"Must-win game" is an awesome sports cliche. Other than its literal meaning of a game where a team faces elimination, what is it that makes a game ‘must win’ versus ‘oughta win,’ or ‘huge win;’ perhaps it’s a ‘ballyhooed win?’ No, that was a ‘solid win;’ is this a ‘signature win?
Okay. Must win? Here are three of the options (Pac-12 games only):
Sat, Sept. 24 - Arizona (Tucson)
I understand ruling this one out because it's not a Northern Division game, but if ‘must win’ means a tone-setter and barometer for how the team looks from the get-go, this is the one. It’s the first game against a quality opponent. No, Arizona is not supposed to be very good. I definitely have a hard time seeing this being one of those painful desert blowout games, but the Wildcats go into this season as an unknown. They’ve amassed a stockpile of 3-star recruits the past three years (48 to be exact, along with 10 four-star); there’s some talent for sure. Anu Solomon struggled a lot last season, but still managed to throw for over 2600 yards with a 20/5 TD to INT ratio. He was prolific as a freshman (3793 YDS, 28 TD, 8 INT), but last season was knocked out of two games with concussions and seemed to regress overall. What the Huskies really have going for them is that Solomon tends to light up soft defensive teams and can look awful against good ones. Still, he has the experience of 25 starts, and with a program like Arizona’s, the potential always exists for an unknown WR or two to emerge.
If the Huskies aren’t sharp and let this one get away, there will be panic, and then "no, don’t worry, it's just one game," and then back to more jaded concern...
They can’t lose this game.
Fri, Sept. 30 - Stanford (Seattle)
Is the ‘must win’ game a high-profile national audience clash against the current rulers of the Pac-12 North? While beating Arizona would be a sigh of relief and a clench-your-fist kind of feeling, taking down Stanford has far more division consequences, and is more of a stand-up-and-cheer win. Win this game, and start talking about a "signature win" or "ballyhooed win" (even though I don’t know what ‘ballyhooed’ means). UW has played well against the Cardinal in Seattle recently, but the playmakers representing The Tree--especially Christian McCaffrey--will challenge even the stingy UW defense. If the Dawgs are 4-0 they are likely to be the favorite, even if the Cardinal are ranked higher.
Sat, Oct. 8, Oregon (Eugene)
UW fans want this game. Seniors like Kevin King and Darrell Daniels want this game. The younger guys? They want to be the ones who end the streak and start a new one. Oregon is still really, really good, but they will have to reverse some of their current trends to be the scary team they once were. The mild decline of the team as a whole was masked a bit by Marcus Mariota, who was simply one of the best college QBs of the past 20 years. The supporting cast was not what it had been, especially on defense. Last year the weaknesses were more glaring. Still, there's a lot of talent in the program. I see this game as a pick ‘em, with a UW victory being a 'puff out your chest' kind of win and Chris Petersen’s true signature triumph.