- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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While the Pac-12 versus Notre Dame trilogy has yet to be written, and we still need to see if Colorado-Fresno State gets rescheduled (it's looking unlikely), it’s safe to say that the Pac-12 as a whole came out of its nonconference slate in impressive fashion.
Through the first four weeks, the league flexed its muscles against weaker competition, gutted out wins against comparable foes and showed considerable top-to-bottom depth. Oregon and Stanford announced national title intentions without incident and teams like Washington and UCLA have steadily climbed the Top 25 ladder.
After three straight weeks of just one league game, every game in Week 5 will be Pac-12 on Pac-12, meaning the league had the opportunity to put a nice little bow on the bulk of its nonleague schedule in Week 4. And that’s exactly what it did, adding six more nonconference wins, headlined by Utah’s victory over arch-nemesis BYU.
Not only is it the fourth straight win for the Utes over BYU, but with the teams not playing again till 2016 they now get two extra years to savor the flavor of their 20-13 victory over the Cougars. This year's Holy War had everything we’ve come to expect from a Utah-BYU showdown. Hard hits, flared tempers and drama right until the final play.
With many wondering if BYU was a Top 25 team after blasting Texas two weeks ago (it was receiving votes in the coaches poll), the Utes proved to be the stronger team, bouncing back from last week’s overtime loss to Oregon State to win on the road. And with a 3-0 mark in its nonconference games, Utah is slowly proving that it’s making strides as a full-fledged Pac-12 program.
Some nonconference numbers for your consideration:
After going 25-11 out of conference last season (not including bowl games), the Pac-12 is 29-4 against nonconference teams through the first four weeks.
The Pac-12 is 21-3 against FBS opponents.
The league went 3-2 against the Big Ten and 10-0 against the Mountain West.
Why is this important? The Pac-12 will see both leagues a couple of more times in the postseason.
There were signature wins, such as the aforementioned Holy War victory, UCLA’s win at Nebraska, Washington’s win over Boise State and Oregon’s pasting of Tennessee. Yes, even Arizona State's win over Wisconsin qualifies as a signature victory.
The lone stain was Oregon State’s loss to Eastern Washington in Week 1. The Beavers survived Saturday against San Diego State after another inexplicably poor performance -- save the two late interceptions. Ironic, I suppose, that it was the much-maligned defense that came up big in the end.
Outside of that, California’s losses to Northwestern and Ohio State are nothing to scoff at and Washington State went toe-to-toe with a vastly improved Auburn team. In fact, that’s a game the Cougs probably should have won.
In Week 4, the league took care of its business yet again with UCLA, Washington State and Washington all notching easy wins against teams that warrant easy wins.
USC’s defense continues to impress, sacking Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton four times, though the offense still leaves much to be desired. We’ve already seen how it faltered in a league game against Washington State. It’s only going to get tougher for the Trojans with ASU next week.
There are at least three more opportunities for the league to continue its nonconference dominance, starting with ASU’s showdown in Dallas with Notre Dame on Oct. 5. USC and Stanford will also see the Irish. Outside of that (or Colorado and Fresno State getting back on the books), the league will have to cannibalize itself in its nine-game conference schedule before it gets another opportunity to show the rest of the country what it can do in the bowl season.
As long as the SEC still holds its seven straight crystal balls, it will continue to be seen as the class of college football. But the Pac-12 stated its case through the first four weeks that, top to bottom, it belongs in the conversation.
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