The Arduous Road Ahead: Degree of Difficulty
With national preseason expectations surrounding Stanford at an all-time high, one can rest assured that opposing Pac-12 programs are tired of losing to the Farm Boys. The Cardinal will be playing this 2013 season with a target on their collective backs, and some bullets will be easier to dodge than others. Here's the degree of difficulty rundown:
Note: This is not solely an opinion of opponents' strength, but rather an opinion of the difficulty of each game from Stanford's perspective based on several factors, which also include schedule positioning, recent history, and home field advantage.
Degree of Difficulty (on a scale of 1-10): 2
The match-up: A triple option offensive attack that runs the football 88 percent of the time faces a monstrous defense that the led the nation in tackles for loss last year. The weirdness factor of playing at 9 a.m. Pacific time after navigating a cross-country trip and West Point security elevates the degree of difficulty one point.
San Jose State
Degree of Difficulty: 5
After the 2012 season opener, and after what Arizona's passing attack did to Stanford's defense last year, David Fales and his talented receiving corps should concern the Cardinal. But Derek Mason has since revamped his defensive strategy against aerial attacks, and Stanford averages about 20 pounds heavier than the Spartans on both lines of scrimmage. If Kevin Hogan executes the short passing game reasonably well, San Jose State becomes a helpless bullying victim.
Degree of Difficulty: 5
Physically, the Bears were no match for Stanford in the trenches last year. If their true freshman starting quarterback lasts until November, that will be an even bigger issue in 2013's installment of Big Game. This is a rivalry game, though, where weird stuff happens and the degree of difficulty floor is always 5.
at Washington State
Degree of Difficulty: 6
There's nothing on paper that indicates Washington State can play with Stanford at a physical level, but Seattle's CenturyLink Field has been established as a Cardinal house of horrors. Standing on the sidelines for the end of last year's devastating loss to Washington, I was astounded by the ear-splitting crowd noise the stadium's design generates. You have to hear it to believe it. Bad opponent or not, this venue is toxic until Stanford proves it can win there.
Degree of Difficulty: 6.5
The Huskies enjoyed the benefits of several Stanford drops and ducking Kevin Hogan last year in Seattle. Those two factors caused the Cardinal defense to tire and surrender a pair of late touchdowns. Since Hogan is now at the helm, history likely won't repeat itself, but do expect Washington to be better this time around. Four of their starting five linemen missed last year's contest, and that tremendously hurt quarterback Keith Price's performance.
Degree of Difficulty: 6.5
The unknown is often frightening, and that's the case with Stanford's first-ever Pac-12 visit to Utah. The Cardinal visit Salt Lake City October 12, a week after a revenge game versus Washington and seven days before Homecoming against UCLA.
Degree of Difficulty (on a scale of 1-10): 7.5
An unusual number of fortunate breaks fueled Notre Dame's undefeated 2012 regular season, and the Irish were knocked down a peg when their luck ran out against Alabama in the title game. Despite the media-generated hype that's currently pumping this Stanford-Notre Dame game up as one of the season's marquee dates, it's likely that the Irish will have already suffered a few losses before this season-ending skirmish. Sure, it will be a fun revenge opportunity for the Cardinal. But if Notre Dame needed a questionable call against Usua Amanam and overtime goal line controversy to barely squeak by Nunes-led Stanford at home, how can they be expected to keep pace with the Hogan-led Farm Boys on the road?
Degree of Difficulty: 7.5
Last year's Pac-12 title game became funky because of the way the Bruins gashed Stanford on the ground. Johnathan Franklin is gone now, and he meant a ton to Jim Mora's offense. But quarterback Brett Hundley is in his second year under center after a maiden voyage in which he set a new UCLA record with 4,095 total yards. There are some studs on the other side of the line of scrimmage, too, so the Bruins will continue to pose a significant threat, particularly given their recent familiarity with Stanford.
Degree of Difficulty: 8
Compared to Stanford, the Trojans will still be soft in 2013, no matter how convinced Lane Kiffin is that he can build a physical team in five months. Their quarterback play to begin this season has also been atrocious. Still, this game will take place in the Coliseum, the sacred Trojan venue that the Farm Boys have defaced three consecutive times now. USC's 2013 season will be littered with losses, but, given recent history, Troy will pull out all the stops and fight Stanford to the bitter end. (Bonus complication: This contest comes immediately after the Cardinal hosts Oregon. Stanford will have two extra days two rest though.)
Degree of Difficulty: 8
The Sun Devils may be a better physical test than any other team on the Cardinal's schedule, especially those that come early. You can bet a big part of David Shaw's decision to start Khalil Wilkes at center had a lot to do with the monster the Farm Boys are facing in week three. Stanford will need every bit of Wilkes' 10 pounds of added muscle to counteract Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton in the middle. September 21 provides an stiff early test that can set the direction of the 2013 season, particularly if the Fork is coming off a statement win over Wisconsin.
Degree of Difficulty: 9
The Beavers returned 18 of their 22 starters from last season, and Corvallis is always a tough road trip to navigate, especially come Halloween. Plus, Siri is an Oregon State fan. It's hard to see this contest being anything but an absolute dogfight in a hostile, autumnal atmosphere. It'll be important for Stanford to establish itself early, or fans will start having flashbacks to 2009 (a 38-28 OSU win).
Degree of Difficulty: 11
This one explains itself. The Ducks and Stanford are the class of the Pac-12. That could change between now and November 7, but there's a chance that the stakes will be even higher than they were in the Andrew Luck era, and that this will be the biggest game in Cardinal program history. (Ed: Can you say No. 1 vs. No. 2?) Of course, the last time the Farm Boys hosted the biggest game in their history, it also came against Oregon, and the result was ghastly. If Stanford is still undefeated by the time this Thursday night hits, they'll have a chance to completely exorcise their 2011 demons.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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