Wilner – Pac-12 football schedule breakdown: Colorado, Utah, Cal have the most arduous paths in 2023

The Pac-12 will reveal kickoff times for the early-season football games on Wednesday, likely in the lunchtime window.

But the opponents and locations have been known for years; the order, for months. So let’s start the week with a deep dive into the schedule strength for each team in the final season of the conference as we know it.

And remember, the intra-league matchups are based on the old division format even though the Pac-12 disposed of the North and South last summer.

Schedules ranked from most to least difficult. Non-conference games in italics.

1. Colorado
Misses: Washington State and Cal
Bye: Week Eight
Home games (six): Nebraska, Colorado State, USC, Stanford, Oregon State, Arizona
Road games (six): TCU, Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA, WSU, Utah
Comment: Deion Sanders’ first season features a rugged lineup with multiple marquee games (good), a narrow path to bowl-eligibility (bad) and a September with both Oregon and USC (ugly). Given all the new, inexperienced players, the Buffaloes could have their fate sealed before Oct. 1.

2. Utah
Misses: Stanford and Washington State
Bye: Week Six
Home games (seven): Florida, Weber State, UCLA, Cal, Oregon, Arizona State, Colorado
Road games (five): Baylor, Oregon State, USC, Washington, Arizona
Comment: The degree-of-difficulty difference with Colorado’s schedule is negligible — this is arguably the toughest lineup in the Pac-12 and the most challenging Utah has faced since joining the conference in 2011. The road schedule is unforgiving with trips to Waco, Corvallis, L.A. and Seattle.

3. Cal
Misses: Arizona and Colorado
Bye: Week Eight
Home games (six): Auburn, Idaho, Arizona State, Oregon State, WSU, USC
Road games (six): North Texas, Washington, Utah, Oregon, UCLA, Stanford
Comment: Not exactly an ideal schedule for a program desperate to change its trajectory with a new offense and rookie quarterback. The Bears drew the wrong misses, are the only team that visits Salt Lake City, Eugene and Seattle and have a sneaky-tough opener at North Texas.

4. Washington
Misses: Colorado and UCLA
Bye: Week Six
Home games (seven): Boise State, Tulsa, Cal, Oregon, Arizona State, Utah, WSU
Road games (five): Michigan State, Arizona, Stanford, USC, Oregon State
Comment: We considered a higher ranking for UW considering the trip to East Lansing, the absence of a non-conference creampuff — Tulsa won five games last season — and the presence of both Utah and USC. It’s plenty tough enough to support a playoff resume, which is both the beauty and the curse.

5. USC
Misses: WSU and Oregon State
Byes: Weeks Three and 13
Home games (seven): San Jose State, Nevada, Stanford, Arizona, Utah, Washington, UCLA
Road games (five): Arizona State, Colorado, Notre Dame, Cal, Oregon
Comment: USC’s first trip to Oregon and first visit from Washington since 2015 are two of several marquee matchups in coach Lincoln Riley’s second season (and USC’s last year in the conference). The lineup could prove even more difficult than it appears if Colorado and ASU make strides under their first-year coaches.

6. Arizona
Misses: Cal and Oregon
Bye: Week Eight
Home games (six): NAU, UTEP, Washington, Oregon State, UCLA, Utah
Road games (six): Mississippi State, Stanford, USC, WSU, Colorado, Arizona State
Comment: A challenging but not daunting schedule awaits coach Jedd Fisch in the crucial third year of his tenure. We won’t presume to call NAU a cupcake after its victory in Tucson two years ago, and the trip to SEC country in Week Two features all the expected potholes. Most of Arizona’s toughest Pac-12 games are at home, however.

7. Oregon
Misses: UCLA and Arizona
Bye: Week Six
Home games (seven): Portland State, Hawaii, Colorado, WSU, Cal, USC, Oregon State
Road games (five): Texas Tech, Stanford, Washington, Utah, Arizona State
Comment: The absence of a showcase neutral site matchup is notable, although Texas Tech fills the Power Five slot. Not detailed here but worthy of brief mention is the loaded second half, with UW, Utah, USC and OSU lined up in every-other-week fashion starting in the middle of October.

8. Arizona State
Misses: Oregon State and Stanford
Bye: Week Seven
Home games (eight): Southern Utah, Oklahoma State, Fresno State, USC, Colorado, WSU, Oregon, Arizona
Road games (four): Cal, Washington, Utah, UCLA
Comment: The Sun Devils open the Kenny Dillingham era with four consecutive games in the September heat — talk about home cooking — and play eight in Tempe in total. But because many of them are significant tests, we view ASU’s schedule as slightly more difficult than it appears upon first glance.

9. Stanford
Misses: Arizona State and Utah
Bye: Week Six
Home games (seven): Sacramento State, Arizona, Oregon, UCLA, Washington, Cal, Notre Dame
Road games (five): Hawaii, USC, Colorado, WSU, Oregon State
Comment: In contrast to prior years, the Cardinal has both an October bye and an FCS opponent — a combination that should help new coach Troy Taylor. (That FCS foe is his former team, Sacramento State.) The Cardinal’s load is also made lighter with Utah off the schedule after the thrashings of the previous two years.

10. Washington State
Misses: Utah and USC
Bye: Week Five
Home games (six): Wisconsin, Northern Colorado, Oregon State, Arizona, Stanford, Colorado
Road games (six): Colorado State, UCLA, Oregon, Arizona State, Cal, Washington
Comment: There are both pros (missing Utah and USC) and cons (visiting Oregon and Washington) within WSU’s schedule. All in all, the Cougars will benefit immeasurably from the manageable non-conference lineup and having enough winnable home games to climb to the brink of bowl-eligibility.

11. Oregon State
Misses: Arizona State and USC
Bye: Week Eight
Home games (six): UC Davis, San Diego State, Utah, UCLA, Stanford, Washington
Road games (six): San Jose State, WSU, Cal, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon
Comment: OSU is aiming for another 10 win season and its first berth in the Pac-12 title game — and the Beavers have the scheduling framework to accomplish both. The non-conference lineup is hardly grueling while most of their toughest conference games are at home in renovated Reser Stadium.

12. UCLA
Misses: Washington and Oregon
Bye: Week Five
Home games (six): Coastal Carolina, NC Central, WSU, Colorado, Arizona State, Cal
Road games (six): San Diego State, Utah, Oregon State, Stanford, Arizona, USC
Comment: The Bruins had one of the easiest schedules in captivity last year, and this version is nearly as soft thanks to the modest non-conference lineup and the two (huge) Pac-12 misses. Out of fairness, we should note that Michigan canceled a home-and-home series that featured a 2023 visit to the Rose Bowl.