Most important game: Stanford

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.


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.