- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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All schedules are not created equal. Sometimes it's the luck of the draw and sometimes it's soft -- or hard -- nonconference scheduling.
And sometimes there are less tangible factors, such as bye weeks and fan expectations.
So who's got the toughest go this fall in the Pac-12? Here are two takes.
Kevin Gemmell: If you want to go by just the raw data, then California and Colorado share the "toughest" schedule based on the combined records of last year's opponents. The 2013 schedule for both teams includes teams that had a .588 winning percentage last year (Utah is close behind with its opponents' combined winning percentage at .584). Of course, that's only a starting point and nowhere near empirical.
ASU's early slate is rough and Stanford's late slate is brutal. Team for team, I think Stanford has the toughest go.
I think things might be tougher for Oregon State by virtue of the way the schedule plays out. This is something that is beyond the control of the players -- but the way the schedule sets up, it's going to take a great deal of maturity and level-headedness to navigate the 2013 docket.
When you look at their first seven games, they only face one FBS team that had a winning record last year -- and that's San Diego State at Qualcomm. The Aztecs have gone on a nice little run the past few years -- qualifying for three straight bowl games for the first time in school history -- so they might push back. Still, the Beavers should win against Eastern Washington, Hawaii, Utah, Colorado, Washington State and Cal. None of those are guaranteed wins, but you have to figure the Beavers will be the favorite in all seven.
Then things switch into a whole other gear down the stretch. They host Stanford and USC in consecutive weeks, then a bye, and two of their final three are on the road at Arizona State, home to Washington and then at Oregon to close out the season. The Beavers went 1-3 against those teams last year, with the only win coming against Arizona State (they didn't play USC). They go from facing five or six teams that will be hovering sub .500 to five straight against the top teams in the league.
If ever there was a time to harness the clichéd one-game-at-a-time-mentality, this is it. Oregon State will likely start in the preseason Top 25. Let's say anywhere from 15-20. As they keep winning, they will climb as others around them lose games. By the time they reach Stanford on Oct. 26, it's likely they'll be a top-10 team if they take care of business. Will they truly be one of the best 10 teams in the country though? We really won't know.
The saving grace of this stretch is they get Stanford, USC and Washington all at home. Though Oregon State is only 5-12 all-time against USC in Corvallis, they've won the past three at home against USC and the Huskies. Stanford topped OSU at Reser in 2011. They last won in Tempe in 2009 and Eugene in 2007.
The biggest issue for the Beavers is understanding that -- if they do jump out to a 7-0 start -- that record won't have the same gusto as it did last year when they beat Wisconsin at home and won on the road at UCLA, Arizona and BYU. I believe the Beavers to be a very good team. But if they buy too much into the early hype, 7-0 could quickly end up 7-5.
Ted Miller: I really like Kevin's nuanced response on this. Oregon State doesn't have the Pac-12's toughest schedule, but the combination of how it's put together as well as the Beavers expectations for the season -- a Top 25 finish -- make it dangerous. There will be no way for fans to feel good if the Beavers start 7-0 and then go, say, 1-4 down the stretch, even if 8-4 is a respectable finish.
As for which Pac-12 team has the toughest schedule, there's an easy answer: California. The Bears play three teams that will be ranked in the preseason top 10 -- probably the top five -- in Ohio State, Oregon and Stanford. They also play five other teams that will be widely viewed as having Top 25 potential: Northwestern, UCLA, Oregon State, Washington and USC.
Yet, I'm going with Stanford because I want to embrace nuance!
Stanford's schedule is rugged, particularly at the end, when the Cardinal play Oregon, USC, rival California and Notre Dame over the final four weeks. But it's more than that.
Stanford coach David Shaw -- wisely -- says that the Cardinal have the same goal every year: Win the conference, go to the Rose Bowl. "Because that's the only thing we can control," he says. What he's intimating is the process of picking the teams to play for the national title -- at present and in the future four-team playoff -- includes a subjective element.
But, really, Stanford's goal this season is simple: Perfection. And, falling short of that, the Cardinal would settle for a national title.
This team has the talent to not only play for the final BCS title, but to beat the SEC -- let's be certain that's half of the championship tilt -- at its own game: Defense.
Yet the challenges are abundant. For one, there's seven teams with Top 25 potential. Second, there's that useless Week 1 bye. Third, Stanford plays Arizona State, UCLA, USC and Utah in South Division cross-over games, missing Arizona and Colorado. That's hardly ideal. North Division rival Oregon misses Arizona State and USC. That is ideal.
(I won't even mention the seeming obsession of some vocal Stanford fans for their "weekenders" against the Southern California teams, which thereby gives the Northwest schools an automatic advantage in the division race. Folks, you should ask your coach what he thinks about Stanford playing USC and UCLA every year).
Stanford's foes, according to Kevin's data, had a .575 winning percentage in 2012. That's slightly below the numbers for Cal, Colorado and Utah, but those three teams have a far bigger margin for error. They each just want to get back to a bowl game.
Stanford is only playing for THE BOWL GAME.