boomtho: Texas: Looking at how the schedule breaks, Texas is the probably the toughest game in the first five weeks. If Cal can beat UT on the road (which would be impressive, despite the Longhorns being relatively down right now), I could see us being 5-0 heading into the tough back half of the schedule. That would set us up as well as possible to make a bowl game and continue to the progress we've seen under Sonny & Co.
Ruey Yen: Stanford - since the Big Game is how I basically judge the success of every season. But realistically, I will be quite happy about the 2015 Cal Football season with wins over Texas and USC this year, even if we do falter against the Furdies.
Sam Fielder: I agree with Boomtho that it's Texas. Winning in Austin would give us a great chance to start the season 5-0 which would be huge in getting momentum in recruiting (though we aren't doing so bad there right now as it is...) and also gives us a fantastic chance to get bowl eligible. From there it's just a couple of breaks going our way and we're looking at a possible 7-8 win season. If we can pull that off just 2 seasons removed from a 1 win season, that would be huge. But it all hinges on Texas. Our team has the experience and maturity to go on the road and not lay an egg in a huge non-conference game against a national program that is looking to rebound. A loss wouldn't be completely devastating, but it would be the latest in a long line of high-profile losses that I really want to see us reverse starting right here.
And for second place, I agree with Ruey, beating Furd is always preferable. I really dislike them.
Nik Jam: I know it's a cliche. But it has to be Stanford. Another down year for the Card seems... In the cards (I'll see myself out.) I wouldn't pick them if we weren't riding another lengthy losing streak against them but this drought HAS to end.
Besides, depending on our defense, we could find ourselves struggling again this season and this could be our last chance to become bowl eligible.
mpeters10: Washington: I know it's dangerous to say Cal must win a road game in Seattle, but the six game losing streak to the Huskies has to end. When starting quarterback Cyler Miles announced his retirement due to a chronic hip injury, the Huskies lost a key piece from an already putrid offense from last season. The uncertainty at quarterback, coupled with having to replace a ton of departed defensive talent, means the Bears have a legit shot at taking down the Huskies. If the Bears want to take a step forward in the conference pecking order then this is the type of game they have to win. Cal could be looking at a 4-1 or 5-0 start if they beat the Huskies. (Honorable mention: Stanford. That streak must end as well.)
benwemer: I understand Texas, but I don't think Texas is a must win in order to have a good season. To me right now a good season is getting a bowl berth. That leaves us with four relatively or should be relatively easy wins (Grambling, SDSU, Washington St, and Oregon St.) Therefore we need two more wins to become bowl eligible so i'll go with Washington. Going up to Seattle and beating the Huskies would put us at at least 3 wins already, 4 if we beat Texas. That means were half way to a bowl game and I find our schedule very hard to get a lot of W's. Losing that game could put us in a downward spiral as the rest of the season get's harder, much harder.
Andrew G Miller: I’m with Ben here. Beating Stanford/USC/UCLA is always great, but this season is all about finding enough wins to make it to the postseason. To that end, I think the most important games are against the teams we "should" beat, and that’s why I’m picking Oregon State. This should be an easy win at home against a young team with a new coaching staff, but this is the kind of game where the Bears tend to trip over themselves. Cal will be coming off the toughest part of its schedule (@UCLA, USC, @Oregon), and could be reeling from some big losses. A composed win here would be proof that this year’s team is improving, and would set the Bears up well for the following week at Stanford.
KWBears: Washington. In my mind, a "good" season this year is making it to a bowl game. At this point, that's all Cal fans should really caring about - making it to the postseason. Winning six games is going to be really, really hard for us. We're just not that good of a team overall. So, if we're trying to get six wins - let's assume Grambling State, San Diego State, Washington State, and Oregon State are pretty safe wins. Where are the next two wins going to come from? I think it comes down to Utah and U-Dub. Since we play Washington first of the two, we have to win this game to have a shot and make Utah a more meaningful match-up. If we lose to Washington, we're going to have to pull-off an upset against one of the Pac-12's upper tier teams. I don't know if I can handle that kind of stress....
A.W. Johnston: The must win game in my mind is in Pasadena against UCLA. The Texas matchup should be a victory with Goff rolling over Charlie Strong's defense and it's hard for me to designate a non-conference game as a must win. As much as the Cal fan in me hates not going with Stanford here (a season is only truly successful when you beat 'Furd), UCLA comes at a time in the schedule when win number six should be within reach. With the tough finish to last season, beating the baby bears in their home stadium is the moment we can mark the 2015 season a success if it goes according to plan.
Berkelium97: Sonny Dykes needs a signature win this season. While a win over Texas would be nice, a win over one of the California rivals would be more meaningful, especially since Mack Brown is gone (praise be to Oski) and we blew our chance of redemption in the 2011 Holiday Bowl. USC, UCLA, LSJU--give me a win over any of them and I might be able to forgive the hiring of Andy Buh...actually, that would probably require wins against all three.
Nick Kranz: So you've got the emotional answer, and you've got the logical answer.
The emotional answer is a California rival, because Cal has been so abjectly bad against Stanford/USC/UCLA in the last four years. Stanford and USC would be the obvious candidates since that level of futility has been so extreme. Success against in-state rivals would help revive a beaten down fan-base.
Then, you have the logical answer. The most important game of the year is almost always going to be against a team in the Pac-12 North. Cal pretty much has to win home games against teams like OSU and WSU in a successful season. And Cal isn't very likely to beat Oregon. That leaves Washington and Stanford as swing games that will decide how we feel about the season.
Stanford is the team that falls under both the emotional category and the logical category. Thus, my answer is Stanford.
LeonPowe: Arizona clearly is and has been the gold standard in the Pac, and even losing Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, they've basically reloaded with the second best recruiting class in the pac (behind US!) and oh. . . football. Well, here, I'm not looking at who, but instead which is the team/game that will put us into the bowl eligible column. - and being negatively realistic, it'll look like we'll be coming into the final two games with 5 wins . . and that gives us Stanford. Well, beating Stanford is always always always a good thing - so to beat them to become bowl eligible will be a happy happy circumstance, so let's go with that.
Rob Hwang: I dont mean to troll but....all. /drops mic
Trace Travers: Texas. This is mostly from a personal standpoint, since I have not gotten over 2004, and our 2011 matchup in the Holiday Bowl was not fun. Beating a big name team, even in a down year, will do wonders for us from a national standpoint and a recruiting standpoint.
Nik Jam: Seeing a lot of UW, even Wazzu and Oregon St. Yep, it's starting to convince me. These are the "easy" ones, particularly the two at home and we HAVE to win all 3, if we assume that the 6 upset chances in my mind (Texas, Utah, UCLA, USC, Oregon, ASU) all wind up on the losing end.
But then we might have to go further and say SDSU and GSU are important. Losing either one pretty much dooms the season and starts the Fire Sonny wagon.
... I think I'll still stick with Stanford though. Just enough of a swing game that we probably have to win that to make a bowl game, and it's the Furd.
Keegan Dresow: San Diego State. Cal's first game of the season against an FBS opponent comes against the Aztecs, who haven't had a losing season since 2009. Brady Hoke built and Rocky Long sustains a tough, confident mid-major program. Still, Cal has superior talent and a program that should be close to gelling. Beating the Aztecs (preferably by a comfortable margin) is expected. Losing would be a major blow to confidence.
PerryScope: This question was very hard to answer because I was inclined to choose either beating Texas in Austin or Stanford in Palo Alto. However, I believe that Cal must beat Washington in Seattle. Last year’s game was quite embarrassing. On the first drive of the game, Cal was taking it to UW’s elite defense and on the goal line, Jared Goff attempted a QB sneak to dive over the defensive line for six. This play took place under center, and since Jared isn’t used to that, the play took a turn for the worst. Because his body type is not quite ready for those tough yards in the trenches, he fumbled the ball and 25th overall pick linebacker Shaq Thompson recovered the ball and took it 99 yards for a defensive touchdown.
This year, UW had 3 defensive first rounders in the 2015 NFL Draft. And although their defense lost a few elite guys, this game will still be quite difficult to win. Washington has one of the greatest 12th man’s in the country and Cal is 2-7 in Pac 12 road games since the Sonny Dyke’s era. To start the conference off with a road win would be huge for Cal’s momentum. The next week is a home guy vs Washington State, which is our easiest Pac 12 matchup this year by far. So to start conference play off 2-0 would be outstanding for the Cal football team.