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Stanford Cardinal vs. San Diego State Aztecs Preview and Prediction


Since the beginning of the 2015 season, Week 3 opponents Stanford and San Diego State have combined to win 47 games. They are the two most successful programs on the West Coast in that span based on win-loss record, so as Cardinal head coach David Shaw said, it's "a natural fit" for the two to play.

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What's more, their very similar records — Stanford is 23-6 since the start of 2015, San Diego State is 24-6 — have come as a result of very similar styles of play.

When the Cardinal and Aztecs lock up at the newly San Diego Chargers-less Qualcomm Stadium, both will bring styles predicated on physical dominance up front, paving the way for two of the best rushing attacks in college football.

Stanford at San Diego State

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 16, 10:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: CBS Sports Network

Line: Stanford -9

Three Things to Watch

1. Run defense

Following Stanford's 42-24 loss at USC in Week 2, head coach David Shaw said his defensive line was not accustomed to giving up the kind of big rushing total the Trojans reeled off. Both Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr went off for more than 100 yards — and now comes the nation's leading rusher in Week 3, Rashaad Penny.

Penny put up more than 1,000 yards as the Aztecs' No. 2 running back in 2016, supplementing the attack behind record-setting ball-carrier Donnel Pumphrey. With the reins firmly in his control, Penny has not disappointed. He has 413 yards and three rushing touchdowns through two games, most recently gashing Pac-12 member Arizona State for 216 yards.

Penny is averaging an absurd 10.6 yards per carry — which is actually less than Stanford's Bryce Love. Love comes into Week 3 ripping off 11.3 yards per carry and boasting the nation's fourth-best per-game average at 170. 

Maybe it's an oversimplification, but it's reality: The defense that can stop the run wins the game.

2. OK... so it's not ALL run defense

Other factors should indeed play a role in Saturday's contest, even if stopping the run is A-1. One facet in which San Diego State's Penny can make a huge, potentially game-changing splash is on special teams.

Penny ran back a kickoff at Arizona State for a touchdown. He did so out of the end zone, which is noteworthy, since every Cardinal kickoff thus far in 2017 has gone for a touchback.

A big special teams play can be a game-breaker in a contest like this that pits two talented defenses against one another. 

3. Stanford's big bodies vs. SDSU's geedy DBs

A hallmark of the Stanford offense has long been its use of big-bodied pass-catchers, whether at wide receiver or tight end. The 2017 roster is no exception, featuring the likes of Dalton Schultz, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Trenton Irwin, all of whom go 6-foot-2 or taller.

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How quarterback Keller Chryst is able to use those targets against an excellent San Diego State secondary should factor into Saturday's outcome. The Aztecs have routinely had some of the best coverage corners in college football, and their efforts paid off with the most interceptions in college football a season ago.

Gone is star Damontae Kazee, but youngsters Ron Smith and Tariq Thompson combine with veteran Kameron Kelly to give San Diego State one of the most dangerous secondaries in the nation.

Final Analysis

Stanford has already logged enough travel miles to last a few seasons in 2017, kicking off Week 0 in Sydney, Australia, against Rice; heading to Los Angeles last week for the rivalry contest with USC; and now embarking to America's Finest City for this intriguing matchup.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Stanford

The Cardinal may be road weary, but David Shaw teams rarely lose two straight — especially not to opponents who employ similar styles to Stanford's.

USC beat Stanford "at its own game" last week, and San Diego State would have to win in similar fashion. Though coach Rocky Long has done a remarkable job shaping the Aztecs into one of the best defensive and rushing teams in the nation, Stanford remains one of the sport's current gold standards.

Expect Stanford to bounce back in Shaw's return to San Diego, where he got his college coaching start in 2006 on the staff at USD.

Prediction: Stanford 31, San Diego State 21 

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