Backloaded path to No. 1

Why Stanford's backloaded schedule could propel the Cardinal to a No. 1 midseason rank, and why an October ranking matters. Focus on Andrew Luck if you must, but here is the biggest X factor as Stanford heads into 2011 season.

Per, here are the 13 top teams with the best preseason shot of winning the national title:
1. Oklahoma 9/2
2. Alabama 11/2
3. Florida State 10/1
4. Oregon 12/1
5. Boise State 14/1
5. LSU 14/1
7. Florida 16/1
7.Stanford 16/1
8. Wisconsin 20/1
9. Nebraska 25/1
9. Ohio State 25/1
9. Texas 25/1
9. West Virginia 25/1

The preseason Top 10 will almost certainly come from this group, and as these 13 top teams start to lose, it will be the other squads on this list who slide up toward the No. 1 slot.

The relevance? Look at Stanford's opening eight weeks:

San Jose State (9/3)
@ Duke (9/10)
@ Arizona (9/17)
Bye (9/24)
vs. UCLA (10/1)
vs. Colorado (10/8)
@ Washington State (10/15)
Washington (10/22)

@ USC (10/29)
@ Oregon State (11/5)
Oregon (11/12)
California (11/19)
Notre Dame (11/26)

The Card should be favored in five or six of those first seven games by double digits. Barring injury, if the Cardinal are half as good as the national media and fans predict them to be, the Card should be 7-0 the morning of Oct. 29 and could well be 9-0 the morning of Nov. 12.

In fact, this backloaded schedule means that even if they're not that good – even if Stanford ultimately finishes a disappointing 9-3 – the Cardinal could well start 9-0, let alone 7-0. Couple such an opening with an estimated preseason No. 7 rank, and your Card could reach some high summits in the season's first two months.

In two of the last four years, a preseason No. 7 team that started 7-0 would have been the No. 1-ranked team in the nation after its seventh game. In each of 2007 and 2008, the preseason Nos. 1 through No. 6 all lost one of their first seven games, and no one closed fast enough from behind to pass a hypothetical undefeated No. 7. Admittedly, the last two years, a 7-0 preseason No. 7 team would have been "only" No. 3 or 4, but:
1. "Only" third or fourth in the country isn't a bad place to be;
2. Stanford could easily start 9-0 this season, allowing them to climb higher yet; and
3. There's plenty of reason to think this season will be more wide open, like 2007 or 2008, than favorite-heavy, like in 2009 and 2010.

(In 2007, USC and LSU both started and finished as the top two teams in the country, but each team lost two games along the way, in a year with no dominant team. Notably, USC's dynasty showed hints of crumbling, with the "greatest upset ever" a major turning point for both of the involved squads. In 2008, five teams received preseason first-place votes, but lowly Utah was the only undefeated team when the smoke cleared. By contrast, Florida received 58 of the AP's 60 preseason first-place votes in 2009, and Alabama received 54 of 60 in 2010.

This year, Oklahoma, Alabama and Oregon will all receive preseason first-place votes, so 2007 and 2008, not top-heavy 2009 or 2010, are the closest recent analogies. History therefore suggests more losses to top teams along the way, clearing the path for Stanford to take a No. 1 rank more easily.)

Don't believe me? We could just look at the schedules. In the first two months of the season, your preseason favorites have to go through these likely top-25 teams:
1. Oklahoma has to visit Florida State (9/17) and Texas (10/8);
2. Alabama visits Penn State (9/10), hosts Arkansas (9/24) and visits Florida (10/1);
3. Florida State hosts Oklahoma (10/17);
4. Oregon has LSU (9/3) in a road-like environment at Cowboy Stadium;
5. Boise State visits Georgia (9/3), and will be passed anyway on schedule strength by undefeated BCS teams after the first month or so;
5a. LSU has Oregon (9/3) at Cowboy Stadium, visits West Virginia (9/24), and hosts Florida (10/8) and Auburn (10/22); and
7a. Florida goes vs. Alabama, at LSU and at Auburn the first three weekends of October.

Admittedly, Oregon and Florida State have the easiest paths, but upsets always happen along the way (and Florida State does have to go to Clemson in September). Plus, of course, your Cardinal host Oregon in game 10, in what well could be a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup that would generate no shortage of hype. (Heck, it could sell out Stanford Stadium. Zing.)

Anyway, point of all of this is that this is a most unusual year, with top matchups like No. 5a LSU/No. 4 Oregon, No. 1 Oklahoma/No. 3 Florida State and No. 2 Alabama/No. 7a. Florida all occuring in September. Thus, an undefeated Stanford's necessarily passing three teams, and make that four with Boise State. So that's a No. 3 ranking, minimum, by the beginning of October.

You can think of your Cardinal then as the No. 3 preseason team in the country, not No. 7. Get the heart beating a little faster?

I suppose I shouldn't have buried the lead here, but other than some fun along the way, why does a mid-season No. 1 rank matter? I can already see you cantankerous posters getting ready with "it's not where you start, it's where you finish" or "it's way too early to tell" posts. (Or the "don't overlook team X posts." It's Andrew Luck, not Joe Fan, that can't overlook Wazzu.)

But here's why I think No. 1 in the country, be it in October or January, does carry weight:

1. Historical significance – Stanford was last No. 1 in the ‘40s, I'd imagine;

2. Amazing publicity for recruiting. The No. 1 team probably receives triple the national hype of the No. 5 team;

3. Publicity for Luck's Heisman campaign. All but one (Sam Bradford, 2008) of the last eight Heisman trophy winners were undefeated through Week 7. It's probably not coincidence, given all that publicity they received week after week of the regular season by starring on an undefeated team.
Timing matters, and with a backloaded schedule, Stanford has a great shot at receiving a great ranking and loads of publicity through the first two months of the season. That alone should keep Andrew Luck among the leaders in the Heisman race. Perhaps he won't be in first though, as his numbers will be deflated, with Coach Shaw focusing on running the ball and pulling Luck early in early-season blowouts. Still, that's almost perfect: Luck will be close enough to set the stage for the season's last month, when he'll have four high-profile chances to make Heisman memories: USC, Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame. All but Cal on national, prime-time TV. Think about Musberger and Herbstreit gushing over Toby versus Notre Dame, on an eight-win Stanford team. You can't ask for a better set-up for a Heisman campaign than Stanford's 2011 schedule.

4. Most saliently though, the hotter the start, the higher the stakes rise for us fans. It'll be a much more memorable season, with far more trash talk and daydreaming, if we start 7-0 or 9-0 and not 5-2, even if we were end up at the same place.
I was lucky enough to watch hometown Michigan in 1997 (a 12-0 national-championship season) and 2006 (an 11-0 start), and memories and specific plays from those years are as vivid today in my mind as if they were yesterday. It's been awhile, but Michigan used to be pretty good at football - reaching four BCS bowls in the past decade – but those memories are a blur compared to the intensity of trying to stay alive for a national championship, with a do-or-die battle each and every week. The intensity of college football's regular season is unmatched by any other sport, and with a hot start, us Stanford fans will get to ride that wave for the first time. That wave is why I've been hooked on college football ever since age 11. Words simply can't describe it.

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