All fans can look at their teams’ schedules and identify the stretches that will likely determine whether the season will be a success.
That’s our objective as we examine the schedules of all 12 Pac-12 teams and attempt to identify the toughest two-to-four-game stretches of 2016 for each club.
Next up: Washington State
Toughest stretch: Oct. 1-15 (Oregon, at Stanford, UCLA)
Why: The Oregon and Stanford games will both be huge for the Pac-12 North. If the Cougars are able to knock both of those teams off near the beginning of the season, Washington State will put itself in position to control its fate moving forward. Then, throw in a grudge match against UCLA, and you’ve got three games (that come at the early end of the Pac-12 slate for Washington State) that could help build early momentum or put the Cougars in a bit of a hole.
The Oregon game will be very interesting. Two seasons ago, the Cougars welcomed Oregon to the Palouse and nearly took down Marcus Mariota and the Ducks. It was an early indicator that the Cougs wouldn’t just be an offensive team under Mike Leach as they sacked Mariota seven times. Last season, the Cougars won in Eugene with some heroic overtime plays from Luke Falk and Robert Lewis.
Last season, the Cardinal needed a game-winning field goal to come out of Pullman with a win after the Cougars held the Stanford pass game to just 86 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. The Cardinal made up for it on the ground -- Kevin Hogan rushed for a team-high 112 yards while Christian McCaffrey tallied 107 yards and no touchdowns, which was actually one of his less impressive games of the season. It was a huge improvement for the Cougars, who had lost by 17 points on their last trip to Palo Alto.
The last two Oregon games and the most recent Stanford game were decided by a total of 16 points. Washington State is no longer the dormat of the Pac-12 North and Mark Helfrich and David Shaw are quite aware. Washington State will have a chance to defend its home turf against Oregon and redeem itself at The Farm.
Then, tack on a rematch with UCLA, which is possibly still reeling from Gabe Marks’ game-winning touchdown with three seconds remaining last season to give the Cougars an upset win over then-No. 19 UCLA. The Bruins return plenty of talent and it’ll be fun to watch Falk and Josh Rosen battle out to see which player has the more consistent arm that day.
All in all, it’ll be a very important three-week stretch for the Cougars. A few big wins early in the season -- especially over Pac-12 North foes -- could be what Washington State needs to bring itself to the Pac-12 title game. But early losses would put the Cougars’ fate in others’ hands, which isn’t where Leach wants his team to be.