Pac-12 football teams have reached the virtual end of non-league play, so this is a good time to assess the strength of the league and what’s happened to date. The league is 29-4 in non-league games, and all that remains before the post-season is three games with Notre Dame — for Arizona State (Oct. 5), USC (Oct. 19) and Stanford (Nov. 30).
That’s a pretty gaudy record, and it even gives the conference a chance to have its best non-league showing, which was 29-7 in 1988. However, that’s a longshot, given that Notre Dame will be favored against ASU and USC, and the numbers include bowl games.
For comparison, last year’s record was 29-15, including a 4-4 record in bowl games, so the Pac-12 was 25-11 entering the post-season, a mark that 2013 will easily exceed. But it’s a bit of apples-to-oranges comparison. I’d submit that that last year’s performance was actually better against high-end teams; there were victories against four teams ranked at the time: Arizona over No. 18 Oklahoma State; Oregon State over No. 13 Wisconsin; UCLA over No. 16 Nebraska; and Utah over No. 25 BYU.
This year, there are but two victories over ranked teams — Washington over Boise State (19th at the time) and Arizona State over Wisconsin (18th). And that one carried an asterisk.
Of course, even that metric can be flawed. Since most of the non-league games are early, that means the polls are in a highly variable state and often relatively meaningless. Of the four wins over ranked teams in 2012, the only victim that stood up to finish in the final top 25 was Nebraska, at 25th. Even Wisconsin, which went to the Rose Bowl and lost to Stanford, didn’t find a home in the final poll.
If anything, the 2013 performance has been much steadier by Pac-12 teams, even if the case can be made that the competition has been weaker. Cal has two of the four losses, against ranked Northwestern and Ohio State teams and WSU had a one-touchdown loss in a tough environment at Auburn. Clearly, the biggest non-league blemish was Oregon State’s opening loss to Eastern Washington.
Here’s how I’d rate the best five wins in non-league play:
1. UCLA 41, Nebraska 21. The margin of victory, the circumstances (UCLA dealing with the emotion of a fallen teammate) and the ability to rebuff the Huskers’ revenge motive make this the hands-down leader.
2. Washington 38, Boise State 6. It remains to be seen how good Boise State will be, but still, this was the worst loss of the Chris Petersen era.
3. Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30. It’s in the books this way, so I guess we’ll go with it.
4. Oregon 59, Virginia 10. Three time zones away, and you win by seven touchdowns.
5. Oregon 59, Tennessee 14. That Oregon won was no surprise, but the decisiveness was impressive.
What the first four weeks suggest is that the North Division, conceded to be superior to the South entering the season, appears to have stretched that margin.
If anything, the South has collectively been a disappointment — USC has struggled, Arizona State got waxed at Stanford, Utah lost at home as a favorite to Oregon State. Who knows about Arizona?
Meanwhile, the North is collectively better than anticipated, notwithstanding Oregon State’s sluggishness. Not only has Oregon been impressive, but Washington has jumped to a No. 16 ranking and Washington State appears to be a tough out.