Stanford fans know to circle specific dates on their calendars. These are the games that decide if a season was a success or a failure. For years, Oregon has been a worthy adversary in the North Division race. Now, even though the Ducks have been supplanted by Washington as the team to beat in order to play for the conference championship, they still remain a meaningful game. USC and UCLA have always been consistent threats outside the division, and a newly resurgent Trojan team makes the fateful Week 2 meeting in Los Angeles that much more important. The Notre Dame game always carries great consequence and national prestige. The Big Game needs no introduction. While the Bears haven’t been competitive in some time, they must be beaten every season to avoid leaving a bad taste in the mouth.
Year in and year out, Stanford football plays one of the hardest schedules in the entire nation. It’s a product of circumstance. The Cardinal belong to a competitive division, have mandated cross-division games with its Southern California rivals, and a yearly out-of-conference date with a blue blood program in Notre Dame. With this setup, the big match ups on the schedule almost always turn out to be against rivals with a significant history. However, there exist potential pitfalls to the Cardinal’s season just under the surface. I’ll be listing off a trio of road dates that could sink Stanford’s season even if the Cardinal perform well against the usual suspects.
September 16: at San Diego State
The first potential pitfall will be Stanford’s only true road non-conference game. In Week 3 the Cardinal travel to Qualcomm Stadium to take on the two-time reigning champions of the Mountain West. The San Diego State Aztecs are once again expected to win the West Division and will certainly be in the mix for recapturing their third straight conference championship.
SDSU boasts a physical game completely centered around the ground attack. Last year, Aztec running back Donnel Pumphrey broke the all-time career rushing record behind the strength of the run game. Pumphrey is gone, but his backup Rashaad Penny averaged 7.4 yards per carry last season on 135 attempts. For reference, Christian McCaffrey averaged 8.4 yards per carry last season and SDSU’s Pumphrey averaged 8.6. The Aztec defense was the best in the Mountain West last year and will be a big early test for Stanford’s offensive line and for Bryce Love.
The timing of the San Diego State trip might be the most unfortunate aspect. It comes just one week after a potentially punishing trip to the LA Coliseum where Stanford will take on (if you believe the hype) a College Football Playoff contender. The Cardinal should be able to handle the Aztecs under normal circumstances, but coming off what promises to be a tough and emotional meeting with USC things could go sideways against the Aztecs if they’re not careful.
Nightmare scenario: Stanford falls to USC in Week 2, damaging their PAC-12 hopes and potentially damaging a key contributor or two. San Diego State crops up at the exact wrong time, capitalizing on a banged-up Cardinal that may or may not have figured out the offense in September regardless of health. If Stanford starts the year 1-2 you can kiss a Playoff berth goodbye and in all likelihood the Cardinal would be out of the conference race as well. Unless Washington underperforms Stanford would have to go undefeated in October and November to wrest the division from the Huskies. Stanford has never gone undefeated in both October and November in the Harbaugh-Shaw era.
October 7: at Utah
You should know why this game is on here. Since splitting into divisions in 2011, Stanford has a winning record against nine of the eleven other schools in the PAC-12. The only exceptions are a 3-3 record against Oregon and a 0-2 record against the Utah Utes. Yep, a big fat goose egg. In the long annals of Cardinal football history this program is currently going through a near unparalleled streak of dominance, but you wouldn’t know it if you based it off their record against the Utes, the only team that hasn’t won the PAC-12 South.
I think the worst part of the big o-fer against Utah was that both losses were particularly galling given the circumstances of the situation. The 2013 defeat was at the hands of a mediocre 5-7 Ute squad whose only conference victories were against a bad Colorado team and the PAC-12 Champions. Stanford was ranked 5th in the nation at the time of the defeat and probably could have made a case for the BCS Championship Game if they hadn’t lost to either Utah or USC that season.
The loss in 2014 made a bit more sense. The Utes transformed into a 9-4 squad that helped to knock both UCLA and USC out of the South Division race. Stanford, meanwhile, struggled to score against defensive-minded teams and finished 8-5. Still, the loss to Utah was unnecessary and it came at home in overtime. The demoralizing three point defeat echoed the heartbreak of their loss to the Utes the previous season (and also echoed their three point losses to USC and Notre Dame earlier in the year).
Well that was then and this is now. What do the Utes look like in 2017? Utah has been competitive in the last three seasons and have threatened to take the South each year but have come up short. They have lost a number of play-makers on defense and can certainly be overcome if Stanford is indeed the top-15 team we expect them to be. However, if the Cardinal have issues on one or both sides of the ball, a disciplined and hard-nosed team like Utah can take full advantage. Just like they did twice before. The Utes will probably fit somewhere in between their 2013 and 2014 iterations in terms of talent, but Stanford couldn’t beat either one of those teams.
Nightmare scenario: Stanford can beat Washington and lose the PAC-12 North with losses to both USC and Utah (which seem to frustratingly coincide). The date with the Utes comes in the sixth week of the season, just like it did in 2013. A 4-2 Stanford with two conference losses will have trouble winning the division and will have trouble staying ranked.
November 4: at Washington State
I’m not sure if this counts as an under-the-radar game anymore. I can’t imagine that the Washington State Cougars will catch Stanford sleeping. Not after last season. However, after the Halloween thriller in 2015, the Cardinal should’ve been prepared for the worst in 2016 and that wasn’t the case. It didn’t help that the secondary was banged up against a pass-happy opponent, but in a 42-16 drubbing that excuse is harder to sell.
Washington State rightfully finished second in the PAC-12 North last season. The Cougars beat their previous tormentors Stanford and Oregon, laying a combined 93 points on the pair. In conference play they only lost to South Division champ Colorado and North Division champ Washington, both of whom were, admittedly, more complete teams. Washington State has broken through and no longer figures to be the doormat they used to be before Mike Leach came to Pullman.
The Cougars are a beatable frustrating and dangerous opponent. Their air-raid offense adds a chaotic element into the proceedings against a Stanford team that loves to control the show. The Cardinal have proven that they can shut down high-flying offenses, but last season was a warning that if Washington State smells blood things could get out of hand. Hopefully Quenton Meeks won’t miss the game this time. He and the rest of the secondary will play a crucial role in suppressing the pass attack.
According to most media members and prognosticators, Stanford is expected to be the second best team in the PAC-12 North behind presumptive favorite Washington. That the Cardinal host the Huskies serves as a potential equalizer in that particular match-up. However, the many dangerous road dates that I’ve mentioned can derail a win over Washington.
Nightmare scenario: Stanford can start out as strong as possible, but a loss at Washington State preceding the home date with Washington could be the same sort of 1-2 knockout punch that drove the Cardinal out of contention last season.
I know none of this is fun to contemplate. I almost even put the trip to Oregon State on this list because I expect the Beavers to continue to improve under Gary Andersen. There are very few opponents that the Cardinal can simply run right through. Unlike many other teams with built-in easy stretches in their schedules, Stanford has no stretch of two or three games against mediocre teams that allow for any kind breather.
If you want any kind of solace you can comfort yourself by knowing that if the Cardinal manage to navigate this slate nearly unscathed they’ll be in good position to make a New Year’s Bowl based on their strength of schedule. They just have to beat the big dogs and avoid any potential pitfalls that may trip them up.