It's not that people thought the Pac-12 North was weak, per se. But the offseason buzz -- backed up by preseason rankings -- suggested that the division that had won all four conference titles since league expansion might finally be taking a back seat to its Southern sidekicks.
Through three weeks of play, that doesn't seem to be the case. In fact, the North scored the biggest blow of the young season with Stanford knocking off No. 6 USC. It was the first conference game of the year and with it, the Cardinal chopped off the legs of one of the South's biggest contenders. At the same time, Stanford reasserted itself as a player in the North.
"You come out of this conference and win the conference championship, you've traveled a tougher road than most places," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "It's not just the top of the conference. The top of every conference is good. Our conference is one of those where the people who are 'at the bottom of the conference' can still beat anybody in the conference. It's a scary proposition week to week. You win a big game, guess what, next week is a big game. This conference is filled with tough games."
Cynicism of the North seemed well-deserved after Week 1 -- which was a debacle for the division. While Cal, Oregon State and Oregon beat up on weaker opponents, Washington lost at Boise State, Stanford lost ugly at Northwestern and Washington State -- oh jeez – that one is still inexplicable.
Since, the division has rallied quite nicely. Through the first quarter of the season, the South Division teams hold a slight lead in overall record, going 15-3 to the North's 13-5. Each division has a win over a top 20 team with UCLA topping BYU and Stanford's win over USC. Both divisions are .500 against Power 5 teams, with the North going 3-3 and the South 2-2.
The South still has four ranked teams -- including UCLA at No. 9, which is the league's highest ranked team. Arizona, Utah and USC are still in the top 20. In the North, only Oregon (13) and Stanford (21) are ranked, but Cal is receiving votes.
This week features another prominent North-South showdown with the No. 18 Utes making the trip to Eugene to face the Ducks. Oregon took a seven-spot tumble for losing on the road at No. Michigan State (and has since slipped one spot further). Utah, which started the season unranked but receiving votes, has steadily climbed into the top 20.
The rest of the Week 4 Pac-12 slate features critical intra-division games, with the L.A. schools traveling to Arizona, Stanford heading to Oregon State and a fascinating matchup in Seattle with Cal going to Washington -- a game that could shuffle the pecking order in the division.
The South went 15-10 against the North last year -- the first time since expansion in 2011 that it had won the battle of divisions. Yet the league title continued to elude the division after Oregon dominated Arizona in the conference title game. There will be several key matchups over the next few weeks -- Arizona at Stanford in Week 5, Cal at Utah in Week 6, UCLA at Stanford in Week 7 -- in which the South has the opportunity to flex its muscles.
"I certainly think this conference is wildly competitive," UCLA coach Jim Mora said. "I try not to look past the next game. But if you look at the stretch we've got coming, it's going to be really, really difficult. We relish that challenge though. We love the fact that we get to play against some of the best teams in the country week in and week out and measure ourselves against them. The one thing that concerns me about the Pac-12 is it is so competitive and there are so many great teams in this conference that you worry about us eating ourselves. At the end of the year, where does the Pac-12 stand in terms of the playoff race?"
Where indeed? ESPN's latest FPI metrics predict the Pac-12 has an 84 percent chance of finishing the year with a two-loss league champion. And through the first three weeks, FPI predicts 10 other Power 5 teams more likely to finish the year as a conference champion with zero or one loss -- not including Notre Dame.
In other words, the Pac-12 champ could be on the outside of the College Football Playoff.
If this is the year of the South, the North isn't going to make it easy. And the road to a league title still goes through either Eugene or Palo Alto until proven otherwise. This is a league that has never embraced the collective good. Don't expect it to start now.