PHOENIX — Stanford had been considered a national title contender, right there with teams like Alabama, Oregon, Clemson and Ohio State.
One disappointing weekend in Salt Lake City changed the Cardinal’s outlook quickly, leaving them looking up in the Pac-12 North Division.
Of course, Stanford has been there before. The Cardinal lost to Washington early last season, dropped a game to Notre Dame and went on to win the Pac-12 Championship and the Rose Bowl.
“It’s about perspective and understanding where we are and what we need to do,” Stanford coach David Shaw said during the Pac-12 coaches’ conference call Tuesday. “We have a mature group and I still need to make sure our focus is on what’s important, remind them where they have been all year, not worry about what other people say.”
Stanford (5-1, 3-1) had been in command before last weekend, steady at No. 5 in The Associated Press poll after five opening wins this year extended its winning streak to 13 games over two seasons.
Expected to roll over Utah, the Cardinal fell short in a late rally and lost 27-21. The outcome gave the Utes their biggest home upset and jumbled the Pac-12.
Nearing the midpoint of the season, the conference has two undefeated teams at the top — Oregon and UCLA — and a large group of closely-matched teams fighting for spots in the pecking order.
It’s definitely going to be an interesting final two months before the Pac-12 championship game Dec. 7.
“I’ve been a Pac 10/12 coach for the past 10 years and I think it’s the best it’s ever been top to bottom,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “There’s a bunch of really talented coaching staffs, a bunch of bigger, faster stronger athletes across the board in every phase.”
Helfrich”s second-ranked Ducks (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12) have clearly been the class of the conference so far, winning games by an average of 47 points a game while piling up more yards and points than all but one team in the country.
The Ducks, who are tied for first in the North with Oregon State (5-1, 3-0), are expected to keep rolling this weekend. They are a 38-point favorite over Washington State on Saturday.
The Beavers, who bounced back from a opening loss to Eastern Washington, will look to extend their winning streak to six games against struggling California.
In the South, No. 9 UCLA has been the team to beat, winning its first five, including conference-opening victories over Utah and California the past two weeks.
The Bruins’ road gets a bit tougher, though. Saturday’s game is against No. 13 Stanford in a rematch of last year’s Pac-12 championship game, with Oregon on deck after that.
“We’re only thinking about this week, playing Stanford, so it’s an opportunity for us to on the road, play a very, very good football team, a team that beat us in the Pac-12 championship game last year, a team we have a lot of respect for,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said.
Another opportunity awaits in the desert Saturday when No. 20 Washington faces Arizona State. After cruising through their first four games, the Huskies lost to Stanford and Oregon, dropping them to 1-2 in the Pac-12.
Arizona State stumbled a couple of times during a tough four-game stretch but bounced back to crush Colorado 54-13 last weekend.
At 2-1 in conference, Sun Devils are still in the mix of the Pac-12 South race, a game behind UCLA, so it will be a huge game for both teams.
“We’ve talked to our players about it,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. “This is a single-elimination tournament and we control our own destiny right now, so this is a must-win situation for us.”
The way the conference is shaking out, every game is turning into a must-win.