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Stanford faces brutal five-game gauntlet after bye week

A game plan for how to survive the toughest stretch of the season

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The bye week is almost over. Players have had a week to rest and recuperate from the hard-fought skirmish against the Wildcats from Snyderville (aka Manhattan, Kansas).

The men in red gained ground (even though they had a mere 105 yards rushing) and broke in a new leader (Ryan Burns was quite efficient in his debut), but losses were taken (Harrison Phillips doubtful for USC game) and positive offensive gains became negligible in the second half (save for one big run by Christian McCaffrey).

Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, it does.

The Cardinal has a front-loaded schedule this year, and it's going to test every ounce of their mettle to survive this brutal stretch: USC, UCLA, Washington, Washington State and Notre Dame.

Let's take a closer look at these next five opponents and their schedules until they meet Stanford.

USC Trojans

Schedule: Home vs. Utah State (Sept. 10), @ Stanford (Sept. 17)

  • The Trojans were embarrassed by Nick Saban and Alabama in Week 1, but should rebound when they host the Aggies at the Coliseum this week.
  • News came down that starting center Toa Lobendahn tore his ACL (and his MCL) for the second straight year, shutting him down for the season. That being said...
  • Key to Win: A dominant front seven. 2015 All Pac-12 selections Zach Banner (first team) and Chad Wheeler (second team) bookend an experienced Trojans' offensive line. Any pressure the Cardinal defensive front can put on first-year starting quarterback Max Browne would be greatly appreciated.

UCLA Bruins

Schedule: Home vs. UNLV (Sept. 10), @ BYU (Sept. 17), Home vs. Stanford (Sept. 24)

  • The Bruins are edging closer to their neighbors in the struggle for control of Los Angeles, but they flopped in the early going last week against Texas A&M before battling back to send it to OT.
  • The scales are tipped in favor of the Cardinal in this series: Stanford has won an impressive eight consecutive games since 2009.
  • Key to Win: Open up the playbook. The offensive play-calling from David Shaw was nothing special against Kansas State. It might be advantageous for Ryan Burns to stretch the UCLA secondary because the kid has a cannon for an arm.

Washington Huskies

Schedule: Home vs. Idaho (Sept. 10), Home vs. Portland State (Sept. 17), @ Arizona (Sept. 24), Home vs. Stanford (Sept. 30)

  • Washington has become the hottest sleeper pick among the national media contingent, thanks to the dual emergence of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin last year, both sophomores in 2016.
  • The all-time series is even (41 wins apiece), which proves this has been a back-and-forth rivalry for a long time. Also, the game this year is in Seattle, which is one of toughest road venues for a visiting team in the nation.
  • Key to Win: A cohesive offensive line. The Huskies' defense is one of the scariest in the conference (Allowed 3.3 yards per carry in 2015). The Stanford rushing attack is going to need the road graders to play as a unit and find a rhythm against defensive tackles Greg Gaines and Elijah Qualls if they expect to gain any traction.

Washington State Cougars

Schedule: @ Boise State (Sept. 10), Home vs. Idaho (Sept. 17), BYE (Sept. 24), Home vs. Oregon (Oct. 1), @ Stanford (Oct. 8)

  • The Cougars have been wildly inconsistent in Pac-12 competition for the past several years. However, they finished 9-4 last year and defeated the Miami Hurricanes in the Sun Bowl. Fancy that!
  • The Stanford-Wazzu meeting in 2015 was indeed a shootout, with Stanford eking out a 30-28 win on a rainy night in Pullman. There is a sour taste in the mouth of Mike Leach, one of the greatest offensive minds in football. Leach, Luke Falk & company should be ready to uncork the Air Raid on the Cardinal secondary. Speaking of...
  • Key to Win: Keep passing game in check. Falk is gonna drop back to pass 50+ times; deal with it. A lockdown secondary, featuring safeties Zach Hoffpauir, Justin Reid and Dallas Lloyd and cornerbacks Alijah Holder and Quinton Meeks, can be the difference between a 250-yard or 500-yard passing day.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Schedule: Home vs. Nevada (Sept. 10), Home vs. Michigan State (Sept. 17), Home vs. Duke (Sept. 24), Neutral site game vs. Syracuse (Oct. 1), @ NC State (Oct. 8), Home vs. Stanford

  • The Irish entered the season a depleted team. Losing Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise should've taken a toll on their offensive production, but DeShone Kizer has made the ND faithful forget all about those two with his performance in the double overtime loss to Texas.
  • In last year's game, Kevin Hogan single-handedly engineered the drive that knocked Notre Dame out of the College Football Playoff conversation and won the game. That is sure to be something the Irish will not have forgotten.
  • Key to Win: COMPETE. The Irish went the full sixty (and then some) against the Longhorns in a game for the ages. If both teams keep the same competitive edge and spirit throughout the entire contest, this could be another destined for ESPN Classic.

If this stretch were a poker game, this five-game gauntlet would be the worst possible hand to hold. Strength of schedule seems to matter more and more these days, especially to those seated on the CFP selection committee. If the Cardinal make it through the ringer unscathed, there's a real chance David Shaw could be competing down the stretch for a shot at a national title.