Without a doubt, every game matters.
With few exceptions, a single game doesn't define a season. A great victory can be deflated by an upset the next weekend, while a crushing defeat can be redeemed by an inspired effort later in the season.
While the Pac-12's national title contenders -- we won't name names -- need to win every game (or just about every game), you can point to a stretch of games on the schedule that appears to be defining. In terms of a team's goals, that stretch is most critical.
We've defined a "key stretch" as three games, though we will allow for those three games to come among four.
Key stretch: Oct. 4 at USC, Oct. 18 vs. Stanford, Oct. 25 at Washington
Why it’s critical: Not the kindest stretch, is it?
These three games could be the difference between finishing third or seventh in the Pac-12. The two games in this stretch that appear to be less difficult are on the road, and Stanford will travel to Arizona State. The Sun Devils haven’t beaten the Cardinal since 2008, and though Stanford had a rough second half in the 42-28 regular-season victory over ASU last September, it will look to down ASU again en route to what the Cardinal hope is a third consecutive Pac-12 title.
If ASU picks up a win over USC and then sweeps Stanford and Washington, the Sun Devils could set themselves up nicely in a four-game heading into the Territorial Cup, looking for another win over Rich Rodriguez.
However, if ASU goes 0-3 or 1-2, that four-game stretch suddenly looks much, much tougher. A trip to Oregon State suddenly becomes a must-win and the finale with the Wildcats might be a win that would salvage a season rather than put a nice bow on top.
The USC-Stanford-Washington stretch could mean the difference between possibly playing for a Pac-12 title (shooting high here, I know, I know -- they’d need to get some help from UCLA) or another trip to the Holiday Bowl.
Other key stretches: