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Stanford Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Cardinal's Schedule

Stanford Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Cardinal's Schedule

Stanford Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Cardinal's Schedule

Never a program that shies away from challenges, Stanford kicks off an absolute gauntlet in 2019 against the reigning Big Ten West divisional champion. That sets quite a tone, as the Cardinal play 11 Power 5 opponents in 2019 — nothing out of the ordinary for this program. However, the significance of which is enhanced considering that 12th game is on the road against UCF, the pinnacle of Group of 5 programs for the past two seasons running.

Not only is Stanford's schedule a beast, but the Cardinal face what is arguably the most difficult opening month in college football. The first few weeks will reveal much about David Shaw's team, and its hopes of winning the Pac-12 championship after an uncharacteristically long "drought" of three seasons without it.

12. Sept. 28 at Oregon State

Consider Oregon State's placement in this ranking a reflection of how brutal Stanford's 2019 schedule looks, because this early-season road trip is a textbook example of a potential trap game. The Cardinal visit Reser Stadium sandwiched between marquee matchups with Oregon and Washington, and ahead of a 12-day layoff before the next game. And while the Beavers are amid a significant rebuild under second-year head coach Jonathan Smith, it's worth noting Stanford needed a late-game scoring drive to escape Corvallis its last time there in 2017.

College football rankings: Oregon State

11. Oct. 17 vs. UCLA

Chip Kelly's return to the Pac-12 last season included plenty of struggle. But by the time his rivalry renewed with David Shaw on Thanksgiving weekend, the Bruins were turning a corner. UCLA forced Stanford into a shootout that the Cardinal barely escaped, though the win continued a decade-long dominance for them in the series. Games played on The Farm have been especially one-sided in the years since an epic 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game, and this year's edition comes with Stanford coming off a bye.

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10. Nov. 9 at Colorado

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New Colorado head coach Mel Tucker comes to Boulder with an impressive resume and hard-nosed, defensive philosophy. Implementing his approach with a Buffaloes team that has been notoriously undersized throughout its tenure in the Pac-12 will take time — perhaps longer than the two months before Colorado hosts the benchmark for such a style, Stanford. The Cardinal's physically imposing ways yielded wins of 41, 48 and 32 points in the program's first three meetings as conference counterparts. Colorado won the last matchup, albeit three years ago.

9. Oct. 26 vs. Arizona

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Stanford and Arizona last faced in 2016, a game the Cardinal won easily during the low-point of the Wildcats' past decade. Arizona has a different head coach now, with Kevin Sumlin entering his second season. Assuming everyone is healthy, Arizona's backfield tandem of quarterback Khalil Tate and running back J.J. Taylor will be one of the most dynamic duos the Stanford defense sees in 2019.

8. Nov. 23 at Cal

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The Big Game has been all Stanford for a decade now, but the 2019 edition will test that. Justin Wilcox's efforts in two seasons as Golden Bears head coach are nothing short of remarkable, transforming one of the nation's worst defenses into one of the stingiest in short order. All rivalry games have heightened intensity, but the 122nd Big Game will also have added physicality.

7. Aug. 31 vs. Northwestern

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The season opener looms large for a number of reasons. Arguably the best all-around Stanford team of David Shaw's tenure as head coach was the 2015 squad, which missed the College Football Playoff by virtue of a Week 1 loss at Northwestern. The Wildcats return the favor in 2019, coming to the Bay Area. In 2018, Northwestern did what it typically has under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, exceeded all expectations en route to a Big Ten Championship Game appearance, and finishing things off with a stunning comeback win over Utah in the Holiday Bowl. Northwestern is one of the most veteran teams in the nation heading into the new campaign, while Stanford's undergoing a rather significant facelift on both sides of the ball. That will play a factor in the season opener.

6. Sept. 7 at USC

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

The recent rivalry that bloomed between Stanford and USC helps shape the early Pac-12 race virtually every season. The game's winner has claimed the conference championship three times since 2012, and the victorious side has amassed nine-plus wins each year since '10. This year's installment pits a Stanford defense with no shortage of new faces against a USC offense introducing an unprecedented dash of air-raid concepts, with new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. USC's deep and diverse receiving corps will challenge a Cardinal secondary introducing plenty of new starters to the mix.

5. Sept. 14 at UCF

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So UCF can't get SEC opponents to play it home-and-home. Leave it to Stanford — a program that's proven willing to both play road games against Group of 5 opponents, and to load up its schedule every year — to fill the 2017 national champion*'s dance card. The home-and-home series was brokered in 2014, just after UCF won the Fiesta Bowl, but the first game was played in the Knights' perplexing, 0-12 2015 campaign. To call this a different UCF is the understatement of the century. George O'Leary coached the Knights in the last meeting, and former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost came and went since. The Cardinal face a Josh Heupel-coached team that hasn't lost a regular-season game since 2016.

4. Nov. 30 vs. Notre Dame

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Notre Dame

The Stanford-Notre Dame rivalry isn't as steeped in history as other series across college football — it's arguably not even in the top five of Notre Dame rivalries, at least all-time — but its recent significance stands up with the biggest rivalries in the sport. Home teams have mostly held serve in this annual showdown every year since 2007, with Stanford, in particular, dominating on its field. The Fighting Irish haven't won on The Farm in five tries, but they could be competing for a return to the College Football Playoff in this year's installment.

3. Oct. 5 vs. Washington

It's no coincidence that the winner of the Stanford-Washington matchup each of the past four seasons running represented the North in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Three times, that team claimed the league crown; including Washington, which won its second in three years last season. Chris Petersen's restoration of Washington football as a national power reaches an important phase in 2019, with the Huskies replacing pillars like Ben Burr-Kirven and Myles Gaskin. Meanwhile, the spot the Huskies now occupy is one Stanford needs to reclaim. This is a pivotal matchup to set the pace in an increasingly tight Pac-12 North, with an added subplot of two potential early-round NFL draft picks — Jacob Eason and K.J. Costello — leading each offense.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

2. Nov. 16 at Washington State

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Styles make fights, as the cliche in boxing goes, and it applies to the difficulty Stanford's had with Washington State in recent years. Since surviving a Halloween night game for the ages in 2015, the Cardinal are winless against the Cougars. Washington State rallied in the fourth quarter to win last year's meeting in the Bay Area, an important victory in the Cougars' march to a program-record 11-win campaign. While Mike Leach's ballyhooed "Air Raid" offense is a vexing style for Stanford, the unique, heavy-on-shifts defense of coordinator Tracy Claeys presents a challenge similar to that which Alex Grinch introduced in the role previously.

1. Sept. 21 vs. Oregon

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oregon

The budding Stanford-Oregon rivalry for Pac-12 supremacy hit a snag after 2015, but came roaring back to life with last season's overtime thriller. The Cardinal's comeback win in Autzen Stadium may not have been a springboard to the Pac-12 Championship Game, but it did shape the divisional race early. The teams reunite in the season's first month once again, with the winner having an initial, inside track to Santa Clara. Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal has a roster loaded with experience and talent and should be the preseason favorite to claim the North in 2019.

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