Pac-12: most important game 2012

Most important game: USC

May, 25, 2012
5/25/12
4:30
PM ET
Every game counts. But some games count more. Or tell us more.

We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.

We're going in alphabetical order.

USC

Most important game: at UCLA, Nov. 17

Why it's important: One of the problems of this series running into a national title contender, such as USC, is that the Trojans' schedule has been pretty well picked over by the Pac-12 Blog. For one, everyone knows what happens on Nov. 3. (Dolph Lundgren turns 55? No, Oregon visits USC!). And Kevin this morning wrote about USC's visit to Stanford after writing about USC's visit to Utah a week ago. While this series has a name that leaves little leeway -- "Most important" -- there's also something to be said for not repeating ourselves.

To me, two games of note are left to consider: The two rivalry games, UCLA and Notre Dame. Both will be big, in large part because they always are. Further, based on the Trojans' high expectations, a loss in either could ruin a national championship run.

But we're tagging UCLA as bigger for three reasons, even if it would be better for our purposes if the Bruins hosted the Trojans on the season's final weekend.

For one, this road has been crossed before. Some of you Bruins and Trojans might recall the 2006 showdown, a 13-9 UCLA victory that knocked USC out of the national title game. That probably was the high point of the Karl Dorrell Era. And it was the Bruins' only win in the series since 1998.

Second, if new UCLA coach Jim Mora bested Lane Kiffin in his first year that would send shockwaves throughout Southern California. And, oh by the way, those shockwaves could potentially reverberate in recruiting while the Bruins have 25 scholarships to give the next two years and the Trojans have just 15 (Trojans, I know backwards math gives you 18 this year, but we're trying to keep this simple).

Third, and perhaps most important, this is a conference game, unlike Notre Dame. What if USC suffers a conference loss before playing UCLA, and Utah's lone blemish is against the Trojans? That means the Utes play for the Pac-12 title with a shot at the Rose Bowl, and USC could find itself headed to the Alamo Bowl.

And that disappointment then feeds into the post-Matt Barkley, scholarship reduction era, when maintaining super-elite status won't be easy.

The fact is when your team has its sights set on the top prize in college football, as USC does in 2012, every game is important. The Trojans' margin for error is, at best, one loss. If the Bruins were to provide No. 2 -- or No. 1 for that matter -- it would be a day of celebration in Westwood and a low moment in Heritage Hall.

Most important game: UCLA

May, 24, 2012
5/24/12
12:00
PM ET
Every game counts. But some games count more. Or tell us more.

We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.

We're going in alphabetical order.

UCLA

Most important game: at California, Oct. 6

Why it's important: I'll be honest, I had a lot of trouble with this one -- simply for the fact we have no idea what kind of team UCLA is going to be. On paper, they have the athletes to be in the upper half of the South Division -- though with USC back in the fold and Utah on the rise, it's likely the Bruins won't defend the South title.

Stanford seems like a good pick in the season finale. Could be the game that determines if UCLA is bowl bound or not. But who knows? They could already be bowl eligible by then. You have to imagine that six wins are out there for this team. But the game that could be the most telling is at Cal.

The first three to four games of the year are going to be difficult to judge because we could see three different quarterbacks during that stretch. Tough to tell. But by Week 6 you have to imagine that the Bruins will have their personnel issues sorted out and there will be a decent understanding of the team's personality.

Not counting Nebraska in Week 2 -- which falls under the category of we won't know much about the Bruins -- Cal is UCLA's toughest opponent in the first half of the season. And it's on the road.

Tevin McDonald had the game of his career last season with three interceptions in a 31-14 win over Cal, so there is some internal confidence that this is a winnable game. Plus the Bruins rushed for 294 yards on Cal. Don't expect those kinds of numbers again with Cal's talented defensive line. But if UCLA and new coach Jim Mora want to make a statement, this is the game to do it.

A victory on the road against Cal would certainly be a quality win. Then they host Utah the following week, which will be coming off the USC game. Who knows what kind of state the Utes will be in. The Bruins have a decent chance to go 5-1 in the first half of the season. And being 5-1 heading into the meat of the South Division schedule would make the folks in Westwood feel pretty good.

Most important game: Stanford

May, 23, 2012
5/23/12
9:00
AM ET
Every game counts. But some games count more. Or tell us more.

We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.

We're going in alphabetical order.

Stanford

Most important game: at California, Oct. 20

Why it's important: Well, for one, it's the Big Game, even if it's been dumped into the middle of the season.

There are games that would resonate more nationally for the Cardinal. Beat USC on Sept. 15, and everyone immediately forgets Andrew Luck. Win at Oregon on Nov. 17, and pack up for a special season as Stanford unloads two years of frustration. But Stanford will be substantial underdogs in both games. If things go as most will project, Stanford will lose both games. So, sure, either would be a big win for the program, particularly post Luck, but they would be fairly shocking.

The visit to Cal feels important because it something more approximating a "must-win." Start with the fact that Stanford, Washington and California seem like a troika that falls together -- in that order -- below Oregon in the Pac-12 North Division pecking order. This could serve as a separation game for the Cardinal, which will have already visited Washington on Sept. 27. Stanford has dominated the Huskies lately, so a win over Cal may be enough to ensure at least a second place finish in the North -- with a puncher's shot still remaining in Autzen Stadium. So this is a rivalry game with significant North Division ramifications.

But it's even more than that. Stanford has won two Big Games in a row and played in two consecutive BCS bowl games. It has taken over the Bay Area after years of struggling versus Jeff Tedford and the Bears. Some Cal fans might try to write off the Cardinal surge as something produced by a serendipitous aligning of the college football planets. As in by the flash-across-the-sky tenures of charismatic former coach Jim Harbaugh and a once-in-a-generation quarterback. If Cal wins this game, it could claim exactly that with justification. "Ah, the Bay Area pecking order has been righted," Bears fans might say. "Stanford's reign of terror is at an end. Ad perpetuam memoriam! Or not. And ad victoriam!"

But if Stanford were to win a third Big Game in a row -- inside the newly remodeled Memorial Stadium no less -- it would send a simple message: With or without Luck, the Cardinal own the Bay Area.
Every game counts. But some games count more. Or tell us more.

We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.

We're going in alphabetical order.

Oregon State

Most important game: Oct. 6 versus Washington State

Why it's important: Oct. 6 could be the turning point for Oregon State's entire season -- mostly because there are any number of scenarios that could happen to the Beavers leading up to that game. Assuming they get past Nicholls State in the opener (if they lose to an FCS team in back-to-back years, well, that's an entirely different story) and chances are they'll be heavy underdogs at home to Wisconsin. That likely takes them into a bye week at 1-1 before back-to-back road games at UCLA and Arizona. They could return home with a record of 1-3, 2-2 or 3-1.

So lets's look at each scenario. If they are 1-3, this will be the game that could sink or salvage the season. Staring up at 1-4 makes it awfully difficult to achieve a bowl game. But 2-3 seems a lot more manageable -- at least psychologically.

If they are 2-2 heading into WSU, a win puts them halfway toward a bowl game and matches last season's win total. Achieving that by the fifth game of the season would be a major confidence boost looking to the second part of the schedule.

And if they are 3-1 and pull off the victory, four wins in five games will go a long way because the Beavers have a difficult stretch closing out the season. They finish out at Stanford and then are home to Cal and Oregon -- three very difficult games. That leaves at BYU, home to Utah, at Washington and home to ASU sandwiched in between to find one or two more wins.

If the Beavers are going to wrap up a postseason spot, they are going to have to pick up the wins -- and some confidence -- early in the year. The Washington State game could be the tipping point in either direction.

Most important game: Oregon

May, 21, 2012
5/21/12
9:00
AM ET
Every game counts. But some games count more. Or tell us more.

We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.

We're going in alphabetical order.

Oregon

Most important game: Nov. 10 at California (Not really, but work with me)

Why it's important: First, off, yes, we all know Oregon's most important game is at USC on Nov. 3. The hype for that one will be relentless, starting even in August. The odds seem extremely high that the Ducks will go to LA with an 8-0 record and a top-five rankings. Odds are good USC will be 8-0 and ranked in the top-five, too, perhaps even No. 1, though the Trojans schedule before that is notably more taxing than Oregon's. The winner very well could rise to No. 1 as we hit the season's home stretch. At worst, I'd bet the team that walks away from the Coliseum at 9-0 is ranked no worse than No. 2. So that game is monumental. Heck, it could even be a No. 1 vs. 2 showdown, which would be great fun.

But is there anyone reading this that isn't already aware of all that? If so, the Pac-12 blog will now start crying because it has failed you. Waaaaa!

I'm OK. Sniffle.

So, let's do this: Where is Oregon's second most important game? Figuring that out requires a couple of things. First, it has to be on the road, which eliminates Washington and Stanford. The Ducks have lost just six games under Chip Kelly, and only one was in Autzen Stadium. Second, it has to be a team that has given the Ducks some trouble and has the potential to do that again. For extra credit, it would help if this road game against a team that gives the Ducks some trouble could be played immediately after the Ducks game at USC.

Well, lookie here: At California on Nov. 10.

Oregon has lost three of its last four games in Berkeley. It's lone victory -- a 15-13 thriller in 2010 -- was the lone nailbiter in the Ducks unbeaten regular season. Cal also has the size and athleticism on defense to give the Ducks offense some trouble.

And, of course, there's that beloved sportswriter construct: "The Letdown Game." That's when a team wins a huge, emotional showdown only to show up flat the following weekend and faceplant. What I really cherish about that cliché is the thought of bringing it up to Kelly in advance of the game. He loves stuff like that.

Most important game: Colorado

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
9:00
AM ET
Every game counts. But some games count more. Or tell us more.

We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.

We're going in alphabetical order.

Colorado

Most important game: Sept. 22 at Washington State

Why it's important: Imagine it, Colorado fans, a 3-0 start. Colorado State, Sacramento State and Fresno State to open the season, and victories in those three games are achievable. Then it's off to Pullman where, no doubt, last year's collapse against the Cougars is still fresh in the minds of those in Boulder. Remember the 10-point lead with five minutes left in the game? Only to watch Marshall Lobbestael throw two touchdowns in the final two minutes -- including a 63-yarder to Marquess Wilson with 1:10 left to play -- en route to a 31-27 come-from-behind win.

This game could be the most pivotal of Colorado's season. If the Buffaloes start off 3-0, then get a victory in Pullman, they'll head home to face a still-uncertain UCLA team before the bye week. It's not out of the realm of possibility for Colorado to be -- wait for it -- 5-0 heading into the bye week. Of course, a lot of things have to fall into place for all of this to come together. And it might be a stretch -- but it's not a big stretch.

If the Buffaloes can take care of business in the first three games, they'll have plenty of motivation for revenge against Washington State, and a ton of confidence as they look to the second half of the season and the very real possibility of achieving a bowl game.

True, there is a bit of a rivalry growing between Colorado and Utah, seeing as both were Pac-12 newcomers last year and the Buffaloes stunned Utah last season. It's actually a renewal of the old rivalry between the two schools from the 19-teens, through 40s. Maybe in a few years, that rivalry will rekindle (though doubtful it will ever reach the status of the CU-Nebraska rivalry).

But for now, Week 4 is the swing game for the Buffaloes and one that could alter the entire trajectory of the 2012 season.

Most important game: California

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
9:00
AM ET
Every game counts. But some games count more. Or tell us more.

We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.

We're going in alphabetical order.

California

Most important game: at Ohio State, Sept. 15

Why it's important: While a midseason Big Game against Bay Area rival Stanford would be the obvious choice -- particularly one in newly remodeled Memorial Stadium -- we're going to be contrarian. Our starting point is this: When was the last time the Bears won an, er, big game on the road? You could say perhaps the win at Stanford in 2009 counts, but driving an hour or so south hardly qualifies as a road trip. By our calculations, it was 2007, when the Bears nipped Oregon 31-24 in an Autzen Stadium thriller (a really, really entertaining game). That was back when everyone thought Jeff Tedford was one of the nation's best coaches and Nate Longshore was a sure-thing NFL prospect. Do Cal fans recall what happened next? I'm a little fuzzy. Ranked No. 2, about to jump to No. 1 after LSU lost. Oregon State in Strawberry Canyon. Kevin Riley's scramble. Tedford's infuriated stomp! OK, no need to go on (losing six of seven!). You could make the case that victory in Eugene hardly served a positive purpose, seeing what happened thereafter, but sometimes big wins are springboards into someplace other than the abyss. You know: Like a good season. Winning at the Horseshoe, one of the toughest places to play in the nation, would make a significant statement, nationally as well as within the Pac-12. If the Bears are able to beat a vulnerable but likely nationally ranked Ohio State squad, they almost certainly would take a 3-0 record and their own national ranking to USC the next weekend. The Bears would start the Pac-12 schedule with confidence. Quarterback Zach Maynard would have a marquee road win under his belt. The fanbase would stop wringing its hands over Tedford's hotseat and start imagining the program getting back on track. Even if the Bears lost to the Trojans, three winnable conference games follow before Stanford comes to town. Facing the Cardinal at 6-1 would make the Big Game worthy of its name. But a loss at Ohio State, particularly a lopsided one -- think horrible trips east against Tennessee and Maryland -- would add pressure to the visit to the Coliseum, where good things have not happened for the Bears of late. At 2-2, the leading topic among Bears fans would be Tedford's future. That would not be the case at 3-1 with a win over Urban Meyer.
Every game counts. But some games count more. Or tell us more.

We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.

We're going in alphabetical order.

Arizona State

Most important game: Northern Arizona, Aug. 30/Sept. 1

Why it's important: Ted did a bit of thunder stealing by pointing out that Arizona's most important game was Arizona State on Nov. 23. My first thought when we started this series was to circle this game as well for the Sun Devils. But allow, if you will, an alternate point of view.

Northern Arizona is not exactly a powerhouse in the FCS ranks. Guess what, ASU fans, you guys aren't exactly a powerhouse in the FBS ranks right now. Hurts to hear, but the truth always is. But rebuilding projects start with step one. And step one for the Sun Devils is getting a victory -- regardless of who the opponent is.

ASU is in the midst of a five-game slide -- most fresh is the 56-24 beating by Boise State in the Maaco Bowl. Until you get on the field and prove otherwise, you're only as good as your last game.

But as there is every spring in almost every camp, there is positive momentum around the ASU program, fueled by new head coach Todd Graham and his up-tempo, yet disciplined style of football. This is a good thing -- and Graham has given fans a reason to be excited.

It would be tempting to point to the Illinois game in Week 2 -- given the tough 17-14 loss last year and the fact that ASU coaches Ron West and Chip Long were both on the Illinois staff last season. But that's all the more reason to focus on Week 1.

A victory against NAU, which is expected since it's believed ASU has never lost to an FCS team, would be a good confidence boost for the quarterback-to-be and the players still learning new schemes on both sides of the ball. A loss would be absolutely devastating and would be a huge step backwards for Graham and Co.

Just ask Oregon State and Duke. Ask Virginia Tech and Kansas, Ole Miss and Minnesota, or any of the 13 teams that have lost to an FCS school in the past three years. Arizona is a long ways off and there is an entire season to debate the importance of that Nov. 23 showdown. Get through Week 1 first.

Most important game: Arizona

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
9:00
AM ET
Every game counts. But some games count more. Or tell us more.

We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.

We're going in alphabetical order.

Arizona

Most important game: Arizona State, Nov. 23

Why it's important: Arizona-Arizona State, the Territorial Cup, is always important. This is a bitter rivalry, one that -- at least in my opinion -- has more tangible bitterness than most state rivalry games. So the initial response from some will be, "Duh." But this isn't the most important game only because it's a rivalry game. For one, it's the final regular-season game for two programs with new coaches. That means either Arizona's Rich Rodriguez or Arizona State's Todd Graham will conclude his debut regular season by sending his players --- and fans -- into the offseason knowing they own the state. So the winning first-year coach will put himself in good stead with his fans and make a good first impression. The loser? Let's just say his honeymoon will get shorter. The winning fans will get hope. The losers will feel just a bit of doubt about their new coach.

Further, neither of these teams is going to arrive at this game ranked in the top-25. In fact, it's not unreasonable to project that this game could have bowl-eligibility stakes for one or even both teams -- the over-under for wins for both in 2012 is probably six. Just imagine if both enter the game with five wins, which is completely plausible. The loser ends up with a losing record and the winner breaks even goes to a bowl game. And all the state's recruits take note. In the event that one team is doing pretty well (say arriving with seven wins) and the other is not (say four wins), that would leave the option for the struggling team to play spoiler. Or the surging team to use the other as a stepping stone up the Pac-12 pecking order to a quality bowl game. Bottom line: The winner of this game likely will be able to call its season a success. The loser probably won't.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

Friday, 11/28
Saturday, 11/29