CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Caple: 5 must-win non-conference games for Pac-12’s CFP hopes

Aug 20, 2023, 1:09 PM

UW Huskies Pac-12 Michigan State...

The UW Huskies of the Pac-12 line up against Michigan State in 2022. (Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

(Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In case you haven’t heard, the Pac-12 hasn’t sent a team to the College Football Playoff since the 2016 season, when the UW Huskies won the conference title and lost to No. 1 Alabama in a CFP semifinal.

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And while the league has five teams ranked in the Associated Press preseason top 25 poll — in fact, all five are in the top 18 — it still will be a tricky proposition for the Pac-12 to end its CFP drought in what could be the conference’s final year of existence.

Among No. 6 USC, No. 10 Washington, No. 14 Utah, No. 15 Oregon and No. 18 Oregon State, the Trojans and Beavers are the only teams that don’t play one another in 2023, meaning each of the Pac-12’s top programs will have to get through several ranked opponents in league play to emerge with the unbeaten or one-loss record necessary to make the Playoff.

That makes it imperative for each of the league’s potential CFP contenders to navigate their respective non-conference schedules without any hiccups. Here are five must-win games if the Pac-12 is to maintain any hope of ending its CFP drought in the final year of the four-team format (and perhaps in the final year of the Pac-12, period).

5. UW Huskies at Michigan State, Sept. 16

The Huskies thumped the Spartans in Seattle last season, a 38-29 victory that was never close in the second half and signified that UW was ready for a quick turnaround under first-year coach Kalen DeBoer. Michigan State, meanwhile, finished with a 5-7 record, one year after winning 11 games in coach Mel Tucker’s second season.

The Huskies return a stacked roster. The Spartans will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, and they finished 90th nationally in yards per play allowed last season. Barring something wild in the first two weeks, the Huskies should enter Spartan Stadium as the favorites. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. (UW’s season opener against a quality Boise State team just missed making this list.)

4. Oregon at Texas Tech, Sept. 9

The Ducks otherwise host Portland State and Hawaii, so this trip to Lubbock is by far their biggest test in non-conference play. Texas Tech is on the upswing under second-year coach Joey McGuire, who led the Red Raiders to an 8-5 record in his first season. Former Oregon quarterback Tyler Shough is back for Texas Tech after missing part of the past two seasons due to injury.

For what it’s worth, the Red Raiders received the 26th-most votes in the preseason AP poll. Don’t sleep on this matchup.

3. Utah vs. Florida, Aug. 31 (Thursday)

The Utes were the clear preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 — and perhaps end the league’s CFP drought — in 2022, only to lose a close game in Gainesville to open the season. They of course still won the Pac-12 and played in the Rose Bowl, but that loss to Florida effectively extinguished their Playoff hopes.

Utah gets the Gators at home this year, but questions linger about the health of star quarterback Cam Rising, who tore his ACL in the Rose Bowl and is still working back toward 100%. The Gators are coming off a 6-7 finish and must replace star quarterback Anthony Richardson — and shore up a defense that ranked 103rd nationally last year in yards per play allowed — but ESPN’s FPI ranks them No. 18 nationally.

2. Utah at Baylor, Sept. 9

Even if the Utes get past the Gators, they still have to travel to Waco the following week, though the extra two days of rest should help. Baylor, like Florida, received scant consideration in the preseason AP poll, but did land in ESPN’s FPI preseason top 25 at No. 23 despite returning relatively few starters after a 6-7 finish last season. It’s another winnable game for the Utes, but it will rate as a pretty impressive achievement if they come home with a 2-0 record.

1. USC at Notre Dame, Oct. 14

The Trojans are ranked No. 6 in the AP top 25, with the Irish at No. 13, the highest preseason ranking for any Pac-12 non-conference opponent. USC’s schedule becomes more difficult after it faces Notre Dame, with games against Utah, Washington and Oregon in the final five weeks.

Beating the Irish not only would burnish the Trojans’ CFP resume, but it would provide at least a game’s worth of margin for error as they navigate what should be a pretty tough back end of the schedule.

This column from UW Huskies football insider Christian Caple is exclusive to Seattle Sports. Subscribe to OnMontlake.com for full access to Caple’s in-depth Husky coverage.

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