Stanford's first opponent in 2015 will be the Northwestern Wildcats, a team that shares a kindred status with the Cardinal, as a sterling academic institution competing in a Power 5 conference. However, it's safe to say that things have not gone well recently in Evanston. The Wildcats were 10-3 in 2012 and ended the season ranked 17th by the AP after their Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State. Since then, Coach Pat Fitzgerald's team has gone 10-14 the last two years, built upon twin 5-7 season. Not a bottomless pit of despair, but Northwestern had been on an impressive upward arc under Fitzgerald coming off that Gator Bowl victory over the Bulldogs. There are many who believe that a heartbreaking loss to The Ohio State University in October the following year, a game played under the bright lights of College Gameday, sent the Wildcats on a downward spiral from which they have yet to fully recover.
What we do know about the Wildcats is that they went 3-5 in conference play and that got them a sixth place finish in the Big 10 West. They weren't a "bad" team, they were just....meh. Most of their number back this up. They were the 10th-rated scoring offense in the Big 10 last year, and they got there by being the 10th-rated rushing team and the 7th-rated passing team. On defense, they finished seventh, so the exact definition of mediocrity ("meh"-diocrity?). Their pass and rush defenses were both ranked seventh. They were +3 in turnover margin and were not very proficient in the red zone. They generated only the 8th-most red zone attempts in the conference, and once they arrived on the doorstep, scored touchdowns on only 52% of their possessions, good for 12th in the Big 10. This particular affliction is one that Stanford fans can certainly empathize with the Wildcat faithful.
Perhaps the biggest issue the Wildcats need to resolve this year is at the quarterback position. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has named redshirt freshman Clayton Thompson the starter versus Stanford. Thompson beat out Sophomore Matt Alviti and Senior Zack Oliver in a three man competition. If Thompson struggles early will it be short leash?
The Wildcats had a roller coaster 2014. They dropped their opener to Cal and then proceeded to lose their next game. However, a victory over Wisconsin launched a four-game winning streak that had many thinking the Wildcats had righted their ship. Unfortunately, they stumbled on the road against Minnesota and that defeat really knocked Northwestern for a loop. They'd lose their next three games before upsetting Notre Dame in South Bend and following that up with a victory over Purdue. Those wins left Northwestern one win shy of bowl eligibility heading into their rivalry finale at home against Illinois. The Wildcat defense was thrashed by the Illini, 47-33, and for the second straight year Northwestern would miss the postseason.
The Wildcats have not been a great team in a couple years, but from home season openers springs hope for a new day. It's a game played at 9 AM Stanford time (not a conducive time slot for vintage Cardinal performances). Ultimately, I don't see the newly anointed Northwestern QB tearing up a Lance Anderson defense, and I don't think the Wildcats have an answer for Stanford's play-making personnel. It's a "should" win, but those are the ones that make me the most nervous. Be warned.
Stanford's Week 2 opponent will be the University of Central Florida Knights. Coach George O'Leary's Knights arrive with a resume that cannot be questioned. The Knights went 9-4 last year after a 2013 in which they went an impressive 12-1 and won the Fiesta Bowl. Much like Northwestern, Stanford's early non-conference slate is not exactly filled with cupcakes. Both of these teams are formidable especially considering they are slotted in places normally reserved for surefire wins. Take a look at some other opening week opponents: UTSA (Arizona), The Weber State University (Oregon State), Hawaii (Colorado), Grambling State (Cal), and Arkansas State (USC). Granted, schools like Utah and Arizona State have certainly scheduled formidably (Michigan and Texas A&M, respectively), and Oregon does go to East Lansing in Week 2. The point is that the first two weeks should not be dismissed by Cardinal fans.
Unbelievably, O'leary starts his 12th season as coach of the Knights in 2015. Last season, Central Florida tied for first in the recently formed American Conference with Cincinnati and Memphis. The Knights rebounded from a pair of season-opening losses to Penn State and Missouri by winning five straight games. Their lone conference loss came in a tough road defeat in Storrs against UConn. After that, Central Florida ran off four consecutive victories before falling to the NC State Wolfpack in the Bitcoin St. Petersberg Bowl. Overall, it was a solid season of football from a team that has clearly found its footing under O'Leary's leadership.
What do the numbers tell us about the Knights? Tell me if this sounds familiar, Stanford fans. UCF's league best defense carried what was, by most measures, a mediocre offense. UCF had the best passing and rushing defense in the American Athletic Conference, and in allowing a paltry 15 ppg in league play had the league's best scoring defense. Opponents gained a mere 84 yards a game on the ground against the Knights. Offensively, Central Florida was slightly less impressive. They had the fourth-best scoring offense, supported by the 6th best passing offense and the fifth rated rush offense. Should these schools hold to their identities, don't look for too many points when the Knights hit The Farm on September 12.
Digging deeper into the Knight offense, we find that they did a decent job in terms of turnover margin (5th in the AAC) and they were pretty "Meh" in the red zone, scoring TD's on 52% of their opportunities, good for 6th in the conference. Of course, Stanford would have taken that rate in a heartbeat, especially in conference play. Sophomore quarterback Justin Holman averaged 7.8 yards per attempt, third best in the conference. That wasn't the focus of the UCF offense, however. Holman was asked to do relatively little compared to his peers in the AAC. Central Florida's 240 passing attempts in league play rated it ninth, whereas its 356 carries were the second-highest total in the conference. So once more we have a resemblance to the Cardinal. It's clear that the Knights want to win games on the ground, or at the very least use up possession time to cater to its league-best defense. Holman completed 59% of his passes, essentially tying him for fourth in the league.
Despite the emphasis on the running game, UCF's top rusher, Sophomore William Stanback averaged less than four yards a carry in conference play, and only 80 yards a game. The league itself only had one player average 100 yards per game in Memphis' Brandon Hayes, and it did have three quarterbacks throwing 38 or more passes per game, with the league leader averaging a Leach-esque 47 passes a game. Interestingly, none of the quarterbacks who threw the most played for the top three teams in the league. Makes sense that lesser teams would be throwing more as they would be trailing more, but it seems like the teams who won last year in the AAC ran both by design and the necessity.
UCF, like Stanford last year, has age but not necessarily experience along the offensive line. The only returning starter as of this point is moving from right guard to left guard. Right Tackle is still in question with freshman Tyler Hudanick leading over Redshirt Junior Micah Anderson. Left to right, the Knights go Redshirt Soph., Redshirt Senior, Redshirt Senior, Redshirt Junior, and then either Freshman or Redshirt Junior. It will be interesting to track this line as it takes on Stanford's defense so early in the season.
This game looks like a scheduled win, but do NOT take it for granted. O'Leary is a legit coach and UCF has tangled with plenty of Power 5 teams so there's not going to be any Shaw-k and awe when the Knights hit Foster Field. They are a team constructed in a very similar manner to the Cardinal. Of course I expect Stanford to win, but this game is nowhere near the level of scheduled cup-cakery as most teams schedule for a home opener.
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