The 2012 campaign was a banner year for Stanford football.
The Cardinal won its first Pac-12 Conference championship since 1999, and first Rose Bowl Game since 1971. But the path from Stanford to Pasadena crossed a difficult, early roadblock in San Jose State (1-0).
Much like their Bay Area counterparts, 2012 was an historic year for the SJSU Spartans: 11 wins including a bowl game, billing in the final Top 25 polls. SJSU made it readily apparent from the season's outset that this team was a far cry from the perennial cellar dweller the program had long been.
The Spartans forced a 17-17 tie via two third quarter touchdowns, and held the Cardinal to just three second half points—those three points also happened to be the difference.
Things have changed for the Cardinal since Aug. 31, 2012, when it nearly tripped up against SJSU. The loaded defense returns a bevy of experienced talent, including All-American safety Ed Reynolds, veteran leader linebacker Shayne Skov and game-changing pass-rusher Trent Murphy. The Cardinal defense is the best unit standout Spartan quarterback David Fales will see this season.
But Stanford also starts Kevin Hogan, a promising second-year quarterback who took over midway through last season for struggling Josh Nunes. Hogan is expected to provide much of the offensive punch missing from the Cardinal early in 2012.
The impressive balance of defensive proficiency and offensive potential has made Stanford a preseason favorite to not only contend for a second straight Pac-12 championship, but also the BCS national title.
SJSU players recognize the magnitude of Saturday's showdown at Stanford Stadium for the Cardinal's season opener.
"I'm really excited about that game, especially after last year," SJSU linebacker Keith Smith said at July's Mountain West Conference media day. "Some things didn't go our way."
Specifically, a fourth quarter fumble deep in Spartan territory did not go SJSU's way. That turnover set up the Cardinal for the game-winning, Jordan Williamson field goal.
After setting a new benchmark for program success a year ago, upsetting fifth-ranked Stanford would raise the bar even more.
"It'd be great for us, from the mental part and confidence," Smith said. "But also just bringing that [win] back to our side of the Bay. We've got the talent to do it, we've just got to go out and execute."
Overseeing said execution is Ron Caragher, in his second game as the Spartan's head coach. Caragher has a connection to Stanford's David Shaw—he took over Championship Subdivision University of San Diego one year after Shaw followed former Torero head coach Jim Harbaugh to Stanford.
Caragher sustained the success Harbaugh and Shaw enjoyed at the non-scholarship USD program, winning the 2011 and 2012 Pioneer Football League championships with a combined 17-5 record.
Despite their similar coaching lineage, Shaw said during Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference that his first meeting with Caragher came this summer.
"I feel like I know him just because I heard so much about him from guys we both coached at USD, and other places he's been," Shaw said.
Both Shaw and Caragher coached USD's most recognizable recent football alumnus, former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and current Cincinnati Bengal quarterback Josh Johnson.
Caragher has another likely NFL quarterback now at SJSU in Fales. The senior is coming off a season in which he completed over 72 percent of his passes for nearly 4200 yards and 33 touchdowns. Fales was only intercepted nine times.
Conversely, causing turnovers is a hallmark of this Stanford defense. The Cardinal picked off 15 passes in 2012, including one of Fales' attempts in last August's encounter.
That, and every other play Stanford made then was of the utmost importance to building a tremendous season. A similar effort is necessary to hold off a talented SJSU bunch capable of making its own brand of history.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter @kensing45.