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The Benefits of Stanford's Brutal 2014 Schedule

The Cardinal has a challenging slate ahead this fall - but there's no reason to think that tough schedule is cause for doom and gloom

Ezra Shaw

About a month ago, Stanford head football coach David Shaw served up an all-you-can-eat buffet for headline writers across the country.

Shaw called out the SEC for sticking to only eight conference games as opposed to nine (like the Pac-12 and Big 12), emphatically stating: "Don't back down from playing your own conference." Though he doesn't speak out very often, Shaw has developed an uncanny ability to grab attention when he does.

When looking ahead at the brutal slate that awaits the Cardinal, Stanford's head man may have a point.

In just three months, the Cardinal will kick off their season and begin grinding through the second toughest schedule in the conference, according to ESPN's Pac-12 blog. (Utah, by the way, claims the top spot by virtue of having to play Stanford).

However, the gauntlet that awaits Stanford may not be such a bad thing. With the new four-team playoff system beginning next season, a tough schedule - with some well-timed bye weeks - may be just what Stanford needs.

Without a doubt, Stanford's 2014 schedule looks miserable on paper, and no one in his or her right mind would say otherwise. For a team that plays appreciably better at home, 2014 conveniently sends the Cardinal on the road for almost every major showdown. Aside from hosting USC the second game of the season, Stanford must make the trek to Seattle to face Washington and to South Bend to take on Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks, along with visits to Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA.

In addition, October 25th 's meeting with Oregon State will almost certainly be tricky. Even the Army game in Week 3 may not be a total cakewalk. After all, the Black Knights' new coach, triple option guru Jeff Monken, just led FCS Georgia Southern to a victory over Florida in the Swamp last fall.

Nevertheless, Stanford fans should not bemoan the difficulty of next season's schedule too much. In fact, it may turn out to be a blessing. The bottom line is that it's very, very hard to go undefeated. The Cardinal has never run the table during the Harbaugh/Shaw renaissance, not even after last year's favorable schedule when the Card met all but one of their ranked opponents at home. Whether it's running into a juggernaut in Oregon or a pesky road opponent like Washington or Utah, there are just too many ways to trip up over the course of a long, mentally draining season.

So if we make the not-so-outlandish assumption that Stanford will trip up at some point during the season, wouldn't it be better to have a tough strength of schedule to lean on? Since the start of the BCS in 1998, there were a total of eight two-loss teams in the top four of the final poll prior to the bowl games. While all eight of those squads certainly benefited from a good deal of luck, they all boasted strength of schedules in the top 50 of their respective seasons. A tough schedule can make up for a lot.

While the new College Football Playoff will determine the final four teams by a selection committee as opposed to computer formulas, expect strength of schedule to still be a valuable asset, especially for team with one or two losses. If the NCAA basketball tournament is any indicator, a team with a number of quality wins will usually get rewarded come selection time.

Nevertheless, Stanford can only lose two games maximum to have any hope of playing for a national title. A 9-3 record will, quite simply, not cut it no matter what happens. Thankfully for Stanford, the schedule, as tough as it looks, also provides a lot of insurance against complete self-destruction. For starters, Stanford faces old nemesis Steve Sarkisian and his new team, USC, in the second week of the season - a point when the Trojans might still be working to figure things out under Sark's new system. The back-to-back road trips to Washington and Notre Dame come after a bye week to prepare and - perhaps more importantly - get acclimated to the start of the academic year on the Farm.

The Card also has a bye following their Nov. 1 clash with Oregon, which should give the team time to recover mentally from what's sure to be one of the biggest games of the year, regardless of the outcome.

In short, Stanford's 2014 schedule will provide a tremendous challenge and constantly demand the best of the team. But that may not be such a bad thing.

By rising to the challenge and getting the job done in some dangerous road environments, the Cardinal could earn some much-deserved national respect and a spot in the four-team playoff, even with one or two losses along the way. At worst, the timing of the bye weeks should give Stanford a chance to regroup and prevent the season from completely imploding,

When December rolls around, the selection committee should respect Stanford and the Pac-12 for the brutality that a nine-game conference schedule brings. If anything, maybe Cardinal fans should be sweating more about the RPI killer that is FCS opponent UC Davis in the first game of the season. While that game should help the Card exorcise the demons of a humiliating loss to the Aggies during the 2005 season, it just might come back to haunt Stanford on judgment day if it is one of the teams vying for a spot in the playoff.

While the 2014 season remains three months away, there's still plenty of excitement surrounding Stanford football. Next season's schedule is unquestionably daunting - but it may be just what this team needs to get over the hump and play for a national title.