The 2023 Pac-12 football schedule was released on Wednesday, featuring a host of interesting matchups.
It begins with a Week Zero matchup on Aug. 26, when San Jose State visits Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and the USC Trojans at the Coliseum.
The schedule also features 10 non-conference games against Power 5 teams — including five against teams that finished in the final AP Top 25 poll — plus two games against Notre Dame.
And keep in mind that once you get into conference play, you’re dealing with a league that had five teams win at least 10 games last season, more than any other conference.
Some matchups, however, stand out above the rest. Here are my five favorite games on the Pac-12 slate.
1. USC at Colorado on Sept. 30
In 2022, the Buffaloes looked hapless against the Trojans, losing 55-17. It was their fourth consecutive loss in a 1-11 season that finished with four ranked opponents on their schedule. (Their schedule ended up being the third-toughest by opposition winning percentage and No. 1 outside the SEC.)
It’s also indicative of what this game traditionally has been — with Colorado losing 16 straight in this series dating back to 1927.
It was also just a couple of weeks before the entire patina of the program would change with one man — Deion Sanders, a.k.a. Neon Deion, a.k.a. Prime Time, a.k.a Coach Prime. Such is the power of a college football coach, who is the most important person on any campus.
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With Prime came a marketing team second-to-none, blue-chip prospects from Jackson State and the transfer portal at large, and most importantly — winning.
Indeed, athletic director Rick George had to watch USC athletic director Mike Bohn make the best hire of the 2021 offseason when Bohn succeeded in luring Lincoln Riley to Los Angeles.
Riley’s hiring in South Central was as celebrated as Prime’s is now for many of the same reasons. At the top of the list is the expectation that the Buffaloes will win right away because Prime brings with him much of the same kind of luggage Riley brought with him to L.A. — except Prime’s luggage is Louis Vutton.
It means that on Sept. 30 we can expect former FCS Jerry Rice Award winner Shedeur Sanders to play against USC’s Heisman-winning QB. We can expect former No. 1 overall recruit Travis Hunter to perhaps attempt to play both ways against Riley’s offense and USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s defense.
We can expect Coach Prime vs. Lincoln Riley at Folsom Field in front of a sold-out crowd.
2. Utah at USC on Oct. 21
There is no love lost between these two programs. From Williams writing a profane message on his fingernails to Utah quarterback Cam Rising responding to that message with “I hope he liked it.”
The Utes will be the first to say they are the two-time defending Pac-12 champions, and they are Kings of the West. When Riley picked out USC and claimed he wanted to make it into the “Mecca” of the sport, the Utes demonstrated he had to come through Salt Lake City first.
Now, with Rising coming back for his last year of college football in an attempt to lead the Utes to a third-straight conference crown, this game could reveal who might play for a Pac-12 title — and maybe a rematch — once again.
3. Oregon at Washington on Oct. 14
Not unlike USC and Utah, the only program the Ducks and Huskies want to beat more — even more than their in-state rivals — is each other.
Last year, Washington bested Oregon in one of the great games of 2022 on the way to rolling up 11 wins under first-year coach Kalen DeBoer. Meanwhile, UO’s fall to Oregon State late in the season meant the Huskies and Beavers came out ahead of them, even after winning 10 games. (OSU won 10, too, but the head-to-head win against UO gave them the edge.)
With both Michael Penix Jr. and Bo Nix announcing returns to their respective programs, the Pac-12 has an argument about being one of the deepest in the sport. But this game could also reveal who the eventual league champion could be.
Michael Penix Jr. comes up clutch vs. Oregon
Michael Penix Jr. delivered when it mattered for Washington, as his 62-yard TD tied the game against the Ducks.
4. Colorado at TCU on Sept. 2
With the arrival of Prime in Boulder came a renewed focus on a game that was already going to have more folks watching it in 2023 than in 2022. The Horned Frogs are coming off their best season since 2014, including their first trip to the national title game.
With former Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles replacing recently departed Garrett Riley, the Buffaloes defense might have an edge against a TCU program seeking a second straight trip to the Big 12 title game under Sonny Dykes.
5. USC at Notre Dame on Oct. 14
Last year’s edition of one of the nation’s best rivalries had College Football Playoff implications for the Trojans, who came out victorious in the first meeting between Lincoln Riley and Fighting Irish coach Marcus Freeman. However, this time Notre Dame expects to be better at quarterback after acquiring one the nation’s best in Wake Forest transfer Sam Hartman.
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