After a Week 1 flop in Texas against Kansas State, Stanford rebounded with a 42-28 rout of Pac-12 rival USC that was more lopsided than the final score indicates.
The Cardinal seemingly recaptured some of their missing magic that resurfaced in the latter half of the shortened 2020 season. Their long road tour continues with the third game away from home to kickoff the season, this time venturing into SEC country to face Vanderbilt.
Derek Mason, integral to Stanford's rise in the first half of the 2010s as the Cardinal defensive coordinator, is gone as Vanderbilt's head coach. While that familiarity between the programs is no longer there, first-year Commodores head coach Clark Lea is no stranger to Stanford.
Lea served as linebackers coach and defensive coordinator at Stanford rival Notre Dame for four years and had a stint at UCLA earlier in the decade. Lea's Irish defenses overwhelmed the Cardinal in both 2018 and '19.
Lea's debut started with a thud in a three-touchdown loss to FCS opponent East Tennessee State, but the Commodores rebounded with a win at Colorado State in Week 2.
Stanford at Vanderbilt
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 18 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Stanford -12
When Stanford Has the Ball
After playing both Jack West and Tanner McKee in Week 1, Shaw said McKee won the quarterback job outright going into the USC game. The decision paid immediate dividends.
McKee went 16-of-23 passing with two touchdowns and 234 yards and ran in a third score.
"The offense as a whole did a really good job just keeping the rhythm," McKee said following the USC rout. "Last week [against Kansas State], we started shooting ourselves in the penalties."
Avoiding playing behind the chains certainly helped Stanford to run more effectively, starting early with an 87-yard Nathaniel Peat touchdown run to open the Cardinal's scoring.
Stanford found itself in the uncharacteristic spot of being unable to establish a ground attack the last few seasons, a trend that began coincidentally against Lea's Notre Dame defense in 2018.
Peat's breakout long run opened the field for McKee to pass. With Vanderbilt allowing 5.5 yards per carry through two games, expect Stanford to try a similar strategy in Nashville.
When Vanderbilt Has the Ball
The unsightly loss to ETSU in Week 1 was in part a byproduct of Vanderbilt's inability to complete drives. The Commodores outgained the Bucs 321-314, but turned the ball over three times and went just 1-of-2 in the red zone.
Vanderbilt struggled to run against ETSU, and the problem didn't go away at Colorado State. In both contests, the Commodores averaged fewer than three yards per carry.
Ken Seals, a starter throughout his 2020 freshman season, has carried the bulk of the offensive production on his shoulders. Stanford will likely defend Vanderbilt's offense in a manner similar to its look against USC's Air Raid-inspired offense, dropping defenders back into coverage and allowing moderate rushing lanes.
The Cardinal came up big with the strategy when Kyu Blu Kelly nabbed a decisive pick-six in the second half.
This Pac-12 vs. SEC matchup has a lot more luster to it than it would have after both struggled in Week 1. The rebound wins in Week 2 weren't exactly the same in nature, however, as Vanderbilt was outgained by Colorado State by more than 100 yards and allowed 6.3 yards per carry. Stanford was dominant, albeit against a USC team in turmoil.
However, the Cardinal's performance looked more sustainable as a week-to-week blueprint. Three straight games away from home is a test, though Stanford spent almost all of last season on the road, so it's not entirely new to them.
A fast start like last week's win is critical to avoid the slog that the Kansas State game became.
Prediction: Stanford 31, Vanderbilt 14
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— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.