With college football season just around the corner, most of the buzz around the country is centered around defending champion Alabama and whether some of the other heavyweights around the country can knock off the Tide.
Will it be Clemson or Miami from the ACC? Ohio State or Michigan from the Big Ten? How about Georgia or Auburn from the SEC?
The Pac-12, meanwhile, comes into the season with some reputation building to be done and an early opportunity to make some national noise.
After going 1-8 in bowl games last season — the worst bowl record ever for a Power 5 conference — and missing the College Football Playoff for the second time in four years, the Pac-12 is viewed as a notch below its peers. Commissioner Larry Scott, however, said the bowl record, as bad as it was, shouldn't be how the Pac-12 is judged.
"From our perspective," he said during Pac-12 media day on Wednesday in Hollywood, Calif., "a handful of season-ending games are not a key indicator of a conference's overall strength and competitiveness."
While that's true, it's also true that the Pac-12 comes into this season needing to make a statement and there may not be a better team to do that than Washington.
Considered the overwhelming favorite to win the conference, Washington opens its season Sept. 1 in Atlanta against Auburn. Both are likely to be ranked in the top 10 nationally.
Win it, and Washington sets itself up for CFP spot later in the year. Lose it, and it'll be an uphill climb for the Huskies — and perhaps the rest of the Pac-12 — all season.
"It's a big game, definitely," Washington safety JoJo McIntosh said. "It's the start of the season, so we're going to have fun with it. The first game doesn't determine the season, but we're going to go in there and give everything we have."
The Pac-12 certainly has other opportunities to pick up some big non-conference wins, but the Huskies' game against Auburn is the only one to pit the Pac-12 against the big, bad SEC. And, it's not just any SEC team.
"I think our guys are always excited to play," Huskies head coach Chris Petersen said. "They know how good Auburn is. They're not dumb. They've seen tape."
Still, Petersen isn't buying into the notion that his team's opener is a tone-setter for the Pac-12's CFP chances.
"I don't think one game determines anything," he said. "We're talking about one game. It's going to be the whole body of work. It's going to be the league, how they do in the bowls.
"I mean, I know everybody wants to put it all about this one thing, the Pac-12 is either good or not on one game. That's totally unrealistic. I don't look at it like that."
While Washington's tilt with Auburn may be the biggest nonconference game for the Pac-12, it's not the only marquee matchup this season.
Several other nonconference games could have a big impact on this season:
Four games on Sept. 8: The second full week of the season is a big one for the Pac-12. While it may not impact the CFP chances, it's a day in which the conference can gain some credibility around the country. Colorado visits Nebraska, UCLA visits Oklahoma, Arizona State hosts Michigan State, and Arizona plays at Houston in a game that pits one of the country's most exciting offensive players (UA quarterback Khalil Tate) against one of the most dominant defenders (Houston's Ed Oliver). Getting two or three wins in these games would be big for the Pac-12.
USC at Texas, Sept. 15: The Trojans are the favorite to win the South, and could find themselves in the CFP conversation with a great season. This game takes the Trojans to Austin, Texas, to face the up-and-coming Longhorns. Texas is expected to be a top-20 caliber team, so a win here would be huge for USC and the conference.
Stanford at Notre Dame, Sept. 29: The Cardinal will have already played USC and Oregon in conference play. If they're undefeated going into South Bend, Ind., a win here would put them in great position nationally going into October.
Notre Dame at USC, Nov. 24: The season finale for both teams. If USC is undefeated, the Trojans will certainly be in the mix for the CFP and a win against the Irish could boost their resume.
Whether it's Washington, USC or another team that steps up, this is clearly an important season for the Pac-12. Missing out on the CFP again would be a tough blow to the conference.
"I think it's very important," McIntosh said of the Pac-12 getting into the CFP. "As a whole Pac-12 we have to step it up. It think it's very important for us to get in that talk."