Key stretch: Utah

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 you can point to a stretch of games on the schedule that appears defining for every team. 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. 6 vs. Fresno State, Sept. 20 at Michigan, Sept. 27 vs. Washington State

Why it's critical: What's most intriguing about this three-game stretch is that it's plausible the Utes could go 3-0 or 0-3. For a team that figures to be on the bowl fringe, it's a make or break three weeks.

Fresno State will be a tough game after the season-opener against Idaho State, but it's in Salt Lake City and the Bulldogs have to replace quarterback Derek Carr. A win against Fresno State would grease the skids for success going to Michigan, where Utah won in 2008.

Michigan hardly appears like a world-beater after finishing 2-6 following a 5-0 start last year. Much like against Fresno State, a win against Michigan would provide Utah a big boost of momentum headed into conference play, but a loss wouldn't be overly concerning.

At this point, Utah could be anywhere from 1-2 to 3-0. The Utes got off to a rough start against WSU a year ago and weren't able to fight their way back in a game that ultimately decided which team played in a bowl game.

And after that? Brutal. At UCLA, at Oregon State, vs. USC, at Arizona State, vs. Oregon, at Stanford.

Other key stretches: