Stanford is the only program in the nation that's gone to four consecutive BCS bowls, so any article that focuses on strategy in a game versus an FCS opponent like UC Davis is bound to make some readers chuckle.
There's only one problem with that: Saturday's season-opening match-up with the Aggies is technically a revenge game for the Cardinal. It's tough to believe in the midst of this Pac-12 dominance, but it's an excellent illustration of just how far Stanford's football program has come in less than a decade: When UC Davis last visited Palo Alto in 2005, they actually beat Walt Harris' Cardinal.
Stanford fans may find the memory too gruesome for their tastes, but it's important to remember the nadir to fully appreciate the current high. Of course, one can argue that this loss to UC Davis wasn't even the Cardinal's true low point (many point to several punts on third down in the following 1-11 season as such), but it remains a powerful reminder of just how remarkable the current resurrection has been.
Ultimately, it's important for Stanford to enter this season opener with a focus on the broader picture. Beating a physically overmatched UC Davis team will not be enough for the Cardinal to truly win week one. With USC looming seven days after, it's vital that Stanford take full advantage of this early tune-up opportunity in the following ways.
Set a Physical Tone for 2014
Physical play is contagious. Soft play is contagious. Many football players will tell you that it's impossible to just a flip a switch and begin delivering hard-nosed football at the moment that it's needed. Physical play will certainly be required for victory against USC on September 6, so Stanford would be well-suited to enter that appropriate mentality sooner rather than later. This tune-up game against UC Davis is an excellent opportunity for the Cardinal to enter the desired flow. Good blocking and solid tackling are at the top of Saturday's priority list.
Since it is the season opener, Stanford doesn't know much about any wrinkles in Davis' schemes, but based on last season's film, David Shaw is anticipating an opponent that will help his team enter the correct mindset.
"You seem them playing hard," he said. "They play physical. They finish games. We're preparing for high effort."
Get the Youngsters' Feet Wet
Eighty percent of Stanford's starting offensive line is new. The running backs aren't very experienced. The starting tight ends haven't played a down of college football. Much starpower on the defensive side of the ball is gone.
Sure, the Cardinal may feature the deepest roster its ever had, but there's a boatload of inexperience here, too. Practice is one thing; the adrenaline of game day creates an entirely separate dynamic that Stanford's new-look squad must adapt to. Shaw has said that he plans to evenly split carries among his top four running backs, and he'll likely make sure that players at all positions are able to find the appropriate comfort zone.
Secondary coach Duane Akina discussed the necessary acclimatization when discussing new safety Kodi Whitfield, who converted from wide receiver over the offseason.
"Kodi just needs some gameday reps to get out there under fire," he said. "Practice is one thing, but you have to get out there when you have to make those decisions in 3.2 seconds, when mistakes will be really costly."
This may go without saying, but Stanford is already without Aziz Shittu, the team's back-up nose tackle (toe injury). A decimated defensive line hindered the Cardinal last year. That unit lost Henry Anderson in a game versus an overmatched opponent (Army), so it's important to remember that even these tune-ups can be costly affairs.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!