The Pac-12 takes center stage this week with two of the three matchups of ranked teams, and both games are chock full of national intrigue.
No. 2 Oregon plays host to No. 13 Stanford with the Pac-12 North Division on the line (mostly). The Ducks, of course, are fighting for a berth in the national title game, but first they want to secure home-field advantage for the Pac-12 championship game on Nov. 30.
And No. 18 USC visits No. 17 UCLA with the South Division on the line (completely). The Battle for L.A. is once again relevant, with the Bruins and first-year coach Jim Mora having a chance to reverse a decade of negative momentum with one big Saturday statement.
The other game with ranked teams? No. 23 Texas Tech at No. 24 Oklahoma State. Neh.
Stanford will be the highest-ranked opponent that Oregon has faced thus far this season, but the Ducks have owned the Cardinal of late. Not only have the Ducks won nine of the past 10 games in the series, they've scored 105 points combined in the past two games while winning each by more than 20 points.
Stanford, however, controls its own destiny just like Oregon. If it beats the Ducks, and then finishes its season with a win at UCLA, it wins the North. If Stanford beats Oregon but loses to UCLA, and the Ducks also go down at Oregon State, the Cardinal would win the North Division because it would have head-to-head victories over both the Ducks and Beavers.
As for USC-UCLA, the Trojans have dominated the series of late, winning five straight and 12 of the past 13. All five victories during the current winning streak have been by at least 14 points, including a 50-0 bludgeoning last season. UCLA’s last win in the series came in 2006 when they upset the Trojans 13-9 at home.
This showcase weekend is a seeming climax for an interesting year for the Pac-12. For one, the conference has joined the SEC and the Big 12 as the nation's dominant leagues, with decisive superiority -- 17 members of the present BCS standing's top 25 -- compared to other "AQ conferences." Six of 12 Pac-12 teams are ranked in the BCS standings. For the Big 12, it's five of 10, and the SEC features not just six of 14 but six in the top 9.
Yet it's possible for the first time in three years the Pac-12 won't get a second BCS bowl team, which would dock the conference's 2012-13 bowl payout by about $6.1 million, or $508,333 per team. Just to be eligible, a second team must be ranked in the final top 14 of the BCS standings. Further complicating matters is Notre Dame. If Oregon earns a berth in the national title game, more than a few projections have the Rose Bowl picking Notre Dame -- undefeated or with one loss -- over a three-loss Pac-12 team.
Still, there's enough football left complicating potential scenarios that the speculation is mostly an academic exercise at present, not unlike guessing who-done-it two-thirds of the way through a mystery novel.
As for the rest of the Pac-12, things also are intriguing. Seven teams are already bowl eligible, and only three -- California, Colorado and Washington State -- are guaranteed losing records. To become bowl eligible, Arizona State needs to win one of its final two games -- Washington State and at Arizona -- and Utah needs to win both its final two -- Arizona and at Colorado.
If the conference has eight or even nine bowl eligible teams, things could get interesting. For one, the conference's seven contracted bowls have plenty of flexibility for choosing teams. There figures to be some politicking among conference teams. And, perhaps, some hurt feelings. Further, the 6-6 teams at the end of the bowl pecking order likely will be scrambling free agents, ending up in bowl games you probably haven't paid any attention to before.
This should be the best weekend of the Pac-12 season so far. It may provide further clarity. Or it might just thicken the plot.