As the Stanford Cardinal prepare for the 2013 season this summer, focus will invariably deviate to the team's Pac-12 Conference schedule during the meat of the regular season.
The reigning Rose Bowl champions have lost some of their talent on offense, including standout running back Stepfan Taylor and tight end Zach Ertz, but will return undefeated quarterback Kevin Hogan and a number of contributors on the defensive side of the ball.
Early word around college football circles also place the offense more in Hogan's hands than the coaching staff did at the end of the 2012 season, largely because they now feel he can handle the mental and physical load of the job, per Dave Miller of the National Football Post.
Expectations are high for the Cardinal to repeat as Pac-12 North champions, and maybe even represent the conference in a BCS bowl again at the conclusion of the 2013 season. Better yet, the Cardinal are an early dark-horse candidate to make the BCS title game for the last time before the system changes to a playoff.
As usual, Stanford will have its work cut out for it to accomplish those goals.
For starters, the non-conference schedule is no joke. The team will take on an upstart San Jose State team with nothing to lose to open up the season, and then travel to Army for a day game before Pac-12 play begins. Stanford will close the season with Notre Dame, which will likely be a Top 10 team to open up the season if you listen to college football analyst Phil Steele.
As Kevin Gemmell of ESPN.com puts it, if Stanford escapes from this 12-game slate unscathed heading into bowl season, it will have truly earned it.
Since Stanford will ride or die on its Pac-12 conference record this year, and college football fans everywhere are champing at the bit for the season to begin, here's a look at three can't-miss games both Stanford and college football fans in general should circle on their calendars to have something to look forward to in the coming months.
2013 Stanford Cardinal Football Schedule
|Sept. 7||vs. San Jose State||TBD||TBD|
|Sept. 14||at Army||Noon ET||CBS Sports Network|
|Sept. 21||vs. Arizona State*||TBD||TBD|
|Sept. 28||at Washington State*||TBD||TBD|
|Oct. 5||vs. Washington*||TBD||TBD|
|Oct. 12||at Utah*||TBD||TBD|
|Oct. 19||vs. UCLA*||TBD||TBD|
|Oct. 26||at Oregon State*||TBD||TBD|
|Nov. 7||vs. Oregon*||TBD||TBD|
|Nov. 16||at USC*||TBD||TBD|
|Nov. 23||vs. California*||TBD||TBD|
|Nov. 30||vs. Notre Dame||TBD||Fox Sports 1|
*Denotes Pac-12 Conference game. Schedule via ESPN.com.
Stanford's Can't-Miss Pac-12 Games
Oct. 19 vs. UCLA
Stanford has won five straight games against the UCLA Bruins, making this game somewhat of a farce if you buy into the notion that dominance doesn't make for an exciting matchup of teams in conference play.
However, Jim Mora Jr. has UCLA headed in the right direction. The Bruins lost two straight games to close the regular season that would have otherwise led to a Rose Bowl bid for the team, and UCLA will feature a young QB of its own with Heisman hopes at heart.
Brett Hundley will be back under center for UCLA next season, and by Oct. 19 we'll know whether or not his freshman success will be curbed by the infamous sophomore slump. Either way, Hundley will be eager to atone for his zero-touchdown, one-interception performance in the air during UCLA's three-point loss in the Pac-12 title game.
For Stanford, UCLA will provide the Cardinal with one of their first true tests of the conference slate.
Returning home after facing Utah, Stanford will need to find a way to deal with UCLA's dual-option attack and find a way to slow down Hundley in the running game, too—he ran for over 80 yards and a touchdown the last time these two teams met.
UCLA isn't expected to be a national championship contender after losing running back Johnathan Franklin and other supporting pieces on offense, but it is a capable young squad who took Stanford to the brink last season and is a program on the rise in the conference. If UCLA can equal its success on the ground from 2012, this could be Stanford's first close game and first true test of defensive fortitude.
Nov. 7 vs. Oregon
Oregon and Stanford are turning into one of college football's premier rivalries.
Chip Kelly will be gone from the Oregon sidelines, but the offensive minds for the Ducks will not, and Stanford didn't lose any muster after David Shaw took over for Jim Harbaugh once his move to the NFL became official.
The clash of high-flying offense against stingy defense makes for must-see TV each time these two teams take the field in a battle of Pac-12 North rivals.
Oregon, like UCLA, will feature a dark-horse Heisman candidate in sophomore signal-caller Marcus Mariota, who accounted for over 3,400 yards of total offense and 38 touchdowns (including a two-yard touchdown catch) during his freshman season.
Stanford also holds the last victory over the Ducks, a 17-14 overtime thriller that ended Oregon's national championship hopes toward the end of last season. With those kind of stakes hanging over this game and Stanford given an extra few days to prepare for this Thursday night battle, it will be interesting to see how the offense-defense clash continues as the Ducks travel south to Palo Alto.
Nov. 16 at USC
Stanford has also quietly won four straight games over the Trojans, including a 21-14 upset when Matt Barkley and company were the No. 2 team in the nation.
Stanford can't afford to let consecutive win No. 5 slip away, especially if they hold an undefeated mark at this point in the season.
It might be too early to start labeling games on Stanford's schedule of the "trap" nature, but traveling to USC late in the season after facing several other teams who will be nationally ranked at the time of the meetings (wishful thinking perhaps, but the Pac-12 has several who should be) makes this year's USC game just as interesting as last year's upset victory.
Which matchup are you most excited to see?
With the Trojans reloading, there's little doubt the talent will be flocking to the program. It does each year, and USC finished in the top 20 in recruiting again, according to 247Sports' rankings.
Like UCLA, USC will have revenge on the mind and maybe even a chance to upset Stanford's perfect season in this mid-November matchup. With Stanford bordering on being a national powerhouse for the next few years and USC always in games just on sheer talent, this is another can't-miss game on the current slate.
All 12 of Stanford's games should be fun to watch, even if you're just a casual college football fan. With the team expected to contend this year instead of being an upset candidate on everyone's schedule, how Shaw's team responds will define where Stanford is playing in bowl season.
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