What it also has been is a spoiler.
In each of the past three years, the loser was handed its only regular-season defeat and would’ve surely played in the BCS championship game otherwise. The winner went on to claim the Pac-12 title.
The stakes are just as high this season. The stage is even bigger. When No. 2 Oregon (8-0, 5-0) visits sixth-ranked Stanford (7-1, 5-1) in prime time tonight, one team will announce itself as the best in the West and the other will watch its championship dreams wither away again.
Even the so-called smart kids are rearranging their schedules for this one.
“The people that I’ve seen around campus, they’ve all said, ‘I’m not going to class on Thursday at all. I’m getting ready for this tailgate,’” Stanford safety Ed Reynolds said. “The campus is excited. They realize what this game means to this campus and this school, and I’m expecting a nice little rowdy crowd.”
The showdown at sold-out Stanford Stadium sets up similarly to the one in Eugene a year ago.
Last season, the Cardinal outlasted the top-ranked Ducks 17-14 in overtime en route to a conference title and the school’s first Rose Bowl victory in 41 years. In the first 10 games before that contest, Oregon looked unstoppable, leading the nation with 54.8 points per game and never scoring fewer than 42 points.
That remains Oregon quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota’s only loss in 21 starts.
NOTE: Thirty years after he graduated from Stanford, John Elway’s iconic No. 7 jersey will be retired at halftime of tonight’s game against Oregon. He’ll join Jim Plunkett (No. 16) and Ernie Nevers (No. 1) as the only players whose jerseys have been enshrined by the program.