Where the ACC is in its first season with no divisions and the Big Ten and SEC are set to enter the fray in 2024, the Pac-12 entered the Wild West of scheduling last year.
But 2023 is far more than just “the second year with no divisions” for the Pac-12, it’s the final season where USC and UCLA will be a part of the scheduling conversation for the West Coast contingency.
Therefore friends, let us savor this sensible conversation – wherein we analyze which teams will be stuck playing the top-ranked Trojans and Ducks while others draw struggling Stanford and hopeful Colorado – before we bizarrely reverse course and talk about how USC got lucky by drawing Purdue, Indiana, and Rutgers while UCLA will face Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin.
Thank God the 1957 Rose Bowl committee can’t see us now.
To gauge opponents’ strength, we’ve utilized ESPN’s Pac-12 Conference Football Power Index.
Pac-12 schedule: Stanford, at Arizona State, at Colorado, Arizona, Utah, at Cal, Washington, at Oregon, UCLA
USC has a real window of opportunity to win a Pac-12 title for the first time since 2017 in what’s also the Trojans’ final season in the conference it’s called home for a century. Not only are they stacked with experienced talent (they’re ranked No. 1 in ESPN’s FPI) they have a league schedule that sets up well for a title run. While the Trojans do get the No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4 ranked clubs (Oregon, Utah, and Washington) that task is more than counterbalanced by drawing the bottom three teams (Arizona State, Stanford, and Colorado). All in all, USC will play 67 percent of its Pac-12 slate against the bottom half of the league.
Pac-12 schedule: Oregon State, at UCLA, Arizona, at Oregon, at Arizona State, Stanford, at Cal, Colorado, at Washington
Not only does Washington State, like USC, get the bottom three teams in the Pac-12 in 2023, it only plays two members of the top four – at Oregon and at Washington. The only scenario where the Cougars would play USC or Utah would be in a conference title game. It adds up to a big advantage for a team that hasn’t beaten a ranked Pac-12 opponent since edging then (24) Stanford 41-38 on Oct. 27, 2018.
Pac-12 schedule: at Utah, Washington State, at Oregon State, at Stanford, Colorado, at Arizona, Arizona State, at USC, Cal
The Pac-12 program that technically has the biggest edge from an in-conference scheduling standpoint, UCLA does get roadies at USC, Utah, and Oregon State (the No. 5 team in the FPI) but makes up for that challenge by drawing the lowest six clubs in the rankings, or No. 7 through No. 12. If the Bruins can go 6-0 vs. the bottom of the Pac and then score one win against their toughest (at least on paper) foes, they’ll achieve seven conference wins for the first time since 1999.
Pac-12 schedule: at USC, Arizona, Oregon, at Colorado, UCLA, Washington, at Washington State, at Oregon State, Cal
Stanford – a club that has won a total of ten conference games since 2019 – draws five of the six top teams in ESPN’s FPI rankings this season including a roadie at USC. The only top team not in the mix is No. 3 Utah. The Cardinal won just one league game last year, a 15-14 home win vs. Arizona State, and haven’t beaten a Pac-12 opponent that was ranked at game time since upsetting then (3) Oregon 31-24 on Oct. 2, 2021.
Pac-12 schedule: USC, at Cal, Colorado, at Washington, Washington State, at Utah, at UCLA, Oregon, Arizona
Arizona State, like Stanford, is set to play five of the top six Pac-12 teams in 2023 but amps up the difficulty by drawing the top three clubs – USC, Oregon, and Utah. Though the Sun Devils only play one of the top three teams – Utah – on the road, they get both (4) Washington and (6) UCLA as away games.
Pac-12 schedule: at Washington, Arizona State, Oregon State, at Utah, USC, at Oregon, Washington State, at Stanford, at UCLA
Cal has the unfortunate distinction of the “toughest league schedule in 2023” – at least on paper – among Pac-12 members. The Golden Bears draw 100 percent of the league’s top six clubs with the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 games coming as roadies. The only respite comes vs. (9) Washington State, (10) Arizona State, and at (11) Stanford. Where USC will play 67 percent of its Pac-12 schedule against the bottom half of the league, Cal will play 67 percent of its slate vs. the top of the food chain. It makes what was already an uphill battle – the Bears haven’t posted a winning record in Pac-12 play since 2009 – even more, well, uphill.
Historical data courtesy of Sports Reference/College Football