Huskies, Bears battle for No. 3 in the North?

Stanford and Oregon were a combined 24-2 last year and both are presently ranked in the nation's top-10. They are the top of the Pac-12 North. The number of people who don't think one or the other will win the division is 17, and six of them are Norwegian, folks who as you well know are notoriously contrarian when it comes to college football analysis.

Looking up at the Ducks and Cardinal are four other the North teams, but the two top candidates for the three-hole will be in Seattle on Saturday scrapping it out for the right to become a "maybe" contender that could make the Norwegians look like giants of prognostication: California and Washington, neither of whom enjoy hearing about how great Stanford ("Blech," say the Bears) and Oregon ("Pfffftt," say the Huskies) are.

These two combined for 12-13 record last fall, with the Huskies managing to win seven games only because they pried No. 5 away from Cal on what suddenly -- wham! -- became the final play of the Bears season.

That dramatic finish -- a fourth-down, 1-yard TD plunge from Huskies running back Chris Polk as time expired on a 16-13 victory -- was the cornerstone of what is supposed to be a transformative season for Washington.

It was not greeted so warmly in Berkeley, where the Bears found themselves saddled with their first losing record in nine years under coach Jeff Tedford. Bears fans, suffice it to say, grumbled a bit, and the Bears themselves weren't exactly clicking their heels over the program's slide, either.

Tedford, however, is only willing to obliquely note that Cal might come to Seattle with an added chip on its collective shoulder.

"It was motivation through the whole offseason and the summer time, but this is a different team and they're a different team," Tedford said before adding. "It was odd how that game ended. It was somewhere we've never been before."

As if last year's game isn't enough of a poke in the eye, Cal adherents also might recall that the last time the Bears were inside Husky Stadium, they got bombed 42-1o, perhaps Jake Locker's career-best game.

These teams will come at each other with similarities: New starting QBs who have mostly exceeded expectations. And differences: Cal's defense ranks among the conference leaders; Washington's among the conference laggards.

As for Cal's Zach Maynard, this will be his SECOND -- not first, SECOND -- major road test. He mostly passed his first during an overtime win at Colorado, but Husky Stadium is notoriously tough on visiting foes, though it doesn't appear the house will be full.

"I think Zach is on track to become a very good player," Tedford said. "He has a lot of ability. He probably can use his legs better than any quarterback we've had here, so that is an added dimension to our offense."

While Maynard has been solid, sophomore Keith Price has been stellar for the Huskies. He leads the conference with 11 TD passes and ranks fourth in passing efficiency, ahead of some notables such as Arizona's Nick Foles and USC's Matt Barkley.

"He's playing phenomenal football for us right now," coach Steve Sarkisian said. "He's been lights out."

But Price will be playing against a tough Cal defense that has 11 sacks and ranks second in the conference in pass-efficiency defense.

Maynard will face a defense that ranks last in the conference in scoring (36.7 ppg) and 11th in total defense (452.0). Still, a review of the Huskies depth chart -- defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu, defensive end Hau'oli Jamora, middle linebacker Cort Dennison, cornerback Desmond Trufant -- suggests this crew should be playing better.

Which is why much of the muttering in Seattle this week has been about well-compensated coordinator Nick Holt.

"I trust Nick Holt," Sarkisian said. "I believe in Nick Holt. I believe in our defensive staff. They are tremendous coaches. I've seen them coach for years. And we will get better."

How? Simple. Freaking stop dithering and go hit somebody.

"We're playing with some hesitation," Sarkisian said. "We're not letting loose and letting go. We're a little bit afraid to make a mistake."

The winner Saturday immediately announces itself as a top-half of the division team. And that is a necessary first step toward challenging Oregon and Stanford, who have finished one-two in the conference the previous two seasons.

The Norwegians have high hopes.