim Harbaugh? Or will Notre Dame finally meet the overhyped expectations that are typically put on them every preseason? This game will be really good if both teams come in ranked, with one of them vying for a larger prize.
5: Texas @ UCLA (Sept 17)
Last year, UCLA initiated the eventual decline of Texas with a surprising 34-12 win at Austin. The win was a monumental win for UCLA and quite the surprise to college football fans and analysts. The win became less impressive as Texas finished their season 5-7, and without a bowl game.
UCLA must find a way to repeat their performance in the midst of several coaching changes, an uncertain QB situation (will Prince be good to go?) and a revamped Texas staff/team. UCLA should look to run the ball with Franklin to take the pressure off the QB.
As for Texas, one must wonder if Gilbert will take giant strides in his second full year, and if they can regain their dominance in a conference that is somehow gaining parity (ex. Baylor, Oklahoma State, etc.).
4: Arizona State University @ Illinois (Sept 17)
A lot of college football experts are anointing ASU as the PAC-12 South favorites, as they return 18 starters from last year. Expect this to be an important season for Coach Dennis Erickson and his staff, and this early non-conference game to be an indicator of their abilities. Last year, they traveled to Wisconsin (eventual Big 10 champions) and lost by an extra point. This was a common theme, as ASU was plagued with not being able to finish games out.
This game may not be the toughest non-conference game for ASU (see Missouri @ ASU in Week 2). Illinois is commonly being projected to be at the bottom of its conference/division, but it is important for ASU to get that established road win to gain confidence. Can Arizona State travel to Big 10 country this time and come out with a win?
3: Oregon State @ Wisconsin (Sept 10)
Oregon State has a trend going for them... two trends actually. First, they schedule tough non-conference games early and, second, they struggle out of the gates. Over the past few seasons, Oregon State has been fortunate to be .500 over their first 4-6 games. This year they continue their tough non-conference slate with a visit to Wisconsin, the Rose Bowl representative from the Big 10 last year.
Wisconsin has lost some key players from that squad (including DE J.J. Watt, QB Scott Tolzien, and RB John Clay, and LT Gabe Carimi), but are prime to reload. As for OSU, fans will be wondering who will step up and be the playmaker, as James Rodgers still is recovering from his injury (his brother Jacquizz graduated). Will Oregon State (with second-year starter QB Ryan Katz) be able to buck the trend and come through with a key, early non-conference win?
2: Rivalry Games
The PAC-12 now has several teams whose rivals exist out of conference. The PAC-10 was well aware of the national exposure and attention that USC vs. ND got but, with the addition of Utah and Colorado, they bring with them important non-conference games.
For the following three games, there is no need for game breakdown or analysis, as every year these games carry relevance, emotion, and bragging rights. As a result, these games could be at the top of this list every year. In particular, the Holy War (Utah vs. BYU) will now get the additional exposure that it deserves, as it is often one of the most underrated rivalries in all college football. And they're exciting too—13 out of their last 21 matchups have been decided by seven points or less, with more than a fair share coming down to last-second wins.
Colorado State @ Colorado University (Sept 17)
Utah @ Brigham Young University (Sept 17)
USC @ Notre Dame (Oct 22)
1: Oregon @ Louisiana State University (Sept 3)
This is not only a PAC-12 marquee game, but a national marquee game for the whole year. The national title runners-up (Oregon) face off in a neutral site game (in Cowboys Stadium, Dallas) vs. LSU.
LSU is a perennial BCS contender and Oregon is trying to repeat their performance from last year. Oregon returns all their key offensive playmakers, but concerns over their offensive line and linebackers exist. LSU will continue to develop Jordan Jefferson and rely on their smothering defense, but need some more consist offensive outputs under The Mad Hatter. Additionally, this game serves as another piece of evidence between the PAC-12 and SEC fans who both claim supremacy. Since 2000, the SEC is 9-11 against the Pac-10, however LSU is 13-3 all-time against the Pac-10.