Gold: The toughest and the easiest stretches from the 2023 Pac-12 schedule release
For some programs, the release of the 2023 Pac-12 football schedule on Wednesday couldn’t have come a day too soon.
For others, they would’ve been fine not finding out about their fate until October. Maybe December.
That’s because entire fortunes were won and lost Wednesday, the Scheduling Gods playing their cruel games with a half-dozen Pac-12 teams — including, sorry, Arizona State, which has what might be one of the toughest second halves in all of college football — and sparing a few more.
Here’s a look at some absolute gauntlets that should make-or-break some of the best teams in the Pac-12.
Arizona State, Weeks 8-13 — At Washington, vs. Washington State, at Utah, at UCLA, vs. Oregon, vs. Arizona
Kenny Dillingham better brace himself for a long first season at the helm of Arizona State. The young coach will have to navigate some of the choppiest waters in the country, highlighted — or lowlighted, if you’re a Sun Devil fan — with easily the league’s toughest 6-game stretch.
Imagine having to face the Huskies’ Michael Penix, Jr., the Cougars’ Cam Ward, Utah’s Cam Rising, UCLA’s Dante Moore/Ethan Garbger/Collin Schlee, Oregon’s Bo Nix and Arizona’s Jayden de Laura in a 6-game stretch.
When UCLA’s quarterback situation appears the most manageable, and the Bruins do have some options to replace Dorian Thompson-Robinson, you know it’s scary. Luckily for the Sun Devils, that brutal stretch comes after a bye week.
By my rankings, Arizona State also has the toughest Pac-12 schedule overall. The Sun Devils’ 2 skips this year are Stanford, which I have pegged for 2nd-worst in the league, and Oregon State, a program on the rise but one that I have finishing 5th next year.
Cal, Weeks 4-10 — At Washington, vs. Arizona State, vs. Oregon State, at Utah, BYE, vs. USC, at Oregon
If not for drawing the Sun Devils in Week 5, Cal would easily have the most difficult schedule in the conference, if not the country. The Bears kick it off with the league’s highest-ranked finisher in 2022, Washington, in Week 4. Then comes the ASU breather, followed by Oregon State, Utah, USC and Oregon.
Cal simply doesn’t have the kind of manpower to get through that gauntlet unscathed.
Bad news for the Bears: Even their late-season schedule barely offers a reprieve, with the Big Game against Stanford — always an emotional matchup — sandwiched by games against Washington State and UCLA.
Washington, Weeks 10-13 — At USC, vs. Utah, at Oregon State, vs. Washington State
So much for a simple swan song.
Penix bids goodbye to the college game with arguably the toughest final month in the conference. The Trojans kick things off in what should be a memorable Week 10 matchup. That game might go down as the conference clash of the year.
Up next is Utah in Seattle, another barnburner. Then we’ve got a road date at the Beavers followed by an Apple Cup visit from the Cougars.
The one plus for Washington: Immediately before that season-ending swoon are what should be wins against Arizona State and Stanford.
Utah, Weeks 8-11 — At USC, vs. Arizona State, vs. Oregon, at Washington
Here’s a fun question: Is it a gauntlet if 1 of the 4 games should be a breeze? In a month-long late season stretch, Utah tangles with the Trojans, Ducks, Sun Devils and Huskies. At least the Utes get Oregon at home.
Imagine that. Caleb Williams, Bo Nix, Michael Penix, Jr. and … whoever starts for ASU.
The Utes defense came up when it mattered for them much of the year, but they’re going to be tested in 2023. Opening Pac-12 play with UCLA and Oregon State in back-to-back weeks is enough of a test.
Oregon, Weeks 7-9 — At Washington, vs. Washington State, at Utah
If Bo Nix and the Ducks can emerge from one of the league’s toughest 3-week stretches, they’ve got a good shot at a Pac-12 title game berth.
The trifecta of the Huskies, Cougars and Utes won’t be a cakewalk, though. Any 1 of those 3 has the potential to put up big points.
Getting Washington after Colorado, Stanford and a bye week is a boon for Oregon. Getting the Huskies in Seattle is not. Same goes for the Utes in Salt Lake City.
After that comes 4 home games in 6 weeks.
USC, Weeks 10-11 — Vs. Washington, at Oregon
On the whole, Lincoln Riley should feel very pleased about Year 2 of his Trojans tenure. USC avoids Oregon State, which gave the Trojans quite the scare in a 17-14 game last year, and Washington State, which has provided fits for them in the past.
More important, aside from perhaps the toughest two-fer in college football, USC has a light schedule.
But, boy, the Huskies and Ducks in back-to-back weeks, coming 2 weeks after a back-to-back against Notre Dame and Utah? That will put Caleb Williams to the test in his Heisman run-it-back season.