This was always expected to be the part that made or broke Oregon's 2012 football season.
But now, as the second-ranked Ducks embark on the second half of their regular-season schedule, things are looking tougher than fans and analysts might have imagined when the season began.
Oregon was expected to cruise through its first six games, and the Ducks did just that, chalking up a 6-0 record (3-0 in Pac-12 Conference play) while averaging 52.3 points per game.
They have a bye this week, then a Thursday night game in Tempe, Arizona, against an Arizona State team that will likely also be 3-0 in conference play by kickoff (the Sun Devils take on Colorado this Thursday in a game they should win easily).
After taking on Arizona State in the desert, the Ducks are back at Autzen Stadium to take on the Buffaloes in a game they, too, should win easily. But that's the last of the gimme games on Oregon's schedule.
Back-to-back road games in the state of California follow Oregon's October 27 matchup against Colorado, with No. 11 USC on tap November 3 in Los Angeles and California up the following week in Berkeley.
I never thought the Cal game would be an automatic "W" for the Ducks -- I was at that 15-13 UO victory in Berkeley in 2010, after all -- but Cal's impressive 43-17 win over then-No. 25 UCLA on Saturday makes the Golden Bears look like even more of an enigma.
The Bears have played a tough schedule thus far, with losses to Ohio State, USC and Arizona State among the blemishes on their 2-4 record, and they face current No. 17 Stanford before taking on the Ducks. Cal could definitely be a dangerous opponent for Oregon, particularly since the game is in Berkeley.
But even if the Ducks roll over the Bears, as many expect them to do, Stanford and Oregon State will still be waiting over the following two weeks. So that's the Trojans, the Cardinal and the Beavers among the Ducks' final four games, which is a rough stretch no matter how you break it down.
Oregon State moved up to No. 10 in the AP Top 25 poll on Sunday, after running its record to 4-0 following Saturday's 19-6 win over Washington State. One-loss USC is at No. 11, and still very much in the running for the Pac-12 South crown.
The good news for the Ducks and their fans is that, so far, Oregon has looked like a better team every week, as redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota continues to develop and improve, along with the Ducks' young receivers.
They'll certainly need to continue progressing along the way, because this back-loaded schedule seems to look tougher and tougher every week.
Sources:Oregon football 2012 schedule/results
Adam Sparks has been following Oregon Ducks football since 1990, and has written about the team as a freelancer since 2009.