Last week the Pac-12 blog discussed some dream nonconference matchups that we’d like to see someday. But the Pac-12 blog is firmly rooted in reality, none of this dream stuff (unless we feel like writing about it). So, let’s talk real-world, actually-happening, nonconference matchups.
So Kevin Gemmell and Chantel Jennings will take to that topic this week.
What nonconference match up are you most looking forward to in 2014?
Chantel Jennings: Easy. Has to be Michigan State-Oregon in Week 2. I grew up in Big Ten territory and before moving west this spring to cover the Pac-12, the Midwest was the only place I had ever lived. I attended the University of Michigan and saw my fair share of interesting (read: meh) nonconference games during my four years there. As a freshman, my first game was Michigan-Appalachian State. For those who don’t remember, the Wolverines lost -- that was my introduction as a student to Wolverines football. As a result, I sold my ticket for the following weekend to Oregon-Michigan (the Wolverines lost that one, too). Despite that, I’m a big fan of the historical relevance of Big Ten-Pac-12 matchups, and having closely covered the Spartans last season, I’m very excited to see what these two teams bring to the table.
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota isn’t going to have to face the vaunted "No Fly Zone" of the Spartans defense next season, but there’s plenty of talent on that side of the ball for Michigan State and there are few coordinators who are better than Michigan State's Pat Narduzzi. Plus, reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Shilique Calhoun will have Mariota’s number. On the flip side, reigning Rose Bowl Offensive MVP Connor Cook is going to have to face the Oregon defense, which is no easy task. Cook lost his top receiver, but running back Jeremy Langford is back for the Spartans.
And as a side note: Michigan State has one of the best tweeters in the country in punter Mike Sadler (he’s also a tremendous punter). Between his ability to regularly get responses from Arby’s and Faux Pelini (the fake Twitter account for Nebraska coach Bo Pelini) and his wit, Sadler has one of the better athlete Twitter timelines that I’ve seen. With the Spartans playing the Ducks, there will be plenty of pre-game fodder for Sadler, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out.
Your pick makes sense -- not only because you’re the Oregon writer, but because that is going to be the marquee nonconference game in the Pac-12 this season. Oregon wants a seat at the playoff table, and Michigan State’s Rose Bowl win is still fresh in a lot of minds. A win will definitely strengthen Oregon’s national profile.
But I think the same can be said for UCLA, which faces Texas Sept. 13 in Arlington, Texas. Granted, the Longhorns are a former super-power transitioning from Mack Brown to Charlie Strong. But Strong’s presence gives Texas a renewed sense of national credibility, and a victory would open some eyes of folks still straddling the Bruins’ fence. Despite its recent shortcomings, Texas is still a name program.
Like Oregon, UCLA is a team expecting big things in 2014. That makes their Oct. 11 showdown at the Rose Bowl awfully interesting.
But before the Bruins get there, they have the Texas matchup, followed by a bye week, and then a Thursday night showdown with defending South champ Arizona State in Tempe. A win over Texas gives the Bruins a ton of momentum heading into a game that has essentially decided the South Division the last two seasons. A loss could send them tumbling down the rankings and stunt any forward progress heading into league play.
The Pac-12 is traditionally ambitious with its nonconference scheduling. There are three showdowns with Notre Dame this season -- ASU, USC and Stanford -- and that always makes for entertaining football. I think Utah at Michigan has some intrigue -- given Kyle Whittingham’s success over Brady Hoke when their teams sparred in the Mountain West. I also think it’s interesting that for the second straight season, a Pac-12 team will face its bowl opponent from the previous year in the season opener (Washington-Boise State in 2013, USC-Fresno State in 2014).
But in terms of games that could boost the national standing of the conference, it probably doesn’t get bigger than Michigan State-Oregon and UCLA-Texas.