- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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The 2014 Pac-12 season starts tonight, and that is unquestionably a righteous thing. The first week's slate of games? Well, it's not exactly going to awaken any echoes. Still, Confucius say he who casts a disrespectful glance at a season opener finds his beer warm and his prayers to the college football gods unanswered.
Yet with all due respect, the Pac-12 plays five games versus overmatched FCS foes and is double-digit favorites in four other games. The only underdog is California, which visits Northwestern.
Ah, but that second Saturday. That, my friends, is a biggie. Not entirely across the conference, but two games will attract beaucoup Pac-12 and national eyeballs and are decidedly meaningful in terms of setting up the first season of the College Football Playoff.
Start with No. 8 Michigan State's visit to No. 3 Oregon. This might be the biggest nonconference matchup of the season, and it's even bigger after the season-ending injury to Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. The Spartans are now the clear favorites in the Big Ten, as the Ducks are the popular preseason pick in the Pac-12. It might look like a Rose Bowl, but it probably ends up operating like a CFP elimination game. Or validation game.
It's an intriguing matchup, too: Celebrated offense versus celebrated defense, with the Ducks, led by preseason Heisman favorite Marcus Mariota, facing Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who might be the best in the business.
Meanwhile, No. 11 Stanford plays host to No. 15 USC. The Trojans used to feast on the Cardinal. Now this is a bitter and highly competitive rivalry. What makes this game fun is the rivalry is as much player-based as fan based. That bitterness ignited between Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh -- "What's your deal?" -- and has maintained its burn over the past few years, with the teams exchanging major upsets the past two seasons.
It also won't cool things down, at least in terms of perception, that new Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian and Stanford coach David Shaw were at public loggerheads last year over the Cardinal allegedly faking injuries in a tight victory over Sark's Washington team. While it might be responsible to note that Shaw and Sarkisian seem to get along well and chat amiably at coaching functions, that would de-sensationalize an angle the Pac-12 blog would prefer to jump up and down and point at next week.
It also has been established, though less publicly, that more than a few Stanford players were extremely unhappy with Sarkisian's accusation, most notably DE Ben Gardner, whose NFL career has already been waylaid by the shoulder issue that hampered him against the Huskies.
Even if you cast aside the emotions, this is a big Pac-12 game. The winner figures to establish itself as a top-10 team and national contender. While they occupy different divisions, one will end up 0-1 in conference play and the other will be 1-0. In what figure to be tight races in both divisions, that one-game swing could prove critical.
A USC victory would be a significant event in the South Division. The Trojans don't play Oregon, as UCLA does. Arizona State doesn't, either. The Bruins and the Sun Devils both play Stanford. The Sun Devils visit USC. In other words, in terms of schedule strength among the contenders, a USC win over Stanford might change the perception of the South race.
Of course, from a coach's perspective we are getting ahead of ourselves. USC plays host to Fresno State on Saturday. While the Bulldogs don't look like the formidable foe the Trojans whipped in the Las Vegas Bowl a year ago, they certainly have a pulse. Stanford plays UC Davis and Oregon plays South Dakota. Both will roll, though some Davis folks have pointed out the Aggies upset the Cardinal in 2005, one of the notable moments of Walt Harris' coaching tenure.
As you well know, sports teams play one game at a time.
"We approach this game, literally, exactly like every other one," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said of South Dakota and, by extension, Michigan State. "To do anything else would be a conflict of our process, disrespectful to our opponent and to the game."
While Helfrich and Shaw admit that they spent plenty of time this offseason reviewing Michigan State and USC/Washington film knowing about their big dates in Week 2, the nature of football is routine, and routine dictates you prepare for each game the same way.
Dangers of looking ahead this week? Unlikely. For one, it's the first game of the season. The opportunity to play a real game in front of a crowd after a long preseason camp is a reward in itself. Don't expect players to be blasé and unfocused.
And there are stakes for players in game one, no matter how undecorated the foe is, according to Shaw.
"We have a lot of guys still competing for things, for who's going to get more playing time," he said. "I'd feel bad for the guy who shows a sign of not focusing on the task at hand. He's going to meet with a not very happy Coach Shaw."
9hChantel Jennings and David Lombardi