Pac 12 North Schedule Breakdown
College football is just a few weeks away and this year we have a few new divisions to think about. The Pac-12 added two teams this season and split into two divisions and those moves will bring about big changes. The biggest difference is the scheduling as the Pac-10 will no longer feature a true round-robin schedule, and with a nine-game conference slate there are some big disparities in the various schedules. Here is a look at the Pac-12 South and how scheduling could impact the final standings.
Arizona Wildcats: After years of struggling the Wildcats have made three consecutive bowl trips but they have also been blown out in the last two postseason appearances. Arizona took a small step back last season at just 7-6 after back-to-back 8-5 seasons and it will be difficult to change the trajectory of that trend given the 2011 schedule. With the nine-game conference schedule Arizona is playing five Pac-12 road games and with a very tough non-conference game at Oklahoma State added to the mix the Wildcats will have one of the nation's most difficult sets of road games. Arizona's home slate is no picnic either as they host Stanford and Oregon in back-to-back weeks to open the conference season in late September. With only ten starters back Arizona could get off to a terrible start with a 1-5 record heading into the mid-season bye week as a very realistic possibility. Arizona also is one of two teams in the South division that will not get to play Washington State from the North division and the Cougars are expected to be one of the worst teams in the conference again. After a couple of years of modest success Arizona has been hungry for a big breakthrough season but it will not happen this year and if the Wildcats make it to a bowl game Mike Stoops will have done a heck of a job.
Arizona State Sun Devils: In the spring Arizona State looked like possibly the best team in the new South division but injuries have crippled what was once a veteran team with a 15 returning starters. The Sun Devils do return decent talent this season and the schedule will provide some opportunities. Arizona State will not have to play Stanford which is a big bonus this year and the Sun Devils have five of the nine conference games at home. The Sun Devils have to play at Oregon this year but overall the road schedule is about as favorable as one could ask for. The non-conference schedule does present two challenging games with a Friday night home game against Missouri and a road trip to Illinois and those two games could set the tone for the Pac-12 season. Arizona State has not been to a bowl game since Dennis Erickson's first season in Tempe and this year's team should be good enough to best last year's 6-6 record and with USC ineligible to represent the Pac-12 South in the conference championship game, the Sun Devils have as good of a shot as any team in this division to get there.
Colorado Buffaloes: Moving to the Pac-12 may eventually be good for the Colorado program but in 2011 Buffaloes fans likely will be longing for the Big XII North. Colorado is playing a 13-game schedule with no bye week and only five games will be played in Boulder this season, leaving seven road games and a neutral site contest. As if the locations and travel were not difficult enough, Colorado faces brutally tough non-conference opponents featuring Hawaii, Colorado State, Ohio State, and California. Cal is obviously in the Pac-12 but since the game was on the schedule prior to Colorado's move to the conference it was kept and will be designated as a non-conference game. The only team in the Pac-12 that Colorado will not play is Oregon State. Only three teams in this division play both Stanford and Oregon, the favorites in the North, and Colorado is one of them. Colorado will also be on the road for several of the tougher games in this division, playing at Arizona State, at UCLA, and at Utah, getting only two home games within the division. Colorado has one of the nation's toughest schedules this season, a difficult task with a new coach and a schedule filled with unfamiliar teams. There are 16 starters back on a fairly experienced team but it will be tough for the Buffaloes to have a great start in the new conference.
UCLA Bruins: After going just 4-8 last season it may be a critical fourth season for Coach Neuheisel at UCLA. The Bruins have some quality talent in place but continue to battle inconsistency. The schedule has Houston and Texas both on the non-conference schedule just like last season but UCLA won both of those games last year and lowly San Jose State completes the non-conference slate. Five of the nine Pac-12 games will be road games including three games within the division so the Bruins will likely struggle to move towards the top of the standings. UCLA does not have to play Oregon or Washington so the Bruins get a little bit of a break on the schedule and the bye week is centrally timed before a big stretch of games that will likely make of break the season. UCLA is a team that could get some momentum early in the year and emerge as a real player in this division race but a few early losses could also send the season in the opposite direction. The schedule is far from easy overall but it rates in the middle of the teams in this division and that is likely where the Bruins will fall.
USC Trojans: The Trojans are on probation and will be ineligible for the Pac-12 title game or a bowl game but they could still be the best team in this division. USC will play Minnesota and Syracuse early in the year while heading to Notre Dame in October to complete the non-conference schedule. USC has a tough Pac-12 draw with both Stanford and Oregon on the map and Washington State off the schedule so the Trojans will play perhaps the toughest conference schedule in the division, although five of the nine games are at home. The season for USC will be about whether or not the team relishes the spoiler role and can shoot for a strong season even knowing that the reward possibilities are limited. USC will likely be favored in at least nine of twelve games so the Trojans are certainly a force to be reckoned with and should improve on the disappointing 8-5 mark in last year's transition season.
Utah Utes: The move to the Pac-12 will benefit Utah tremendously in terms of revenue and exposure and it could be a fine first season for the Utes even taking a big step up in terms of the overall schedule this year. Utah plays at BYU and at Pittsburgh in the non-conference schedule so it will be a huge step in class overall this year with none of the breaks with weak opponents that the Mountain West offered. In terms of the Pac-12 schedule however Utah got the best schedule it could have possibly asked for with the two teams in the conference missing from the schedule being Oregon and Stanford. Utah will play five of nine conference games at home where they have been historically very tough and other than the early season game at USC, none of the road contests are overly threatening, getting to play at California in the de facto home stadium for the Bears in San Francisco and also playing at Washington State where the Utes should be able to win. Utah has had double-digit wins in each of the last three seasons and that mark will likely be tough to reach this year but Utah has a good chance to make a relatively smooth transition to the big stage and have another productive bowl season with a favorable schedule to thank.