Key stretch: Washington State

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 Oregon State, Nov. 22 at Arizona State, Nov. 29 vs. Washington

Why it's critical: After reaching their first bowl game since 2003, expectations clearly are on the rise for the Cougars. It’s similar to 2007, when they were coming off a six-win season and had quarterback Alex Brink returning for his senior year (along with talented receivers in Brandon Gibson and Michael Bumpus). That season, of course, proved to be a letdown – they finished 4-7 -- and coach Bill Doba was ushered out the door.

Washington State starts with a favorable schedule -- it would be easy to argue a 5-1 start is on the table – before conference play really heats up.

At this point, you still have to say Washington State is a likely underdog in its final six games, but each game provides some intrigue. The final stretch of Oregon State, Arizona State and Washington should ultimately determine the Cougars’ postseason fate -- whether that’s the bowl location or a bowl game at all.

If anything, these games shouldn’t lack for excitement. If you like offense, watching fifth-year quarterback Connor Halliday on the same field with fifth-year quarterbacks Sean Mannion (Oregon State) and Taylor Kelly (Arizona State) could create two of the most exciting games of the year in the conference. Then there’s the first Apple Cup between Chris Petersen and Mike Leach, which needs no extra billing.

Other key stretches: