In the preseason, everyone circled Nov. 3 in red and put a smiley face beside it. That was Pac-12 D-Day. Oregon would visit USC, and one of those sure top-5 teams would emerge as the Pac-12's top national title candidate.
And, of course, it was typically noted, they'd then meet again on Nov. 30 in the Pac-12 championship game, the winner either playing for the title or settling for a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Yet just about every college football season features script rewrites. Stanford provided one when it beat the Trojans, thereby making everybody's preseason WOW! team look a little less scintillating.
Ah, but we may still end up with an epic battle on Nov. 3. Oregon has held serve thus far, and it is expected to get to Nov. 3 at 8-0 after dispatching Colorado on Saturday. The Trojans have a bit more of a challenge at Arizona, but the game in the Coliseum could still match top-10 teams with hopes in the national picture.
Yet -- and no one saw this coming -- it's possible the Civil War could be even more epic. Oregon and Oregon State are the Pac-12's only two unbeaten teams. If they arrive at their Nov. 24 showdown unscathed, well then buckle up. The entire state will be transfixed by college football like it never has before -- 1977 Trailblazers is the only comparison that comes to mind.
But that got us to thinking (I know you saw the lights flicker): There are a lot of big games ahead. And the dynamic duo of Oregon and USC, while still critical to central casting, must share the stage with some promising protagonists.
Here's how we see things shaking out (and, of course, we expect to see some script rewrites as we go forward).
North Division showdowns
Stanford at Oregon, Nov. 17: Former Cardinal QB Andrew Luck admitted after the 2011 season Stanford had "an Oregon problem," one that had to do with more than just the football part of the game. The Ducks were in Stanford's collective head (you could imagine some of the Ducks walking around there wondering, "How can we turn off this darn Mozart and put on Supwitchugirl?"). This game will reveal whether the Cardinal have found an antidote to Ducks-itis.
Oregon State at Stanford, Nov. 10: This will be an interesting game, and not just because the winner will become Oregon's prime foil in the North Division. Why? Because there's a lot of USC in Oregon State -- think two great receivers -- and the Stanford-USC film likely would reveal to the Beavers what the Cardinal might do.
South Division showdowns
USC at Arizona, Oct. 27: Stanford's defense has dominated everyone, including the teams that beat it. But it certainly didn't dominate Arizona, which it beat 54-48 in overtime. QB Matt Scott and the Wildcats have rolled up yards and points on everyone, other than a peculiar shutout loss at Oregon. The Trojans will need QB Matt Barkley and the offense to be sharp against an improved and scrappy Wildcats defense. Arizona probably can't win the South, but it can ruin some other team's plans.
UCLA at Arizona State, Oct. 27: This is fairly simple. The winner here becomes the likely top potential foil for USC in the South Division. What I like about this game: I have no earthly idea how it will go. I have to pick it Thursday, but my mind runs in circles on it (surprised that Vegas has the Sun Devils as a clear favorite).
Arizona State at USC, Nov. 10: Arizona State is traditionally a weak road team, particularly in the state of California. But the Sun Devils have flipped the script in a lot of ways this year, including already posting a strong win at Cal. The Trojans will be coming off the highly emotional and physical Oregon game, and -- win or lose that one -- this could prove huge in the South standings.
USC at UCLA, Nov. 17: I know a lot of folks don't want to hear it, but the Pac-12 would greatly benefit from this rivalry again owning national import. And keep in mind that if the Bruins and Trojans win out to this date, this game will establish the South front-runner (but stay tuned... there's more!).
Sneaky important games
Stanford at UCLA, Nov. 24: This is why the Bruins can't immediately celebrate a South Division crown if they emerge unscathed through the USC game. They will have to pick themselves up and get ready for a visit from the most physical team in the conference. I suspect this game could have significant bowl implications.
Arizona State at Arizona, Nov. 23: The sniping between these two programs with new coaches has been pretty darn hilarious. Much of the season, the Sun Devils were crowing and the Wildcats were glowering. This past weekend, there were far more grins in Tucson. These teams could arrive at this game with similar records, so the stakes will be real in terms of who goes where -- or perhaps doesn't -- in the postseason.
Notre Dame at USC, Nov. 24: Really, nothing sneaky about the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football history. This game could have huge national implications. The Fighting Irish could be undefeated. The Trojans could be back in the national title chase if they arrive here with just a single defeat. Or Oregon could be the biggest USC fans on this day, hoping to boost its strength of schedule and perhaps eliminate another undefeated foe who could upset the Ducks' national title dreams.
Of course, sometimes its not the so-called big games that upset the apple cart. As Oregon coach Chip Kelly will tell you, every game is a Super Bowl. USC could beat Oregon, UCLA and Notre Dame and still not win the South Division. Washington State could still ruin things for UCLA or Stanford or Arizona State. And what if Oregon flops at Cal?
As they say, we still have to play the games. All of them.