A few storylines to keep an eye on in the Pac-12 this week.
Thursday night showdown: It wasn't just the Baylor game that got a lot of Washington's defensive staff canned last year. Much of the Huskies' defensive downfalls started earlier in the season -- and many can point to the Stanford game as a kicking-off point. The Cardinal rushed for a school-record 446 yards and two Stanford backs gained more than 100 yards. One of them is back -- Stepfan Taylor. He and the Cardinal go into CenturyLink Field ranked No. 8 in the nation with another strong rushing attack and the No. 1 rush defense in the country.
Road warriors: It's been a charmed life for quarterbacks Josh Nunes (Stanford) and Marcus Mariota (Oregon) so far this season. Both took over as first-time starters and neither has had to leave the friendly confines of their respective home stadiums -- until now. Nunes makes his first road start tonight in Washington and Mariota and the Ducks finally leave Autzen when they face Washington State in Seattle on Saturday. Both have their teams undefeated and ranked in the top 10.
Young guns: Speaking of Mariota, he's one of several young quarterbacks carving out quite the name for themselves early in the 2012 season. The top four leaders in passing efficiency are sophomores or younger: Mariota, Sean Mannion, Brett Hundley and Taylor Kelly. Even Oregon State coach Mike Riley said earlier this week he's never seen such a talented crop of youthful quarterbacks making such an immediate impact on the conference. Last week's Mannion-Hundley duel was a nice glimpse of what the conference can look forward to in years to come.
Getting toasty: What does Saturday's game mean for the future of Cal coach Jeff Tedford? Though he received the dreaded vote of confidence, he's pretty much the only coach in the conference on the hot seat. At 1-3, Cal's chances for a postseason berth are quickly dwindling. And now the Bears face a revitalized Arizona State squad that is offensively efficient (see the aforementioned Kelly) and an opportunistic defense that is tied for second in the conference with 14 sacks. Cal is second to last in sacks allowed.
Air raid: Oregon State travels to Arizona in a battle of the conference's top two passing teams. Should be a lot of points and a lot of yards. Wait... where have we heard this one before? Oh yeah, that was supposed to be the case last week with Oregon-Arizona. But the Wildcats failed to produce in the red zone and were blanked by the Ducks. And the Beavers have the nation's No. 2 rush defense (behind Stanford) to boot. Probably the most intriguing game on the docket this week. If the Beavers win, they'll continue to climb in the polls. If Arizona wins, it's back in the polls. Lots of intrigue in Tucson.
Lessons learned? UCLA and Colorado both learned a thing or two about their teams last week. The Bruins learned that youthful teams will sometimes make youthful mistakes. Colorado learned that quitting gets you nowhere and the Buffs manned up in the fourth quarter and pulled out a win. One team still needs to get comfortable in its own skin as a winning program. The other is just looking for another win. Which lessons will carry over into this game?
On kicking: Improved field goal kicking last week from the conference. I noted last week that the Pac-12 was converting just 59 percent of its field goals -- worst among the BCS conferences. Last week, kickers went 16-of-23 (69 percent). Better, but still not great.
Looking ahead: USC and Utah have the bye this week in preparation for next week's Thursday night South Division showdown in Salt Lake City. Well, at least it was thought to be a showdown in the preseason. The Utes are reeling and the Trojans are looking to get back into the top 10. The bloom isn't completely off the rose, but this one doesn't smell as sweet as it did in late August.