Anyone willing to be honest about his susceptibility to the hype, or who merely watched USC two weeks ago against Nebraska, will probably agree: Oregon-Cal Saturday looks like the most important Pac Ten game of the season.
Rhapsody in shock yellow.
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As far as national impact goes, that may be counterintuitive. Neither is a traditional power, as the always skeptical (and somewhat sleepy, where the Pac Ten is concerned) gatekeepers in the South and Midwest would define the term, and neither headed any "darkhorse" mythical championship bandwagon in the summer, when forecasts were more deferential to UCLA's chances of taking first runner-up than to the Bears' and couldn't agree that Oregon would even finish in the top half of the league; none of that trio was considered among the top ten teams nationally by anyone. And as long as the Trojans are waiting down the line - just before Halloween for Oregon, two weeks later for Cal - those wider assumptions will hold. Oregon is inconsistent and overrated based on one game with the replacement players pretending to be Michigan, Cal was not as impressive as the final score or hype indicated against overrated Tennessee and, god, neither can play any defense, anyway.
As it stands, though, one team or the other will earn its second marquee, poll-relevant win of September, and carry with it to a great degree the fortune of the conference as a national player through the rest of the season. This is not a small or semantic thing: millions are at stake in the form of an at-large BCS spot, the one that passed over 10-1 Cal in 2004, then 10-1 Oregon in 2005, and that the conference has secured only twice in the Series' decade-long reign (Oregon State in 2000 and USC in 2002). It did not help that both of those scorned teams then lost to a second-tier Big 12 outfit in the Holiday Bowl. If we are on a time-warped collision course with 2003, USC is staring directly down the barrel of its ostensibly tough non-conference slate, where Notre Dame unquestionably is and post-Ball State Nebraska might now become an insurmountable burden if the "Nine Dwarves" stereotype persists. The Pac Ten needs another giant to grapple with its Trojan overlord, a swift, sure resistance movement that can bring some legitimate national pomp as well as on-field pop to the battle, and - Utah having briefly risen to vanquish UCLA and Arizona State being Arizona State until further notice - the winner of Cal-Oregon is the resident colossus-in-waiting.
Well, maybe. First skeptics will have to be persuaded that both teams come with titanic elements, and if pantsing the suspect defenses of fading powers Tennessee and Michigan wasn't convincing, another quick-change dud in the fashion of last year's 45-24 blowout by Cal - in which the Bears picked off Dennis Dixon on the first play, went up 7-0 less than three minutes into the game and led 28-3 in the second quarter - won't make the front of the conference's PR package. The loser in that case will be dismissed, as Oregon certainly (and rightly) was after laying a nationally-televised egg last year in Berkeley, against the team that had flopped so spectacularly at Tennessee, and likely won't have much value to the winner after the fact. If the score has to be in the sixties or seventies, best it get there in a gripping back-and-forth struggle that more closely resembles Ohio State-Michigan last year, or at least Louisville-West Virginia. When so much of the country is so willing to dismiss your conference, style points matter.
Or they would, if anybody was going to see them. But alas, maybe due to last year's primetime disappointment, outside of the part of the country that needs the least convincing, regular cable subscribers will not see the weekend's best game - not only this Saturday's lone match-up of ranked teams, but one of the few games all season between two teams that are each ranked among the top dozen in the country at kickoff. The viewer may enjoy any one of four other carefully-selected regional games between a top 15 team (Texas, Wisconsin, Clemson or Rutgers) and an unranked, would-be upstart (Kansas State, Michigan State, Georgia Tech or Maryland) that is, on average, a ten-point underdog.
Good luck out there, guys, play hard, and if you manage to look like a championship contender in the process, well, maybe it will show up in the highlights on the other side of the continental divide.