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Ranking the Toughest Games on Stanford's College Football Schedule in 2016

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Defending Pac-12 champion Stanford returns a Heisman Trophy runner-up in Christian McCaffrey, talented playmakers on defense and a stout offensive line. With David Shaw manning the sidelines, the Cardinal have pieces to defend their crown.

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In order to do so, however, they must navigate one of the nastier schedules in all of college football.

Stanford plays an incredible 11 games against Power Five conference competition, and most of its toughest games are away from home. The Cardinal also must replace a four-year starter at quarterback in Kevin Hogan, and defensive stars like Blake Martinez and Aziz Shittu.

12. Nov. 26 vs. Rice

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Stanford's regular season caps with a non-conference date against Rice, the sole Group of Five opponent on the Cardinal's 2016 docket.

Rice head coach David Bailiff has flourished unlike any Owls leader of the last half-century, and done so with the same kind of high-level academic recruits that make up Stanford. Despite unprecedented success, however, the Owls simply lack the playmakers to keep pace with the Cardinal.

11. Nov. 5 vs. Oregon State

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Shaw-coached teams have a knack for finding their stride in the final month. Rebuilding Oregon State should be overmatched whenever these teams face, but especially so late in the season when the Cardinal begin their championship push in earnest.

10. Oct. 22 vs. Colorado 

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Colorado's progress under head coach Mike MacIntyre became evident when, in 2015, the Buffs played much of the Pac-12 to close finals. Stanford was an exception.

The Cardinal rolled last year in Boulder, as has been customary when these teams meet. Stanford simply presents a considerable mismatch against Colorado's style of play.

9. Oct. 29 at Arizona 

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Stanford and Arizona have played only twice since Rich Rodriguez became the Wildcats' head coach in 2012, both times on The Farm, and both Cardinal wins. The first encounter, in 2012, went to overtime. Last season, Stanford smashed Arizona by 38 points -- and the final outcome could have been uglier.

The Wildcats should be improved from a season ago, in part because they couldn't possibly be as injured. Quarterback Anu Solomon missed last year's game with a concussion. A healthier Arizona roster and the always-raucous Zona Zoo could spring a trap for Stanford, but the Wildcats don't match up particularly well on paper.

8. Sept. 2 vs. Kansas State

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Consider this unusual, non-conference meeting the appetizer before the buffet that is Week 1's loaded slate. 

Kansas State's Friday night visit to Stanford kicks off a treacherous schedule for the Cardinal appropriately enough, as the Wildcats would crack the upper-half of most game rankings. Bill Snyder's teams are always well coached and disciplined, qualities that mirror Stanford under Shaw.

7. Nov. 19 at Cal 

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Stanford's one-sided dominance of The Big Game stands as microcosm of the program's respective places in the Pac-12 landscape. As much as the Cardinal have dominated the Bay, en route to winning conference championships, the Golden Bears' improvement became evident in last year's deceptively close battle.

Cal faces some uncertainties entering the year without Jared Goff at quarterback. Sonny Dykes and his staff should have some of those remedied by this point in the season. With the Ax on the line, the stakes are high.

6. Oct. 8 vs. Washington State

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Last season's Halloween night showdown in Pullman went down to the wire -- specifically, the tight wire McCaffrey walked to set up a critical Cardinal score in the fourth quarter. Washington State had Stanford on the ropes in a game that would have launched the Cougars into first place in the Pac-12 North.

Washington State visits The Farm this time around boasting what is arguably an even better lineup. The Cougars have the make-up of a Top 25 team, if not a conference title contender.

5. Sept. 17 vs. USC 

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Beginning with the animus between former head coaches Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, the Stanford-USC rivalry has grown into one of the more intense and exciting in the Pac-12.

Stanford won four straight from 2009-12, dropped back-to-back in 2013 and '14, but rebounded last year with a pair of wins: one at the Coliseum, and the other in the Pac-12 Championship Game. This early-season encounter of last year's divisional winners should provide a telling barometer of the conference's outlook for the 2016 season to follow.

4. Sept. 24 at UCLA

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Stanford has dominated the series in Jim Mora's tenure as UCLA head coach. Last year's blowout win on The Farm improved Shaw's record against the Bruins to 6-0; 5-0 head-to-head against Mora.

This year, UCLA benefits from home-field advantage, as well as a new look offensively. The Bruins' implementation of a more traditional scheme mirrors Stanford in several key facets, which makes this year's in-state showdown especially intriguing.

The Cardinal will still be adjusting without Hogan under center, and still finding their star pass rushers. Both quarterback play and pressure on the quarterback have been key in Stanford's recent success against UCLA.

3. Sept. 30 at Washington 

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The en vogue preseason pick to shake up the Pac-12 power structure hosts THE Pac-12 power structure. Seattle's been inhospitable to Stanford teams in recent years, with the Cardinal mustering just 33 combined points in their last two visits there.

Washington's loaded defense in head coach Chris Petersen's third season promises more of the same. Expect a low-scoring slug-fest from which the winner will arise bruised, battered -- and in the early lead for the Pac-12 North championship.

2. Oct. 15 at Notre Dame

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The meetings in this cross-country rival series since Brian Kelly became head coach at Notre Dame have largely been instant classics. Last year's was no exception, as a last-second Cardinal field goal thwarted the Fighting Irish's hope of landing in the College Football Playoff. Consider that Notre Dame's receipt for denying Stanford a shot at the BCS championship in 2012.

In three of the four seasons starting with the epic, overtime encounter of 2012, at least one of these two teams went on to play in either a BCS or New Year's Six bowl game. The trend should continue in 2016.

1. Nov. 12 at Oregon 

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Given the stakes this budding rivalry has had tied to it every year since 2009, it's only fitting the annual showdown with Oregon tops the preseason ranking of Stanford's grueling '16 schedule.

The Ducks own a two-game winning streak in the series, capitalizing on costly Stanford fumbles last November to ostensibly keep the Cardinal out of the College Football Playoff. With that in mind, Shaw has every reason to circle this date on the Cardinal calendar in red ink.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45