A Power 5-conference showdown ushers in the first full college football Saturday of 2021, as Stanford and Kansas State meet in Arlington, Texas.
This year's installment of the Cowboys Classic features two of the top 30 winningest programs of the previous decade, with Stanford finishing the 2010s with a .737 win percentage and Kansas State turning to the 2020s at .628.
While David Shaw oversaw much of the Cardinal's success in the 2010s, and a bounce-back 2020 from the program's lone sub-.500 finish since 2009, Kansas State embarked on a new era with the hire of Chris Klieman in 2019.
Klieman was no stranger to success before arriving in Manhattan, however, continuing the historic dominance of FCS juggernaut North Dakota State with NCAA national championships in 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018.
In his first two seasons at K-State, Klieman's followed the footsteps of legendary Bill Snyder with an eight-win 2019 and a 2020 season that continued the Snyder tradition of upsetting Oklahoma.
The Wildcats open 2021 with an opportunity of a statement win, but the same is true for Stanford. The Cowboys Classic is the first of a remarkable 12 regular-season games for the Cardinal against Power 5 competition.
Given criticism leveled against the Pac-12 in recent years from national media, do those games like Saturday's Stanford-Kansas State matchup come with added significance?
"I guess they're important because everyone keeps telling us they're important," Shaw said. "I don't necessarily think that way. We want to win every game we play, regardless of who it is. ... When you think too much that way, now you're trying to win for other reasons other than trying to win the game."
Stanford vs. Kansas State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 4 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
Spread: Kansas State -3
When Stanford Has the Ball
Winning Stanford teams of the previous decade thrived with a powerful rushing attack. With outstanding ball carriers Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney, Christian McCaffrey, and Bryce Love, the Cardinal went year-to-year replacing one productive running back with another.
When Love suffered an injury in 2018, however, Stanford's run game languished. In 2019, a bevy of injuries on the offensive line continued the uncharacteristic rushing woes. But in 2020, the Cardinal regained some of the punch missing from its run game the previous two years, thanks in part to the emergence of Austin Jones.
"Austin Jones has had an outstanding camp," Shaw said, adding: "Having a healthy offensive line again, we look like a Stanford offensive line."
The veteran offensive line is key in the Cardinal reestablishing their identity. It's also significant with Stanford facing quarterback uncertainty. Shaw said both Tanner McKee and Jack West will play against Kansas State.
Either can expect aggressive pressure from the Wildcats defense. In 10 games a season ago, Kansas State generated 28 sacks. Drew Wiley and Wyatt Hubert accounted for 13 and are gone, but Daniel Green is back and is a force off the edge. Klieman also praised defensive Felix Anudike during the coach's press conference ahead of Week 1.
When Kansas State Has the Ball
One of, if not the most electric backs in college football calls Manhattan home: Deuce Vaughn. The breakout star in 2020 is a dynamic, two-way playmaker who went for more than 1,000 yards between his ball-carrying and pass-catching.
The versatility Kansas State boasts out of the backfield with Vaughn and the return of quarterback Skylar Thompson promises to keep the Stanford front seven on its toes.
"There's a comfort level, there's a confidence in watching him practice and run the show on offense," Klieman said of Thompson in his press conference.
The quarterback started 2020 with a flourish but sustained a season-ending upper-body injury in the third game. He was passing with the most accuracy and zip of his career, which enters its fifth year in 2021.
Stanford counters with experience, particularly up front. Defensive end Thomas Booker is going into his fourth year as a starter, and tackle Dalyn Wade-Perry played his best ball during the Cardinal's season-ending four-game winning streak.
The degree of difficulty Stanford faces in its schedule — the Cardinal have no home games until Sept. 25 and travel to conference rival USC in Week 2 — could place a particular premium on Week 1.
Offensive lineman Walter Rouse said underwhelming preseason projections reflected an attitude that Stanford's strong close to 2020 was "a fluke." A good Kansas State team with its outstanding quarterback returning to the fold will test that theory.
The Wildcats defense struggled in 2020. Its improvement this season will determine if Kansas State is fighting for a bowl bid or competing for a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game. Likewise, the offseason progress will determine Week 1's result.
Prediction: Stanford 28, Kansas State 24
Podcast: Week 1 Preview, Predictions & Spread Picks
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.