Gold: 5 toughest Pac-12 nonconference schedules
So much for taking it easy.
Despite knowing full well the gauntlet that awaits in the conference season, a handful of Pac-12 squads have chosen to make their paths perilous, to challenge the scheduling gods with a crowded plate of nonconference games. A few even scheduled multiple Power 5 games, to the dismay of their fans.
Then again, isn’t that just defeatist thinking?
Each of the following teams begin the season with destiny in their hands. Go 3-0 against the likes of these unfamiliar teams, and start getting (or adding to) Top 25 votes.
On the one hand, you’ve got UCLA, which doesn’t just have a few cupcakes on the schedule for the second straight year, it might as well open a Sprinkles franchise.
On the other … here’s a look at the 5 toughest nonconference schedules in the Pac-12 for 2023…
Colorado: at TCU, vs. Nebraska, vs. Colorado State
Welcome to the big time, Coach Prime.
It almost feels like kismet that the boldest, brashest, splashiest coach in all the land opens his brand new gig against the defending national runners-up. But both teams are vastly different from a season ago, with TCU losing a ton of talent and Colorado, well, basically replacing its entire roster. Last year, the Horned Frogs won 38-13 in Boulder — the first matchup between the teams in history — launching themselves toward a dream season.
Both teams might need time to take shape, but the Buffaloes are maybe the most fascinating mishmash in college football. TCU, on the road, to kick off the year? Not easy.
But it won’t get much easier from there.
While Nebraska isn’t the Nebraska of old — heck, Huskers fans would take a return to the days of Bill Callahan — the Huskers won’t be a pushover in Coach Prime’s first home game, especially with a reinvigorated team under new head coach Matt Rhule. That’ll be big confidence booster for whichever team wins that game.
If the Buffs win that game, which would be their 3rd straight over Nebraska, they should cruise past their in-state rival Rams, who they’ve beaten 5 consecutive times.
Utah: vs. Florida, at Baylor, vs. Weber State
The Utes set themselves back with a season-opening loss at The Swamp last year, but this year, they get the Gators on their own turf. Of course, that might not mean much if Cam Rising misses the season opener as he returns from a torn ACL.
Unlike last year, though, they don’t get a get-right game to follow.
Going from Florida to Baylor is the toughest 1-2 punch in the Pac-12, even if the Bears slipped last year to 6-7. Not many expect Dave Aranda to get Baylor back to the 12-2 standard he set in his 2nd year with the program in 2021, but they should be improved. If Blake Shapen takes a step forward, the Bears won’t be a walk in the park.
Utah closes its nonconference slate with Weber State before opening Pac-12 play with UCLA and Oregon State.
If Rising returns in the preseason and looks healthy and mobile, Utah could gain some momentum in its bid for a 3rd straight Pac-12 title. If not, this slate looks scary.
Arizona State: vs. Southern Utah, vs. Oklahoma State, vs. Fresno State
After what should be a breezy Week 1, things get tough in a hurry for Kenny Dillingham and the Sun Devils.
Luckily for Arizona State, it catches the Cowboys in a state of flux at the quarterback position, with Spencer Sanders leaving for Ole Miss. Will it be Alan Bowman under center for Oklahoma State? Will it matter? The Sun Devils put up little fight last year in a 34-17 Week 2 loss.
ASU’s Week 3 opponent has plenty of uncertainty at quarterback, but little elsewhere. Coming off a 10-4 season under Jeff Tedford, including a 9-game winning streak following a 1-4 start, the Bulldogs bid goodbye to starter Jake Haener but bring back some solid talent. The Bulldogs will open fall camp with an open competition between 4th-year junior Logan Fife, redshirt sophomore Mikey Keene, who transferred from Central Florida, and redshirt freshman Joshua Wood.
Arizona State has a quarterback battle of its own between Trenton Bourguet, Drew Pyne and Jaden Rashada. If the Sun Devils find their guy and get consistent play at the position, a 2-1 start is not out of the question.
Washington: vs. Boise State, vs. Tulsa, at Michigan State
The Huskies have huge aspirations in 2023, but a brutal schedule dims some of their big dreams.
The Broncos took a big step last year under 2nd-year coach Andy Avalos. They rebounded from a Week 1 loss to Oregon State by going 10-3 the rest of the way, including 8-0 in Mountain West Conference play. Taylen Green returns for Boise State after leading the Broncos to 32.5 points per game as a starter. He and backfield mate George Holani could give the Huskies trouble.
Tulsa won’t provide much of a threat, but a road game at once-mighty Michigan State could be a chore. Last year, Michael Penix Jr. dominated the Spartans with nearly 400 passing yards and 4 touchdowns in a 39-28 win that announced Washington’s resurrection. He’ll need a similar performance for the Huskies this year.
Washington State: at Colorado State, vs. Wisconsin, vs. Northern Colorado
You could argue that USC’s midseason tilt with Notre Dame is the toughest remaining nonconference matchup, and maybe Oregon’s Texas Tech two-step is a bigger hurdle, but that’s being fickle.
And speaking of Fickell, that’s exactly why Washington State is on this list and not one of the other teams.
The Cougars’ upset of the Badgers in Madison last year was one of the biggest of the nonconference schedule, but the Badgers smartened up and hired one of the country’s best young minds in Luke Fickell, who was terrific at Cincinnati.
While the 2 Colorado schools shouldn’t put up too much of a fight, that rematch with Wisconsin looms large.