Stanford-UCLA suddenly a pivotal Pac-10 game

Stanford-UCLA suddenly a pivotal Pac-10 game

Published Oct. 2, 2009 3:49 a.m. ET

The game to watch in the Pac-10 this week is in the Bay Area, where the perpetually upbeat coach with a team built around defense travels up from Los Angeles. The task at hand is to try to slow the home team's star tailback — the one who is starting to generate some Heisman Trophy talk. The winner will put itself at the head of the Pac-10 race.

USC at Cal? We'll get to them in a moment.

The big game in the Bay Area on Saturday is unbeaten (and largely untested) UCLA against Stanford, which has trailed for all of two seconds this season but has yet to beat a team with a winning record.

USC and Cal own the marquee time slot — 8 p.m. ET on ABC — and ESPN was considering dispatching its Game Day crew to Berkeley. But instead of a meeting between a pair of top-five teams, the Trojans and Bears hardly look ready for prime time. They have taken embarrassing hits in the last two weeks, USC losing at Washington two weeks ago and Cal being routed at Oregon last Saturday.

Now, instead of determining who will go to the Rose Bowl, this game may simply determine who won't go.

Meanwhile, earlier on Saturday, two unranked teams will be playing for first place across the Bay, down on the Farm. Stanford, which pounded Washington on Saturday, is 2-0 in the Pac-10 and its only loss was at Wake Forest, which scored with two seconds left to win 24-17. UCLA stood toe-to-toe at Tennessee, digging in on a goal-line stand, and has played it safe in wins over San Diego State and Kansas State.

Stanford and UCLA also represent — perhaps better than anyone else — the shift in the Pac-10 from a conference that gives defense a passing thought to one that is leaning on it. Schools that have produced Elway and Aikman have asked redshirt freshmen, Andrew Luck and Kevin Prince, to not mess it up. Prince, whose jaw was broken late against Tennessee, is being replaced by senior Kevin Craft for the second consecutive game, but the message is the same.

Four Pac-10 schools (No. 3 Arizona State, No. 6 USC, No. 15 UCLA and No. 25 Arizona) are ranked in the top 25 in the country in total defense. No Pac-10 school is ranked that high in total offense.

"Don't you love it,'' said Jim Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback who has channeled his inner Schembechler and Ditka, two of his former coaches, in remaking Stanford into a physical team.