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San Diego State Aztecs vs. Stanford Cardinal Prediction and Preview

Stanford Cardinal RB Bryce Love

Stanford Cardinal RB Bryce Love

San Diego State's enjoyed a successful few seasons recently under head coach Rocky Long, and the Aztecs scored perhaps the highest-profile win of that stretch last season against Stanford.

The 20-17, smash-mouth affair catapulted San Diego State into the Top 25, while Stanford rallied to win eight of its next nine. Both teams enter the 2018 season with lineups capable of winning their respective conferences — Stanford the Pac-12, which it claimed in 2012, '13 and '15 under head coach Shaw; and San Diego State the Mountain West, which it won in 2015 and '16 under Long.

While Friday night's rematch at Stanford Stadium has no bearing on their conference goals, this gem of the Week 1 docket will set the course for two of the most consistent winners on the West Coast.

San Diego State at Stanford

Kickoff: Friday, Aug. 31 at 9 p.m. ET

TV: FS1

Spread: Stanford -14.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Mirror images 

About a decade ago, San Diego State was a program treading water. The Aztecs had not reached a bowl game since 1998, and a 6-6 finish was their high-water mark when Brady Hoke came on as head coach in 2009. Hoke spent two seasons on Montezuma Mesa, quickly turning around the program before leaving for Michigan.

What began with Hoke reached new heights under Rocky Long, culminating the past three seasons with 32 combined wins. In many ways, the program's rise mirrors that of Stanford. The Cardinal languished in the doldrums in the mid-2000s before Jim Harbaugh arrived in '07. By his final season there in 2010, Stanford won the Orange Bowl, and successor David Shaw has since improved Stanford's place in the national landscape even further.

What's more, the two programs succeed with similar styles, employing physically imposing defense to feed a run-first offensive approach. Each will aim to establish the ground attack behind veteran offensive lines — two of the best offensive lines out West — likely setting up another slugfest akin to last year's meeting.

2. The quarterback question

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The key difference between Stanford late in the 2017 season, when it beat a Notre Dame team with College Football Playoff aspirations, and in the Cardinal's early loss to San Diego State, was the emergence of quarterback K.J. Costello.

Costello finished 2017 strong and developed a noticeable chemistry with talented wide receiver, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. That dynamic can go a long way to keeping defenses honest against returning Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love, who smashed the 2,000-yard barrier in 2017. However, Stanford needs Costello at full strength to maximize his potential, and he'll have to bounce back from offseason hip surgery against one of the most tenacious defenses in college football.

Likewise, with San Diego State's own 2,000-yard rusher gone, Rashaad Penny, the Aztecs need an uptick in production from returning starting quarterback Christian Chapman. Should Stanford stack the box to defend the run — and it's likely — the Aztecs need greater consistency than the 22-of-47 passing he produced in last year's regular-season losses to Boise State and Fresno State.

3. A game of runs

Few programs can match the impressive string of standout running backs to come through both Stanford and San Diego State in recent years. Love's Heisman-caliber season ago marked the third time since 2009 a Cardinal running back finished second in balloting for college football's top individual award. Meanwhile, tucked between that impressive stretch with Toby Gerhart, Christian McCaffrey and Love, Stanford also featured Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney and Remound Wright.

San Diego State's recent running back legacy boasts Ronnie Hillman, Adam Muema, Donnel Pumphrey (yet another back to eclipse 2,000 yards), Penny, and now his successor, Juwan Washington. Washington accrued 759 yards and scored seven touchdowns as the Aztecs' change-of-pace option behind Penny. Now, he'll get the opportunity to continue San Diego State's impressive running back lineage.

Maintaining an effective enough run to wear down the opponent's defense should prove critical to Friday's outcome.

Final Analysis

Despite reaching the Pac-12 Championship Game for the fourth time under David Shaw, Stanford finished 2017 with a pedestrian (by its standards) 9-5 record. But gauging those five losses reveals that four were by a combined 11 points. The loss at San Diego State was the first of three by three.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Stanford

That suggests Stanford was a team just on the cusp of competing for a national championship. The Cardinal have knocked on the door of both the BCS and College Football Playoff more than a few times since 2010. While there are question marks on the usually dependable defense — namely, who replaces Harrison Phillips? — this could be the best offense since 2015, or perhaps even 2011 if Costello progresses on the same trajectory he capped last season.

San Diego State's aggressive, 3-3-5 stack defense features a variety of turnover-generating playmakers like Tariq Thompson, who picked off five passes in 2017. However, the Cardinal's outstanding offensive line and Bryce Love should wear the Aztecs down over the course of the night.

Prediction: Stanford 31, San Diego State 20 

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