Cardinal rule for Pac 12’s game of the year: Just win

Stanford will provide the setting for the Pac 12's game of the year Thursday night. Photo: USA Today Sports.

No. 3 Oregon and No. 5 Stanford will take the field Thursday night in Palo Alto for one of the biggest games of the 2013 season. One of the biggest games in the country, that is, and not just the Pac 12. This is a game the college football world has had circled on the calendar from the start, since the summer or spring or perhaps even during halftime of last season's BCS Championship game. This year's edition of the Pac 12 rivalry once again carries BCS importance in to it, with the Pac 12 looking to send a team back to the BCS Championship but also in position to grab two BCS spots this postseason.

But Oregon and Stanford will not be thinking about what happens for the conference. Each team is fully equipped to pursue their own individual team goals, and there is just one thing that matters Thursday night on the farm: Just win.

Here is a quick refresher on just how important this particular game is Thursday night:

– The road team has won the last two years.

– The winner has gone on to win the Pac 10 or Pac 12 championship each of the past three years.

– The winning team has hosted the Pac 12 championship game each of the past two seasons.

This game has already shown why it will be the true Pac 12 championship game. Look at the top three teams in the Pac 12 North right now; Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA. Those three have combined to go 0-3, being outscored 108-52, against Stanford and Oregon. Arizona has not faced either Pac 12 North team yet but does face Oregon later this month. Those Pac 12 South teams all still have to play each other as well, with Arizona hosting UCLA this Saturday. The dominance has already been established in the Pac 12, a conference that may be improving in depth but still sees Oregon and Stanford holding strong at the top.

With Oregon and Stanford each currently sitting in the top five of the BCS standings, a win Thursday night will have a pretty significant impact on the rankings no matter what happens with No. 1 Alabama's game against LSU and No. 6 Baylor's game against Oklahoma, and that is just under the assumption there is no way No. 2 Florida State gets tripped up at Wake Forest (a safe assumption). A win for Oregon keeps an undefeated season in play and should nudge Oregon past Florida State in the latest round of tug-of-war over the desired No. 2 ranking. Oregon appears to have the best chance to finish in top two compared to Florida State if the Ducks can get by Stanford.

But win could be just as important for Stanford as well. The Cardinal have now been deemed the best one-loss team in the country according to the BCS standings. Ranked fifth, ahead of Baylor and right behind Ohio State, Stanford could hypothetically move in to third place if they can slow down the Oregon offense this weekend, at the expense of an undefeated Ohio State. I'm not convinced the Buckeyes get passed but an argument will be made to suggest a one-loss Stanford team has done more than undefeated Ohio State this season. You know that argument is coming, so just brace for it now Buckeye fans.

The best case scenario for the Pac 12, as a conference, will always be to have one team in the BCS if it means a chance to pick up a national championship. But the Pac 12 is in terrific position to grab two BCS bowl spots this offseason, which of course means a bigger pay day for the conference and its members. It may even happen regardless of who wins Thursday night.

If Oregon wins, they will be a near lock for at least a spot in the Rose Bowl, but will be more likely to advance to the BCS Championship Game. That, of course, would leave the Rose Bowl's Pac 12 spot open for an at-large. If Stanford loses they will likely remain in the top ten, thus being eligible for an at-large berth for a BCS spot.  But that does not guarantee the Rose Bowl will take Stanford. In the 2010 season, Oregon played Auburn for the BCS championship and Stanford was picked up by the Orange Bowl, where they faced Virginia Tech. TCU ended up in the Rose Bowl to play Big Ten champion Wisconsin. That year had some complicated rules come in to play preventing the Rose Bowl from taking a Pac 12 team. Essentially, the Rose Bowl was forced to take TCU that year. That would not come in to play this season, and if eligible for an at-large it would be difficult to believe the Rose Bowl would pass on a traditional Big Ten-Pac 12 match-up (Ohio State vs. Stanford) if sitting right there for the taking.

Then again, if Stanford wins, the Cardinal may be the eventual Pac 12 champion to clinch a spot in the Rose Bowl outright. A loss to No. 5 Stanford would never drop No. 3 Oregon too far in the standings, and with one loss the Ducks would very much be an attractive option for any BCS bowl game with an opening. Stanford may not play their way in to the BCS championship game (need some help from ACC country, and maybe the Big Ten), but if they did Oregon would still be a lock for the Rose Bowl with one loss.

Both of these teams may be heading to Pasadena. We just don't know which team will be playing in which game.

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About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to's College Football Talk, Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Host of the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher Radio and iHeart Radio. FWAA member and Philadelphia-area resident.