College football is not only about being good. It's about scheduling.
Who you don't play is often as important as who you do. Just look at the SEC, where retaining an eight-game conference schedule in a 14-team league is Machiavellian genius. It's cowardly and fraudulent, of course, but it might help the conference get more teams in the College Football Playoff.
Anyway... back to the Pac-12, a 12-team league that plays a nine-game conference schedule.
So let's look at how the Pac-12 schedules stack up, starting with the North Division (*-denotes FCS team; toughest nonconference game bolded):
Nonconference slate: Aug. 30, at Northwestern (5-7); Sept. 16, Sacramento State (5-7)*; Nov. 29, BYU (8-5)
Pac-12 misses: Arizona State, Utah
Road games (5): at Northwestern, at Arizona, at Washington State, at Oregon State, at USC
Bye weeks: Sept. 13 (before Pac-12 schedule begins), Nov. 8 (before Thursday game at USC)
Skinny: Last year, California had the third-toughest schedule in the country with Ohio State and Northwestern on the slate. This year, things are more manageable, though the Bears will almost always be hurt by playing UCLA and USC every year, per agreement with the Pac-12 office. This schedule is far from easy, as a trip to Chicago is no cakewalk, and BYU is pretty much the equivalent of a B-list Big Five foe. The home conference schedule is much tougher than the road trips, but that can operate against a team struggling to climb from the bottom of the standings. The byes are reasonably spread throughout the year -- recall the useless "bye" last year the final weekend of the season -- though USC is also off before the Thursday game. The Bears also get a couple of extra days to prepare for the Big Game against Stanford due to the Thursday kickoff.
Nonconference slate: Aug. 30, South Dakota (4-8)*; Sept. 6, Michigan State (13-1); Sept. 13, Wyoming (5-7)
Pac-12 misses: Arizona State, USC
Road games (5): at Washington State, at UCLA, at California, at Utah, at Oregon State
Bye weeks: Sept. 27 (before Thursday game with Arizona); Nov. 15 (before Colorado)
Skinny: This schedule sets up for a national championship run, including the Pac-12's nonconference game of the year against Michigan State, a likely top-5 team. The Ducks miss two South teams that are almost certain to be ranked in the preseason, so those are good misses. They don't play consecutive road games all season. By playing at Cal on a Friday, they get an extra day to prepare for Stanford at home. The Oct. 11 trip to UCLA could loom large in the national title race, and we might get a rematch in the Pac-12 championship game. So, because the Ducks play Arizona on a Thursday night, it's notable they will get a couple of extra days to prepare for the Bruins.
Nonconference slate: Aug. 30, Portland State (6-6)*; Sept. 6, Hawaii (1-11); Sept. 20, San Diego State (8-5)
Pac-12 misses: Arizona, UCLA
Road games (5): at Hawaii, at USC, at Colorado, at Stanford, at Washington
Bye weeks: Sept. 13 (before San Diego State); Oct. 11 (before Thursday game with Utah)
Skinny: The Beavers have the weakest nonconference schedule in the conference. They also have a bye before playing host to San Diego State, which might be good coming after a long trip to Hawaii. The conference misses are good, as UCLA is a top-10 team and Arizona is at least solid. The road schedule is tough, though the Beavers have recently had some success in the Coliseum versus USC. The Thursday game with Utah provides extra time to prepare for the trip to Stanford. They play four of their first seven games on the road, but the upside is playing four of the final five at home. The trip to Washington looms large as a North Division separation game. And will the Beavers play spoilers for Oregon at home in the season finale?
Nonconference slate: Aug. 30, UC Davis (5-7)*; Sept. 13, Army (3-9); Oct. 4, at Notre Dame (9-4)
Pac-12 misses: Arizona, Colorado
Road games (6): at Washington, at Notre Dame, at Arizona State, at Oregon, at California, at UCLA
Bye weeks: Sept. 20 (before Washington); Nov. 8 (before Utah)
Skinny: A brutal schedule. Just like last year. The trip to Notre Dame is never easy. From a preseason perspective, the misses are the least advantageous in the Pac-12. There are six road games, five of which should be against teams ranked in the preseason top 25. The Cardinal plays Washington and Notre Dame on the road on back-to-back weekends, and three of their final four games are on the road. The bye before playing the Huskies is well-timed, and you might recall that Stanford lost to Utah last year, so that bye isn't bad either. Of course, if the Cardinal emerge from this schedule at 11-1 and then win the Pac-12 championship, they not only will make the College Football Playoff, they might be seeded No. 1.
Nonconference slate: Aug. 30, at Hawaii (1-11); Sept. 6, Eastern Washington (12-3)*; Sept. 13, Illinois (4-8); Sept. 20, Georgia State (0-12)
Pac-12 misses: Utah, USC
Road games (6): at Hawaii, at California, at Oregon, at Colorado, at Arizona, at Washington State
Bye week: Oct. 4 (before game at Cal)
Skinny: The Huskies play 13 games due to an NCAA rule that allows them to after taking a trip to Hawaii, and they have given themselves a pretty darn soft nonconference slate. Anything less than 4-0 would be a massive disappointment. The bad news about 13 regular season games is just one off weekend, and a break before visiting Cal doesn't seem ideal, though it does come after what should be a physically taxing matchup with Stanford. The misses are not unhelpful, particularly no game with USC. The final four games figure to define the season, with UCLA and Oregon State coming to Husky Stadium and trips to Arizona and Washington State. Hard to believe a 3-1 finish wouldn't make Chris Petersen's first season feel successful.
Nonconference slate: Aug. 28 in Seattle, Rutgers (6-7); Sept. 6 at Nevada (4-8); Sept. 13 Portland State (6-6)*
Pac-12 misses: UCLA, Colorado
Road games (5, with the Rutgers game played in Seattle): at Nevada, at Utah, at Stanford, at Oregon State, at Arizona State
Bye week: Oct. 17 (before Arizona); Nov. 15 (before game at Arizona State)
Skinny: The nonconference slate is manageable, if not completely soft. Cougars fans have a right to believe 3-0 is the most likely scenario in Year 3 under Mike Leach. Playing Rutgers in Seattle rates as a 50-percent road game, as it breaks from routine, if not fan support. A road trip to Nevada could be tricky. Missing UCLA is good; missing Colorado probably isn't. Can the Cougs go 2-2 in conference play on the road? That might be the key to the season. That and beating the hated Huskies at home to conclude the campaign. It's not too much of a stretch to see eight wins on this schedule.