In case you haven't noticed, we've got a bit of a theme going on this week -- important games in the Pac-12. Obviously, everyone is circling the Nov. 3 showdown between USC and Oregon in Los Angeles. But there are other games to enjoy along the way. So this week we're looking at games we're most excited about.
Ted Miller: I like measuring-stick games, games that perhaps reveal the talent and heart of a team, as well as, of course, where they rank in the Pac-12 pecking order. We have a perfect example Sept. 27 (a Thursday) in Seattle: Stanford's visit to Washington, which will be played in CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks' stadium.
The obvious measure of this game's importance is this: The winner steps up in the Pac-12 North Division pecking order, the loser steps back. The winner can imagine challenging Oregon for the division title, while the loser's attention likely turns to more attainable quarry. But it's more than that. For one, it's likely both teams already will have suffered a defeat. The Huskies visit LSU on Sept. 8, while Stanford hosts USC on Sept. 15. Those opponents likely will rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the nation. This game, therefore, can serve to redirect one team's early-season trajectory. It's much better to head into October with one loss than with two.
For Stanford, this is about announcing the program's health in the post-Andrew Luck Era. Beating the Huskies on the road likely would re-establish the Cardinal as a top-25 team, where, based on the schedule, they could remain all season.
But, really, the weight falls more heavily on Washington. Why? For one, Stanford has beaten the Huskies four games in a row. But that's not the biggest issue. It's not even that the three most recent games have been blowouts. It's the nature of those blowouts. Stanford has unmanned Washington during that winning streak. Huskies fans, cover your eyes. You don't want to read this. Stanford has averaged 322 yards rushing in those four victories. 322! Last year, the Cardinal set a school record with 446 yards rushing in a 65-21 victory. The Cardinal only had 278 in 2010, but, of course, the final count was 41-zip. At Husky Stadium!
It hurts to lose no matter what. And it hurts to get blown out. But for a football team to get physically manhandled ... that's humiliation. It's hard to describe the recent turn in this series any other way. The Huskies' pride is on the line. New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was brought in to make sure no opponent rushes for 322 yards against Washington. It will be interesting to see if he can deliver in this early conference test. Or if post-Luck Stanford keeps churning along, winning with character and cruelty.
Kevin Gemmell: I too enjoy a good measuring-stick game -- and I don't think there is a bigger one early in the season than USC's trip to Utah on Oct. 4. First, it's a Thursday night game, which means a national TV audience. It's at Rice-Eccles Stadium -- one of my favorite venues -- and the place should be going crazy.
For the sake of argument, I'm going to work off the assumption that both USC and Utah are 4-0 heading into this game. If any Hawaii, Syracuse, Stanford, Cal, Northern Colorado, Utah State, Brigham Young or Arizona State fans take exception to that argument, I know Ted would love to hear about it in his mailbag.
In terms of measuring-stick games, there is none bigger on the 2012 schedule than this one for Utah -- which is desperate to find its way into the conversation as one of the Pac-12's elite. A victory over the Trojans -- who presumably will be one of the top-ranked teams in the country (if not No. 1) on Oct. 4 -- would go a long way toward achieving that.
Both teams will be coming off a bye week, so there is a good chance they will be rested and healthy. But the Trojans have the tougher road through the first four weeks. USC will have been put through the meat grinder against two top-rated defenses in Stanford and Cal before their bye. Then they come to Salt Lake City against -- arguably -- the best defensive front in the conference.
That makes this a pretty significant measuring-stick game for the Trojans, too. Three consecutive wins over three of the top front-sevens in the Pac-12 will likely answer any questions about the Trojans' toughness. By the way, they're on the road again the following week at Washington. This is just step three in an awfully difficult four-game stretch.
USC has the stronger offense -- even Utah fans won't dispute what the Trojans bring to the table with Matt Barkley and Co.-- but Utah's defensive line is as good as it gets. And one cannot throw the ball if one's face is buried in the turf.
This projects to be a brutal, physical game with the winner taking decisive command of the Pac-12 South.
A victory for Utah would catapult the Utes into conference legitimacy and mark that they have arrived. A USC victory re-affirms its status as the team to beat in the South and will likely leave the rest of us licking our chops for Nov. 3.