The meat of Stanford's schedule initially appeared to be the finishing stretch against its rivals (ancient and recent) in back-to-back-to-back-to-back fashion.
While Oregon looks as formidable as expected, USC, Cal and Notre Dame have done nothing to indicate they're capable of derailing No. 5 Stanford's quest for a spot in the national championship game. One is without a coach, another without a defense and the third without any magic.
It now appears that Stanford's fate will be shaped by a five-game gantlet that starts Saturday against Washington and features teams with a combined record of 19-3.
Two of the losses are to each other.
Three of the teams are ranked in the top 15.
Four of them either beat Stanford last year or came within one play of doing so.
The run-oriented Cardinal (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) would sooner throw 50 passes a game than admit to looking beyond this week. But the players know what lies ahead. Of course they know.
"We've got to beat everyone if we want to make the (Pac-12) championship game," guard Kevin Danser said. "The intensity is revving up, up and up. Every game you play, the next game is bigger."
Here's a summary of what's ahead for Stanford:
As good as the Cardinal looked in recent wins over Arizona State and Washington State, it hasn't played well enough for four quarters to beat the Huskies.
"They have too much talent for us to be out of position and too much talent on the defensive side for us to miss any protections or any blocks," Cardinal coach David Shaw said. "We need to be at our best for 60 minutes."
Thanks partly to the playcalling of former 49ers coach Dennis Erickson, Utah is one of the most improved teams in the conference, with a victory at Brigham Young (never easy) and close losses to Oregon State and UCLA.
With the league's best defensive player (linebacker Anthony Barr) and one of the top quarterbacks (Brett Hundley), these Bruins are better than the version that lost to Stanford by three points in the Pac-12 title game.
Pleasanton's Sean Mannion is one of the hottest quarterbacks in the nation, with 21 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
But the stakes will be stratospheric only if Stanford survives the next four Saturdays.
"We knew the conference teams would be a difficult stretch," Cardinal cornerback Alex Carter said. "But each week, the focus is on making ourselves better. If we do that, we'll be where we want to be at the end of the season."
For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports.
Wash. State (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) at Cal (1-3, 0-1), 1 p.m. Fox Sports 1
Inside: Bears seek fresh start against Cougars. PAGE 6
SJSU (1-3, 0-1 MWC)
Inside: Spartans lean on vets to halt losing streak. PAGE 6
Washington (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) at Stanford (4-0, 2-0), 7:30 p.m. ESPN