Notre Dame Football: California Bears

The Pac-12 typically plays a rugged nonconference schedule, but the 2014 slate is, well, only fair to middling.

There's a true marque national game -- Michigan State at Oregon -- and there are three matchups with Notre Dame. But there aren't a whole lot of ranked foes from other areas of the country on the slate.

Here's how we'd rank the Pac-12's best nonconference games in 2014.

1. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6): It's a top-10 -- perhaps even top-five -- matchup that looks like a Rose Bowl. Or a College Football Playoff semifinal. The Spartans shut down Stanford in the Rose Bowl in January and are eyeballing even bigger things this fall. Like the Ducks.

2. Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 4): This has become a strong, national rivalry. The last time the Cardinal was in South Bend, the ending was highly controversial -- the Fighting Irish wouldn't have played for the 2012 national title without a boost from the officials. This game likely reveals if one or the other is a CFP candidate.

3. Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 29): It remains the greatest intersectional rivalry in college sports. It would be a good idea for first-year USC coach Steve Sarkisian to win this one. A good way to win over his fan base.

4. Notre Dame at Arizona State (Nov. 8): The Fighting Irish tried to get out of this game. They also beat the Sun Devils last year. Arizona State should be plenty motivated in front of what is certain to be a packed house.

5. UCLA vs. Texas (Sept. 13, Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas): Texas is breaking in new coach Charlie Strong in what is really a glorified home game. UCLA is only trying to announce itself as a national title contender. While the Longhorns are down, they won't lack talent.

6. Utah at Michigan (Sept. 20): Here's a good way for the Utes to announce their return to relevance -- a trip to the Big House. Utah certainly won't be intimidated. It won in Ann Arbor 25-23 in 2008 on its way to an undefeated season. It also lost 10-7 in 2002.

7. California at Northwestern (Aug. 30): Sonny Dykes wants to get his second season off with a bang. This is a good -- and winnable -- opportunity to do just that.

8. Rutgers vs. Washington State (Aug. 28, CenturyLink Field, Seattle): The Cougars are eyeballing a breakthrough season. It will be hard to do that with an opening loss to a Big Ten team. Yes, Rutgers is now a Big Ten team.

9. Illinois at Washington (Sept. 13): The Illini don't seem too scary, but they are a Big Ten team. They didn't make things too easy on the Huskies last year, either.

10. BYU at California (Nov. 29): We've already noted how nice it would be for Dykes to get his second season off to a fast start. What about a strong finish?
Is Notre Dame for real? (Skip.) Is Notre Dame for real? (Skip.) Is Notre Dame for real? (Skip.)

Yes, the college football punditry and peanut gallery can sound like a broken record. The Fighting Irish are 5-0 and ranked seventh, and almost every sign suggests legitimacy, but, well, we've been down this road before. And not only with Notre Dame. It wasn't too long ago that everyone was blowing kisses at Florida State -- the Seminoles are finally back -- before it became a national punch line or cautionary tale, however you wish to view a loss at NC State.

Notre Dame plays host to No. 17 Stanford on Saturday. The Cardinal might present the Irish their toughest test yet. Stanford, after all, beat USC. Whipped the once-No. 2 Trojans at the line of scrimmage, no less.

Of course, Stanford also wilted against Washington, making a Huskies defense that would get decimated by Oregon look stout.

[+] EnlargeStepfan Taylor
George Nkitin/AP PhotoStepfan Taylor and Stanford can perhaps clear the national title picture a bit by toppling undefeated Notre Dame.
The gist here is there is still a lot of fog over the college football season. We all say stuff, perhaps even with a feigned certainty -- Alabama is unbeatable! -- but we don't really know. The season remains rife with variables and plot twists, even with the first BCS standings being released Sunday.

There are 14 undefeated teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (Ohio State isn't eligible for the postseason due to NCAA sanctions). Some teams mostly feel -- fairly or unfairly -- like curiosities: three in the Big East (Cincinnati, Louisville and Rutgers), Ohio, Louisiana Tech, Oregon State and Mississippi State. Others own undeniable heft: Alabama, Oregon, South Carolina, Florida, West Virginia, Kansas State and, yes, Notre Dame.

Odd that this weekend's Red River Rivalry feels so far off the radar, although both Texas and Oklahoma could play roles in winnowing the contenders and pretenders. The Sooners still have dates with Notre Dame and West Virginia, while the Longhorns conclude the season against Kansas State.

The "what ifs" are rampant. Such as: What if Alabama, Notre Dame and Oregon all finish undefeated; who then plays for the title? Or switch out Oregon with West Virginia or Kansas State. There are the multiple unbeaten quandaries, and then there are all the best of the once-beaten comparisons, such as: Can USC get back into the national title hunt?

Again, so many variables in our penultimate season yoked by the lovely BCS system. It's difficult to predict how pollsters will react. And don't even start with the computers. With strength of schedule, it's not just what your team has accomplished, but what all its foes did. And all its foes' foes. Etc., etc.

What's also interesting is that the march toward clarity isn't always linear. At any moment, a couple of upsets can put a boot print in our consensus expectations. For example, what might have happened last season if LSU had been nipped in the SEC title game?

The good news is a page will turn next week. If Kansas State and West Virginia both survive tricky road games this weekend -- the Wildcats are at Iowa State, and the Mountaineers are at Texas Tech -- they meet in Morgantown on Oct. 20, so one of the Big 12's two unbeatens will fall.

Same goes for the SEC East. If No. 3 South Carolina manages to win at No. 9 LSU on Saturday, a visit to No. 4 Florida on Oct. 20 seems like the Rubicon for the division. Only one unbeaten will remain in the division, just as only one unbeaten -- Alabama or Mississippi State -- can emerge from the West.

And, if everyone then holds serve, we could have an epic No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup in the SEC title game.

But, alas, that's getting ahead of ourselves.

We started with the notion that Stanford will provide a nice test for Notre Dame's legitimacy. The Cardinal, after all, are riding a three-game winning streak in the series.

But we know past success doesn't guarantee future results. Just look at your 401K. Or the Fighting Irish's storied history.

Is Notre Dame for real? Heck, is anyone for real?

It's probably best to turn to one of history's great college football pundits at times like this. As Socrates once noted when his preseason picks imploded, "I know one thing, that I know nothing."

Or, more charitably, at least very little.

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