Split into divisions changes Pac-12 race
The addition of two teams and a split into divisions has altered the competitive landscape of the Pac-12.
By changing to a divisional format with six teams in the north and six in the south, the emphasis has switched, if ever so slightly, toward winning games within the division.
Coaches still want to win every game possible, but beating division opponents gives teams an added advantage in the race to the inaugural Pac-12 Championship game and, hopefully, a spot in the Rose Bowl or another BCS bowl.
''Obviously, if you beat somebody in your division, it gets you two up on them; you've got to lose two games for them to make up the difference,'' Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said Tuesday. ''They all count ... but I guess the games in the South are a little bit more important to us because they count two as opposed to one.''
Five weeks into the reconfigured Pac-12 season, the division races are starting to shape up.
No. 22 Arizona State bounced back from its nonconference loss to Illinois by ending an 11-game losing streak to Southern California, then shook off a shaky start to beat Oregon State last week.
At 2-0, the Sun Devils (4-1) are in control of the South Division, a game ahead of USC (4-1, 2-1 Pac-12) in the standings that's essentially two because of the head-to-head matchup.
But Arizona State can't quite lock it up.
The Sun Devils have two tough road games coming up, against Utah and No. 9 Oregon, and a remaining schedule that includes rival Arizona and improving teams Washington State and California.
Arizona State hasn't exactly been consistent, either, following a win over Missouri with a loss to Illinois and its victory over USC with the slow-starting win over Oregon State.
Besides, it's not like the Sun Devils are way ahead; UCLA is right behind them at 1-1 and the Bruins host Arizona State on Nov. 5 in another two-game swinger.
''We set a goal to be in the conference race and we're still in it,'' UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. ''We're 1-1; with a win this week, we're 2-1 and with USC off this week, we could be tied for second place in the division and, pending how Arizona State does against Utah, possibly in a tie for first. So it's everything we could ask for in terms of being in the conference race.''
The North appears to be headed toward a deciding Nov. 12 showdown between No. 7 Stanford and Oregon.
The Cardinal (4-0, 2-0) have steamrolled opponents, running their winning streak to 12 games - longest in the nation - behind Heisman Trophy front-running quarterback Andrew Luck, who's been calling some of his own plays and added a one-handed catch to his resume last week.
The Ducks (3-1, 1-0) bounced back from their season-opening loss to LSU, averaging 61.6 points in their past three wins.
There are still slip-up chances between now and the big game in Stanford.
This weekend, Oregon plays Cal, which gave the Ducks their toughest game last regular season. The Ducks follow with Arizona State, which appears to be better than the past couple of years and could give them a run.
Stanford should be able to coast against Colorado this weekend, but has an always-tough game against the Trojans just before facing Oregon.
And both teams have Washington and Washington State on the schedule between now and then.
Washington (4-1) appears to have some good momentum going at 2-0 in the conference and the Cougars are not the walkovers they once were at 3-1, 1-0 in conference, after rallying from 10 points down late in the fourth quarter to beat Colorado 31-27 last Saturday in Boulder.
''We've taken a step; in terms of what the corner means, I know it's a step in the right direction,'' Washington State coach Paul Wulff said. ''We've notched something in our belt.''
The leaders still need a few more notches before they can claim their respective divisions, but it may be a year or two before the coaches start putting an emphasis on divisional games.
The format is new and the coaches are still in the mindset of winning as many conference games as possible to get that Rose Bowl bid. And with the new Pac-12 championship this year, winning the division only means a chance to play another game, not a trip to Pasadena.
''That's probably something we will get a better feel for as the years go by and what that all means,'' Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. ''As long as they count in the conference standings, I don't notice any difference regarding that. As we go on, though, when playing somebody in your division and you're vying for the championship, obviously that will be a big factor.''
Just not quite yet.