Predicting the 25 most entertaining Pac-12 games in the 2023 season

The past half-decade or so has been tough for the Pac-12.

While the start of the College Football Playoff era saw a strong showing from the west coast, with teams like the Oregon Ducks and Washington Huskies getting into the mix early on, it’s been tough sledding since 2017. The Pac-12 has largely acted as an afterthought in the college football world, sometimes flirting with the bottom spot in the Power 5 conference rankings.

That should be changing very soon, though.

The 2022 season was one of great success for the Pac-12. The conference finished the year with six teams ranked inside the top 25, which was tied with the SEC for the most of any Power 5 conference. Going into 2023, things are expected to get even better, with the top 5 teams in the conference choosing to run it back with their best players returning for one more season. You’ve got quarterbacks like Oregon’s Bo Nix, Washington’s Michael Penix, and Utah’s Cameron Rising all holding off on entering the NFL Draft so that they can come back and try to dethrone USC’s Caleb Williams, the reigning Heisman winner. Oregon State also got into the mix with the addition of DJ Uiagalelei through the transfer portal, which is a move that might make them one of the best teams in the conference.

On top of all of that, even the bottom of the Pac-12 got better, with the Colorado Buffaloes expecting to make a remarkable turnaround thanks to Deion Sanders taking over as the head coach and bringing some top recruits with him. The Buffaloes are anticipated to be among the most entertaining teams to watch this season, and it feels like the conference is leaning into it.

The Pac-12 schedule came out earlier this week, and we’ve got a lot of takeaways from the order of games. In particular, it seems that commissioner George Kliavkoff worked hard to put the best product on TV, moving pieces around in order to get the best ratings that they can.

I talked about this with  USA TODAY’s Trojans Wire editor Matt Zemek on the Sco-ing Long podcast earlier in the week. Here’s part of that conversation:

Neel: Oregon, Washington, Utah, USC, Oregon State — they all play in the second half of the season when those prime-time games are important and the College Football Playoff rankings are out. But then you look at the start of the season and you have Colorado vs. Oregon in week 4, and Colorado vs. USC in week 5. That’s before the shine I think has worn off of Colorado. We kind of think they will still be fun and entertaining to watch.

Zemek: This is also smart by Kliavkoff because you do want to get Deion Sanders against your prime programs, Oregon and USC, early in the season when there’s going to be a lot of interest. You want to showcase Colorado and Coach Prime against your marquee opponents earlier in the year, and then you can have the big boys playing in November.

To help emphasize this point, I went through the entire Pac-12 schedule for the 2023 season and tried to pick out the games that I think are going to be the most entertaining to watch. To help organize them, I broke the 25 games into five separate tiers and then ranked them accordingly.

These are the matchups that are going to get the biggest TV ratings on Saturday afternoons this fall, and the ones that will put the full power of the Pac-12 on display.

Tier 5 | Pure Entertainment — Colorado vs. UCLA

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Tier 5 Explanation: Games in this tier are just downright entertaining. The results won’t necessarily sway the Pac-12 title race, but they will be enthralling to watch.

Date: Week 9 | October 28

Reasoning: We’ve already talked about how entertaining Colorado will be next year with Deion Sanders leading a group of talented players like Travis Hunter, Cormani McClain, and Shedeur Sanders. UCLA also might have 5-star QB Dante Moore at the helm, and could be quietly pretty good in 2023. Neither projects to make it to the Pac-12 title game, but this will be fun to watch regardless.

Tier 5 | Pure Entertainment — OSU vs. UCLA

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 5 Explanation: Games in this tier are just downright entertaining. The results won’t necessarily sway the Pac-12 title race, but they will be enthralling to watch.

Date: Week 7 | October 14

Reasoning: I think that both OSU and UCLA will be on the fringes of Pac-12 title competition in 2023, with the Beavers having a more likely chance of actually getting to Las Vegas. This game between the two of them, with DJ Uiagalelei vs. either Dante Moore or Colin Schlee, will be a fun watch regardless of the stakes.

Tier 5 | Pure Entertainment — Oregon vs. Colorado

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 5 Explanation: Games in this tier are just downright entertaining. The results won’t necessarily sway the Pac-12 title race, but they will be enthralling to watch.

Date: Week 4 | September 23

Reasoning: Coach Prime in Eugene? The first Pac-12 matchup for Deion Sanders? A chance to see Travis Hunter, and Cormani McClain, and Shedeur Sanders against Pac-12 competition? Sign me up. This game will garner a lot of eyeballs.

Tier 5 | Pure Entertainment — USC vs. Colorado

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 5 Explanation: Games in this tier are just downright entertaining. The results won’t necessarily sway the Pac-12 title race, but they will be enthralling to watch.

Date: Week 5 | September 30

Reasoning: You can probably sense a theme here… If Colorado is playing a game against even decent competition, it’s going to be a fun watch, especially early in the year when we’re still trying to figure out how good the Buffaloes can be. The only reason I ranked this one ahead of the Oregon-Colorado game is because of the Caleb Williams factor. You have to give the Heisman winner some respect.

Tier 4 | Non-Conference Thrillers — Washington State vs. Wisconsin

Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Tier 4 Explanation: Games in this tier take place outside of the Pac-12 conference, but could carry major weight when it comes to overall resume-building later in the season. 

Date: Week 2 | September 9

Reasoning: It’s unclear how good either Washington State or Wisconsin will be in 2023, but this early season game will be a good barometer for the pair of teams, and it will give us a great preview of the improvements that QB Cam Ward has made over the offseason.

Tier 4 | Non-Conference Thrillers — Colorado vs. Nebraska

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 4 Explanation: Games in this tier take place outside of the Pac-12 conference, but could carry major weight when it comes to overall resume-building later in the season. 

Date: Week 2 | September 9

Reasoning: Again, Colorado makes the list, and this time against another very intriguing program in Nebraska, who brought in Matt Rhule this offseason as the new head coach. A pair of historic programs working to make their way back into the limelight, this one should be fun to watch.

Tier 4 | Non-Conference Thrillers — Utah vs. Florida

[Doug Engle/Gainesville Sun]

Tier 4 Explanation: Games in this tier take place outside of the Pac-12 conference, but could carry major weight when it comes to overall resume-building later in the season. 

Date: Week 1 | September 2

Reasoning: Utah was one of the most hyped teams in the nation going into the start of the 2022 season, but then they flopped against Florida and were never really able to fully recover despite their return trip to the Rose Bowl. Now the Utes get another crack at the Gators, this time in Salt Lake City.

Tier 4 | Non-Conference Thrillers — Colorado vs. TCU

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 4 Explanation: Games in this tier take place outside of the Pac-12 conference, but could carry major weight when it comes to overall resume-building later in the season. 

Date: Week 1 | September 2

Reasoning: The first game of the Deion Sanders era is going to be a tough one for Colorado, traveling to play against a TCU team that is trying to move past the 65-7 loss to Georgia in the national championship game. It will be entertaining, but I can’t say that I expect it to be all that competitive.

Tier 4 | Non-Conference Thrillers — Washington vs. Michigan State

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 4 Explanation: Games in this tier take place outside of the Pac-12 conference, but could carry major weight when it comes to overall resume-building later in the season. 

Date: Week 3 | September 16

Reasoning: Washington made a statement last season when they beat Michigan State at home. Now they have to go do it on the road. While I think the Huskies are a much better team, it will be a great non-conference game that gives us a look at how dangerous Washington is this year.

Tier 4 | Non-Conference Thrillers — Oregon vs. Texas Tech

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 4 Explanation: Games in this tier take place outside of the Pac-12 conference, but could carry major weight when it comes to overall resume-building later in the season. 

Date: Week 2 | September 9

Reasoning: I’m not sure this game is getting enough respect from Oregon fans just yet. While Texas Tech has been out of the spotlight for a few years, they are expected to be pretty good next year with QB Tyler Should — yes, him — coming back for another year. The Red Raiders are ranked inside ESPN’s preseason top 25, so this will likely be a ranked matchup in a tough environment for the Ducks.

Tier 3 | Pac-12 Title Influencers — UCLA vs. Utah

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Tier 3 Explanation: Games in this tier will definitely end up influencing who makes it to the Pac-12 title. They may not be played between the best teams in the conference, but the importance they carry is undeniable.

Date: Week 4 | September 23

Reasoning: I’m not sure how good UCLA is going to be with their QB situation, but they could absolutely give Utah a tough game and maybe make some noise early in the season.

Tier 3 | Pac-12 Title Influencers — Oregon State vs. WSU

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 3 Explanation: Games in this tier will definitely end up influencing who makes it to the Pac-12 title. They may not be played between the best teams in the conference, but the importance they carry is undeniable.

Date: Week 4 | September 23

Reasoning: There are a lot of really good games in Week 4 — UO vs. CU, USC vs. ASU — but I think the best one is going to be between Washington State and Oregon State. Both of these teams will likely feature better QB play this year and have an outside chance of making it to Las Vegas at the start of December. This one will kick off the conference schedule on a great note.

Tier 3 | Pac-12 Title Influencers — Utah vs. Oregon State

Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 3 Explanation: Games in this tier will definitely end up influencing who makes it to the Pac-12 title. They may not be played between the best teams in the conference, but the importance they carry is undeniable.

Date: Week 5 | September 30

Reasoning: With Oregon State potentially being deep in the mix this season, their games against other conference contenders are going to be incredibly entertaining. Utah plays UCLA and then travels to USC to open the Pac-12 slate. That’s a tough spot to be in, and should be fun to watch.

Tier 3 | Pac-12 Title Influencers —Oregon vs. Washington State

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 3 Explanation: Games in this tier will definitely end up influencing who makes it to the Pac-12 title. They may not be played between the best teams in the conference, but the importance they carry is undeniable.

Date: Week 8 | October 21

Reasoning: The Oregon vs. Washington State game in 2022 was among the most entertaining on Oregon’s schedule, with the Ducks mounting a big second-half comeback to get the win in Pullman. With the Cougars expected to be better this year, I can’t wait to see what happens when these two teams clash down in Eugene.

Tier 3 | Pac-12 Title Influencers —Washington vs. Oregon State

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Tier 3 Explanation: Games in this tier will definitely end up influencing who makes it to the Pac-12 title. They may not be played between the best teams in the conference, but the importance they carry is undeniable.

Date: Week 12 | November 18

Reasoning: Again, the formula of Oregon State plus any other Pac-12 contender is going to get my attention. DJ Uiagalelei vs. Michael Penix? Jonathan Smith vs. Kalen DeBoer — the two co-Coaches of the Year in the Pac-12 last season? I’m all the way in.

Tier 3 | Pac-12 Title Influencers — Washington vs. WSU

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 3 Explanation: Games in this tier will definitely end up influencing who makes it to the Pac-12 title. They may not be played between the best teams in the conference, but the importance they carry is undeniable.

Date: Week 13 | November 25

Reasoning: Who doesn’t love a good rivalry? Coming in the final week of the season, there’s a chance that the Huskies might need a win to get into the Pac-12 Championship. The Cougars would love nothing more than to rain on that parade.

Tier 2 | Marquee Matchups — USC vs. Utah

Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 2 Explanation: Games in this tier are the marquee matchups in the Pac-12, played between a pair of the top-5 teams in the conference. Any one of them could reasonably be a preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game. 

Date: Week 8 | October 21

Reasoning: Now we’re getting into the really great games on the schedule. A rematch of the Pac-12 Championship? Yes, please. This could end up being a preview of the 2023 conference title game as well, so everyone will certainly be tuning in.

Tier 2 | Marquee Matchups — Oregon vs. Utah

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 2 Explanation: Games in this tier are the marquee matchups in the Pac-12, played between a pair of the top-5 teams in the conference. Any one of them could reasonably be a preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game. 

Date: Week 9 | October 28

Reasoning: We all know how the 2021 season ended, and we watched a thrilling and gritty victory from Oregon in 2022 with an injured Bo Nix. What will 2023 bring? Both Nix and Cameron Rising could have easily gone to the NFL this year, but they chose instead to come back. With them squaring off again, this is going to be one of the most intriguing QB matchups of the year.

Tier 2 | Marquee Matchups — UCLA vs. USC

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 2 Explanation: Games in this tier are the marquee matchups in the Pac-12, played between a pair of the top-5 teams in the conference. Any one of them could reasonably be a preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game. 

Date: Week 12 | November 18

Reasoning: This game may not end up being a Pac-12 Championship preview, but whenever you get USC and UCLA on the same field together, ratings are going to go up, and interest is going to pique.

Tier 2 | Marquee Matchups — Washington vs. Utah

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 2 Explanation: Games in this tier are the marquee matchups in the Pac-12, played between a pair of the top-5 teams in the conference. Any one of them could reasonably be a preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game. 

Date: Week 11 | November 11

Reasoning: Much like Bo Nix and Cameron Rising, Washington QB Michael Penix could have very easily headed off to the NFL this year as well, but he returned for another year with the Huskies. This late-season matchup is going to be a fun one to watch, and could massively swing the Pac-12 race.

Tier 2 | Marquee Matchups — Oregon vs. Oregon State

Tier 2 Explanation: Games in this tier are the marquee matchups in the Pac-12, played between a pair of the top-5 teams in the conference. Any one of them could reasonably be a preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game. 

Date: Week 13 | November 25

Reasoning: This may be the most interesting “rivalry formerly known as the Civil War” we’ve had in decades. After the Beavers mounted an insane comeback to beat the Ducks and end their Pac-12 championship hopes in 2022, you know that Oregon will be out for revenge. On top of that, you get Jonathan Smith vs. Dan Lanning and DJ Uiagalelei vs. Matayo Uiagalelei. What an incredibly enticing regular season finale.

Tier 2 | Marquee Matchups — USC vs. Notre Dame

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 2 Explanation: Games in this tier are the marquee matchups in the Pac-12, played between a pair of the top-5 teams in the conference. Any one of them could reasonably be a preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game. 

Date: Week 7 | October 14

Reasoning: This may not have Pac-12 Championship ramifications, but it will certainly have College Football Playoff ramifications. Both teams will likely be ranked inside the top 10 when they meet in South Bend, and the winner between USC and Notre Dame will instantly boost its resume and be strongly considered by the playoff committee once the season comes to a close.

Tier 1 | Games of the Year — USC vs. Washington

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 1 Explanation: Games in this tier are the best of the best — the potential games of the year in the Pac-12. All three teams mentioned are the favorites to make it to the Pac-12 Championship, and we get to see them play first in the regular season. Circle these dates on your calendar. 

Date: Week 8 | October 21

Reasoning: Can you believe that these two teams haven’t played since 2019? Before that, they hadn’t played since 2016. It seems insane that two of the most popular programs in the Pac-12 have so rarely seen each other on the field. Thanks, Larry Scott. Finally, we get to see Caleb Williams vs. Michael Penix in a game that could easily be a preview of the Pac-12 title game.

Tier 1 | Games of the Year — Oregon vs. Washington

Tier 1 Explanation: Games in this tier are the best of the best — the potential games of the year in the Pac-12. All three teams mentioned are the favorites to make it to the Pac-12 Championship, and we get to see them play first in the regular season. Circle these dates on your calendar. 

Date: Week 8 | October 21

Reasoning: Washington had the comeback win on the road in Autzen last season, and ended up getting the last laugh over the Ducks at the end of the season when their Apple Cup win over WSU knocked Oregon out of the conference championship game. Don’t think that doesn’t mean anything down in Eugene. This is going to be among the most hyped rivalry games these two teams have ever seen in 2023.

Tier 1 | Games of the Year — USC vs. Oregon

(Keith Birmingham/The Orange County Register via AP)

Tier 1 Explanation: Games in this tier are the best of the best — the potential games of the year in the Pac-12. All three teams mentioned are the favorites to make it to the Pac-12 Championship, and we get to see them play first in the regular season. Circle these dates on your calendar. 

Date: Week 8 | October 21

Reasoning: The two biggest brands in the Pac-12. It’s the game that everyone in the nation wanted to see in 2022, and we were robbed of it, unfortunately. Lincoln Riley vs. Dan Lanning; Caleb Williams vs. Bo Nix; Hollywood vs. the Pacific Northwest. These two teams have had quite the recruiting battles over the years, and now we get what is sure to be another classic on the gridiron. I had zero hesitation putting this game at the top of the list.

Story originally appeared on Ducks Wire