STANFORD -- Stanford will need to go through UCLA in back-to-back weeks to win the Pac-12 championship, and at least for the first meeting Saturday at the Rose Bowl, the Cardinal appears to have a decided edge in motivation.
Just don't broach the incentive theory to UCLA coach Jim Mora, who took exception when a Southern California reporter tossed it at him for a response.
But first, here's the scenario in this compelling matchup of 9-2 teams. The 15th-ranked Bruins already have won the Pac-12 South and are assured of a spot in the conference title game next week, while No. 11 Stanford -- tied with Oregon atop the Pac-12 North but holding the tiebreaker edge -- probably has to beat UCLA to get there.
If Oregon wins at Oregon State, a game that starts at noon, UCLA would face an interesting situation. If it then beats Stanford, it would have to travel to Oregon for the Pac-12 title game next Friday. If it loses, it would travel to Stanford.
Moreover, the only real perk UCLA can get by beating the Cardinal relies upon an Oregon State win over the Ducks, which would net the Bruins home-field advantage in the title game against Stanford.
So, back to Mora. Last Sunday in a media briefing, a reporter at least intimated that UCLA has little to play for this weekend and might even be in a better position with a loss.
"Are you serious?" Mora asked the reporter. "No. Are you talking about thinking about losing a game this Saturday?
Mora has a point. More important for the Bruins than arranging their most favorable matchup would seem to be sustaining their tremendous roll. Since a 43-17 drubbing at Cal on Oct. 6, UCLA has reeled off five consecutive victories for the first time since 2005, including last Saturday's 38-28 win over USC.
With redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley taking his game to a higher level, UCLA has posted Oregon-like point totals the past four weeks, averaging 48.3 a game, albeit against shaky competition until USC.
As for motivation, Mora tried to put that to rest in one sentence.
"This team's motivation is to win as many games as it can and be playing its best football at the end of the season," he said.
Of course, Stanford's incentive would be similarly diminished if Oregon State beats Oregon, and that result should be known by the time the Cardinal and Bruins take the field. At that point, the latter two teams would be playing for home-field advantage in the title game that awards the winner a BCS spot in the Rose Bowl.
The trickier piece of the puzzle for Stanford would be trying to beat a tough conference foe twice in six days. Coach David Shaw's view on that this week was predictable -- one game at a time.
"As a group, we're only worried about this game," Shaw said. "We can't worry about next week. For right now, we have one game this week and if we play it well enough, we'll earn another one, and we'll deal with that when and if that happens."
That said, the Stanford coach noted he thinks his program is well-equipped to handle the same opponent in a back-to-back scenario.
"That's why I love the way my staff is built right now," Shaw said. "We have some NFL guys here that know how to prepare a team twice in one year. You have to do that in divisional games, so that's why I'm not worried about that next game."
Of greater concern might be avoiding an emotional letdown after a huge 17-14 overtime win at Oregon. But senior linebacker Shayne Skov doesn't think the Cardinal will be flat after knocking off the nation's No. 1 team on the road.
"It's going to be another challenge, but we've had one goal in our minds since the season started," Skov said. "And this week is literally all that matters if we want to get there. Everything we wanted to do this year is dependent upon us winning this week."
That's not necessarily so, though, which is why Saturday might present nothing more than a perplexing prelude to the potential real showdown next Friday.