Our preseason theme with the Pac-12 has been pretty simple: 2013 could be the year. It could be the year the Pac-12 wins its first national title since 2004, thereby ending the SEC's reign atop college football. And it could be the first year five -- or seven! -- Pac-12 teams end up ranked in the final top-25 poll.
Or the Pac-12 could piddle around, win some and lose some, and then fall into the college football conference gaggle, howling about a lack of respect while disingenuously trash-talking the superior conferences.
We will get a pretty good measure of where the conference stands, at least in terms of depth, in the first four weeks, when 34 of the 37 nonconference games are played. Further down the road, Notre Dame will play a key role in the overall standing of the conference, with dates in Week 6 against Arizona State, Week 8 with USC and Week 14 with Stanford.
The Pac-12 needs to go at least 2-1 against the Fighting Irish and finish the regular season with a 31-6 nonconference record. That would mean going 29-5 in the first four weeks.
That isn't that demanding of a number. The conference went 25-11 in regular season nonconference games in 2012, but that number was skewed by Colorado going 0-3. In Year 1 under Mike MacIntyre, it's not unreasonable to project the Buffaloes going 2-1 in their first three games, which is exactly what we're doing.
The 31-6 mark includes 20 games that rate fairly close to sure-things, though, of course, those don't truly exist in college football. Moreover, it doesn't include any true long-shot, underdog win picks.
Now we know what you're thinking. You're not thinking about the general gist of this column. You're wondering how we projected your team's nonconference mark. Sorry, we're not going to tell you. So, well, pffft. And we mean that in the nicest possible way.
We're not going to tell you if we have California splitting its two Big Ten showdowns at home. We're not going to tell you which six teams we project going unbeaten in their nonconference schedules. That's not the point here. We will predict games on a week-to-week basis every Thursday. This post today is about the big picture.
That said, it's not difficult to figure out which games will operate as measuring sticks, starting with Notre Dame.
Washington's opening-weekend showdown with Boise State is big for the conference and big for the Huskies. As good as Boise State has been during the BCS era, that doesn't change the fact that an AQ team losing at home to a non-AQ team looks bad -- and registers that way nationally. Recall how everyone giggled after the Broncos pushed Georgia around in 2011.
Northwestern is good -- a Big Ten contender -- but it's not easy flying across the country to play a game in Berkeley. California has talent on both sides of the ball. Many of those players nearly won at Ohio State a year ago.
Arizona State needs to at least split with Wisconsin and Notre Dame. Both those games are winnable for a talented Sun Devils team, one that isn't getting as much preseason respect as it deserves in large part because of the horrid face-plant at Missouri last year.
UCLA could make a big statement for itself and the conference by winning at Nebraska, but that is a tough place to play. Utah and Colorado need to take care of business in-state. Oregon and Stanford need to distinguish themselves as national title contenders, which means winning and winning with style.
USC needs to be 3-0 before it visits the Irish.
The Pac-12 needs to show it can win the games it's supposed to win, win on the road and beat ranked teams.
While the Pac-12 race determines the bowl pecking order, from BCS games to the New Mexico Bowl, these regular-season nonconference games probably mean more in terms of national perception. An 8-4 Arizona State team that beats Wisconsin and Notre Dame is probably more likely to be ranked in December than an 8-4 Arizona State team that lost to both.
If Oregon goes unbeaten other than a home loss to Tennessee, well, that would have SEC folks crowing and would probably take the Ducks out of the discussion of best one-loss team. Unless the Volunteers won the SEC title, which they won't.
The general feeling is nonconference scheduling is going to improve nationally over the next few years -- as in more big-program matchups -- because it will be a key component of how the selection committee for the four-team playoff make distinctions.
It would be a good idea for the Pac-12 to distinguish itself in nonconference games this fall. And not just for what it means this season. While winning in 2013 shouldn't have anything to do with what transpires in 2014, everyone knows that present subjective perceptions can be reinforced by past patterns. Any subtle boost could end up being the difference when the committee finds itself trying to decide a pecking order for six one-loss teams.