Most important game: California

Every game counts. But some games count more. Or tell us more.

We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.

And then we'll let you vote from a list of potential options.

We're going in reverse alphabetical order.


Most important game: Nov. 9 vs. USC

Why it's important: This was the most difficult call -- at least for me -- so far.

You could make a case for the season opener against Northwestern. A win over a likely nationally ranked Wildcats team would give new coach Sonny Dykes some early momentum. Also, a victory would contrast well with the horrid opener a year ago, a loss to Nevada, that ruined the opening of newly remodeled Memorial Stadium.

That was my initial thought.

But then there are two big road games against the top two teams in the North Division: At Oregon on Sept. 28, which also opens the Pac-12 schedule, and, of course, the Big Game on Nov. 23 at Stanford, which concludes the regular season.

Either would be huge wins. The reason I'm not tapping them is because I think the Bears' chances are remote in each. Oregon and Stanford are top-5 teams, and both are road games.

I don't think the "Most Important Game" is necessarily about beating the best team on the schedule. Or even a rivalry game. Or the opener for a new coach.

Here's why I think Cal fans should circle the USC game in red.

  • The Bears haven't beaten the Trojans since their memorable triple-overtime win in Strawberry Canyon in 2003, which was a landmark win that heralded the Bears' climb to respectability and beyond under Jeff Tedford. It would be valid then to freight a Dykes victory with optimistic symbolism.

  • It's the final home game of the 2013 season, which means the home fans would carry a sweet memory of cheering (and jeering) into the offseason.

  • If you believe it's not how you start but how you finish, this would be a good lead-in for a strong finish.

  • My impression, developed over a few years of covering the conference, is Cal fans really don't like USC, and that dislike is almost equal to their dislike of Stanford.

I also think it's a much more winnable game for the Bears than road dates at Oregon or Stanford. And, as an added bonus, a win might spell doom for Trojans coach Lane Kiffin, which could inspire hours of message board gloating. Not that Cal fans would ever, ever do that.

In terms of football stuff, beating USC would not only make up for years of frustration in the series, it would offset the horrid performance at USC last year, when Cal was outgained 488 yards to 250 in a 27-9 defeat.

Further, set the whole thing up based on the schedule, which is among the nation's toughest next fall. If the Bears' goal is to get back to a bowl game, where do you flag the necessary six wins? Hard to find.

But let's just say the Bears have four wins when USC comes to town. Beat the Trojans, and a trip to Colorado is all that stands in the way of bowl eligibility. Then the Stanford game becomes pure gravy, with a puncher's chance in a rivalry game when the Cardinal might be playing for huge stakes.

Stakes that Bears could smash to bits. Heck, Stanford might be caught napping, looking ahead to a date with Notre Dame.

But a Cal team that comes to the Big Game with a victory over USC under its belt would have a much better chance at a huge upset than one that's limping into the final weekend.

So Stanford will always be the Big Game for Cal. But USC is the Most Important Game in 2013.