PHOENIX (AP) -- Washington has struggled to become bowl-eligible over the past decade or so, needing a last-game win over rival Washington State last season to get into the Holiday Bowl after missing the postseason the previous seven years.
This season, the resurgent Huskies can breathe a little easier down the stretch after clinching bowl eligibility with last week's win over Arizona.
And, yes, securing a bowl spot this early in the season does make a huge difference.
"As you're trying to become bowl-eligible as we are as a program, at times that can be a stressful feeling; there's so much to lose if we don't win," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said Tuesday. "Now that you get your sixth win eight games into the season ... there's a mentality shift where the stress factor can be minimized." With four games left in the season, there's still plenty of stress going around the Pac-12, leaving the conference in jeopardy of failing to fill its bowl allotment.
Now, the Pac-12 has certainly been solid at the top.
No. 4 Stanford (8-0, 6-0 Pac-12) and sixth-ranked Oregon (7-1, 5-0) are on pace to play in BCS bowls, one of them possibly even earning a spot in the national title game.
Washington (6-2, 4-1) has continued its progress from an 0-12 season just three years ago, while Arizona State (6-2, 4-1) has experienced a turnaround of its own, taking control of the Pac-12 South while becoming bowl-eligible for the first time in four seasons.
Southern California (6-2, 3-2) has played well, too, but still isn't bowl-eligible because of NCAA sanctions.
The rest of the field is a little more jumbled.
California, UCLA and Utah are all 4-4, needing to win two of their final four games to become bowl eligible, while Washington State needs three of four down the stretch. Even Arizona isn't out of the picture despite firing its coach midseason, though at 2-6, the Wildcats will need to win out.
That means, with seven bowl contracts to fill, the Pac-12 has some ground to make up.
And, the way things have gone so far this season -- well, other than at the top -- it could be a wild finish.
"It's getting worse for coaches and better for fans every year because the competition at the bottom of the league has risen since I've been back in the league, since 2003," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. "There's just a lot of good teams and now you're in a deal where if you don't play well, you're going to lose because somebody's going to pull the rug out from under you."
UCLA appeared to be one of the rug-less teams -- not to mention on the verge of costing coach Rick Neuheisel his job -- just two weeks ago when it was blown out by Arizona, which had fired its coach and, at the time, was winless in conference.
After a decisive win over Cal last week, not only is UCLA back in the bowl hunt, it has a chance to take the Pac-12 South lead with a win over Arizona State at home on Saturday. The Bruins play Utah, Colorado and USC after that.
"It's this game and that's all we talk about," Neuheisel said. "We had a wild game against them last year ... so we know who they are, what a talented team they are, we've just got to go play with everything we've got."
Utah had a miserable start to its first Pac-12 season, losing its first four conference games. The Utes bounced back with their first win in the conference by beating Oregon State and can get into a bowl by beating two teams out of a final schedule that includes Arizona, UCLA, Washington State and Colorado.
Cal seemed to be rolling toward a bowl game after opening with three straight wins, but has put that in jeopardy with four losses in five games, the latest a disappointing 31-14 loss to UCLA last week.
Still, the Bears have a shot at making it to the postseason, just needing to win any combination of two games against Washington State, Oregon State, Stanford and Arizona State.
"Every team in this conference is very good and you need to come ready to play and execute," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. ""And if you don't execute you're going to get beat and that can happen with any given team on any given weekend."
With four weekends left in the regular season, the Pac-12 needs a few things to happen or there won't be as many teams playing in the postseason.