As the sun disappears over the Pacific and drops off the edge of the Earth each evening, much of the country already slumbers. During the fall, that means falling asleep on Saturdays after watching the SEC and Big 12 and Big Ten powers beat up on one another, just as some of the best in the Pac-12 are getting started. It means that Arizona and Stanford and UCLA – and even Oregon and USC, to some extent – exist in a vacuum, their games not seen but heard about.

 


As the sun disappears over the Pacific and drops off the edge of the Earth each evening, much of the country already slumbers.


During the fall, that means falling asleep on Saturdays after watching the SEC and Big 12 and Big Ten powers beat up on one another, just as some of the best in the Pac-12 are getting started. It means that Arizona and Stanford and UCLA – and even Oregon and USC, to some extent – exist in a vacuum, their games not seen but heard about.


Judging by the first three weeks of the football season, something special is being missed.


No one has looked better than Alabama so far. And the only team that may challenge Tuscaloosa’s Tide this fall is their SEC West brethren over in Baton Rouge. But there’s some serious football being played from Oregon’s Willamette Valley down to Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.


The Pac-12 was supposed to be USC’s playground this year, with Oregon the only potential roadblock between the Trojans and playing for the national title. But chances are that Southern Cal’s championship chase ended around the time Seth MacFarlane delivered the monologue on the season premier of Saturday Night Live, when Stanford put the finishing touches on a physical beatdown of the Trojans.


Instead of being the playground of one, the Pac-12 looks like a conference with a pair of legitimate powers, plus plenty of depth.


Stanford’s surprising staying power despite losing coach Jim Harbaugh to the 49ers after the 2010 season and All-World quarterback Andrew Luck after last year is one reason there’s might out west. But it’s the unexpected success of UCLA and Arizona that gives the conference its unforeseen strength.


“I love the fact that we’re excited about wins,” Stanford coach David Shaw said Tuesday at his weekly press conference, but he could have been speaking for Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez and UCLA’s Jim Mora as well. “It wasn't long ago that some people thought this area didn’t care about football. I love the excitement and enthusiasm, I think that’s awesome.”


Two weeks ago Arizona and UCLA introduced themselves to the national consciousness.


Oklahoma State was coming off an 84-0 win over Savannah State, after beating Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl to finish last year off at 12-1. Arizona was coming off an overtime win over Toledo, after a 4-8 season in 2011 led to the firing of Mike Stoops and hiring of Michigan castoff Rich Rodriguez.


The Cowboys figured to cruise over the Wildcats. Instead, they got run over, leaving the desert with their tails tucked between their legs after losing 59-38. Last Saturday, Arizona followed up its win over Oklahoma State by shutting out South Carolina State 56-0.


The Wildcats have the unenviable task of traveling to Oregon late on Saturday night in a game that will likely end around 2 a.m. on the East Coast, but even if Chip Kelly’s Ducks destroy Rich-Rod’s Wildcats, Arizona has already showed that something is stirring in the land of the Saguaro.


UCLA, meanwhile, had mighty Nebraska coming to the land of dreams. UCLA was just 6-8 last year, so Rick Neuheisel was fired and Jim Mora was brought in.


Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini, always spitting fire on the sideline, figured to bring some Big Ten toughness to the Rose Bowl and teach the Bruins a lesson.


Didn’t happen.


UCLA gained 344 yards rushing and shredded the vaunted Blackshirts defense for 653 total yards in a 36-30 upset.


The signature win for the strong underbelly of the Pac-12, however, came this past Saturday, and ironically came against one the conference’s own.


Stanford’s 20-13 win over USC sent reverberations felt from Eugene to Tallahassee. It opened up the national title race for Oregon, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Florida State, among others. And it made every team in the Pac-12 – including the Ducks – take notice.


The Cardinal, who started this season with an unimpressive three-point win over San Jose State, were expected to take a significant step back. Shaw, now in his second-year, did a nice job last year, but that was with Harbaugh’s players, Luck chief among them. Without Luck, merely decent was expected of Stanford.


Instead, Shaw showed he’s more than just someone’s successor. And his team showed it was more than just a special quarterback.


Stanford won by beating up USC. By the end, as Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley tried to rally his team, he spent more time trying to avoid the Stanford defensive line than actually trying to locate his wide receivers.


“We don't want to be that team known for one victory,” Shaw said last Saturday night. “We want to be known for victory after victory, stacking wins on top of wins.”


Reality checks may loom for Stanford, Arizona and UCLA. And the Wildcats may get their comeuppance as soon as late Saturday night at Oregon.


But what they’ve done during the first three weeks of the season has been a revelation. Long after the last light fades over the Pacific Coast, football is lighting up the great Western night.


What We Learned


They’re ba-ack.


Well, not back in the sense that they’re going to contend with the game’s current elite, but with a decisive 20-3 win over Michigan State last Saturday Notre Dame showed it’s headed in the right direction, and that this year’s team has a chance to be the most nationally relevant since Charlie Weis’ first team in 2005 went to the Fiesta Bowl.


The credit goes to third-year coach Brian Kelly, who took over after Weis led the Notre Dame program through a series of humbling seasons.


Kelly built something from nothing at Cincinnati, culminating in a perfect regular season in 2009.


There were decent 8-5 seasons at Notre Dame in both 2010 and last year, but with its beating of the Spartans comes a message that Kelly is putting something powerful together in South Bend.


“It’s a signature win,” Kelly said last Saturday night.


Meanwhile, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said, “Tough day at the office, I guess you’d say.”


Notre Dame’s offense wasn’t prolific, but its defense was powerful. The Irish held the Spartans, who torched Boise State with its running game the opening weekend of the season, to just 50 yards on the ground and 237 total yards. And through three games the Irish are allowing just 10 points per game.


On the offensive side, perhaps most important is that sophomore quarterback Everett Golson didn’t turn the ball over against Michigan State, and has thrown just one pick all season.


A stout defense and conservative offense has been the recipe for plenty of success in the past.


The schedule doesn’t get easy for Notre Dame.


Michigan visits South Bend on Saturday night, and Stanford comes calling in October. Later in the season are trips to Oklahoma and USC. It’s possible that even with a better team Notre Dame’s record may not be substantially more impressive than last year or the year before.


But a decisive win over Michigan State said something. The Fighting Irish may not be great this season, but they’re moving in the right direction.


Game of the Week


Put up, or shut up.


Florida State hosts Clemson, and year after year, as recruiting class after recruiting class has been ranked among the nation’s best, the word has been that this is the year the Seminoles are finally back where they were throughout the late 1980s and into the early 2000s when they finished in the AP’s top-five for 14 straight years.


Well, after a 3-0 start, with the unbeaten Tigers coming to Doak Campbell Stadium in prime time, it’s time for Florida State to either show that this is truly the year, or just another when expectations outweighed reality.


“I feel very comfortable with what I’ve seen,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said earlier this week. “We didn’t overlook opponents that we knew we were better than, we’ve prepared extremely well for an opponent (Wake Forest) that’s played us very well the last six years and has beaten us – they’ve done a lot of great things against us. So far what I’ve seen, I’ve liked everything. I’ve been very proud of them and they’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do.”


The Seminoles took steps in their first two seasons under Jimbo Fisher, but were far from elite.


The ’Noles were 7-6 in 2009 in their final year under Bobby Bowden, then 10-4 in 2010 under Fisher, but that included a 30-point loss to Oklahoma and ACC losses to N.C. State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. Last fall they were 9-1 save for a three-game stretch that began with a close loss to the Sooners, bled into a close loss to Clemson, and ended with a stunning defeat at the hands of Wake Forest.


Florida State avenged one of those losses last Saturday, obliterating Wake Forest 52-0 and making the Demon Deacons look no different than Murray State and Savannah State, the Seminoles’ first two opponents this season.


Florida State’s defense has been suffocating, allowing just three points in three games.


Through three games, it looks like the glory days. The offense has been prolific, as it was with Charlie Ward, Warrick Dunn, Casey Weldon, Peter Warrick and a host of others who passed through Tallahassee when Bowden was riding high. And the defense - like it was in the 90s with Derrick Brooks, Marvin Jones, and some cat named Deion - has been scary.


But it’s this Saturday at home against Clemson that will truly test, and begin to tell, who these ’Noles are.


Are they a team that’s just whipped three weak opponents, or are they the class of the ACC and one of the top teams in the nation.


The game is a referendum on the Seminoles. And it’s a showdown for control of the ACC’s Atlantic Division and the inside track to the Orange Bowl ... at a minimum.


My Top 10


1. Alabama (3-0): 52-0 over Arkansas on the road was a scary score.


2. LSU (3-0): At Auburn shouldn’t be a challenge ... shouldn’t.


3. Oregon (3-0): De’Anthony Thomas’ numbers are staggering.


4. Florida State (3-0): The ’Noles are allowing one point per game. One!


5. West Virginia (2-0): At Texas Oct. 6 is the first test.


6. South Carolina (3-0): The Gamecocks are looking better and better.


7. Georgia (3-0): The Tennessee two-step is up next, against Vandy and the Vols.


8. Oklahoma (2-0): Kansas State could pose problems on Saturday night.


9. Stanford (3-0): The win of the year so far.


10. Clemson (3-0): At Florida State for ACC bragging rights.


Eric Avidon can be reached at 508-626-3809 or eavidon@wickedlocal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ericavidon.