To say the first half of the season around the Pac-12 has had its share of surprises would be an understatement. The fall of the Oregon Ducks has been one of the biggest surprises this season in a negative way, but the rise of Utah and Cal have been among the more positive surprises in the first half of the season around the Pac-12. It has been a crazy season already.

1. Utah is the Pac-12’s top College Football Playoff contender (for now)

Midway through the year, there is but one undefeated team left standing in the Pac-12. The Utes have put together an impressive profile so far with wins over an improved Michigan, Oregon and Cal. Utah can keep things going in their favor with a road win at USC this weekend. A win there would also make it near impossible to not end the season with the Pac-12 South championship as the division will continue to pick itself apart. Can Utah remain undefeated, or will a loss take them down a peg in the national playoff picture?

2. Cal plays defense too

Cal always had an offense capable of putting up points and making big plays, but what has made Cal a more legitimate contender in the Pac-12 North and the Pac-12 championship picture is the improved defensive play of the Golden Bears. Last season, Cal ranked 12th in the Pac-12 in total defense. This year, the Bears are up six spots in the conference defensive ranking. Also in 2014, Cal forced a total of 17 turnovers for the entire season. This year, midway through the season, Cal has forced 21 takeaways, which currently leads the Pac-12.

3. USC looks for a new head coach

Perhaps one of the biggest stories out of the Pac-12 in the first half of the season was the firing of Steve Sarkisian at USC. Sarkisian’s off-field demons with alcohol led him to other problems at work, and USC Athletics Director Pat Haden had no choice but to make a drastic change. Perhaps the writing was on the wall over the summer during a booster event, but USC now must find a new head coach and it should certainly not be short on quality candidates. The USC coaching gig is still a high-profile one and it may be time for USC to think outside the Trojan family for its next head coach.

4. Stanford rebounds from early loss

Stanford stubbed a toe in the season opener at Northwestern, but the Cardinal have emerged as a strong contender in the Pac-12 and continues to inch back into the national picture as a result. Stanford has taken control of its opponents in Pac-12 play and has seen sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey breakout as one of the top running backs in the nation, even if most are still unaware of what he can do. Kevin Hogan has played solid at quarterback as well.

5. The fall of Oregon

Last season, Oregon ran through its schedule and cruised into the College Football Playoff national championship game with Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. This season has been quite the turn in the opposite direction, with the Ducks already sitting on three losses and at serious risk of not reaching the postseason minimum win total. Oregon’s quarterback situation was been a tough one with Vernon Adams getting banged up early and the Ducks having to go with a walk-on recently. Is Oregon falling back to Earth after years of success, or will the Ducks storm back soon enough?

On Tap This Weekend

UCLA (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) vs. No. 20 Cal (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12); Thursday night

The Pac-12 schedule this week kicks off Thursday night with Cal hoping to continue to prove themselves worthy of being included on the contention discussion. The high-powered Golden Bears offense takes on another dangerous team in UCLA. The Bruins cannot afford another loss if they are to make a late run in the Pac-12 South in the event Utah collapses.

No. 10 Stanford (5-1, 4-0 Pac-12) vs. Washington (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12)

The Cardinal continue to run through Pac-12 play this weekend at home against the Huskies. Washington is coming off a loss to Oregon, but has been playing decent defense. They will need to be on top of their game as Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey is piling up big yardage.

Sacramento State (1-6, 0-4 Big Sky) vs. Idaho State (2-4, 1-2 Big Sky)

The Hornets once again look for their first conference win in 2015. To do that, they must score revenge on Idaho State, who defeated them last year by a score of 44-24.

UC Davis (1-6, 1-3 Big Sky) vs. Southern Utah (4-2, 3-0 Big Sky)

Southern Utah is coming off a smashing shutout of Sacramento State last week (44-0) and should have the clear upper hand on the road this week at UC Davis. The Aggies went down 56-27 last week against Northern Colorado.

Kevin McGuire is a Philadelphia area sports writer covering the Philadelphia Eagles and college football. McGuire is a member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. Follow McGuire on Twitter @KevinOnCFB. His work can be found on Examiner.com.