STANFORD, Calif. (AP) -- The Pac-12 has been fighting with the SEC for years to be considered the nation's toughest conference. That might finally be the case this season - though to the Pac-12's detriment.
In the aftermath of No. 6 Stanford's 26-20 victory over No. 2 Oregon on Thursday night, the league is left without an undefeated team and once again searching for a way to crack the BCS championship game.
''We don't hold the cards anymore,'' first-year Ducks coach Mark Helfrich said. ''But we never hold the cards.''
At the very least, Oregon had quite a hand before entering Stanford Stadium.
The Cardinal (8-1, 6-1 Pac-12) dominated the Ducks (8-1, 5-1) for more than three quarters before holding off a furious Oregon rally and winning a game that likely put the Pac-12 out of the national championship race again.
Stanford and Oregon have been among the nation's best programs the past four seasons. The depth of the conference is finally starting to catch up, turning the league into what the SEC has been for so many years: a two-month fight that nobody survives unscathed.
The next step for the Pac-12 might be gaining enough respect that - like the SEC - even a one-loss team won't be knocked out of contention, which should be helped when the four-team playoff begins next season. No one-loss team from the Pac-12 has ever played for the BCS title.
The undefeated Ducks played for the BCS title following the 2010 season, when they lost to Auburn. The Pac-12 has pounded itself out of the mix ever since, and this season appears to be no exception.
For the fourth straight year, the Oregon-Stanford game turned out to be a spoiler's delight. The loser was handed its first defeat of the season, and if the pattern holds true from the previous three years, it'll also be the only thing keeping the loser - in this case Oregon - out of the BCS championship game in January.
The Cardinal's convincing win over the Ducks - holding the ball for 42 1/2 minutes, rushing 66 times for 274 yards - will likely not be enough for them to work their way into the BCS title game unless at least three of the top four teams (Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor) all lose. And even that might not be enough.
In a year that the Pac-12 had the inside track for a berth in the BCS title game, Stanford can thank its perplexing loss at Utah (4-4, 1-4) last month for derailing those dreams.
''People may say we're overrated. That's fine. That's no big deal. What we have is the next down to make,'' Stanford coach David Shaw said. ''That's for us. That's what our guys have to understand. We get football. We get the games. Let everybody else talk and do whatever they want. But for us, we get to play football and that's what our guys love to do.''
Stanford has still seized control of efforts to win another league title - the only goal Shaw ever talks about with his players - and making a return trip to the Rose Bowl.
Just like last year, Oregon will need to win its remaining games and hope the Cardinal drop one of their final two conference contests to get back in control of hosting the Pac-12 championship. Stanford visits Southern California (6-3, 3-2) on Nov. 16 before hosting rival California (1-8, 0-6) on Nov. 23.
Oregon plays Utah, travels to Arizona and hosts rival Oregon State over the next three weeks in a modest finishing stretch the Ducks had hoped would lead to a Pac-12 title game and eventual BCS championship game berth. Now they'll likely have to settle for another BCS bowl - probably the Fiesta or Orange - yet again.
''It (stinks) to say this, but I've gone through it,'' Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota said. ''It takes a lot out of you. I think a lot of these young guys are still going to learn how to handle it, but it's the same as the older guys did for me last year. It's just come back the next day and work. I mean, that's really all you can do. It's in the past now. We'll just focus on what's in the future.''
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP