- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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The first half of the Pac-12's 2013 season was good to the conference in terms of national image, but Stanford's loss at Utah reminded everyone that nothing can be taken for granted.
It's clear this is the deepest the Pac-12 has been in years. Competitive with the SEC? Nation's No. 2 conference? We shall see. Things can change quickly, after all.
That marquee national matchup between top-five Oregon and Stanford teams on Nov. 7 in Palo Alto, Calif., that many projected in the preseason? It's lost its luster. Now the conference's game of the year might be UCLA's visit to Oregon on Oct. 26. That is, if the Bruins win in Palo Alto on Saturday.
Wait. We're doing it again. One week at a time, eh?
Oregon dominated its first-half schedule, making it the clear lead dog -- lead Duck! -- in the conference. The Ducks are No. 2 in the nation and gaining on two-time defending national champion Alabama. At this point, it's not unreasonable to project the Ducks in the national title game and QB Marcus Mariota, at the very least, getting an invitation to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
So we know Oregon is good, and we know that Colorado and California aren't. After that, there's some gray area.
UCLA, Stanford, Washington, Arizona State, Oregon State also look like top-25 teams, with Utah gaining. Washington State, USC and Arizona are too dangerous to ignore.
The pecking order from Nos. 2 to 10 is still wide open. UCLA can make a statement at Stanford, or the Cardinal can regain their perch at No. 2. The Bruins' matchups with Washington and Arizona State also will be meaningful.
What about Oregon State? The Beavers should improve to 6-1 this weekend at California, but they remain a cypher based on the schedule. They could end up being the second-best team in the North Division. Or they could end up 6-6.
Obviously, there's a lot we don't know. That, my friends, makes it fun.
Bold prediction: This is Oregon's year. The Ducks will win the national title, Mariota will win the Heisman, and Mark Helfrich will earn national coach of the year honors. And Ducks fans will shock everyone by not relentlessly gloating but instead will be gracious and humble as they reach college football's pinnacle.
Looking forward to: The bowl season. The Pac-12 has made a reasonable claim that it is as good as the SEC over the first half of the season, whether the SEC has eight ranked teams at present or not. At this point, it's purely a moot, academic debate. But let's see what both conferences do in the bowl season. If Oregon beats Alabama for the national title -- still a LONG way off on that, by the way -- and the Pac-12 otherwise distinguishes itself in bowl games, the Pac-12 could walk away from the final year of the BCS as the reigning champion.
Or it could flop amid national snickers.
Top remaining games:
UCLA at Stanford, Oct. 19: The Bruins could make a claim to being the top challenger to Oregon. Or the Cardinal could grab it back.
UCLA at Oregon, Oct. 26: If the Bruins beat Stanford, this could be a battle of top-five teams. A great QB battle between Mariota and Brett Hundley.
Stanford at Oregon State, Oct. 26: This is when we find out if the Beavers are a top-25 team and contenders in the North.
Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 7: This is still a major North Division battle, particularly if Stanford beats UCLA. Last year, the Cardinal ruined the Ducks' national title hopes.
Washington at UCLA, Nov. 16: Both teams might need a victory here to reach double-digit wins. It's been a while since either savored that.
Arizona State at UCLA, Nov. 23: (Nice to be relevant, eh Bruins?) This still might be the game that decides that South Division.