Arizona’s loss to Hawaii was a black eye for the Pac-12 to start the season, but the league can make a statement in the non-conference slate for this week.
There are several marquee games, which should play a role in strength of schedule and bowl alignment at the end of the regular season. The Pac-12 has been left out of the College Football Playoff for two-straight years and the league has very little margin for error.
Still, week one provides an opportunity for the Pac-12 to show it belongs with the elite conferences. Here are five games featuring Pac-12 teams that should move the needle, provide the measuring stick and put the conference back in the discussion.
No. 14 Utah at BYU: The Holy War is one of the most slept-on rivalries on the west coast and this will be the 100th game between the two programs. The Utes are the only ranked team out the Pac-12 South and needs a strong showing for the rest of the division. Utah has won eight-straight over its’ in-state foe and hasn’t lost to BYU since 2009. These two teams always play each other close, with eight of the last nine games decided by eight points or less. Both defenses should be stout this season and this likely will be a low-scoring affair. Still, the Utes will be the first Pac-12 team on display in week one and are out to prove that they deserve their ranking. Not to mention Kyle Whittingham has led Utah to 11-straight season-opening victories.
Oregon State vs. Oklahoma State: The Beavers haven’t hosted a Big 12 team in Corvallis since 1998. This will be Jonathan Smith’s second season leading his alma mater. Oregon State hasn’t beaten a Power Five team in non-conference since 2012. Oklahoma State is a quality opponent, with a roster filled with talent from Texas and an offense that can score some points. This game will be a great opportunity for the Beavers to snap their five-game losing streak at home. Mike Gundy is so unpredictable, always has tricks up his sleeve and not afraid to take risks. This should be an entertaining clash, with a bunch of offensive fireworks. A victory by the Beavers would be a good showing for the North Division.
No. 25 Stanford vs. Northwestern: The Cardinal are one of five Pac-12 teams ranked in the preseason AP Poll and Northwestern is coming off a nine-win season. This will be a nationally-televised clash on the Farm between two Power Five programs with similar styles of play. Both David Shaw and Pat Fitzgerald are great coaches and even better game day motivators. Both teams play physical and disciplined. These are some of the smartest players in the nation. With Stanford expected to be contenders in the North Division, this game is a must-win. After all, Northwestern spoiled Stanford’s season-opener in 2015 and revenge will play a factor. Shaw has one of the best quarterbacks in the league in K.J. Costello and Northwestern’s defense will put him to the test.
UCLA at Cincinnati: Chip Kelly is under a lot of pressure in year two, but his spread offense should be taking shape now. Although the Bearcats aren’t a Power Five opponent, the team returns a bulk of players on both sides of the ball and won 11 games last season. Cincinnati spoiled Kelly’s season-opener at home last season and UCLA wants to return the favor. The Bearcats haven’t hosted a Power Five team at home since 2015 and Luke Fickell will have his players fired up for this one. It all comes down to if Cincinnati’s front seven can contain UCLA’s Joshua Kelly. If the 1,000-yard rusher gets into a groove the rest of the Bruins’ offense performs better. UCLA scored 31 or more points in its’ only three wins last season and will probably need the same amount to pull off the road win.
No. 11 Oregon vs. No. 16 Auburn: This is the game of the week. Prime time, with everyone watching. Pac-12 vs. the almighty SEC. The Ducks are the highest-ranked team in the Pac-12 and this game is the perfect opportunity for Mario Cristobal to show his program has arrived. Auburn’s Gus Malzhan is feeling the heat and needs to deliver something special in 2019. This will be Auburn’s second-straight season-opener against a Pac-12 opponent, after beating Washington last year. As a matter of fact, Auburn hasn’t lost to a Pac-12 team in non-conference play since USC in 2003’s season-opener. Most importantly, this game will be a rematch of the 2010 National Championship, that was decided on a fluke tackle. The Pac-12 needs an Oregon victory. It’ll provide momentum for the rest of the league in non-conference play and will show the nation that the Pac-12 is credible.