During the first few weeks of the college football season, two of the favorites to win the Pac-12 South division struggled to get on track.
As Arizona and Southern California prepare to meet this Saturday in Tucson, Ariz., however, that battle still figures to be pivotal in the race for the South title.
Arizona (2-2, 1-0 Pac-12) will host USC (2-2, 1-1) on Saturday night with the winner taking a key step forward.
"When you talk about Pac-12 South games, and I think about the past, it's so important that you make your Pac-12 South wins," USC head coach Clay Helton said to Trojans' media earlier this week. "The last two times we've gone to the Pac-12 championship, we had to run the table in the Pac-12 South and here's our first game with a Pac-12 South opponent. Any time you compete against Pac-12 south opponent, you know you control your own destiny by getting those wins."
USC has won nine in a row against the South and is 14-1 against division foes since the start of the 2015 season.
The Trojans started its season 1-2, but snapped a two-game skid with a come-from-behind 39-36 victory against Washington State last week.
Arizona started 0-2 and played awful in a 45-18 loss to Houston in Week 2. Since then, the Wildcats have routed Southern Utah, 62-31, and Oregon State, 35-14. While neither win came against strong opponents, they could be the type of wins that get Arizona going.
"Hopefully we can continue to play with the energy level that we've played the last couple of weeks and crank this thing up even more," Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin said in his press conference with local media this week. "We've had some highs and lows; we're not where we need to be. Fortunately right now, we're making some steps, but we have a ways to go and we're going to continue to work at it and try to fix us."
The Arizona-USC tilt is one of two South divisional matchups this week, along with UCLA (0-3) at Colorado (3-0) in the conference opener for both.
Cardinal in the spotlight
Stanford has much more than a divisional title at stake as it heads to Notre Dame this week. The No. 7-ranked Cardinal (4-0, 2-0) visit the No. 8 Irish (4-0) in their annual nonconference matchup, and it's huge for both teams.
At this point, Stanford represents the Pac-12's best chance to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff and can take a big step toward that goal with a win in South Bend, Ind.
Cardinal head coach David Shaw has no interest in talking about the CFP right now, however.
"The end is nowhere in sight," Shaw told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We're 2-0 in our conference right now, which is huge for us, the most important thing we've got going for us. We've got a big game on the road this week. For us to think about anything else, I think, is asinine."
Stanford has won three in a row against the Irish, but five of the last six matchups between the two have been decided by seven points or less. The last time both teams came into their matchup undefeated was the 1925 Rose Bowl.
Must win game in Pullman
It's not even October, but Utah and Washington State face a must-win game when they meet up in Pullman, Wash., as the loser will fall to 0-2 in Pac-12 play.
The Utes (2-1, 0-1) are coming off a bye after a loss at home to Washington on Sept. 15, while Washington State (3-1, 0-1) is looking to rebound from its loss at USC.
Two conference losses won't eliminate either team from contention in their divisional races — six of the 14 divisional winners over the last seven years have had two or more losses — but starting 0-2 will certainly dig a big hole for one of these teams.
Aside from Stanford at Notre Dame, there will be two other top-25 matchups in the Pac-12 this week. On Saturday, No. 11 Washington (3-1, 2-0) will host No. 20 BYU (3-1), while No. 24 California (3-0) will host No. 19 Oregon (3-1, 0-1). After its come-from-ahead loss to Stanford last week, Oregon looks to avoid an 0-2 start in the Pac-12. ... Two other teams looking to avoid a 0-2 start meet Saturday, as Oregon State (1-3, 0-1) visits Arizona State (2-2, 0-1). ... Four Pac-12 teams are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 this week, with seven getting votes. In the Coaches poll, three teams are ranked and nine received votes.