1. Run vs pass breakdown
Last year, the Cardinal ran the ball 65 percent of the time. Will that be the case again in 2014? I doubt it.
The Stanford offense of a year ago was highly predicated on the power run game and the occasional explosive vertical pass play, but this year it should return to looking a bit more like the offense of 2011 or 2012. With the advent of three capable tight ends and the lack of a go-to runner, Kevin Hogan will likely be relied upon to put the ball in the air more frequently.
It's worth watching how the Cardinal coaches vary their running and passing game in every down and distance - particularly on first down. I'll also be eyeing how they ask Hogan throw the ball. Will there be more quick, West-Coast style passes in the offense? Or are we gonna see Ty Mongtomery and Devon Cajuste go vertical? How frequently will the tight ends catch passes? Has Hogan's short and intermediate accuracy improved, especially under pressure? All of it matters if the Cardinal coaching staff want to construct an offense that can hang with the best teams in the nation.
Also - will there be any hurry-up elements this season? I hope so.
2. The offensive line
The first-team offensive line looked a little suspect in the Spring Game, but they've been earning steady accolades from coaches as they've gone along this summer. David Shaw is confident in the ability of the line and is particularly curious to see how they work together when the lights come on.
In his Tuesday press conference, Shaw said:
"Everybody on that line has played. Graham Shuler played last year, coming in playing tight end. Johnny Caspers played the wing a couple of times and played in the backfield and played tight end also. You've seen those guys play football. You saw Kyle Murphy play a lot, Josh Garnett play a lot last year. But now it's a complete offensive line, the entire unit, for a game. With things coming up, things flying all over the place, how do they handle all the changes? How do they handle all those things? How will they handle things that come up right before a play that maybe they hadn't seen and we hadn't prepared them for? Can they handle those things, and how do they handle those things? That's what I'm fascinated about."
I'll be very curious to see which kind of blocking schemes the coaches ask the line to play - and which ones they're most successful in - as well as who is individually good or bad.
3. Who gets snaps - and who doesn't - on both sides of the ball
I'm not talking about who is out due to injury (Aziz Shittu is the only major contributor who will be out), but instead which players enter the rotation and when they enter play. I'm specifically focused on running back, tight end and nickel cornerback on Saturday.
Running back is an obvious point of concern because of Tyler Gaffney's departure, so I'll be watching how Kelsey Young runs between the tackles, how Barry Sanders' game continues to grow, who will be the short yardage back, and how frequently freshman Christian McCaffrey gets the opportunity to carry the ball.
Young has received praise for his ability to smash it inside during the spring and summer, and he looked pretty good at it during the spring game. Sanders should be a huge weapon on third down because he can catch the ball out of the backfield and he's an electric runner inside and outside. Does that mean one of those two guys will get short yardage reps on Saturday, or will Shaw turn to a bigger back - like fullbacks Lee Ward and Patrick Skov? McCaffrey has earned some rave reviews - he's going to be one of only two freshmen slated to receive serious playing time - but when and how will he touch the ball? Is he just going to assume Kelsey Young's old role, or is it something more complex?
At tight end, who will be asked to run block and who will be tasked with catching passes? Will Eric Cotton split out wide? Which of the TEs will be called in the red zone? They're all blank slates at this point, so I'm curious to see who excels and where.
On the defensive side of the ball, Stanford played nickel formations about 70 percent of the time last season (according to Jon Wilner), so I'm curious to see the snap breakdown for those players. Four or five different guys have repped at nickel this spring and summer, and I'm very interested to see how Duane Akina's rotation will work.