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Stanford's Schedule: Too Many Patsies

Cardinal miss many benefits of playing a tough opponent before Pac-12 slate begins.

Remember the Stanford-Duke basketball showdown in Oakland nearly 11 years ago? The one where the third-ranked Cardinal stunned No. 1 Duke 84-83 with Tiger Woods animatedly cheering his alma mater from courtside seats?

From the time the schedule was released, that Pete Newell Challenge thriller leaped out as a tititillating non-conference battle in December, and it matched the considerable hype.

This year, the Stanford football team finds itself in a similarly lofty position as that Casey Jacobsen-led basketball unit did, sporting the No. 6 ranking in the AP poll. But instead of testing themselves with a marquee matchup before beginning their Pac-12 slate, the Cardinal seem all too content to schedule woefully-overmatched opponents like, well, Duke.

Stanford’s football game against the Blue Devils on Saturday marks the start of a home-and-home series against a program that has had a losing record for 16 straight seasons. A week after walloping San Jose State 57-3 in their opener, the Cardinal are 21-point road favorites over Duke.

Suffice it to say that while Stanford’s 180-degree on-field makeover from its 1-11 showing of 2006 is complete, the program’s non-conference scheduling is a good ways from catching up. The Cardinal are still booking multiple pushovers at the outset, an underwhelming lineup not consistent with their current standing.

Sure, it makes sense for any highly-regarded program to schedule one gimme early in its season. Without any preseason games to fine-tune or assess roster depth, an opportunity to work out the kinks in an exhibition-like setting is understandable.

But nearly every other preseason top-25 program with multiple open dates before its conference season has scheduled at least one game against a ranked opponent or a notable BCS program. And while LSU-Oregon, Boise State-Georgia, Alabama-Penn State and Oklahoma-Florida State are among the early meat-grinders, Stanford faces back-to-back cupcakes in San Jose State and Duke – this year and next.

Yes, the Cardinal don’t need to play a featured game early in the year. Their chances of landing in a major bowl aren’t necessarily affected by the quality of their non-conference opponents. Stanford earned an Orange Bowl berth a year ago on the heels of blowout September wins over struggling teams in Sacramento State and Wake Forest. The year before, No. 16 Oregon opened its season with a 19-8 loss at No. 14 Boise State – and both programs ultimately advanced to a BCS bowl.

But most top programs want to face a true challenge early in the year. Invaluable preparation for a bruising conference schedule, national attention, ticket sales, recruiting inroads and huge TV payouts are among the noteworthy benefits.

Stanford deserves credit for extending its annual series with Notre Dame earlier this year. The schools will continue their home-and-home set through 2019. But thanks to a myriad of scheduling considerations, that game often lands late in the season – depriving the Cardinal of the pre-conference benefits.

Granted, football and basketball scheduling have few parallels. But wouldn’t everyone associated with Stanford football – the team, administration and fans – benefit from a battle similar to that memorable Cardinal-Blue Devils holiday hoops extravaganza? Wouldn’t the anticipation start far in advance for a September showdown with Texas or Michigan? Florida or Nebraska?

Stanford obviously doesn’t think so. At least not yet.

The Cardinal have two-game series on the horizon with Army (2013-14) and Rice (2016-17), programs that have a combined four bowl appearances since 1988.

Barring a buyout, the earliest opening on Stanford’s schedule is in 2014. Let’s hope the first call isn’t to UC Davis.

RPV Resident September 09, 2011 at 03:29 PM
I think it's the opposite. Stanford learned from the scheduling mistakes of 2006. With future NFL quarterback Trent Edwards at the helm, they started that 1-11 season with an away game at Oregon followed by two bowl-quality nonconference foes (including the chop-blocking experts at Navy). The reward for scheduling those tough games to start the season was an 0-3 start and one of the most injury plagued seasons in Cardinal history.
Jim Somers September 09, 2011 at 04:11 PM
Scott; I agree with your analysis, and, like you, would love to see top teams go at it right from the start. But the ultimate blame lies with the BCS system rather than the choices that Stanford, and many others, make. In basketball, there is a championship tournament and a (roughly) 30 game regular season. Hoops teams can afford a few losses without risking a slot in the tournament bracket. Not so in football, where bowl bids and rankings are at stake every week. One loss can dump a team from a BCS bowl or even a shot at the title. So, until there is a true playoff, we will continue to see top teams playing soft non-conference schedule. The Oregon-LSU game last week was the exception, not the rule.
belmont mom September 09, 2011 at 04:22 PM
The football schedule is created years in advance. With Stanford's incredible turnaround, it is difficult to blame their athletics department on a schedule booked out years' gone by. Stanford has a very tough conference schedule to contend with and we should show up at Stanford Stadium in force to watch them play. It should be a great year for Stanford Football!! As for the Notre Dame contract - Stanford has played them Thanksgiving weekend for many years now, providing maximum prime time coast-to-coast exposure, which west coast teams usually lack in the east-coast-dominated voting structure of the BCS.
GeorgeC September 09, 2011 at 04:33 PM
The Duke-Stanford home-and-home series was scheduled before Andrew Luck played a down for the Cardinal. What does Stanford have to look forward to? Rice in 2016 and 2017.
Timothy Rath September 17, 2011 at 12:25 AM
I agree with belmont mom. I think it's obvious to comment that a one-loss SEC team would likely trump a Stanford team in a power rankings poll, but the goal of the Cardinal is to win the conference. When making the schedule, the athletic director likely decides to try and schedule one powerhouse opponent annually, as you mentioned, Scott. But who from the BCS conferences would have considered an out-of-conference matchup against Stanford five years ago? Props for the turnaround should go to Harbaugh, regardless of what Bay Area fans of think of him personally. It's the new coaches' job to sustain this hype so that five years from now, Stanford is hosting a marquee showdown against a top opponent on national TV and giving the Cardinal the recognition they deserve. Inconsistency from this football program is maddening.

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