The Stanford Cardinal and the Washington State Cougars kickoff their seasons Saturday afternoon at Martin Stadium and many would agree that it couldn’t come a second sooner.
Expectations are unusually high for the Cardinal this season, but Jim Harbaugh and his warriors believe that they are more than capable of completely clearing this lofty bar.
The first real look from a Stanford team that is greatly improved on both sides of the ball comes against a Washington State squad that has consistently struggled to get off to a strong start.
Since 2006, the Cougars have lost their opening tilt by an average of 24.3 points. To their credit they haven’t scheduled any cupcakes those past few years, playing teams in the SEC, Big Ten, and Big 12.
For the Cardinal faithful, all eyes will be glued on top prospect Andrew Luck.
Every time the five-star recruit drops back to pass the ball, fans and critics will be served with a brief taste of how much this young phenomenon is growing within the organization.
Luck will be confronted by a secondary returning three starters from a group that ranked 44th in the nation, allowing only 1.8 touchdowns and 195.8 passing yards per game.
While this will be a slightly strenuous way for Luck to don the starting role, he knows that his every successful decision and careless mistake will be highly scrutinized in this first official viewing.
Junior free safety Chima Nwachukwu and senior strong safety Xavier Hicks are where most of the talent lies on the Cougars’ defense. The two standouts will take away any easy, deep ball opportunities from the Cardinal offense arsenal.
Luckily for the quarterback (excuse the pun), he will have stalwart running back Toby Gerhart to pick up any slack that might occur.
Gerhart had wonderful success against the Cougars last season, gathering 132 yards on 22 carries and punching the ball in for four touchdowns.
Washington State’s defensive line appears to be somewhat upgraded from last year’s debacle but will have to gravely hope that Gerhart’s senior season starts slowly. The Cougars will completely rely on senior left end Kevin Kooyman and junior college transfer Bernard Wolfgramm to get any type of pressure on Stanford’s potentially explosive offense.
Stanford’s secondary receives an early test of its own, facing a talented yet fairly inexperienced quarterback in Marshall Lobbestael.
Lobbestael returns from a knee injury that kept him from playing the majority of the 2008 season but appears to be fully healthy and ready to take over this offense. Many believe that he could be the key to this team seeing decent offense improvement by the year's end.
Marshall will have a variety of targets to throw at this season but lacks that one game-changing receiver to be his safety valve.
An untested group of receivers should provide recently converted cornerback Richard Sherman and training camp standout Corey Gatewood with the perfect way to ease into the regular season’s faster pace.
Two returning starters from an offensive line that allowed 43 sacks in 2008 will be Lobbestael’s protection, providing him with only minimal time to go through his progressions.
Stanford’s defensive line should find no problem meeting at the quarterback quite frequently, forcing the untested quarterback into several terrible decisions. Expect defensive tackles Ekom Udofia and Erik Lorig to start their senior seasons off with a bang.
Prediction: Stanford (-16.5) 35, Washington State 17
The Cardinal are primed to blow out this fairly weak Washington State team, but troubles with road games in the past can’t help creeping into my head. If Stanford can shake off the offseason rust and find its groove early, this game has the potential to be over by halftime.
Game of the Week: Notre Dame (-14.5) 42, Nevada 38
Jimmy Clausen and the Irish desperately need to start off this season on the right foot, but the extremely tough Wolf Pack should project a loud bark in this opener.
This should be an old-fashioned shootout with Nevada returning eight starters from its fifth-ranked offense. Notre Dame has the talent to keep up on the scoreboard, but it's going to be a lot closer than the two-touchdown spread.
(#) = Line at Caesar’s Hotel & Casino