Gold: Best Pac-12 bets to host College GameDay in 2023
The Pac-12 has a boring nonconference schedule and a trio of legit Heisman Trophy candidates.
What that means is simple: Once the bright lights of conference play click on, all eyes will be on the studs out west. And where there are eyes, there are cameras, especially the ESPN College GameDay cameras.
Last season, ESPN ventured out west just once, taking in No. 10 Oregon’s 45-30 shellacking of No. 9 UCLA at Autzen Stadium.
Will they venture west once again? Perhaps for another Autzen visit, no matter how unlikely. We’ll have to see how the season pans out.
But for now, here’s a look at several games that might attract the Gameday crew…
Oregon vs. Colorado, Week 4, Sept. 23
We might as well start where we left off. The tastiest Pac-12 opener — aside from USC’s early-season tilt with Stanford in Week 2 — pits the Ducks against the who-are-they Buffaloes, clearly the biggest enigma to enter a season since, well, forever. We really have no earthly idea how this will play out.
Colorado could very well be 0-3 by the time it will meet the should-be-undefeated Ducks, or the Buffaloes could be 3-0 with wins over a pair of Power 5 programs in defending national runner-up TCU and Nebraska. Boast that resume along with the Coach Prime hype, and the Buffaloes are a top-20 team at that point, while Oregon could be in the top 10.
Of course, the Ducks would be heavily favored to make it a 4th straight after 3 straight wins by a combined margin of 135-73.
Other GameDay contenders: Texas at Baylor, Arkansas at LSU, Ole Miss at Alabama.
Colorado vs. USC, Week 5, Sept. 30
This is no time to pull punches.
If, in the unlikeliest of scenarios, the Buffs make it past Oregon to move to 4-0, this feels like a must-happen scenario. USC will almost certainly be undefeated, the Colorado hype would be out of control, and Coach Prime will be sure to make his feelings known throughout the country about bringing Gameday to Boulder.
The narrative would be so juicy: A suddenly relevant Buffaloes squad, which is led by the coaching hire of 2023, squaring off against the Pac-12’s premiere program — for the time being — led by the coaching hire of 2022. Plus, Colorado has never beaten USC in 16 tries.
Other contenders: Michigan at Nebraska, Alabama at Mississippi State, Penn State at Northwestern.
USC at Notre Dame, Week 7, Oct. 14
This one shapes up nicely, as well. The Fighting Irish have a brutal stretch right before this — vs. Ohio State and at Duke and Louisville — but if they survive this gauntlet, ESPN might head to South Bend.
That would present one heck of a quarterback battle between returning Heisman winner Caleb Williams and Wake Forest transfer Sam Hartman — who happens to be the ACC’s career leader in TD passes with 110. Again, a great narrative. But USC/Notre Dame is always a great narrative, and usually not held this early in the season. Gives ESPN a good excuse to head west and then shift their focus back to the SEC, as usual.
Other contenders: Oklahoma at Texas, Alabama at Texas A&M.
Washington vs. Oregon, Week 7, Oct. 14
My pick for Pac-12 Game of the Year might pit two undefeated contenders with Heisman hopeful quarterbacks at the helm.
Washington has a tougher road to hoe with nonconference matchups against Boise State and Michigan State, but that should only bolster their resume. Oregon has a cakewalk first half of the season before running into the buzzsaw that is the Washington offense. Even if both teams have a slip-up, they’ll both be contenders at this point.
Last year, the Ducks were headed to a Pac-12 title game berth until Bo Nix got hurt late in a game Washington eventually won, 37-34. If Nix and Michael Penix Jr. are healthy and at the top of their games, this will be one heck of a battle.
Other contenders: Miami at North Carolina, Auburn at LSU, Iowa at Wisconsin, Florida at South Carolina.
USC vs. Utah, Week 8, Oct. 21
I’m a bit skeptical about Cam Rising’s return and the resulting impact that would have on Utah’s attempt at a 3rd straight Pac-12 title. Will he be healthy enough early enough to get into a rhythm wish his receivers? Will he be mentally recovered enough to feel like Superman on the field, which every quarterback has to? If the answers are no, can the Utes survive the storm long enough to remain relevant?
I want to include Utah on this list more often, but it all just feels so ominous. This feels like one of those regression years that challenge any top program, and while I expect Kyle Whittingham to emerge even stronger, I’m skeptical about the team’s midseason momentum.
It also doesn’t help that Tennessee/Alabama, Penn State/Ohio State and Michigan/Michigan State all take place this week.
Other contenders: Tennessee at Alabama, Penn State at Ohio State, Michigan at Michigan State, Clemson at Miami.
Utah vs. Oregon, Week 9, Oct. 28
So what do I do next? Throw the Utes right back into the fire.
This is sort of like the Colorado scenario from early, an if-then situation. If Utah does make it through an early season schedule that includes Baylor, Florida and UCLA, and if the Utes pull off yet another big win over the Trojans, this suddenly becomes a major matchup.
Of course, for Pac-12 purposes, it already is. Oregon squeaked by Utah, 20-17, last year, in a down game for both offenses. This season, the stakes are likely to be high once more.
Other contenders: Georgia at Florida, Ohio State at Wisconsin.
USC vs. Washington, Week 10, Nov. 4
Another marquee matchup of dominant Pac-12 quarterbacks, this one could see 2 potential top-5 picks going at it. We already know Williams has overwhelming odds to go No. 1 overall in the 2024 NFL Draft, but Penix has some major top-5 buzz as well.
NFL scouts would descend upon Los Angeles in droves, as both teams’ prospect lists extend much further than the quarterback position.
This is yet another game that could change the Pac-12 narrative midseason.
Other contenders: Notre Dame at Clemson, Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, LSU at Alabama.
Washington vs. Utah, Week 11, Nov. 11
Now we’re getting to the time of year when the competition is so good, you’ve got to be especially compelling. Does UDub and Utah fit the bill?
Again, this will be decided on the field. Our early year guesses are much more educated than what we can surmise about the health and prosperity of teams this far into the future. But if both teams live up to their top-end potential, this will be yet another critical conference gam for both teams.
It’ll be tough to top the Tobacco Road rivalries, as well as a big battle between the Wolverines and Nittany Lions.
Other contenders: Duke at North Carolina, Miami at Florida State, Florida at LSU, Michigan at Penn State.
USC vs. UCLA, Week 12, Nov. 18
One more for the road, huh? Before the legendary Los Angeles programs bid goodbye to the Pac-12, one last showdown at the Coliseum feels somewhat appropriate. While we can imagine the teams will continue to play on a yearly basis in the B1G, it’ll feel like a brand new rivalry. It will be a brand new rivalry.
Why not go out on a high note in some sort of cross-city passing of the torch moment between two talented passers. Williams will certainly have the edge over 5-star UCLA quarterback recruit Dante Moore, but Moore could be coming into his own by now.
Other contenders: North Carolina at Clemson, Georgia at Tennessee.