- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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The beauty of the nine-game conference schedule -- at least from a fan's perspective -- is that almost every week we're going to see great football. But from a team perspective, that means every week is going to be a grind. And there are those multiple-game stretches that can be brutal. Teams that survive those stretches usually emerge atop the rankings. Those who don't are usually home in December doing some self-scouting. Here's some of the brutal stretches for the Pac-12 South -- which figures to be one of the craziest divisions in all of college football where a champ probably won't be decided until after Thanksgiving.
The Wildcats' schedule shapes up to be quite interesting. They actually have two critical stretches -- one early, one late -- that could be very telling. It starts on Sept. 28 at Washington and follows with a week and a half off before a Thursday night game at USC on Oct. 10. The extra time off will help, but it's still back-to-back road games; one against a Washington team eager to avenge last year's 52-17 pounding, and the other against a USC squad that hopes to contend for the South. This stretch could boost the Wildcats going into games against Utah, Colorado and Cal. Or they could be playing catch up. The second critical stretch comes with three of the final four games against teams we expect to be in the top 25 -- including UCLA, Oregon and Arizona State (WSU is sandwiched in between). They get the Bruins at home on Nov. 9 and Oregon at home on Nov. 23 before the Territorial Cup to close out the year. What happens against UCLA may set up how the South Division plays out.
The Sun Devils get their big test early with four straight games against Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC and against Notre Dame in Texas. As we discussed in the Most Important Game series for ASU, this is a critical stretch for how the rest of the nation views the Sun Devils. If they go 3-1, or even a competitive 2-2 during that stretch, then we'll know that the preseason hype is justified. But it's a tough draw with four hard games and no bye week in between. That Sept. 21 showdown at Stanford is going to be great, too -- because you've got the league's best offensive line clashing with one of the league's top front sevens. But this stretch won't determine the South champion. That will likely come down to the final two games when the Sun Devils travel to UCLA on Nov. 23 and then host Arizona at home on Nov. 30.
Pretty much the end of September through early November is going to be a Ralphie-sized run through the wringer. At Oregon State (Sept. 28), home to Oregon (Oct. 5) at Arizona State (Oct. 12) home to Arizona (Oct. 26) and back-to-back road games at UCLA (Nov. 2) and Washington (Nov. 9). There is a bye week right in the middle to break up the six games. But that's still six straight games against potentially six top-25 teams. We're expecting the first three -- OSU, Oregon, ASU -- to be ranked, and there's a good chance UCLA and Washington will be top-25 teams as well. Arizona might flirt with the rankings -- as it did last season -- if the defense is better and the quarterback spot gets figured out. Welcome to the Pac, Mac.
Like the Arizona and ASU schedules, the Bruins will be looking to the final two weeks -- home to ASU on Nov. 23 and at USC on Nov. 30 -- to see where they land in the final, and most likely muddled South Division standings. But we'll learn a lot about what this team is made of during a killer back-to-back stretch when it travels to Stanford on Oct. 19 and then to Oregon a week later on Oct. 26. It will be UCLA's third time playing Stanford in the last 11 months and Jim Mora's first time facing the Ducks as UCLA's head coach. Both of those teams figure to be ranked in the top 5 and -- should the Bruins win a third straight South Division championship -- there's a strong chance either Oregon or Stanford will be waiting for them again in the Pac-12 championship game. The Bruins can elevate themselves from "very good" to Pac-12 elite with one or two wins on the road.
The old baseball cliche that you can't win a title early in the season, but you can lose one, could certainly apply to the Trojans. No doubt, closing out the year with two of their three final games against Stanford and UCLA will be huge. Stanford, simply for what the Cardinal have done to the Trojans over the past few seasons, and UCLA because, well, it's UCLA. But back-to-back games at Arizona State and home to Arizona (with a bye in between) could very well make or break the Trojans' hopes of taking the South. A victory at ASU -- a division front-runner -- would put them in the driver's seat and then avenging last year's 39-36 loss to the Wildcats would give them a strong foothold on the division.
Like Colorado, the middle of Utah's schedule is just nasty. From Sept. 14 to Nov. 16, it's going to be a weekly grind. Oregon State figures to be a top-25 team (especially with a preseason ranking and an easier schedule out of the gate). Then the Utes are at BYU -- possibly another top-25 team -- for the always emotionally draining Holy War. Then UCLA, Stanford, at Arizona, at USC, home to ASU and at Oregon. That's potentially seven of eight straight opponents ranked in the top 25 -- including the potential top-5 teams in Stanford and Oregon. And if Arizona bounces back, it could be eight straight games against ranked opponents. We're all expecting bigger things from Utah after last year's disappointing 5-7 season. But this schedule is going to make it awfully tough.