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It’s here. After an offseason of 6 a.m. runs on frosted roads, tedious weightlifting sessions, endless practice repetitions, punitive up-downs and stadium stairs, aching muscles, repetitive media questions, the O’Bannon court decision and the big-school autonomy vote, it’s here.

Or does it really start next week?

Every Pac-12 football team kicks it off in a 48-hour period starting Thursday, with only a little suspense surrounding the dozen games. For instance, if you’re thinking upset when Idaho State visits Utah, keep in mind that ISU has a 43-game road losing streak, and Utah is 36-0 against current Big Sky members. The gamblers would consider those trends, if you could gamble on the game.

The league’s coaches would order me to run gassers for suggesting this in their presence, but next week is the one that’s going to have the nation looking toward the best coast. That’s when Oregon hosts Michigan State and Stanford entertains USC — initial glimpses into the shape of the 2014 season that christens a four-team playoff.

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Ah, the playoff. It’s out there, finally, a counterpoint to the coach’s win-the-day world, a living (well, figuratively), breathing bracket that even the guys with the headsets have to concede gives this season a unique feel.

“Absolutely, it does feel different,” Stanford coach David Shaw said on Tuesday’s first Pac-12 coaches teleconference. “The prize out there is just a little bit bigger. But the road doesn’t change.”

Back to the cave, in other words, for a little more film study. That’s the coach’s grinding existence.

Mark Helfrich, the second-year Oregon coach, wouldn’t brook the notion that Duck minds would stray to daydreaming about Michigan State when there’s the threat of South Dakota looming Saturday night over Autzen Stadium.

Referring to the practice mindset, Helfrich said, “We want every day to be the best day we’ve ever had in our life.”

No immediate word on how the Ducks scored Tuesday on that standard.

Every Pac-12 team except California, playing at Northwestern, is favored, but Stanford’s Shaw could remind you that doesn’t always count for much. Two years before he arrived at Stanford with Jim Harbaugh, the Cardinal hosted Cal-Davis, this week’s opponent, and got sideswiped, 20-17, maybe the biggest pratfall in Stanford history.

UCLA goes to Virginia, offering sort of a comparable to its division-favorite counterpart, Oregon. The Ducks traveled to UVa last September, and I was certain they were vulnerable, facing third-and-five on their first series. Then Marcus Mariota ran 71 yards for a touchdown and they won 59-10. We’ll see if Brett Hundley can match Mariota.

Some of the other story lines: Arizona finally picked a quarterback (Anu Solomon). Washington State ticket-buyers (there’s an oxymoron) are avoiding CenturyLink Field as if it’s diseased. Colorado, which doesn’t have a rival in the Pac-12, will be done with its rivalry game for 2014 (it plays Colorado State on Friday night) before most of the rest of the sport has opened.

And in Los Angeles, Steve Sarkisian found himself in the middle of a made-for-TMZ story. One day, USC defensive back Josh Shaw is hailed as a hero for injuring himself jumping from a second-floor window to save a 7-year-old nephew struggling in a pool.

The next, Sark is acknowledging that USC is checking out the credibility of callers alleging Shaw’s story is bogus. Wonder if any of those calls could be traced to Westwood?

At the precise moment when Sarkisian was answering those questions after USC’s workout, the college football playoff was the furthest thing from his mind.

But it’s out there, the overarching matter in college football this year, if you just take ’em one at a time.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

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