Of all the variables facing a team with championship aspirations, perhaps the most important -- the schedule -- is almost completely out of its control. Sure, the schools are responsible for scheduling their non-conference opponents, but even that can be problematic. Should a team take the risk of playing high caliber opponents that would boost strength of schedule, or should they simply look for easy wins? This fall Stanford gets a little of both with two certain wins at home against UC Davis (FBS) and Army, but a difficult test on the road against Notre Dame.
Beyond the three non-conference games on the Cardinal's schedule, there are the usual nine Pac-12 games (not eight, like the SEC, Big Ten, and ACC). There are no favors here. Stanford misses Arizona and woeful Colorado, but this is an even year, which means almost every game of note takes place on the road. Here's a quick preview...
UC Davis at Stanford, August 30
All you really need to know about this game is that the following week the Aggies play Fort Lewis. I have no idea where Fort Lewis is, and for all I know they could be playing a game of Capture the Flag. Yes, I still remember when UC Davis actually beat Stanford back in 2005, but that was a different time. The Aggies are an average FBS team; Stanford will destroy them.
USC at Stanford, September 6
Okay, now we're getting serious. In the first real test of the season, Stanford will have a chance to avenge last year's crushing loss. The Trojans will have a new head coach (Snarky Steve Sarkisian), a new offense, and a new defense. A win here would give the Cardinal lots of early momentum.
Army at Stanford, September 13
I have no idea why Stanford scheduled Army, because no good can come of these games. Facing a team that runs the ball sixty times a game with chop-blocking and leg-whipping offensive linemen is a recipe for disaster. The goal here is to escape without injury. There's no danger of a loss.
Stanford at Washington, September 27
This promises to be an interesting game. Washington will be a completely different team -- no Keith Price and no Bishop Sankey -- and we'll get a look at the newest Pac-12 genius, head coach Chris Peterson. This is probably a good year to be travelling north, because I'm guessing that within just a season or two the Huskies will join Stanford and Oregon as beasts of the Pac-12 North.
Stanford at Notre Dame, October 4
Do you remember what happened the last time the Cardinal visited South Bend? That's right, I thought you did. I see this as a big swing game on the Stanford schedule. A win would propel them into the second half of the season on a high note, while a loss would likely eliminate them from playoff consideration.
Washington State at Stanford, Friday, October 10
This is the first of two Friday night games for the Cardinal, which is ridiculous -- unless you consider the fact that I know it won't conflict with my daughter's Saturday soccer game, which is nice for me. I'm not sure what to think about this Washington State program. When they coughed away the New Mexico Bowl last Decemeber in such glorious fashion, head coach Mike Leach officially became a caricature of himself, if that's possible. Who knows what we'll see when the Cougs come calling.
Stanford at Arizona State, October 18
Unlike Washington State, we know exactly what we'll see from the Sun Devils -- probably the most explosive Pac-12 offense outside of Eugene -- and they'll still be angry about the shellacking the Cardinal gave them in last Decemeber's Pac-12 Championship game. This will be a highly motivated team. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that this will be the Cardinal's toughest test up until this point in the season.
Oregon State at Stanford, October 25
I don't have anything to say about Oregon State, not even anything sarcastic. They'll come to Stanford with high hopes and a senior quarterback, they'll go home losers. Like always.
Stanford at Oregon, November 1
The Ducks have a fairly weighty schedule (Michigan State in Week 2, a trip to UCLA in Week 7), but it still wouldn't be a surprise if they were 8-0 heading into this matchup. For several years now Stanford-Oregon has been the biggest game west of the Mississippi (since Texas A&M is in the SEC, I now consider them east of the Mississippi), and that might be the case again this season. Like the Sun Devils, the Ducks will certainly have revenge on their minds after the Cardinal exposed them on national television last season.
Utah at Stanford, November 15
Even more than USC, it was the Utah loss that derailed Stanford's season in 2013 (if we can even use the word "derailed" to describe a season that ended in the Rose Bowl). It will be nice to see the Utes again, nicer still if the Cardinal hammers them.
Stanford at California, November 22
For a while it looked like this game would be played in Levi's Stadium, the San Francisco 49ers' new home. Alums from both schools were up in arms over the prospect of a neutral site game, but it would've been great for Stanford. Cal would then have hosted in 2015, meaning Big Game would be played on the Farm in even years instead of odd, balancing Stanford's home schedule a bit. (It would make sense to close out the home season with either Cal or Notre Dame in alternate years.) But it didn't work out, and the beat down will take place in Berkeley as scheduled. This game is still almost seven months away, but I'm going to go out on a limb right now and say that it won't be as bad as it was last season. There's no way Stanford beats Cal by 50 points again, right? Maybe 45. This is kind of like having a bye, except you get the Axe at the end. Which is nice.
Stanford at UCLA, Friday, November 28
This is the day after Thanksgiving, so it's not entirely ridiculous to be playing on a Friday night, but you know what is ridiculous? These same two teams might end up playing each other again eight days later in the Pac-12 championship game. The conference decision makers learned nothing from their mistake of 2012. It was awkward two years ago, and it'll be worse if it happens again this year. UCLA will be the best team in the South, and they'll certainly enter the season with their eyes on a conference championship and a berth in the inaugural four-team playoff. Needless to say, this will be a huge game.
It's probably too early to make predictions of how these individual games will play out, but one thing is clear -- this schedule is brutal. They play eight teams who went to bowl games last season, and aside from USC, all of their toughest matchups (Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon, and UCLA) are on the road. If David Shaw and company can navigate this slate and claim a third consecutive Pac-12 title, there will be on argument as to their inclusion in the College Football Playoff.