Updated 8/29 9:15
It's finally time for some football! The season kicks off Thursday, and a dozen Pac-12 games will keep fans entertained until late Saturday night!
The only down sides are all the overlap, and the lack of distribution of the Pac-12 Network, making it necessary for fans who would rather see it all to make a lot of choices.
The Utah Utes (8-5, 4-5 last season ), new to the league last year, played in the first ever Pac-12 conference game, and this year have the honor of being the first team to play, kicking off at 5:15 PM MDT (4:15 PDT) against the visiting Northern Colorado Bears (0-11, 0-8) from the FCS Big Sky Conference. Its also the first game ever carried on the Pac-12 Network. The Utes certainly have gotten to be in on a lot of firsts since moving up from the Mt. West.
The game also re-awakens a rivalry that has lain dormant for 75 years.
The Utes are the conference darkhorse given the best chance to break up the USC-Oregon juggernaut, and if they are going to do that, a good, and complete, season from often injured QB Jordan Wynn will be a requirement. For that reason, a lot of people will be curious to see if he can command a dominating opening performance against an out-manned opponent that is new to even the level of competition of the Big Sky.
Wynn has the help of the best returning running back in the league in John White IV, and the best defensive player in the conference in Star Lotulelei, but he's the key to the season. An unimpressive win by the Utes,like their 7-6 victory in 1937, will not make anyone nervous but Utah fans.
Minutes later, the UCLA Bruins (6-8, 5-4) visit the Rice Owls (4-8, 3-5) of Conference USA, kicking off at 6:30 PM CDT (4:30 PDT) in Houston on the CBS Sports Channel, to start the Jim Mora Jr. era. More importantly, it's also the beginning of the Brett Hundley era, as the red-shirt freshman quarterback could be the face of the Bruins for a long time. With a trip to LA coming up in 3 weeks, Beaver fans will be especially interested in how Hundley handles the job.
The Bruins are one of only two Pac-12 teams to open with a true road game, which always makes things more difficult. And given the expectations for the season in Westwood, despite being one of the apparently more beatable opponents on UCLA's schedule, this is as much of a must win game as there will be for the Bruins. Lose this one and the only thing harder to handle than their fans will be the top 25 teams to come on their schedule that will have to be upset to "recover" the win.
The evening really gets interesting, with a big cat fight at 8:15 PM MDT (7:15 PDT) on ESPN, when the Washington St. Cougars (4-8, 2-7) visit the Brigham Young Cougars (10-3). It's not only the beginning of the age of the Pirate in Pullman, its also a homecoming for new Washington St. coach Mike Leach, who graduated from Brigham Young University.
And with independent BYU on the schedule for both Utah and Oregon St. as well, lots of conference fans will want to see what coach Bronco Mendenhall and the Blue Cougars have planned to counter the impending "Air Raid" Leach and quarterback Jeff Tuel intend to unleash. Plus, everyone will want to see said "Air Raid" in action.
Being at home makes BYU the toughest opponent the conference will face in week one, and its one of the games that will get the highest viewership. So it is Washington St. that is tasked with getting one of the out-of-conference wins that will help the conference and all of its members in the battle for national image.
The Arizona St. Sun Devils (6-7, 4-5) also open up on Thursday night, hosting the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (4-7, 3-5) from the FCS Big Sky at 7:30 PM AST (7:30 PDT). Those who have access to the Pac-12 Network will want to either check in or check out the replay (and hopefully share what they have seen with those frozen out), because this is another important debut game.
New Sun Devil coach Todd Graham takes the field in Tempe for the first time, and sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly makes his first ever start for ASU, though there's reason to believe either Michael Eubank or Mike Bercovici, or maybe even both, will see action for the Sun Devils as well.
The Lumberjacks alternate losing to their in-state big brothers Arizona and Arizona St. each year, and this year its the Sun Devils turn, which will produce a comfortable opportunity for Graham and Kelly to get their feet on the ground. While the outcome shouldn't be in doubt, how it comes about should still be informative.
Friday night, the #21 Stanford Cardinal (11-2, 8-1) starts the post-Andrew Luck era by hosting their neighbors the San Jose St. Spartans (5-7, 3-4) from the soon to be defunct WAC at 7 PM PDT. Those with access to the Pac-12 Network will want to see how Josh Nunes does at following up Luck.
What they will probably see is how well Stepfan Taylor gets his season started, one which could be the best on the ground in a long time down on the farm. Which is saying something, given what he and Toby Gerhardt before him have done running the ball recently.
Despite the fact that the Spartans are a program that's doing better than their reputation and their recent past, this is a series that Stanford owns, having won 50 of 65 contests conducted, including 8 of the last 9, and its fully expected to stay that way. So not unlike UCLA and Arizona St., the Cardinal will send out a totally inexperienced quarterback into a game he must win, because there is no excuse for not doing so.
Saturday is a 7 game smorgasboard, starting at noon.
The Oregon St. Beavers (3-9, 3-6) were to host the FCS Nicholls St. Colonels (1-10, 0-7) from the Southland Conference at noon PDT on the Pac-12 Oregon channel, with every intention to avoid a repeat of last year's overtime loss to Sacramento St., another nondescript FCS team.
However, Tropical Storm Isaac prevented Nicholls St. from being able to make the trip.
will was to be redshirt freshman Storm Woods' first start at RB in his first game, and everyone will wanted to see if Woods can crank up enough of a running attack to compliment QB Sean Mannion's throwing, and transform the Beavers into a balanced, and therefore formidable, attack. This isn't just a must win for Oregon St., and coach Mike Riley, its a must win impressively. Otherwise, the questions about why not will be as troublesome as the doubts that will arise heading into a very difficult rest of the month for the Beavers that includes 2 time Big Ten champion Wisconsin and a pair of conference road games.
The Beavers will now have to take on 2 time Big Ten champion Wisconsin next week without a game under their belt. The game with the Colonels may be made up on Dec. 1.
At the same time, noon PDT, the Nevada Wolfpack (7-6, 5-2), brand new to the Mt. West, visit the California Golden Bears (7-6, 4-5) to re-open renovated Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, and the Pac-12 National Network will be on hand to cover the return to Strawberry Canyon.
It will be interesting for the whole conference to see if the Golden Bears can find someone to compliment WR Keenan Allen, preventing defenses from double covering him on every play. The Bears will also be looking for some payback for the 52-31 pasting the Wolfpack put on them 2 years ago in Reno. Its always interesting to watch Nevada's Pistol offense, and the reaction of both their opponents and the broadcasters assigned to the game as well.
Both teams have definite bowl hopes, but also are vulnerable to a losing season, making this a swing game for both.
The Colorado Buffalos (3-10, 2-7) and the Colorado St. Rams (3-9, 1-6) of the Mt. West square off at 2 PM MDT (1 PM PDT) in their annual rivalry game at Invesco Field in Denver. It's the first game of the year that FX will carry for the conference.
Second year Buffs coach Jon Embree is suddenly not the new kid on the block anymore. In fact, half of Colorado's opponents this season are breaking in a new coach, and the Rams are the first of them. Whether Embree is making progress in rebuilding the Buffs, or if the Colorado faithful will in fact remain faithful, will be determined by how Embree does in these games, and being a rivalry game in week 1 only enhances the importance.
Complicating the matter might be that Kansas transfer Jordan Webb is making his first start at QB for the Buffs.
Further, with FCS Sacramento St. coming up next, a win in this game could set the table for the first 3 game winning streak in Boulder since the start of the 2008 season. It could really get Ralphie fired up!
The Hawaii Warriors (6-7, 3-4), another of the new teams in the Mt. West Conference, take on the #1 USC Trojans (10-2, 7-2) at 4:30 PM PDT in the LA Coliseum, and Fox Sports is jumping on the bandwagon for USC's run at a BCS Championship with national coverage on their regular, over-the-air channel.
As usual, the Trojans and their LA market are the conference's biggest draw.
Two years ago, the Warriors came with 13 points of USC, and we will get an idea of how valid the lofty hopes for the Trojan's season are, as well as whether Matt Barkley can make a run at a Heisman Trophy, by the margin of victory, and how USC looks in presumably getting there.
The Toledo Rockets (9-4, 7-1) of the MAC visit the Arizona Wildcats (4-8, 2-7) at 7:30 PM AST (7:30 PDT) on ESPNU, to kick off the Rich Rodriguez era in Tucson. Lots of people are making the 'Cats favorites in this one, but the Rockets should not be written off. Last year's 4 losses include 2 by a field goal each, and a 5 point loss at Ohio St.
Rodriguez had better have his completely overhauled system well in place from the get-go, or hopes of reaching bowl eligibility could take a serious, if not fatal, blow before Labor Day. Its also a game the conference does NOT want to lose, for that national perception thing. So new starting quarterback Matt Scott is going to have plenty of pressure on him immediately.
Beaver fans especially will be interested in the opportunity to scout the 'Cats, and Rich Rod's new system, with Oregon St.'s trip to Tucson coming up at the end of September.
The Arkansas St. Red Wolves (10-3, 8-0), defending champions of the Sun Belt Conference come into Autzen Stadium to take on the #5 Oregon Ducks (12-2, 8-1), 3 time defending champions of the Pac-10/12, at 7:30 PM PDT on ESPN. It's the start of the Marcus Mariota era in Eugene, as the red-shirt freshman whose' only prior collegiate experience was a bang-up job in the Ducks' spring game.
It's also the beginning of the Gus Malzahn era at Arkansas St. Malzahn's success as an assistant made him a popular name on a number of coaching search short lists the last couple of years, and there's much anticipation to see what he can do as a head coach. Malzahn's Tulsa offenses led the nation in total offense in 2007 & 2008, and he's also the guy who developed Cam Newton at Auburn. Pac-12 fans, especially those who most closely follow Oregon, will remember what happened in the BCS National Championship game a couple of years ago.
Also, last year's Red Wolf team was good enough to get coach Hugh Freeze an SEC head coaching gig. So it would be a mistake to write off the Red Wolves as a cupcake.
But while much of the country will anyway, Oregon coach Chip Kelly certainly won't be. Oregon has a legitimate shot at not only a 4th Pac-12 title, but a 4th consecutive BCS bowl. Watch for the Ducks to do everything they can to answer the questions their behind closed doors preseason didn't. Or watch to see their latest new uniforms. But either way, its worth a look in.
Finally, the San Diego St. Aztecs (8-5, 4-3) from the Mt. West take on the Washington Huskies (7-6, 5-4) at 7:30 PM PDT at CenturyLink Field in downtown Seattle on the Pac-12 Network. Washington is playing all of their home games in the Seattle Seahawks' stadium this year while Husky Stadium is being renovated.
The game will be of particular interest to Beaver fans, as former Oregon St. starter Ryan Katz is now the quarterback for the Aztecs. It will also be interesting to see what kind of home field CenturyLink will be for the Huskies, who could have one of their smallest home crowds in modern times on hand for this one. The Clink is not conducive to tailgating, and if the Huskies can't make it as inhospitable as Husky Stadium can be when the Dawgs are doing well, then their hopes of threatening Oregon and Stanford this season could evaporate. Which is something nearly nothing does in the moist Seattle climate.
Oregon St. visits the Clink again this year, so how purple the place is will be of particular interest. It certainly wasn't an aid to Washington St. last season.
The Huskies also have to replace running back Chris Polk, as well as introducing an entire new defensive coaching staff, headed by Justin Wilcox, and also including former Oregon St. player and recent defensive backs coach Keith Heyward.
Washington has the most intriguing quarterback in the conference after Barkley in Keith Price. How well they can replace Polk, and whether they can field a defense, are questions the entire conference are very much interested in.
And with a trip to LSU next week, plus games with Stanford, Oregon, and USC also in the first half of the season, this is an absolute must win for the Huskies if they hope to have a season that's anywhere near the expectations around Montlake.
What a way to start off the season, and the Labor Day weekend!