Non-conference schedules are often a sticking point for college football fans, particularly when teams seem to use victories over lesser opponents to pad their win column before tougher league slates. While there is merit to this argument, sometimes these games are booked years in advance, and the smaller schools often need the payday to keep their football programs afloat. For the bigger schools, these “exhibition” games can help fine tune their team, or build a little confidence for the tougher matchups ahead. Then there are the tougher matchups – measuring sticks for contenders or testing worthiness for top-level teams outside the “Power Five’. Here’s how the PAC 12 North non-conference slates shape up:
@ Northwestern – the Wildcats started hot last season, opening 4-0 (yes, in OOC play) before the wheels fell off the wagon and they limped home (literally, thanks to injuries) 5-7. They beat Cal 44-30 to open the season, riding turnovers to victory, and they return a ton of guys this year. Expect the Wildcats to take the win again, especially in their backyard.
Sacramento State – the Golden Bears sole win last season was over an FCS opponent, beating Portland State 37-30 in a game that was closer than it should have been, but the Sacramento State Hornets went just 5-7 last season and should be easier pickings than offensive powerhouse PSU. Still, Cal aren’t quite at the “easy win” stage, but maintain a degree of confidence regardless.
Brigham Young – if the Bears do the unlikely and this is a must-win to make a bowl, they may be spending Christmas at home. The Cougars have shown they can play with the upper echelon of the FBS, and Cal are far, far away from that level.
Outcome: This is one the tougher schedules in for PAC 12 teams this year, and 1-2 may be all the Bears can hope for.
South Dakota – the Coyotes went just 4-8 last season and the have the misfortune of going up against an Oregon team which returns 10 starters on offense and a bunch of guys vying for the last 5 spots on defense. This…will…be…ugly!
Michigan State – one of the games of the year, as the fast-paced Ducks knock heads with the gnarly Spartan defense – and we know how that kind of game has turned out recently for Oregon. MSU are like the Borg, you may get a shot in on their defense, but they adapt quickly. This will be a fine chess match, and homefield advantage may be just enough for the Ducks.
Wyoming – the Cowboys went head-to-head with Nebraska last season, running out of time after putting a scare into the ‘Huskers. Last year, Brett Smith led the charge, but the fine playmaker jumped ship early for the NFL, and now the cowboys must cope without their star quarterback. See South Dakota for prediction.
Outcome: with some cupcakes sandwiching a CFB Playoff contender, the Ducks should pass a big early test to start 3-0.
Portland State – back before the Beavers went on a six-game winning streak last season, they lost an offensive shootout with FCS squad Eastern Washington. This year, they face another offensive powerhouse in the Vikings. Portland aren’t in the same league as EWU, but they should still have an enough firepower to put a scare into the Beavers. Just not enough to win.
@ Hawaii – the Warriors have been a mess the last couple of seasons, and while they’ll be improved this year, it shouldn’t be a major task for the Beavers to knock them off, even with the tough trip to the island. Still, Hawaii has some weapons, but it might be too early in the season for them to be firing on all cylinders.
San Diego State – the Aztecs are a good mid-major program, not a great one, but definitely a good one. While they don’t necessarily match up favorably with OSU, they have to be considered a threat. The game’s in Corvallis, which gives an edge to the Beavers, but it’s not a million miles from San Diego. The Beavers better not be caught peeking ahead to the USC trip the following week.
Outcome: The Beavers likely don’t have national aspirations, and this lightweight schedule reflects it. They need to keep their collective eye on the ball, but 3-0 should be the result.
UC Davis – Stanford have opened with one of the little guys lately, and the only thing the 5-7 Aggies can look forward to is a decent payday. The Cardinal are undergoing a sizable reload, so this will be an important tune-up game in preparation for the USC game which follows.
Army – this game comes the week after USC, so how the Cardinal fared out could dictate how this game goes. The Black Knights were fairly competitive against Stanford last season, losing 34-20, and won’t win this season. But, if Stanford lose to the Trojans, Army could suffer their wrath. Likewise, a Cardinal win may see them over-confident, and the Cadets could give them another scare.
@ Notre Dame – the Cardinal hold a 4-1 record over the last five games, with the sole loss being the controversial 2012 contest. They’ve been hard-hitting affairs, and both teams have been on an even-footing over the last couple of seasons. With Stanford likely to be rolling by the time this midseason game comes around, it should be another humdinger. Homefield advantage allows the Fighting Irish to pull out the win though.
Outcome: A standard Cardinal schedule, but having conference games between matchups could hamper Stanford. Notre Dame could go either way, but 2-1 is the likely finish.
@ Hawaii – another PAC 12 team taking a nice trip to the island, the Huskies play the week prior to Oregon State, and should soften up the Warriors nicely for them. Washington are breaking in a new starting quarterback (and head coach), but shouldn’t receive too stiff a test.
Eastern Washington – the Eagles are at the forefront of the FCS, and even knocked off Oregon State last season, but they’ll find their in-state neighbours to be far more of a challenge. EWU will put up a fight, but the Huskies will coast at the end.
Illinois – last season, the Huskies allowed a struggling Illini team to push them all the way before a late field goal put the game out of reach. This year, Illinois have to travel west, and the Huskies should be better prepared. It should stay close early on, but the Huskies’ superior talent will grind down the Illini in the second half.
Georgia State – the Huskies take advantage of the NCAA ruling that allows a team that plays an away game at Hawaii to play an extra non-conference game, by playing FBS newbies Georgia State. This will get ugly in a hurry, as the Panthers have had a football program for just 4 years and went 0-12 in the Sun Belt last season.
Outcome: This is an easy schedule, with all three FBS teams propping up their conferences last season. When your best opponent comes from the FCS, you go 4-0.
Rutgers – the Scarlet Knights have been a solid team lately, without ever wowing anyone. With the move from the AAC to the Big Ten complete, they’ll want to start their season with a bang to impress their new conference friends. There’s one small problem. The Rutgers secondary was dismal last season, and the Cougars like to throw the ball. A lot. The Rutgers offense keeps pace, but Pullman’s finest take the win.
@ Nevada – a couple of years ago, this contest would have a “Buyer Beware” sign, as the Chris Ault-led Wolfpack put a scare into their fair share of BCS teams. Last season, Nevada was a pale shadow of its former self, particularly on defense. Their dynamic offense should put some points on the board, but their secondary will not stop WSU enough to make it count.
Portland State – the week before the Cougars receive a visit from Oregon, they have one last opportunity to iron out any wrinkles in their system. The Vikings aren’t quite the marauding northern tribes of the late first millenium, but their offense is good enough to put up some early points. It won’t matter as the Cougars shred their defense in an easy win.
Outcome: Rutgers are good but no cigar, and the other two opponents have “exhibition” written all over them. Cougars go 3-0, and hope they win enough conference games to make a bowl.