The college football season has finally kicked off and the first full opening weekend schedule is loaded with some impressive matchups from coast to coast. While the games on Saturday will draw the lion’s share of attention, and Thursday is getting plenty of press for being the first full game day, Friday’s contest between Stanford and Kansas State has the potential to be one of the best games of Week 1.
The Cardinal find themselves in a surprising position to open the year: Pac-12 favorites. For the first time in school history, the team was picked to win the league in the preseason media poll and there is plenty of talk that Stanford could make a run at the College Football Playoff with one of the strongest schedules in the country. Expectations are nothing new on the Farm after winning three of the past four Pac-12 titles but this year does have a hint of a reloading effort with so many fresh faces expected to line up around Heisman Trophy favorite Christian McCaffrey on offense and big lineman Solomon Thomas on the defense.
For Kansas State, they’re hoping the trip out West will be somewhat of a fresh start after such an injury-riddled season and disappointing 6-7 record. Head coach Bill Snyder knows better than anybody how to turn things around at a program and the ‘Wizard’ enters 2016 as the dean of active coaches when it comes to FBS wins and years at a school. He’ll have a veteran group with which to work with given that the Wildcats return 17 starters and have a host of younger players with plenty of experience from last year’s up-and-down campaign.
Surprisingly this is the first meeting between the schools on the gridiron but it is shaping up to be a quality Pac-12/Big 12 matchup. Kansas State is a remarkable 22-2 in season openers under Snyder while his counterpart David Shaw is 4-1 in openers heading into Friday’s matchup.
Kansas State vs. Stanford
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 2 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FS1
Spread: Stanford -15.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Christian McCaffrey encore
What does one do after after breaking Barry Sanders’ historic single-season record for all-purpose yardage? Well, we’re about to find out but it will be a tall task for McCaffrey to replicate his remarkable 2015 season in which he ran over, around, and through just about every defense that he faced. The Cardinal running back will be counted on to key the offense once again with so many new starters around him on offense and it would surprise nobody if he contributed even more as a potential receiving threat given that he “only” had 645 yards through the air out of the backfield in 2015. After torching some solid defenses in USC and Iowa during his final two games, the opener against Kansas State could allow McCaffrey to pick up right where he left off since the Wildcats allowed over 450 yards of offense per game last season.
2. Fresh-faced quarterbacks
While McCaffrey is going to bring some unquestioned star power to this game, coaches on both sides would be thrilled if one of the many quarterbacks slated to play in this game emerges as a focal point for the offense. Snyder recently named Jesse Ertz the starter, but he hasn’t thrown a pass at the FBS level after tearing his ACL on the first snap of last season. He’ll be backed up by Joe Hubener, a dual threat who pushed Ertz throughout fall camp after filling in for him while he was injured. On the Stanford end, David Shaw has two options to replace record-setting quarterback Kevin Hogan and will elect to start junior Ryan Burns while rotating in sophomore Keller Chryst. Both are strong-armed, NFL prototype signal-callers but neither has much experience and will be asked to make some plays given how much defenses will likely stack the line to slow down McCaffrey.
3. Reloaded defenses
Offenses get all the attention nowadays but it’s probably safe to assume that the progress both Stanford and Kansas State make on the defensive end will determine how far they go this season. The Wildcats are bringing back nine starters from a defense that was one of the shakier units Snyder has coached but should be much improved given that everybody is healthy to go along with plenty of depth and experience. Safety Dante Barnett is one key contributor back after missing nearly all of last season and he should provide an immediate boost all over the field. Stanford returns just six starters on defense but will enjoy a boost from the return of safety Zach Hoffpauir after he spent a year away from the gridiron playing minor league baseball.
Upon initial glance, this game could be one of several on opening weekend that end up a bit lopsided. After all, Stanford is ranked in the top 10 of both polls and Kansas State is coming off a losing season that was as difficult as they’ve come for Bill Snyder during his second stint as coach in the Little Apple. But opening weekend can result in some closer than expected games with teams working out the rust and the Cardinal is working in a host of new starters against a Wildcats team full of experienced players. Luckily Christian McCaffrey is in the backfield and should be able to cover up any potential issues the home team might face. Perhaps the best news for Stanford though is they don’t have to worry about any body clock issues in this one with a 6 p.m. local kickoff so all should be just fine for the top 10 team when all is said and done from the opener.
Prediction: Stanford 38, Kansas State 17
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.