Cal Football: Power Ranking the Schedule from Easiest to Toughest

Luke Petkac@@LukePetkacFeatured ColumnistAugust 20, 2012

Cal Football: Power Ranking the Schedule from Easiest to Toughest

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    There's only few weeks left before the California Golden Bears start their 2012-2013 campaign, and the Cal faithful are growing restless with anticipation.

    It's set to be a wild one in the Pac-12, and teams are ready to begin jockeying for position in an attempt to be the conference champion.

    The Golden Bears are among many teams vying for the coveted spot, but judging by their schedule they'll have a lot of competition.

    Without further ado, here are, in order, the most difficult challengers that Cal will face this season.

Southern Utah, 9/8

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    Not much to see here.

    This one should be a tune-up game for the Golden Bears and a chance to experiment with what worked and didn't work in the season opener.

    The Southern Utah Thunderbirds are a solid middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Sky, but they simply don't have the talent to hang with California for four quarters. Don't expect much of a nail-biter in this one.

    Difficulty (from 1-10): 1

Arizona State, 9/29

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    Arizona State has a lot to answer for after last year's much-hyped season ended in five straight losses, including a 56-24 drubbing at the hands of Boise State in the Maaco Bowl.

    While new head coach Todd Graham should inject new life into a program that's been stagnant for the past few years, it's hard to foresee an immediate turnaround, especially considering that only nine starters return from last year's squad.

    Cal shouldn't have too much trouble moving the ball against a squad that allowed almost 30 points a game last year, and it's also hard to picture the Sun Devils scoring much after losing star quarterback Brock Osweiler to the NFL.

    Throw in the fact that the game is played in Berkeley, and you're not looking at a very difficult one for Cal.

    Difficulty: 1.5

Oregon State, 11/17

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    Unlike Arizona State, Oregon State returns plenty of starters from last season's team. Unfortunately for the Beavers, that team went 3-9.

    Though the Beavers have some talent (like sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion), it's hard to imagine them as a vastly improved squad this season. A couple of factors could still make this somewhat of a trap game for Cal though.

    Not only is the game on the road for Cal, it also comes after a brutal stretch in which the Golden Bears play Stanford, Utah, Washington and Oregon in consecutive weeks. If Cal takes the Beavers lightly—or if they start looking ahead to a potential bowl game—they could be in for a letdown.

    Difficulty: 2.5

Washington State, 10/13

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    Washington State's 2-7 conference record last season is a bit misleading, as the Cougars were absolutely hammered with injuries. This year, new head coach Mike Leach (most famous for his Texas Tech falling-out) will lead a dangerous offensive team led by star receiver Marquess Wilson.

    The Golden Bears will play in Washington this year, and will be looking at a much better squad than the one that they drubbed 30-7 last November.

    Even so, the Cougars aren't one of the better teams in the Pac-12, and shouldn't give Cal the same problems that the next teams on the list will.

    Difficulty: 3

UCLA, 10/6

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    UCLA figures to be much improved this year under new head coach Jim Mora, and they aren't a team that the Golden Bears can afford to take lightly.

    Though inexperienced, quarterback Brett Hundley has loads of talent and should improve upon last year's mediocre passing attack. And despite last year's shaky defense (which gave up 31.4 points per game), Mora is a heralded defensive coach that should be able to help the unit out.

    Cal has fared well against UCLA over the past few years (winning in three of the past four years), but the Bruins won handily in 2011 and look to be better this year.

    Luckily for the Golden Bears, this season's game will be played in Berkeley. There's also nothing on the horizon that would cause them to overlook the Bruins, which should lessen the game's difficulty a bit.

    Difficulty: 4

Nevada, 9/1

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    Nevada is Cal's first opponent this year and will be a huge challenge for the Golden Bears. Even after losing dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick to the NFL draft, the Wolfpack finished sixth in total offense last year and are led by a rushing attack that averaged almost 250 yards per game.

    Slowing down Nevada's deadly offense would be difficult enough under normal circumstances, but when you throw in the fact that it will be the first game of the season, you're looking at a true challenge.

    Not many teams schedule strong non-conference opponents to kickoff the season. Instead, you usually see a lot of weaker opponents that can be used to gauge the team's strengths and weaknesses in a game setting. Cal won't get that chance this year.

    That's going to make the game against Nevada particularly difficult, especially for a fairly inexperienced Cal team.

    Difficulty: 6

Washington, 11/2

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    Steve Sarkisian has had the Huskies heading in the right direction for the past few years, and this could be the year where they start competing for the Pac-12 title.

    What really goes against Cal in this matchup is history. They've lost four out of the last five games against Washington, including losses in each of the past three years.

    There is some good news though.

    Cal should be better equipped to handle Washington's high-powered attack now that they're entering their second year under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. They also may have learned something from last year's Alamo Bowl, in which Baylor completely exposed the Huskies defense.

    Even if adjustments are made this year, the Golden Bears will have their hands full. Washington is a good team and even though the game is in Berkeley, it'll be a tough test.

    Difficulty: 7

Ohio State, 9/15

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    Ohio State is in a state of flux right now, but in this case that's not necessarily a bad thing. New head coach Urban Meyer (you may have heard of him) should be expected to do great things and drastically improve a team that finished 6-7 last year.

    The one thing that's really going for Cal in this matchup is that it's only the third game of the season. While having an early season game will hurt them against Nevada, against the inexperienced Buckeyes it's a plus.

    The Buckeyes have to deal with an entirely new offensive system and will most likely still be working out some of the kinks in just their third game of the season.

    The Golden Bears are going to have to hope that these are major kinks, as the Buckeyes are a more talented team and the game will be played in Columbus.

    This will not be an easy one for Cal, particularly if Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller takes to Meyer's offense quickly.

    Difficulty: 7

Stanford, 10/20

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    Anyone who's expecting Stanford to fall off the map now that Andrew Luck's wearing a Colt uniform is mistaken.

    Coach David Shaw's team is here to stay, and though the quarterback situation is still a mystery, the Cardinal have more than enough offensive talent to cause problems.

    Toss in perhaps the league's most intimidating front seven, and you're looking at a tough squad for anyone to play.

    Though Cal has lost their last two meetings with Stanford, they have a few advantages in this year's matchup.

    The Golden Bears were able to bottle up the run game fairly effectively over the past two years, but Luck simply eviscerated every defense that Cal threw at him (almost 500 yards and four touchdowns in the two meetings).

    Now that they're facing a less experienced quarterback, Cal should be able to focus on the run and force the Cardinal to throw the ball early and often.

    There's still no telling if the Golden Bears will be able to put up any points against the Stanford defense, but there's definitely a chance.

    Difficulty: 7.5

Utah, 10/27

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    The Utes, perhaps the one team in the Pac-12 South that has a shot at beating Southern Cal, are set for a big season.

    Led by tailback John White IV (over 1,500 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns last season) and star defensive lineman Star Lotulelei, Utah is a pretty strong team on both sides of the ball.

    This is going to be a bit tougher than the Stanford game because it's not only on the road, but also the second of Cal's “Stanford, Utah, Washington, Oregon” gauntlet of games.

    While they should be fresh for Stanford, it's not hard to imagine the Golden Bears being a little fatigued for Utah the week after hosting a tough Cardinal team. Not a good precursor to stopping a rusher like White.

    Difficulty: 8

Oregon, 11/10

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    The only really good thing you can say about this game is that Cal gets to play it at home.

    Oregon is once again set to be a terrific team with few weaknesses. Chip Kelly does need to find a new quarterback, but in an offense that's based primarily on the ground, it isn't the pressing need that it would be on most teams.

    But there is a bit of good news for Cal.

    Their game against the Ducks is firmly sandwiched between the Ducks' games with USC and Stanford. Cal could actually be a bit of a trap game for Oregon, who could be caught looking ahead at Stanford, particularly if the Ducks come out on top against USC.

    The problem is that Cal plays Oregon in the final game of the “gauntlet” that I mentioned before, and they may not have much left in the tank when the Ducks pay them a visit.

    Difficulty: 9

USC, 9/22

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    Was there any doubt? Lane Kiffin's Trojans may just be the best team in the country (the Associated Press certainly thinks so) and have few, if any weaknesses.

    Heisman favorite Matt Barkley and star receiver Robert Woods will pace a deadly offense and defensive backs Nickell Robey and T.J. McDonald will ensure that the defense is as stingy as ever.

    Cal hasn't beaten USC in eight years and this year's game (an away game) figures to be no different.

    I wish there was more to be said here but there really isn't. Southern Cal is going to be a juggernaut, and is undoubtedly the toughest team that Cal will face in 2012.

    Difficulty: 10