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Ranking 2021 Pac-12 football schedules: Sept. 11 stands as key day in momentous season

UPDATED: Tue., Feb. 2, 2021

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

The Pac-12 is expected to release its 2021 football schedule later this month – perhaps much later – but only the dates are missing.

We have everything else.

The Hotline rounded up the nonconference games. We know the home-road split for division games and, yes, we have the cross-division matchups.

All the opponents and locations are laid out below in the latest installment of our look-ahead series: A deep dive into the 2021 schedules.

Before we plunge into the weeds, three broad strokes:

1) Sept. 11 stands as the most important day of the season and, perhaps, one of the most significant Saturdays in conference history.

A few weeks ago, the Hotline argued that the upcoming fall is vital for the future of the Pac-12.

To that end, success in 2021 will depend heavily on the results of Sept. 11 – Week 2 – when the Pac-12 has four games against Power Five competition:

– Colorado vs. Texas A&M (Denver)

– Cal at TCU

– Washington at Michigan

– Oregon at Ohio State

To create the foundation for the Pac-12 Conference champion to compete for a College Football Playoff berth, the conference needs (at minimum) to either split the four games on Sept. 11 or have Oregon conquer Ohio State.

2) Once again, Brigham Young accounts for an outsized portion of the Pac-12’s nonconference matchups, with five teams facing the Cougars:

Arizona, ASU, Utah, USC and Washington State.

BYU will have a new quarterback and, in our opinion, is unlikely to replicate its 2020 success (11-1).

But the Pac-12 needs the Cougars to perform at a respectable level in order for the five matchups to carry credibility with the CFP selection committee.

3) The toughest 2021 schedules belong to three teams we view as unlikely to challenge for the conference title.

Meanwhile, the softest lineup belongs to the team the Hotline projects to win the South, Arizona State, while our pick for the North, Washington, has a manageable path, as well.

That’s potentially beneficial for the conference if the goal is to produce a zero- or one-loss champion that contends for the CFP.

Note: The schedules are ranked in descending order based on the nonconference games, the cross-division matchups and the home/road breakdown.

1. Colorado

Nonconference: vs. Northern Colorado (Sept. 3), vs. Texas A&M (Sept. 11 in Denver), vs. Minnesota (Sept. 18)

North opponents: Oregon State (home), Washington (home), Cal (road), Oregon (road)

North misses: Washington State and Stanford

Division home: USC and Arizona

Division road: UCLA, Arizona State and Utah

Comment: We considered Stanford for the top spot but opted for the Buffaloes because of their dastardly combination of opponents and locations: They face two Power Five teams in the nonconference, miss the wrong teams in the North – Oregon and UW are the favorites – and play three division road games.

2. Stanford

Nonconference: vs. Kansas State (Sept. in Arlington), at Vanderbilt (Sept. 18), vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 27)

South opponents: UCLA (home), Utah (home), Arizona State (road), USC (road)

South misses: Colorado and Arizona

Division home: Washington, Oregon, Cal

Division road: Washington State, Oregon State

Comment: The Cardinal are only team in the conference (and perhaps the country) to face a Power Five opponent each week, and they draw the toughest South teams. The only reason we didn’t deem this schedule the toughest: Colorado’s division road games are vastly more difficult.

3. UCLA

Nonconference: vs. Hawaii (Aug. 28), vs. LSU (Sept. 4), vs. Fresno State (Sept. 18)

North opponents: Cal (home), Oregon (home), Stanford (road), Washington (road)

North misses: Washington State and Oregon State

Division home: Colorado and Arizona State

Division road: Utah, Arizona and USC

Comment: No true cupcakes in the nonconference portion, plus the toughest North teams and three division roadies make for a relentless schedule. But the Bruins possess an advantage in the marquee matchup: They will have played the week prior to facing LSU, whereas the Tigers will be opening their season in Pasadena, California.

4. Oregon

Nonconference: vs. Fresno State (Sept. 4), at Ohio State (Sept. 11), vs. Stony Brook (Sept. 18)

South opponents: Arizona (home), Colorado (home), UCLA (road), Utah (road)

South misses: USC and Arizona State

Division home: Washington State, Cal, Oregon State

Division road: Stanford and Washington

Comment: The case could be made for Oregon owning the Pac-12’s toughest schedule based on the trip to Columbus. (Of note: The Buckeyes open at Minnesota, but it’s on Sept. 2.) We spotted relief on two fronts: The Ducks miss two of the South’s best teams and only have two intradivision road games.

5. Arizona

Nonconference: vs. BYU (Sept. 2 in Las Vegas), vs. San Diego State (Sept. 11), vs. Northern Arizona (Sept. 18)

North opponents: Cal (home), Washington (home), Oregon (road), Washington State (road)

North misses: Stanford and Oregon State

Division home: UCLA and Utah

Division road: USC, Colorado and Arizona State

Comment: The Wildcats are one of three Pac-12 teams without a Power Five opponent on the nonconference schedule, but they only have one cupcake (NAU). The North misses are suboptimal, and the overall Pac-12 rotation – Colorado and WSU on the road and no Oregon State – leaves Arizona without any favorable assignments.

6. Cal

Nonconference: vs. Nevada (Sept. 4), at TCU (Sept. 11), vs. Sacramento State (Sept. 18)

South opponents: USC (home), Colorado (home), Arizona (road), UCLA (road)

South misses: Utah and Arizona State

Division home: Oregon State and Washington State

Division road: Oregon, Washington and Stanford

Comment: TCU went 6-4 last season, beat Texas and returns its starting quarterback (Max Duggan); add the heat, and that’s an A-level task for the Bears. They also face the brutal division home-road split typical of an odd year. But we spotted relief in the cross-division games: Cal misses two of the South’s best teams.

7. USC

Nonconference: vs. San Jose State (Sept. 4), at Notre Dame (Oct. 23), vs. BYU (Nov. 27)

North opponents: Stanford (home), Oregon State (home), Cal (road), Washington State (road)

North misses: Washington and Oregon

Division home: Arizona, Utah and UCLA

Division road: Colorado and Arizona State

Comment: We’re used to seeing USC with one of the Pac-12’s toughest schedules, but not in 2021. The Trojans are the only South team that misses Oregon and UW, and they have just two division roadies. That said, the nonconference lineup has no cupcakes. Of note: Oct. 23 is the latest date for the South Bend, Indiana, trip since 1993.

8. Washington State

Nonconference: vs. Utah State (Sept. 4), vs. Portland State (Sept. 11), vs. Brigham Young (Oct. 23)

South opponents: Arizona (home), USC (home), Arizona State (road), Utah (road)

South misses: UCLA and Colorado

Division home: Oregon State and Stanford

Division road: Oregon, Cal and Washington

Comment: The Cougars have one of the softest nonconference schedules in the Pac-12. But that’s offset by the wrong South misses and an arduous intradivision road schedule. Judging by the midseason placement of the BYU game, it appears WSU will play a conference game on Week 3. We wonder if it’s USC, and if it’s on a Friday.

9. Washington

Nonconference: vs. Montana (Sept. 4), at Michigan (Sept. 11), vs. Arkansas State (Sept. 18)

South opponents: Arizona State (home), UCLA (home), Arizona (road), Colorado (road)

South misses: Utah and USC

Division home: Cal, Oregon and Washington State

Division road: Stanford and Oregon State

Comment: Odd to see a team headed to Ann Arbor with a schedule ranked among the softest, but Michigan was 2-4 last season – we view Cal’s trip to TCU as more challenging – and all other components are conducive to success: The Huskies miss the right South teams, play just two North road games and get the Ducks at home.

10. Oregon State

Nonconference: at Purdue (Sept. 4), vs. Hawaii (Sept. 11), vs. Idaho (Sept. 18)

South opponents: Arizona State (home), Utah (home), USC (road), Colorado (road)

South misses: Arizona and UCLA

Division home: Stanford and Washington

Division road: Washington State, Cal and Oregon

Comment: We’re assuming Purdue isn’t the 2021 version of Indiana – a breakout team in the making – and the long opening trip offers the Beavers a quality chance for victory. The South misses aren’t ideal, but OSU has two of the contenders at home (Utah and ASU). The division split could be worse, but not by much.

11. Utah

Nonconference: vs. Weber State (Sept. 2), at BYU (Sept. 11), at San Diego State (Sept. 18)

North opponents: Oregon (home), WSU (home), Stanford (away), Oregon State (away)

North misses: Washington and Cal

Division home: UCLA, Arizona State and Colorado

Division road: USC and Arizona

Comment: A reasonable case could be made for slotting Utah’s schedule in the middle of the Pac given that BYU and SDSU are on the road. But the conference breakdown is quite favorable with the manageable North road games, a good miss (Washington) and only two intra-division trips.

12. Arizona State

Nonconference: vs. Southern Utah (Sept. 4), vs. UNLV (Sept. 11), at Brigham Young (Sept. 18)

North opponents: Stanford (home), Washington State (home), Oregon State (road), Washington (road)

North misses: Cal and Oregon

Division home: USC, Colorado and Arizona

Division road: Utah and UCLA

Comment: A schedule crafted for success with seven home games, an optimal North miss (Oregon), the softest of all the nonconference lineups and only two division road trips. Oh, and the game in Provo comes at the ideal time for ASU: The week after BYU’s taxing rivalry game with Utah. It’s 2021 or never for the Sun Devils.

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