The Pac-12, which is already 1-0 after California beat Hawaii on Friday, plays four FCS teams to open the season. So that's 5-0. Pac-12 teams are significant favorites in three other games. That's 8-0! Two Pac-12 teams are significant underdogs, so Oregon State and USC figure to fall in Week 1. So 8-2.
Arizona plays host to BYU in University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, and that's practically a toss-up with the Wildcats getting the home perk of 1 1/2 points.
We know "should happen" often becomes a regrettable word choice when reality arrives with a smirk, but let's get the Pac-12 through 11 openers at either 9-2 or 8-3 because the headliner, the tone-setter, the game that will persistently resonate with both fatuous trash talk as well as substantive discussion of the Pac-12's ultimate standing in the College Football Playoff outlook is UCLA's visit to Texas A&M.
First, it must be acknowledged that it matters more to Texas A&M, as coach Kevin Sumlin is on the proverbial hot seat. If his team opens with a defeat in front of 103,000 fans at Kyle Field -- to a Pac-12 team, no less! -- there is going to be a lot of grumpiness in College Station. The reasoning, however flawed, will be, "If we can't beat UCLA, how can we hope to move up in the SEC West!?"
At this moment, Texas A&M adherents are leaning on a couple of things. For one, they are favored by a field goal. Second, the Aggies have a veteran quarterback in Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight, who beat Alabama in a BCS bowl game and caught the eye of Katy Perry, as well as the nation's best defensive player in end Myles Garrett.
Finally, there's some potential deja vu here. (Is there a word for that? Should be.) Last year the unranked Aggies opened against a ranked Pac-12 team, Arizona State, and delivered a firm declaration in a 38-17 victory. They would go on to start 5-0 and rise to No. 9 in the AP poll before a harsh reality settled in, and an unsatisfying 8-5 finish was capped with a loss to Louisville in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Along the way, there seemed to be a lot of drama inside the Bright Football Complex, from multiple QB transfers to coaching intrigue.
That drama, in fact, led to one of the notable philosophy shifts in the Pac-12 this year, as Bruins offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone took over the same position at, yes, Texas A&M. That enabled Bruins coach Jim Mora to adopt a new offense, what we'll call the "Stop Calling It a Pro-Style Offense BUT, YES, It Includes Huddles, Tight Ends And Fullbacks And Aspires To Be More Physical At The Point Of Attack."
That's not terribly catchy, but Mora hates simplifying labels, and we're really not exactly sure what Mora, coordinator Kennedy Polamalu and QB coach Marques Tuiasosopo will hatch this weekend, other than it's going to feature the nation's most talented QB in Josh Rosen making a lot of decisions and, if all goes according to plan, big plays.
In general for UCLA, this could set up to be a nice opening-season victory, one that removes the bad taste of losing three of the final four games in 2015, including embarrassing losses to rival USC and a physical manhandling by Nebraska in the Foster Farms Bowl. It also could be a "Hello World" moment for Rosen, who at this time is more a projected superstar than the thing itself. A big win could thrust him into the Heisman Trophy discussion.
The result is meaningless in what should be a tight Pac-12 South race, but it's far from meaningless to the Pac-12.
Perception matters, and going 1-1 against the big, bad SEC is much different than going 0-2. The CFP selection committee is still judging a beauty contest, whatever metrics they use, and however they reward ambitious scheduling. If UCLA goes on to win the South or even the Pac-12 outright, an opening loss to Texas A&M won't be easily dismissible, particularly if the Pac-12 is trying to win a comparison with a team with the same record.
How so? Well, imagine if the final spot in the CFP comes down to a second SEC team versus UCLA, as the Pac-12 champion. Say Ole Miss finishes 10-2, losing only to Florida State and Alabama, but it beats the Aggies by two touchdowns. Would an 11-2 UCLA team be able to eclipse the Rebels in an argument?
Maybe. Maybe not.
A UCLA victory obviously bolsters the Bruins, but it also benefits the conference as a whole. Any Pac-12 contender that beats UCLA wants that to be a win over a ranked team. If Stanford at 11-2 is trying to make a case for the CFP, beating a 10-3 UCLA team in the Pac-12 championship game will resonate much more if none of the Bruins' losses came out of conference.
One of the amusing aspects of all this -- our playoff system and regionalized attitudes about college football merit -- is that enemies need to learn to (sometimes) root for each other. UCLA should want USC to be, at the very least, competitive with Alabama, while the Trojans should root for the Bruins to beat Texas A&M.
That might sound like fingernails on a chalkboard -- and it gives snarky me great pleasure imagining Bruins yelling, "Fight on!" and Trojans doing an Eight-Clap -- but it's the rational way to be.