There’s a moment in early November where they can take a stand. Where the drama of the last year comes directly into focus.

But it’s more than just a shot at USC for Washington and Oregon. It’s a grand stage for the Playoff — and maybe even the Big Ten.

“There’s a lot of reasons why people would want us in their conference,” Washington coach Kalen DeBoer said. “We’re going to end up in a good spot, no matter what this looks like.”

Welcome to the prove-it season in the Pac-12. Months of the unknown and the unimaginable — of will the Pac-12 dissolve or remain a viable entity? — will soon transition to the safety of the football field and the comfort of what’s known.

Long the weak link among the Power 5 conferences in Playoff bona fides, the Pac-12 has 3 legitimate contenders in 2023 with USC, Washington and Oregon.

It could be 4 with 2-time defending Pac-12 champion Utah, but there is still some hesitation with injured QB Cam Rising. He’s ahead of schedule rehabbing an ACL injury, but every ACL injury and healing process is different, and every return to play is, too.

That leaves Washington and Oregon as the focal point of beating USC on the big stage, of making a statement to the Big Ten — which could eventually expand West again to help the transition of 2024 additions USC and UCLA. Fittingly, Washington and Oregon are the 2 candidates the Big Ten has already researched for potential expansion, according to the Action Network.

Though all 4 teams play each other this season, the focus of that round-robin begins Nov. 4, 3 weeks after Oregon travels to Washington to play the most underrated rivalry in the Pac-12.

It is there where USC, the preseason favorite in its last season in the Pac-12, plays host to Washington. A week later, the Trojans travel to Oregon.

USC missed both Washington (11 wins in 2022) and Oregon (10 wins) in last year’s Playoff run. That near worst-to-first run for USC ended with QB Caleb Williams injuring his hamstring in the first quarter of a loss to Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Everyone returns an elite quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate — Williams, Washington’s Michael Penix Jr., Oregon’s Bo Nix — and a loaded roster full of experience.

But that’s only the beginning of the story. Because the unsettling offseason that is the Pac-12’s search to find suitors for its new media rights deal can’t be ignored. It’s more than just part of the process.

It has overwhelmed and overshadowed what could be the strongest Pac-12 since the conference moved to 12 teams in 2011. And if commissioner George Kliavkoff doesn’t land a new deal within the next 3 weeks, the conference Media Days will be awash with talk of pending realignment doom — instead of the 3 legit Playoff contenders and the 2 critical weeks in November.

Again, it’s more than just the Playoff. You want to send a message to the Big Ten. Want to show the 16 conference presidents what could be. Take your best shot at USC and prove it.

Washington and Oregon have the academic status (Association of American Universities) the Big Ten covets, and also has football history (recent and ancient) that not only fits, but is greater than some current Big Ten members.

What they don’t have, multiple industry sources confirmed to Saturday Out West, is enough gravitas to convince any of the current Big Ten media rights holders (Fox, CBS, NBC) — or a new streaming partner — to pay pro rata for 2 new members. In other words, another $70 million annually for each.

That could quickly be changed by earning a spot in the Playoff, because any expansion for the Big Ten will be about football, and how to generate the most revenue from the new 12-team Playoff format that begins in 2024. The Playoff will generate an estimated $1.2-1.5 billion annually, and a majority of the distribution will likely be similar to the NCAA basketball tournaments.

Schools earn “units” for reaching the Playoff, and then with each win in the Playoff. That means any Big Ten expansion will zero in on recent football success, and the athletic and academic investment in the program.

Expansion is also about the Big Ten needing West Coast institutions to prevent USC and UCLA from languishing on a geographic island. It’s also about the Big Ten avoiding forcing all 16 league schools into difficult travel logistics that threaten both athletic and academic sanity. Make no mistake, a Playoff run in 2022 from Washington, Oregon or Utah would absolutely raise the profile of those programs in the event the Big Ten moves quickly on expansion.

“Our goal is to win a national title,” DeBoer said. “With the Playoff expanding to 12 teams (in 2024), our percentages go up because we are in a conference now where the No. 1 team gets a spot.”

The future question will be, which conference?

The big stage this season could go a long way to determining that.