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Stanford enters make-or-break part of schedule over next four weeks

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The Cardinal has a chance to regain some national respect and some ground in the conference race

Ezra Shaw

It's time for Stanford to prove how good it is. Or how good it isn't.

Three of the next four games are on the road, three are Pac-12 conference games and two are against top-15 opponents. Let's see what this team is made of.

Now while Washington, Notre Dame, Washington State and Arizona State over the next four weeks isn't exactly like playing the Seattle Seahawks four weeks in a row, it's the Cardinal's first prolonged exposure to the winds and cold of the schedule. And remember: It's not necessarily the first gust or snowstorm that can leave you dead or missing a few fingers - it's prolonged exposure that does that.

Washington might be the least threatening of the four so far - they were shut out in the first half by Georgia State - but leaving the safe confines of Stanford stadium for the hostile shores of Lake Washington is still a test that must be passed. Sample question: How will the offensive line hold up in that road environment? Because it doesn't get easier the next week.

Notre Dame looks like it has a chance to be pretty darn good thanks to the superb play of Everett Golson, who's thrown for 780 yards and 7 touchdowns in just three games. Rice, Michigan and Purdue are varying levels of putrid, but Dr. Lou Holtz says that shouldn't diminish the fact that Notre Dame has played clean football thus far.

Washington State sunk its teeth into Oregon's battered offensive line, sacking Marcus Mariota seven times en route to a valiant 38-31 defeat. The Cougars didn't win, but they left Oregon with a big red bite mark and a prescription to apply Hydrogen Peroxide every 8 hours. We'll see if the Ducks get healthy enough along the front five to avoid any more narrow escapes this season, but the feisty Wazzu performance certainly raised eyebrows. The Cardinal should be thankful to draw them at home, instead of in the disquieting wilderness of Pullman.

It's hard to know exactly where we are with Arizona State, because they seem to be pretty good-looking but that may just be because they were hanging out with Weber State, New Mexico and Colorado the last three weeks. They haven't really had the chance to have their larger flaws exposed yet, but they play UCLA this weekend and both teams' issues should be readily apparent after that contest. (One issue to mention specifically: starting QB Taylor Kelly injured his foot and won't play this week.)

That's a point that deserves to be emphasized on a broader scale as well: every Pac-12 team now has now had some flaws exposed or they will have their weak points tested this weekend (see Wazzu against Utah and Oregon State on the road at USC). Some flaws can be corrected, while others will persist on all season long, so the perceptions of these conference teams may shift a lot over the next month.

On the home front, the Cardinal needs to address some offensive inconsistency. The defense has looked suffocating so far this season, but the Stanford offense must begin putting up 30+ points a game to really get this team into a position to win the Pac-12 and potentially end up with a chance at the playoff.

It's all possible - two early losses didn't doom the Cardinal in 2012 - but now's the time for Stanford to show what exactly it is. Is the Cardinal a team that can't punch it in despite owning a 40-foot boa constrictor of a defense? Or will the offense rise to something greater?

Check back in about a month.