After a season full of disappointment, optimism is brewing on The Farm. With some pegging Stanford as a dark horse national championship contender.
Even though the defensive line is seemingly riddled with holes after losing all three starters up front, the guys who look to fill in are young, hungry, and talented. Yeah, I'm talking about you, Solomon Thomas.
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But it all could be for naught with one slip up. With one of the nation's best schedules, which would probably be the best if they didn't avoid playing themselves, any game could kill the team's momentum. So which game on Stanford's 2015 slate is the most important?
Nope, it's not Oregon.
The massive road matchup between the Cardinal and the USC Trojans will set the tone for Stanford's season. After throwing away a game to the Trojans last year with penalties, poor execution in the red zone, and turnovers, the Cardinal will come out hungry, looking to avenge this devastating loss. It changed the feel of Stanford's season last year, and a loss would do the same.
Stanford will head into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum most likely coming off of two non-conference victories. Yeah, Northwestern and UCF aren't exactly world beaters, but it's not like Stanford pulled a Baylor and scheduled barely FCS Incarnate Word, either. Realistically, Stanford should dismantle Northwestern on the road and then UCF, a team that lost to a pitiful 2-10 UCONN squad last season.
The matchup between two likely top ten teams will decide Stanford's direction next season. A win in such a hostile road environment would give the Cardinal invaluable confidence heading forward. Kevin Hogan especially needs this early boost, as it seems he was hesitant for the whole middle of the season after his early struggles against the Trojans.
With a loss, Stanford would be faced with the daunting task of winning out if it wanted a chance at the second annual College Football Playoff.
Stanford has only lost three games at home since 2010, with two coming last season. Their dominance at home made the loss hurt so much more, and the pain stayed with the team for the rest of the season.
Stanford's going to be even more fired up to defend its home turf this season, so don't expect the Cardinal to lose multiple big games at home. If they can mark down their only real road test as a W, it will give them immense confidence and momentum going forward. With a win over the Trojans, and even conceding one loss at home, which might be inevitable, giving their tough schedule (Arizona, UCLA, Washington, Oregon, Notre Dame, to name a few), Stanford would have a very strong playoff case. USC would mark a signature win, given the talent they're returning in Cody Kessler and their entire starting offensive line.
This game will make or break Stanford's season, and give them a mulligan for a bad performance against a team like Oregon or Notre Dame. Hopefully they won't need it.