By Ray Hamill
Now that Lane Kiffin has been fired, we can turn our attention full-time to the other big story in the Pac-12 this year — namely can anyone challenge Oregon or Stanford for the conference crown?
The answer to that should become a little more clear within the next few weeks, with a tough October for both conference frontrunners, leading up to their highly anticipated Thursday night showdown at The Farm on Nov. 7.
Thus far it’s been little more than conjecture as to whether Stanford’s physical prowess or Oregon’s lightning quick offense would be better equipped to mount a serious challenge to Alabama’s recent dynasty, but that’s about to change.
And if either can come through the next month unscathed, then they’ll have taken a major step toward a place in the BCS title game and the chance to knock the Tide off their dynastical perch and put the Pac-12 back on top for the first time since USC’s infamous run in 2004.
The problem is getting through the next month unscathed, and much like the SEC, the Pac-12 has had a habit in recent years of beating up on one another along the way, knocking each other out of national contention because of it.
Last year, the whole country was anticipating how No. 2 Oregon’s offense would fare against No. 1 Alabama’s NFL-bound defense before Stanford messed up those plans with a stunning win in Eugene.
The previous year, it was the Ducks who went to Palo Alto and knocked off then No. 4 Stanford to end the Cardinal’s run at the national title, before losing to USC just a week later and droping out of the national picture themselves.
This year, it won’t be any easier. The Pac-12 is a better conference than anticipated, certainly at the top, with four teams in the AP top-16, and both UCLA and Washington faring far better than preseason predictions.
And with conference play in full swing, that ‘s now being reflected in the schedule.
Stanford is currently in the midst of a seven-week spell that includes four ranked teams, taking care of business against Arizona State three weeks ago before barely edging a relentless Washington squad by just a field goal last week. The Cardinal will face another stiff test next weekend when No. 11 UCLA travels to Palo Alto.
The Ducks, meanwhile, have been on cruise control thus far, scoring at least 55 points in each of their five games and winning by an average of 47.4 points, but things are about to get a whole lot tougher with three top-16 teams in a four-week spell – two on the road – beginning at the No. 16 Huskies on Saturday.
This matchup will be telling for Oregon and not just because it will be the high-flying Ducks toughest yet, but also because the Huskies dominant defense will serve as a litmus test for future showdowns with Stanford and possibly Alabama.
The Ducks also have to host UCLA in two weeks, so there’s no guarantee either they or the Cardinal will still be undefeated for the big showdown in three weeks.
If they are, however, the winner of that one will have taken a huge step toward a spot in the BCS championship game, and they’ll have the results against a tough Pac-12 field to back it up.