- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Pac-12 has its first self-defining game on Saturday when Arizona State visits Stanford.
Sure, Washington State already provided some insight on itself and USC -- fill in the blanks, Cougs and Trojans. And Oregon State's overtime win at Utah provided some separation in the middle of the pack. But the No. 23 Sun Devils and No. 5 Cardinal are both ranked and are both widely seen as being key players in the race for their respective division championships. A conference loss would be painful for both and could put an early ax wound in their long-term goals, particularly for Stanford.
The game should provide the first real vision of who the 2013 Cardinal are. The pressure is squarely on Stanford, which probably can't afford to lose if it wants to remain a national title contender. A Stanford loss also might make the Oregon game on Nov. 7 do-or-die for the North Division title because it's difficult to imagine, at least at this point, the Ducks losing twice in conference play.
Stanford was solid in its win over a good San Jose State team with a future NFL QB in David Fales. The victory at overmatched Army, however, was pretty middling. It's entirely possible that coach David Shaw and defensive coordinator Derek Mason have kept things pretty vanilla in the early going and they are going to open up their bags of tricks this weekend.
We shall see.
Arizona State, meanwhile, should be pretty loose. Its big win over Wisconsin, complete with a controversial ending that ripped victory from the jaws of defeat, might make the Sun Devils feel charmed. A win over Stanford would be nice gravy, in large part because it would put pressure back on top South Division rival UCLA.
The Sun Devils don't play Oregon this season. UCLA plays at Stanford and at Oregon on back-to-back weekends, Oct. 19 and 26. If the Sun Devils beat the highest-rated foe on their schedule, knowing what the Bruins have ahead, it would be a substantial swing in ASU's favor.
Further, besting a physical team like the Badgers should give the Sun Devils confidence as well as experience against burly offensive and defensive linemen. It certainly was good preparation for the Cardinal linemen, who are among the best in the country on both sides of the ball.
Another reason this game is big: The schedule is really thin this week.
Arizona, Colorado, California and Oregon are all off. There are two notable nonconference games. Utah is at BYU, the last engagement of the Holy War before taking a two-year hiatus. And mercurial USC hosts a dangerous Utah State team.
After that, the schedule is pretty lackluster: Oregon State at San Diego State, New Mexico State at UCLA, Idaho State at Washington and Idaho at Washington State.
The Pac-12 should be able to further improve its already strong record in nonconference games.
While there were a handful of good matchups last weekend, forcing the spotlight to be shared, the Sun Devils' trip to Stanford mostly has the stage to itself with its 4 p.m. PT kickoff.
Both teams have a chance to make a national statement, one that could resonate throughout the season.