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: Nov. 15 at Arizona, Nov. 22 vs. Oregon State, Nov. 29 at Washington State
Why it’s critical: Well, it’s too bad the Huskies won’t face off against USC this season (unless, of course, we see a Pac-12 championship matchup between the two), because while there doesn’t seem to be bad blood between the Huskies and Steve Sarkisian, it’s always interesting to see a coach face his former team in his first year at a new job.
But with the Trojans not on the schedule this season, we had to look elsewhere for a key stretch for Washington. It was still a tough decision. So many coaches laud Chris Petersen for his in-game coaching ability; he’s never married to one plan and makes great halftime adjustments. So there was a big part of me that wanted to put a stretch that included Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State (Sept. 27 to Oct. 25), but I wasn’t sure that would really be the stretch that truly defines this team. Yes, if the Huskies can pick up a win or two there, the hype surrounding the program is going to ramp up. But that will still be so early in Petersen’s Washington career and the Huskies’ season. Will the team really know its identity by then?
So instead I went with the season's final three-game stretch. In Ted Miller’s summer Pac-12 power rankings last week, he had the Huskies just ahead of all three of these teams. And by November, the team should be established in who it is and what it wants to do. Additionally, if the Huskies can go out and cap their 2014 season with three consecutive wins, that will put them in good bowl position (and a finale win over rival Washington State wouldn’t be so bad, either).
In the first year for a coach, it’s great to pick up an unexpected win here or there. But the key to building a program is winning the games you should win (as well as an unexpected one here or there). If a team goes out and loses the games it's favored to win, that really hurts. What would a victory over Oregon mean if the Huskies lose to Oregon State and Washington State? If Petersen is as much of a wizard as his colleagues say he is, then maybe he will pick up a win or two during the Stanford-Oregon-ASU stretch. But right now, for this team -- and for Petersen in his first season at Washington -- this closing stretch is going to be so, so important moving forward.
Other key stretches: