HydroTech: USC. Cal needs to prove it's ready for prime time by collecting some marquee wins, and reassert its dominance in the State of California.
Nik Jam: USC and Stanford will be popular answers... and in terms of having a good conference year, these are the biggest games for sure. But what if we're talking about a national title or just reaching 6 wins?
Texas. With all due respect to Hawai'i and San Diego State, Cal should be able to handle those two. I could see myself eating my words in the latter case only because it's a road game and obviously losing either one will cause a lot of panic. However, if the first two games go as they should on paper, Texas will be a huge swing.
Will Cal have a 3-0 start, and only need to go 3-6 to reach a bowl game? Will Cal potentially enter the Arizona State game ranked and have similar confidence and aspirations to the 2015 season when they started 3-0 entering conference play?
Or will Cal have a deflating home opener loss, a 2-1 record... 4 wins needed in a difficult Pac-12 slate to go bowling... lower expectations and no ranking going into conference play. Obviously 9-0 or 8-1 in conference would still likely lead to a Pac-12 North title, but would anyone feel that coming without a win over the Longhorns? Starting 3-0 will give this young team a LOT of confidence going forward, and I can only see good things coming out of that.
boomtho: I'm thinking along similar lines to NikJam, but I'm going to go with ASU.
While I expect SDSU and Texas to fight hard, I'm cautiously optimistic about those two games. However, I think ASU is the first huge test of the season, both because it's on the road, but also because ASU should be pretty good. I think if Cal can get to 3-1 after ASU, that sets up the team to have a great shot at bowl eligibility, despite a lot of tough games yet to come. If Cal stumbles at ASU (and looks bad doing it), I think that sets up the team for a very tough second game of the season.
Andrew G Miller: Let's leave aside the obvious answer here, which is that Stanford is always the biggest game of the season (hence the name). It seems like expectations this season are for the Bears to be somewhere on the fringe of bowl eligibility, which I think is an important threshold to hit for all the reasons we've discussed in the past. So with that in mind I think the Bears have to beat one or both of the Washington schools. Figure they get through the first half of the season with four or five wins, lose to Oregon and USC, and come back to Berkeley needing a couple of wins to make a bowl. I'm not entirely sold on the Huskies just yet, so getting a confidence-building win at home seems like a good way to regain a little bit of momentum going into Wazzu/Stanford/UCLA.
Nick Kranz: If the goal is bowl eligibility (which is probably a fair expectation) then the most important games will be the tough-but-winnable home games against Texas, Utah, and Washington. The types of games that Cal will absolutely need to get to 6 wins.
If we're talking about the psyche of the fan base (and perhaps the team itself) and building some long term faith in this coaching regime, then it's the obvious USC/UCLA/Stanford triumvirate. I'd be really interested to see how Cal fans would take another year of 6/7 wins without a win over a California rival.