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 standings. Those who don’t are usually home in December doing some self-scouting. Here’s some of the brutal stretches for the Pac-12 North, which should stake its claim as one of the toughest divisions in all of college football in 2013.
The Bears have a very tough schedule, arguably the toughest of all the conference teams based on their opponents' winning percentage in 2012 (93-60, .588). But the way it plays out isn't as brutal as some of their Northern brethren. In most cases, they have (what is perceived to be) a winnable game in between their tough showdowns. Portland State separates Northwestern and Ohio State. Washington State separates Oregon and UCLA. Colorado breaks up USC and Stanford. They do hit a four-game stretch from Oct. 12 to Nov. 2 when they travel to UCLA, are home to Oregon State, at Washington and home to Arizona. That could be the roughest consecutive stretch. Of course, the sum of all the parts still includes potentially three national championship hopefuls, so it might be tough going in Sonny Dykes' first year, regardless of what order the games come in.
The Ducks should again blow out of the gates with a soft first five games against opponents that combined for a 14-45 record last year. Then three of their next four should provide much stiffer tests. They visit Washington on Oct. 12, and while the Ducks may very well make it 10 in a row over the Huskies, Washington is expected to push the Ducks harder than it has in recent years. Then a home game against Washington State (a team that gave them a nice 30-minute run last season) stands between back-to-back games against UCLA and at Stanford. Because the Stanford game is on a Thursday night, they get extra time to prep, but it's still back-to-back games against last year's division winners. It's also the first time they'll see the Bruins in the Jim Mora era. If the Ducks get through that stretch, it likely means they are on BCS championship pace heading into the Civil War.
Like their in-state counterparts, the Beavers should jump out to a very good record in the first half of the season. Their first seven opponents were a combined 35-52 last season and only two (FCS Eastern Washington and San Diego State) were on the north side of .500. Then things get nasty. Really nasty. Stanford, USC, Arizona State, Washington and Oregon with one breather after the USC game. If the Beavers are as good as many think, they should start 7-0. But they'll be tagged as paper lions until the strength of schedule ramps up. This might be the toughest stretch in the league. And if Oregon State can weather it with a few wins, it should be positioned nicely for another upper-tier bowl game (if not something bigger).
The Beavers have some company for the toughest stretch, however. The Cardinal have a trying schedule top to bottom, but the final five will make or break Stanford's season -- or at the very least, their national championship hopes. The defending conference champs have plenty of early tests, including San Jose State (an 11-win team last year), Arizona State and Washington in the first half of the slate. But the final five includes UCLA, Oregon State, Oregon, USC, Cal and Notre Dame. Cal is the only team in that group that didn't have a winning record last year, but it's still a rivalry game. Of course, the premier matchup of the bunch is the showdown with Oregon, which many feel will determine the North champ. That's two 12-win teams from last season, two nine-win teams, a USC game that has recently been tight and a rivalry game with one break in between for the Thursday night game against Oregon. If the Cardinal repeat, they will have earned it.
How legit is Washington? We'll find out some when it hosts Boise State in the season opener. But we'll really know what this team is made of from Sept. 28 to Oct. 19. That's a four-game stretch, no byes, that includes Arizona, at Stanford, Oregon and at Arizona State. We know what happened last year against the Wildcats. And then it's back-to-back games against Stanford and Oregon. Washington topped Stanford in 2012, but the last trip to the Farm in 2011 didn't go so well. And then there's the whole Oregon thing. Plus the Huskies pick up with a game in Tempe after a two-year hiatus from the Sun Devils. These four games will likely define Washington in 2013.
Like every other team in this post, by virtue of playing in the North, the Cougars have a tough schedule. But it ramps up right in the middle of the season with four of five games against the projected top half of the power rankings. They meet Stanford on Sept. 28 in Seattle, then at Cal before three straight against Oregon State, at Oregon and then a week and a half later they host Arizona State on Thursday night. By the way, the week before Stanford they host bordering Idaho, and we know there's no love lost there. After an inconsistent first season under Mike Leach, the Cougars could certainly shuffle the North standings if they are able to take a game from one of the division's big three.