Key stretch: UCLA

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: Nov. 8 at Washington, Nov. 22 vs. USC, Nov. 28 vs. Stanford

Why it's critical: Expectations at UCLA haven't been this high in a very long time. The Bruins are legitimate Pac-12 title contenders and, as a result, they'll continue to be mentioned as possible playoff contenders until proven otherwise.

What that means is that there isn't a stretch any less important than another. One or two hiccups along the way could be enough to derail UCLA from reaching its ultimate goals.

No three-game stretch figures to be more difficult than the last three, nor more important. If UCLA is in good standing (with a 9-0 or 8-1 record) by the time it arrives in Seattle, that will mean little or nothing without a strong finish.

It'll also be interesting to see how losing early vs. losing late factors into how the selection committee decides the four-team playoff, but losing to Stanford in the regular-season finale could have harsher repercussions than a loss to Oregon on Oct. 11.

Other key stretches: