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Ranking the Pac-12′s toughest schedules

As it did in the Alamo Bowl, Arizona is going to face Oklahoma State star receiver Justin Blackmon this season. Photo by Matt Strasen-US PRESSWIRE

The Arizona Wildcats arguably have the toughest September schedule in the nation, and, yes, we have to use “arguably” because Tulsa would like to have that debate.

Here is Arizona’s schedule for the first month, with AP rank: NAU, at No. 9 Oklahoma State, No. 7 Stanford, No. 3 Oregon.

Here is Tulsa’s first month: at No. 1 Oklahoma, at Tulane, No. 9 Oklahoma State, at No. 5 Boise State.

Take your pick.

But how does Arizona’s schedule compare top to bottom with the rest of the Pac-12? Let’s rank all the team, from easiest to hardest.

12. Washington State
The conference’s worst team — albeit an improving one behind tough-guy quarterback Jeff Tuel — is dreaming off a fast start. The Cougs start with home games against Idaho State and UNLV, as part of the easiest non-conference schedule in the league, followed by roadies vs. San Diego State, Colorado and UCLA. Steal one on the road, which is not unreasonable, and WSU is 3-2.

11. Stanford
The opens with San Jose State and Duke, and the toughest game of the Cardinal’s first seven probably comes in the third week — at Arizona. Stanford misses ASU and Utah — two of the projected contenders in the Pac-12 South — and get Oregon at home in what looks to be the conference Game of the Year. The season ends with a non-conference game vs. Notre Dame. BCS bid on the line for both teams?

10. Arizona State
ASU has to navigate a trip to Illinois and a home game against Missouri — time of the Devils to break out their new black uniforms) — but four of the team’s first five games are at home, a nice boost for a team expected to push for the Pac-12 South title. Conference misses against Stanford and (to a lesser extent) Washington help, too.

9. Washington
The Huskies have an easy one in non-conference (Eastern Washington), a middling one (vs. WAC favorite Hawaii in Seattle) and a tough one (at Nebraska). The benefits of the schedule are five home games and no Arizona State.

8. USC
The Trojans open with three home games for the first time since 1998, with Utah sandwiched between Minnesota and Syracuse. Road games at Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oregon increase the difficulty, but this seems set up for a nine-win season.

Can the Oregon mascot handle another thrilling season? Photo by Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE

7. Oregon
The Ducks have the treacherous opener at LSU, although the legal mess of Tigers’ quarterback Jordan Jefferson and others works in Oregon’s favor. The Ducks have seven games at Autzen Stadium — where they won’t lose — and only four true road games.

6. Utah
A couple of ways to look at Utah. The Pac-12 rolled out the red carpet for this league newbie, giving the Utes the HUGE break of not having to play Stanford or Oregon in cross-division games. On the other hand, Utah has two trip-me-up non-conference games — at BYU and at Pitt. So, in balance, we’ll put them right in the middle of these rankings.

5. Cal
The Bears kind of play 10 conference games, as a previously-scheduled game against Colorado was left on the slate as a non-league contest. The Bears do have to play Stanford and Oregon away from home — which will AT&T Park in San Francisco this season while Memorial Stadium undergoes renovations.

4. Arizona
It’s just as much as who the Cats play (Oklahoma State on the road) as who they don’t play (Washington State, Cal) and when they play them — four preseason AP Top 25 teams in a row in the first half of the season. Arizona doesn’t even get the full benefit of an easy non-conference game against Louisiana-Lafayette, as it comes at the very end of the season, not near the start when the Wildcats need to be gaining experience.

3. Oregon State
The Beavers schedule as aggressively as any team in the league, and have done so again with a road game at Wisconsin and a home game vs. BYU. Missing USC is a plus, but OSU gets the short end of the conference stick with five road games, including Oregon and Arizona State.

2. Colorado
The Buffs have a 13-game schedule, thanks to an “extra” game at Hawaii. That means Colorado, rebuilding under new coach Jon Embree, has three losable non-league games — Hawaii, vs. Cal, at Ohio State — to go with a rivalry game against Colorado State in Denver. CU gets five conference games on the road, where it has lost 18 consecutive games.

Like Arizona, this is also a case of when as much as who. The Bruins open at Houston — with record-setting Case Keenum back from an ACL injury — and play host to revenge-minded Texas in the third week. The Pac-12 slate opens with road games at Oregon State and Stanford. It will be a hard, early slog for UCLA, which is trying to solve its quarterback situation and save coach Rick Neuheisel’s job. A poor start could lead to a fizzling finish. UCLA’s November sked includes ASU, at Utah and at USC.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the 10th installment of our 24 Hours of Arizona Football Blogging — one post at the top of every hour. Keep checking back at TucsonCitizen.com through Friday at 11 a.m. or follow the entire series with the “24 hours of blogging” tag.

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