The Pac-12 will establish its national identity on Saturday. Simple as that.
Every Pac-12 team plays. No byes this week, my friends. There's one conference game, Oregon State at Utah, that is critical to both teams. Eight of the nonconference foes are unbeaten at 2-0. Six of those teams are from AQ conferences, including four matchups with the Big Ten. Three are against ranked teams. Fresno State, which is visiting Colorado, is the equivalent of 28th in the AP poll. Three Pac-12 teams are underdogs.
Three teams are traveling across multiple times zones. Six teams will be televised on either ABC, ESPN, Fox or Fox Sports 1.
It's a big weekend, folks. It's "measuring stick"weekend.
Sure, Stanford (Army), Washington State (Southern Utah) and Arizona (UTSA) aren't playing marquee matchups. But nine other Pac-12 teams can make a resonating, national statements about the trajectory of their seasons if they win on Saturday.
The underdogs are Colorado, California, which plays host to No. 4 Ohio State, and UCLA, which visits No. 23 Nebraska.
Colorado is looking to redeem itself for a white-flag performance at Fresno in 2012, a humiliating 69-14 defeat that wasn't even as close as the final score indicates, seeing that it was 35-0 after one quarter. If the Buffs pull the upset, it would establish the Pac-12 as a patsy-less conference with no easy outs.
Cal nearly won at Ohio State a year ago, more than physically matching the Buckeyes, who would go undefeated. That game, in fact, is probably why there's a lot of skepticism -- cough, cough -- about how good the Buckeyes actually are. The good news is Cal is at home. The bad news is the Bears nearly lost there a week ago to Portland State, an FCS team.
Perhaps the most meaningful game for the conference is the Bruins-Cornhuskers matchup, mostly because both teams are ranked. Last year, UCLA prevailed as an underdog, 36-30, in Week 2, and that victory immediately gave the Bruins and new coach Jim Mora national legitimacy and presaged a turnaround season in Westwood. The Bruins also are dealing with the shocking death of receiver Nick Pasquale, who was hit by a car over the weekend.
A victory by the 16th-ranked Bruins could push them close to the nation's top 10 and set them up for a 5-0 start before getting the most arduous road double in the country this fall: at Stanford, at Oregon on back-to-back weekends starting Oct. 19.
UCLA's South Division rival, unranked Arizona State, is favored by 5½ points over No. 20 Wisconsin, which is interesting. While many still seem to question second-year coach Todd Graham's crew, Vegas apparently does not. But lines only mean so much. The one thing missing from the Sun Devils strong 2012 campaign was a victory over an A-list foe. The burly Badgers are an A-list foe.
Speaking of favorites, Oregon is giving 27½ points to an SEC team, Tennessee. That's a pretty substantial sign of respect. But, of course, it also establishes an expectation. If the Ducks win, say, 28-17, there will be more than a few smirks in SEC country and among some media folks who fawn on the conference. Style, which Oregon typically has in abundance, matters in this one.
Washington has struggled on the road of late, going 3-10 away from Seattle the past two seasons. Further, Illinois (2-0) might be better than expected; so it's not about style points for the Huskies. It's just about winning and maintaining the positive momentum the program ignited with the opening win over Boise State. Of course, an impressive victory could push the Huskies into the nation's top 15.
USC could use some style -- any at all on offense. The visit from Boston College looked like a walk-over for the Trojans in the preseason, but now it feels like a must-win for coach Lane Kiffin. It's difficult to imagine USC's season turning around after a 1-2 start, which could doom Kiffin.
Then there's Oregon State's visit to Utah. In the preseason, the Beavers looked like a decided favorite for this one, but then they lost their opener to Eastern Washington. Meanwhile, the Utes have surged, getting surprisingly good play from true sophomore quarterback Travis Wilson. An Oregon State win likely would restore confidence and make the Eastern Washington loss look more flukish. A Utah victory would make the Utes look like a bowl team and inspire an edit of preseason expectations.
Finally, there's the three teams playing lesser foes. We have three words for each of you: Don't blow it.
If the Pac-12 wins eight of these 10 nonconference games, it would substantially boost the major preseason storyline for the conference: The Pac-12 is as deep in quality as it has been in years and is in the running for the mythical title of nation's best conference.
But if it wins just five or six games, the measuring stick would be broken in half. The perception of the conference would sink, and there would be little chance to salvage it. At least until the bowl season.