- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Pac-12 has earned national respect during its nonconference schedule. The general consensus is that the conference, which boasts a 29-4 record in out-of-league play, ranks second to the SEC. And there are a few outliers crunching analytics who believe the Pac-12 is, in fact, No. 1.
The conference is elite at the top and boasts high quality from top to bottom. Heck, once-woeful Colorado beat a Colorado State team on a neutral field that took home-standing and top-ranked Alabama into the fourth quarter before yielding.
So let the record show that, on Sept. 22, folks thought pretty highly of the Pac-12.
Now that it's shined against the nation, what's the Pac-12 going to do to itself? That's the question as the conference schedule begins to heat up this week.
Will Oregon and Stanford get to their highly anticipated Nov. 7 clash unbeaten? You could make an argument for and against based on what has happened thus far. The Ducks and Cardinal have looked impressive, not unlike national title contenders. But the field also is much improved. Both get No. 16 Washington before their red-letter meeting. Both get No. 13 UCLA, too.
It will be extremely difficult to finish 9-0 in Pac-12 play, which is the only way to (practically) guarantee a berth in the national title game. On the other hand, a one-loss Pac-12 team might receive strong support as a first-among-equals when compared to other one-loss teams, if there aren't two unbeaten AQ conference teams at season's end.
And what about those seemingly second-tier teams, such as the Huskies and Bruins? Both seem capable of winning 10 games. Or winning just eight and still being pretty darn good.
The point is that the depth of the conference will make the nine-game conference schedule even more arduous than in years past. UCLA and Washington might be top-10 or top-15 teams in terms of true quality, but their final records might not make that obvious. And you can't count on East Coast voters to recall where things stood entering the final weekend of September.
Two games stand out this week. The winner of USC's visit to Arizona State might reclaim a national ranking. It also will notch a critical win in terms of the South Division pecking order. The loser will fall to 0-2 in conference play. That will be a really bad thing, though it's a good bet the eventual South champ will have two conference losses.
If the Trojans go down -- and they are underdogs -- coach Lane Kiffin's position might become untenable. The bye-week discussion would be more about who will replace him rather than a visit from Arizona on Oct. 12.
If the Sun Devils fall, it would bring to a skidding stop the positive vibe around the program that fed the entire offseason. The Sun Devils would head to Texas to play Notre Dame with the "Same Old ASU" tag hung around their necks.
Meanwhile, the Sun Devils' friends from Tucson, the Arizona Wildcats, will be introducing themselves to the season with a visit to Washington. Last year, the Wildcats manhandled the Huskies 52-17. While the Huskies should be motivated by that game film, Arizona has shown signs of being sneaky good, with a much-improved defense and a rugged running game.
It feels like a revealing matchup for both. The Wildcats are probably the Huskies' toughest opponent to date (yes, superior to Boise State, which lost to Fresno State on Friday), and an Arizona win over a ranked team would give the Wildcats credibility. And their own national ranking.
There also are a pair of "Don't go to sleep, Mr. Favorite" games.
Stanford will take on a vastly improved Washington State team in Seattle. The Cougars' defense ranks among the nation's leaders in just about every category, but Cardinal QB Kevin Hogan and the nation's best offensive line will provide a major challenge. The Stanford secondary also will be tested by Mike Leach's Air Raid attack, particularly if All-American safety Ed Reynolds is suspended due to his helmet-to-helmet hit against Arizona State.
Oregon State has shown it won't be able to take any foe for granted this year, so a visit from Colorado should inspire urgency, not expectations for an easy win. The Buffaloes might be rusty after two weeks off, or they might have a finely tuned game plan that will fluster the Beavers. A Buffs upset would reasonably inspire bowl talk in Boulder. If the Beavers hold serve, they arrive at a bye week they desperately need in order to get healthy, physically and mentally.
California at Oregon? It's difficult to imagine the Bears winning in Autzen Stadium. Sure, they've put up huge passing numbers, but this will be freshman QB Jared Goff's first road start. Autzen is not where you want to do that.
The Pac-12's ideal scenario at season's end is producing an unbeaten team playing for a national title, another top-10 team playing in the Rose Bowl, and three to five other ranked teams. It's reasonable to envision that playing out.
But it's also possible that the Pac-12 will eat itself alive, with a champion with two (or more) defeats, a scattering of underrated 8-4 teams and two or more 5-7 teams that aren't bowl-eligible.
This weekend, we'll start in earnest to see how things will play out. Buckle up.