Pac-12 Preview: Most Important Conference Games

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Stanford ruined Oregon’s dreams of a shot at the 2012 BCS national championship in last year’s Pac-12 Game of the Year. This year’s tilt has all the makings of a sequel that lives up to the hype. Mandatory Credit: Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

1.      Oregon at Stanford – Nov. 7

Last season’s Pac-12 Game of the Year certainly appears on path to repeat in that role in 2013. The Ducks and Cardinal represent the Pac-12’s best chances to halt the SEC’s reign atop the BCS. One of them will likely see their divisional title– much less national title – hopes disintegrate on the first Thursday in November. Oregon moved the ball fine against one of the nation’s top defenses, racking up 405 yards of total offense. However, the Ducks went 0 for 2 on fourth-down tries in Stanford territory (one from the 7) and missed two field goals. The Cardinal, meanwhile, dominated time of possession and watched QB Kevin Hogan grow up. The true freshman led a game-tying TD drive with less than 2 minutes to play – with help from a sensational catch from TE Zach Ertz – setting up the overtime victory. This game will almost certainly have implications for who plays in Pasadena. The question is will it be for the Rose Bowl or the BCS National Championship?

2.      UCLA at Arizona – Nov. 9

UCLA has established itself as the new bully on the block, having knocked the teeth out of USC a year ago. Now the Bruins get to carry around a bulls-eye for every divisional game they play. (They should ask star QB Brett Hundley about that since he took a nation-leading 52 sacks a year ago.) This early-November tilt at Arizona might be UCLA’s toughest divisional road game all season. One thing is for sure: UCLA’s schedule becomes brutal starting in mid-October and Jim Mora Jr. will have his work cut out for him if the Bruins are to repeat. Rich Rodriguez might not have a quarterback as of now, but he does sport one of the nation’s top RBs in Ka’Deem Carey. If the Wildcats can improve on defense – a huge “if” for a team that allowed 35.3 points per game a year ago – they could find themselves in the driver’s seat of the Pac-12 South.

3.      Arizona State at UCLA – Nov. 23

As if the first tussle against an Arizona team wasn’t enough, the Bruins host Arizona State in the Rose Bowl two weeks later. So under-the-radar was this game a year ago that ESPN.com’s recap from the Associated Press still runs all of five grafs. An overrated USC team was partly to blame. At the time, many still mistakenly believed the Trojans would live up to expectations and win the division, if not the conference. Instead, this game helped determine the Pac-12 race. It took Ka’imi Fairbairn’s game-winning field goal as time expired for the Bruins to escape the Valley of the Sun with a victory. UCLA gets this one at home this year – leaving this game barely missing out on the No. 2 ranking – but look for it to be another barnburner.

4.      Stanford at Oregon State – Oct. 26

Many of Stanford’s toughest games – including those against Oregon, UCLA and Notre Dame – are set to be played at home this season. This late-October contest in Corvallis could prove to be the Cardinal’s toughest road test. It took a fourth-quarter rally – and Zach Ertz TD catch with 5:07 remaining – for Stanford to escape Senior Day with a victory. Oregon State desperately wants to climb into the two-team conversation at the top of the Pac-12 North. The Beavers split their two biggest divisional games at home and on the road, meaning it will be imperative to defend Reser Stadium.

5.      UCLA at USC – Nov. 30

The Battle for Los Angeles got claimed early on by the Bruins, who jumped out to a 24-0 lead and then had to hold on for a 10-point win. UCLA set out to prove that its substance outranked USC’s style. Not only did the win derail the Trojans’ Pac-12 title aspirations, it clinched a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game for the Bruins. USC coach Lane Kiffin’s season could go one of two ways – either this game will have the Trojans’ division hopes on the line or it will be Kiffin’s last-ditch effort to save his job. If USC turns out to be better than last year, this one has “must-watch” written all over it.

6.      Oregon State at Oregon – Nov. 29

Recent seasons have seen the Ducks regain control of what became a back-and-forth rivalry during the early 2000s. Oregon has won five consecutive games in the series with four of those victories coming by 17 points or more. The Beavers showed no ability to stop – or even slow – Oregon’s high-powered rushing attack a season ago, allowing the Ducks to accumulate 430 rushing yards. Expect coach Mike Riley to have better answers for his in-state rival this year.

7.      Arizona at USC – Oct. 10

It’s easy to forget that USC’s season didn’t really derail until it lost at Arizona. The Trojans were still a top-10 team at the time, but the loss started their spiral to five losses in their final six games. For Arizona, the win gave first-year coach Rich Rodriguez an immediate banner victory. It also raised expectations. Arizona, along with Arizona State and USC, is considered a top threat to UCLA’s Pac-12 South crown. This early October game could determine the No. 1 contender in the South.

8.      Arizona at Arizona State – Nov. 30

For the first time in, well, recent memory (to be nice), The Duel in the Desert could take on significant meaning. If the season breaks right, the Pac-12 South could be decided on the final game between this game and the USC-UCLA game. Arizona State blew past rival Arizona in the final quarter last season, scoring 17 points unanswered to pull away for the victory. The two teams combined for 982 yards last year. Don’t be surprised if these two offenses crack the 1,000-yard mark this season.

9.      Oregon at Washington – Oct. 12

While Washington coach Steve Sarkisian has scored a number of high-profile upset wins during his tenure, he has not tamed the Ducks. A midseason win over Oregon would mark Washington’s first in the series since 2003 and would go a long way toward cooling Sarkisian’s increasingly warm seat. Oregon should be in the national conversation again this season and, during a relatively navigable stretch of the conference season, is likely to give the Huskies its best shot.

10.  Washington State at California – Oct. 5

The Cougars and Bears might have combined to go 6-24 last season, but this game should be fun. With Tony Franklin calling plays for Cal’s Sonny Dykes-led team on one sideline and Mike Leach’s offense in Year 2 on the other, punts are likely to be at a premium. This one won’t determine the conference or the division. Neither team might have a league win when the game kicks off, but it should be a whole lot of fun to watch.

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