Key stretch: Stanford

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. 18 at Arizona State, Oct. 25 vs. Oregon State, Nov. 1 at Oregon.

Why it's critical: We're at a point where the Stanford-Oregon game serves as somewhat of a default Pac-12 championship game until proven otherwise. The winner of that game has gone on to win the conference title game the last three years.

Before Stanford goes for its third-straight win against the Ducks on Nov. 1, it first must get through defending Pac-12 South champion Arizona State (which the Cardinal beat twice in 2013) and Oregon State (played Stanford to one-score games the last two years). It's a manageable build up to Oregon, but Utah showed last season that Stanford can be prone to an out-of-nowhere loss.

Just about every game in the Pac-12 will feature an intriguing quarterback battle, but having Taylor Kelly, Sean Mannion and Marcus Mariota to prepare for over a three-straight week span will be especially challenging and so will the venues. Sun Devil Stadium and Autzen are two of the best home-field advantages in the conference. A 3-0 stretch likely has the Cardinal in playoff discussions.

Following those three games, Stanford breathes a little easier -- vs. Utah, at Cal -- before a road game to UCLA to finish the season.

Other key stretches: