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: Oct. 11 at UCLA, Oct. 18 vs. Washington, Nov. 1 vs. Stanford
Why it’s critical: This one was tough. There was a big part of me that just wanted to say the nonconference schedule, meaning Michigan State. Because, let’s be honest, there’s no way to understate the importance of Game 2 for the Ducks this season. If Oregon stumbles in that game, there’s a decent chance it could be counted out of the inaugural College Football Playoff. However, assuming the Ducks are able to take care of the Spartans at home, I would consider this UCLA-Washington-Stanford stretch to be the key in Oregon’s schedule.
Most of the “key-ness” to this stretch hinges on the Stanford game, because if the Pac-12 North title isn’t riding on this game, I’d be quite surprised. So I could have either stretched it three games forward or backward from Nov. 1, making Stanford the starting or ending point. However, I think it will be more key of a stretch to see how the Ducks handle the Cardinal after playing at UCLA and hosting Washington, a team I think is going to be sneaky good this year (and a trip to Cal in between the Washington and Stanford games should be a good chance for Oregon coach Mark Helfrich to get the backups some quality reps). But that’s a tough stretch, and assuming Oregon is healthy entering the Stanford game, it will be interesting to see how the Ducks close out that stretch.
As always, the Oregon State game will also be important. I don’t think it’s smart to ever discount Sean Mannion (especially with a new offensive coordinator in Corvallis). But if the Ducks are able to sweep UCLA, Washington and Stanford, I think they walk into Oregon State and skip away with a trip to Levi’s Stadium and a spot in the Pac-12 championship game.
Other key stretches: