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.