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Ranking the Toughest Games on Stanford's College Football Schedule in 2017

David Shaw

David Shaw

A trying stretch in the middle of the season that included two blowout losses, a quarterback controversy that lasted almost until Halloween, and... Stanford still won 10 games in 2016.

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For perspective on just how good this program has become under head coach David Shaw, Stanford's sixth double-digit-win season in seven years felt like a disappointment. Much of that has to do with the Cardinal returning two All-Americans from the previous season's Rose Bowl-winning team, running back Christian McCaffrey and defensive end Solomon Thomas. Both are gone for the NFL, but Stanford as a whole should be poised to "rebound" from the "down" year that was 2016.

With that in mind, here are Stanford's 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult matchup.

12. Aug. 26 vs. Rice (in Sydney, Australia) 

College Football Rankings: Rice

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has worked to make inroads for the conference internationally, which include an annual basketball game in China. This marks the second straight football season in which a Pac-12 member kicks off in Australia.

Stanford closed last regular season by blasting Rice on the Farm, 41-17. Owls head coach Dave Bailiff has done one of the more remarkable — if not under-appreciated — jobs in college football, leading Rice to four of the program's five bowl games in the last six decades. Rice has won 10 games twice under Bailiff, but last year's 3-9 finish was decidedly disappointing.

11. Nov. 18 vs. Cal 

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The historical animus and close proximity fueling college football rivalries typically makes for competitive games — even when one program is clearly stronger. That said, Stanford's dominated The Big Game by an average of 21.8 points per meeting since beginning a seven-game winning streak in 2010. Only once has Cal come within single digits: a 31-28 Cardinal win in 2011.

As the Cal football program rebuilds and reorganizes under new head coach Justin Wilcox, the Golden Bears are likely to face more struggles against rival Stanford. 

10. Sept. 30 vs. Arizona State

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Stanford and Arizona State met three times over a roughly 12-month span from late September 2013 to early October 2014, but the two programs have not seen each other since. The Cardinal have maintained the status quo in that time, winning a Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl, producing a Heisman Trophy finalist and holding strong in the Top 25. Arizona State, on the other hand, has undergone considerable change.

Todd Graham is still the head coach, but the assistant coaching staff is unrecognizable compared to 2014. Billy Napier is the Sun Devils' third offensive coordinator in as many years, and Phil Bennett is trying to rebuild a defense that ranked worst in the nation against the pass each of the last two seasons.

9. Oct. 26 at Oregon State

College football rankings: Oregon State

Stanford extended its winning streak against Pac-12 North foe Oregon State to seven games with a surprisingly sluggish outing last season. Though the Cardinal have dominated the series, the close 2016 installment has been more reflective of the norm. Under either former head coach Mike Riley, or current sideline general Gary Andersen, the Beavers have had a knack for being competitive with the Cardinal.

With this year's game at Reser Stadium, the scene for an upset may well be set. Oregon State returns a veteran lineup coming off of a strong finish to 2016. Running back Ryan Nall is a powerful ball carrier in the vein of past Stanford stars like Toby Gerhart and Stepfan Taylor. This one could be a grinding slugfest at a critical juncture in the season for the title-pursuing Cardinal. 

8. Oct. 14 vs. Oregon

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oregon

The year 2007 was a pivotal one for both Oregon and Stanford football. In that season, former UO head coach Mike Bellotti hired a relatively unknown offensive coordinator named Chip Kelly to revamp the Ducks' attack. Meanwhile, downtrodden Stanford turned to Jim Harbaugh, whose only previous head coaching experience came at non-scholarship FCS program University of San Diego.

Kelly and Harbaugh transformed the former Pac-10 Conference in short order. Kelly became Oregon's head coach in 2009, immediately winning the first of three straight conference titles. A fourth came under successor Mark Helfrich in 2014. Over that same stretch, David Shaw replaced Harbaugh and rolled off three league titles of his own. These two programs owned the West until Washington ended their seven-year stranglehold on the crown last season.

Oregon's undergoing another transition, this time under new head coach Willie Taggart. Taggart's new to Oregon, but not this budding rivalry: He worked as a Stanford assistant alongside Shaw from 2007-09. He inherits plenty of talent, so the Ducks may not be far from returning this series to its recent glory.

7. Sept. 23 vs. UCLA 

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For UCLA head coach Jim Mora, the Stanford Tree probably looks more like a mountain. The Bruins are winless against Stanford in a stretch that predates Mora, but the Cardinal are responsible for some of the most deflating losses of Mora's half-decade UCLA tenure.

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There was the nail-biting Pac-12 Championship Game of 2012; the season-ending blowout in the Rose Bowl that denied the Bruins a berth in the '14 conference title game; Christian McCaffrey beginning his Heisman chase with a one-man show in '15; and last year, a final-minute drive that broke the Bruins' hearts in Pasadena.

While Stanford has owned the series, UCLA's almost wire-to-wire lead in a loss suggests the gap is narrowing. The Bruin defense played the best it ever has against Stanford's always-imposing offensive fronts. A healthy Josh Rosen returning to quarterback the UCLA offense adds intrigue to this year's matchup.

6. Sept. 16 at San Diego State

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In 2015, San Diego State head coach Rocky Long said Power Five opponents were "afraid" to play strong Group of Five programs like San Diego State in their stadiums. Long may be onto something. Since that statement, his Aztecs have won 22 games, a pair of Mountain West Conference championships, and finished 2016 ranked in the Top 25. They also toppled Pac-12 opponent Cal last season in Qualcomm Stadium.

Stanford makes the trip down to Montezuma Mesa this time, and there's plenty to be afraid of. Long's built San Diego State in a fashion very much similar to that of Stanford under Shaw, using stout defense to set the table, then deploying an effective rushing attack to deflate opponents. Last season, SDSU ranked No. 17 nationally in scoring defense — just ahead of Stanford.

And while record-setting running back Donnel Pumphrey is gone, Rashaad Penny is more than capable of carrying the load. Penny may be one of the best backs the Cardinal defense sees all season.

5. Nov. 25 vs. Notre Dame

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Notre Dame

Historic rivals Notre Dame and Stanford rarely disappoint when they get together. Last season's 17-10 Cardinal win in South Bend marked the fifth consecutive meeting decided by single digits. The last matchup at Stanford in 2015 was one for the ages, with Conrad Ukropina blasting a field goal through the uprights as time expired. The 38-36 Stanford win denied the Fighting Irish a spot in the College Football Playoff, and sent the Cardinal into the Pac-12 Championship Game — and later, Rose Bowl — with remarkable momentum.

What followed last season was different, with Notre Dame stumbling to 4-8 and Stanford falling short in its defense of the Pac-12 title. However, the regular-season finale of 2017 could restore the lofty national implications their last meeting on the Farm had. Notre Dame returns 15 starters from last season's lineup, including promising running back Josh Adams.

4. Oct. 7 at Utah

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Perhaps no other program in the Pac-12 resembles Stanford quite as much as Utah — and it shows in recent results. Though the two have not crossed-over in inter-divisional play since 2014, the Cardinal sport a dubious record against the Utes of 0-2.

That's right: Since Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011, Stanford has yet to beat it. Credit the stingy defenses Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham employs, which held Stanford offenses to 21 and 17 points in the previous meetings. This year's Utah defense might be the most talented incarnation Stanford will have seen, featuring one of the nation's best lines (Kylie Fitts, Filipo Mokofisi, Lowell Lotulelei).

3. Nov. 4 at Washington State

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Stanford had no time to lick its wounds after suffering a blowout last season at Washington. Immediately thereafter, Washington State rolled onto the Farm and left with one of the most shocking results in recent Pac-12 play. The Cougars romped, 42-16, with quarterback Luke Falk picking apart an injury-depleted Stanford secondary (30-of-41, 357 yards, four touchdowns).

The Stanford pass defense must be in optimal condition when it heads to the Palouse for the home stretch of the 2017 season. Falk has been one of college football's most consistent passers over the last two seasons, and very nearly led Washington State to two wins over Stanford in that time. He passed for 354 yards in the 2015 Halloween night classic — Stanford's last visit to Martin Stadium — which ended in 30-28, come-from-behind, Cardinal win. 

2. Sept. 9 at USC

In-state counterparts USC and Stanford share similarities. The Pac-12's only two private universities both joined the original Pacific Coast Conference within its first decade: Stanford in 1918, three years after the league's formation; and USC in '22. Both have been home to college football luminaries. Legends like John McKay and Bill Walsh strode their sidelines. The list of alumni include greats like John Elway and Carson Palmer; Jim Plunkett and Lynn Swann; Reggie Bush and Christian McCaffrey; Junior Seau and Solomon Thomas.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

Yet, desperate this shared history, Stanford vs. USC has only felt like a rivalry recently. Since 2009, a series that once had an almost ambivalent quality to it became contentious. Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh shared terse words, setting the scene for a run of hotly contested games in the years to follow. From 2010-14, every game was decided by single digits, with the underdog winning in three straight (2012-14).

Stanford's reclaimed control with a run of three consecutive, double-digit victories in 2015 and '16. However, this is the best USC team since at least '11. That Trojan bunch took an Andrew Luck-led Stanford to overtime in the Coliseum. This year's installment marks the Cardinal's first game on the mainland for the year.

1. Nov. 10 vs. Washington

A 44-6 beatdown on a Friday night telecast last September sent a clear message to the Pac-12: Washington is the new top dog.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

The Huskies' romp of Stanford remained the cornerstone of Washington's first conference title season since 2000, and the Huskies' run to the College Football Playoff. UW employed a strategy remarkably similar to that of previous Pac-12 champion Stanford, bullying its opponent with a physical defensive approach.

This year's meeting on the Farm is again on a Friday night. However, the overall product should look much different. Expect a competitive back-and-forth affair between two outstanding defenses, neither willing to yield much in what may well be the North division championship game for the Pac-12.

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