Key stretch: California

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), before each season for every team you can point to a stretch of games on the schedule that appears 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: Sept. 20 at Arizona, Sept. 27 vs. Colorado, Oct. 4 at Washington State

Why it's critical: When a team wins only one game and no conference games the preceding season, it looks for any manageable stretch early in the season that might produce some confidence and momentum. This, California's opening salvo from the Pac-12 schedule, is a perfect example.

While the Bears have a decent shot at an upset at Northwestern in the season opener, it's more likely they will open the season 1-1 -- we're assuming a win over Sacramento State, an FCS foe, thinking Cal should not mimic during its preparations.

Then comes this troika. Each of these three foes is expecting to beat Cal, but this also is the Bears' most forgiving stretch of conference games. They will be bigger underdogs pretty much in every other game.

The most likely victory would be the home game against Colorado. The question then is can the Bears win a road conference game? Going 2-1 in this stretch would rate a solid accomplishment in Year 2 under Sonny Dykes.

With a 3-2 start, Cal then would have a puncher's shot to win one or two more games -- perhaps a shocking upset and a home win over BYU to conclude the season. If the Bears move up to 5-7 from 1-11, that would be a strong step forward. Heck, a reasonable fan in Berkeley would be mostly satisfied with 4-8.

But 5-7 or even 4-8 is almost certain not to happen if the Bears go 1-2 or 0-3 to open the Pac-12 schedule.

Other key stretches: