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Stanford Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on Their Schedule

Stanford Cardinal head coach David Shaw

Stanford Cardinal head coach David Shaw

Stanford football proved in 2017 that while Washington may be back on the rise, the Cardinal remain kings of the North. Their divisional title last season made four in the brief history of the Pac-12 post-expansion. In fact, Stanford's now appeared in the Pac-12 Championship Game more than the rest of the North combined.

Stanford Cardinal RB Bryce Love

David Shaw's team will enter 2018 as a likely underdog to continue its dominance over the division, as the road to title game No. 5 (and Pac-12 title No. 4 since 2012) looks treacherous. The Cardinal face a couple stiff tests out of conference, then dive into one of the most challenging dockets among the league's 12 teams.

12. Sept. 15 vs. UC Davis

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UC Davis had just made the jump from Div. II to the former Div. I-AA in 2005 when it faced Stanford. Jon Grant's 3-yard touchdown pass to Blaise Smith in the waning seconds capped a 20-0 rally, and a landmark, 20-17 win. Players in this year's matchup ranged from Kindergarten to fourth grade-aged back then, and each program is in a vastly different place now.

While Stanford's grown into a Pac-12 pace-setter, UC Davis has battled to stay out of the Big Sky Conference cellar. The Aggies shouldn't put up much of a fight in 2018 -- then again, a similar sentiment could have been expressed in '05.

11. Nov. 10 vs. Oregon State

As last season's trip to Corvallis proved for Stanford, no win can be taken for granted. Injuries and poor performance happen -- sometimes simultaneously -- and it takes a last-ditch effort to beat a one-win opponent. Oregon State enters 2018 in a decided rebuilding mode, and the Cardinal should roll in theory. One week after one of the most important dates on the calendar might change the forecast for this matchup, however.

College football rankings: Oregon State

10. Nov. 17 at Cal

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While previous years' results have no bearing on another season's results, lengthy losing streaks can weigh on a team mentally. Stanford's eight-game streak in the Big Game -- with last year's 17-14 marking the first single-digit decision since 2011 -- might translate to a considerable psychological edge for the Cardinal. Stanford also benefits from facing a likely cellar-dweller the week prior in Oregon State, while Cal comes into the rivalry matchup off a road trip to USC.

Nevertheless, a Cal team that should make a bowl in Justin Wilcox's second season as head coach checking in here speaks to the difficulty of Stanford's 2018 schedule.

9. Oct. 18 at Arizona State

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Odd things happen on Thursday nights, especially in the desert. Sun Devil Stadium should be rocking for Stanford's visit to Tempe, but to the Cardinal's benefit, they'll be fresh off their bye week. Arizona State is a major unknown in this year's Pac-12 race, embracing an unconventional coaching approach with Herm Edwards coming off of a decade sabbatical from the game with zero collegiate experience.

A repeat of Bryce Love's 301-yard performance against the Sun Devils last season wouldn't hurt the running back's pursuit of the Heisman Trophy.

8. Aug. 31 vs. San Diego State

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Payback will be the order of the day for Stanford's season opener. The Cardinal lost a physical contest against San Diego State last season down on Montezuma Mesa, and can expect a similar slugfest this time around.

While Stanford returns its Heisman-caliber running back, Love, San Diego State replaces 2,000-yard rusher Rashaad Penny. But with a smash-mouth style and massive offensive line up front, the Aztecs have had a conveyor belt of star backs under coach Rocky Long. This season should be no exception.

7. Nov. 24 at UCLA

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This season marks the 10-year anniversary of UCLA's last win over Stanford. Not so coincidentally, that was the last time a Stanford team failed to qualify for the postseason. While the Cardinal have become standard bearers in the Pac-12, UCLA has tried in vain to reach that same pinnacle. Enter Chip Kelly.

The first-year Bruins head coach won three straight conference titles from 2009-11, with the latter two coming at the direct expanse of Stanford. David Shaw scored his only career win against Kelly in 2012, the latter's last season at Oregon. Kelly inherits a great deal of talent at UCLA, thanks to the recruiting success of predecessor Jim Mora, so the Bruins could be in play for the wide-open Pac-12 South title come Thanksgiving weekend.

6. Oct. 27 vs. Washington State

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Washington State is the football antithesis to Stanford in just about every conceivable facet, and that contrast in styles has made the Cougars a vexing force for the Cardinal in recent years. Stanford narrowly escaped a Halloween night thriller on the Palouse in 2015, but has since dropped the last two -- including a blowout loss at home when Washington State last visited The Farm two years ago.

This Washington State is the most uncertain heading into the season since the 2015 campaign, but that autumn also marked the first breakthrough in an ongoing, three-year stretch of prosperity for the Cougars.

5. Sept. 22 at Oregon

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oregon

When the USC dynasty ended in 2009, Oregon and Stanford took up the mantle as the conference's leading programs. One of the two claimed every Pac-10/12 championship from 2009-15, and only once has a program other than one of the two finished atop the North division. Calling this series a rivalry might be hyperbolic, but it's certainly morphed into one of the most critical matchups on the Pac-12 calendar in any season.

Though Oregon hit a rough patch in 2016, first-year head coach Mario Cristobal inherits an experienced and talented roster. The Ducks could be dark-horse conference title contenders -- Stanford's visit to Autzen Stadium early in the campaign could set the tone for that race.

4. Oct. 6 vs. Utah

NCAAF Top 25 Rankings: Utah

Kyle Whittingham's Utah Utes could be considered Stanford's kindred spirit of the South division. Whittingham and Shaw are the Pac-12's two longest-tenured head coaches, and both emphasize physical styles of play with defense at the forefront. The two head coaches have faced off just three times since Utah joined the conference in 2011, but every encounter -- including last year's 23-20 Stanford win -- came down to a single possession.

Expect nothing different in 2018. Utah is very much in play for the South division title, and scoring a win at the defending North champion's home field would position the Utes nicely for the back-half of the schedule.

3. Sept. 8 vs. USC

Last December's Pac-12 Championship Game came down to the fourth quarter; USC's goal-line defensive stand, subsequent score, and a critical first-down conversion on the final possession sealed the Trojans' first conference title since 2008, and made for a fitting chapter in the exciting story these programs have written together over the past decade.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

The rematch of that title tilt falls early on the calendar, as has been customary for this budding rivalry in recent years. This early-season showdown sets the pace for the many weeks that follow, so scoring this early victory is crucial. USC might be vulnerable, replacing quarterback Sam Darnold and running back Ronald Jones II on offense, as well as linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, who was a one-man wrecking crew in each of the Trojans' wins over the Cardinal last season.

2. Sept. 29 at Notre Dame 

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Notre Dame

Out-of-conference rival Notre Dame has presented some of the greatest challenges Stanford's faced in recent seasons. Oftentimes, like last year, the Fighting Irish have brought the best out of the Cardinal. Last November's fourth-quarter romp behind a star-turn performance from quarterback K.J. Costello extinguished any hope Notre Dame had of contending for a College Football Playoff berth -- the second time in as many Irish visits to The Farm their national title hopes were officially dashed.

A Notre Dame team again poised to be in the playoff conversation welcomes Stanford to South Bend with revenge in mind. Expect a rugged contest between one of the nation's premier offensive lines (Stanford) and one of the most loaded defenses (Notre Dame).

1. Nov. 3 at Washington 

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

Chris Petersen inherited a Washington program that predecessor Steve Sarkisian had on the cusp of returning to prominence, and the longtime Boise State head coach gave the Huskies that necessary push to get over the hump. Washington's 2016 Pac-12 championship -- the program's first league title since 2000 -- landed the Huskies in the College Football Playoff. Both the playoff and its forerunner, the BCS Championship Game, eluded Stanford throughout this great run under Shaw.

Washington looks primed to be the class of the Pac-12 again this season, and could be in the mix for a playoff berth when November arrives. Husky Stadium's long-held reputation as one of the toughest place to play in the conference will play a role when these two teams, built on similar principles of power and discipline, collide.

Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast: Games. Games. And more Games!

-- 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.