An Unusual Opener

Only once in the last 10 years has Stanford opened its season with a Pac-10 game, but this Saturday will mark the first of at least three straight seasons that the Cardinal will open in conference play. There are some unique elements to a season opening football game worth considering ahead of Stanford's trip to Oregon this weekend, which help color the possibilities in Eugene.

In just days, Stanford will open its 2006 season in Eugene.  We at The Bootleg figured opening against a conference opponent deserved some exploration, since it rarely happens.

Indeed, teams open against a league foe so rarely that it is tough to glean any meaningful trends from such a small sample size.  No Pac-10 team has opened play against another Pac-10 team over the five-year window of analysis we used.  In those five years, the only teams who opened with conference foes came from the SEC, where Vanderbilt was slaughtered a few times, and in the ACC, where Florida State and Miami have each won on their home turf and Virginia Tech squeaked by at North Carolina State last season.

So, expanding the search somewhat, we decided to look at Pac-10 teams who opened against teams from any BCS league, not just the Pac-10.  We found that the conference has performed reasonably well – going 11-10 overall and 13-8 versus the spread over the past five years.  Perhaps the biggest win was USC's 23-0 dismantling of Auburn on the road, that more than any other game signified the start of the Trojan dynasty in 2003.  (Auburn was not a bad squad either; it went 12-0 the following season.)  Perhaps the most shocking loss was Oregon's 30-24 setback versus Indiana.  The Ducks moved the ball at will, but seven turnovers proved the culprit in the loss to the 20-point underdog in Eugene.  Perhaps the best game was Michigan's 31-29 victory over Washington, where seldom-used (and seldom used thereafter) kicker Phllip Brabbs hit a game-winning 44-yarder as time expired on ESPN GameDay's contest of the week in Ann Arbor.

So, points of trivia aside, what should Stanford fans expect from their season opener in Eugene?  Here are a couple of trends:

- Absolute talent tends to matter less in the beginning of the season.  Teams, no many how many stars worth of talent, tend not to play to their full potential, so underdogs fare better earlier in the season.  (Of course, linesmakers know and adjust for this, so the trend does not leave a statistical residue.)

Advantage Stanford, whose task becomes much easier if the Ducks put up less than their 'A' game.

- Homefield advantage matters more.  Given that many players are seeing their first meaningful playing time in front of tens of thousands, the crowd can more profoundly affect these players – and the outcome of the game.

Advantage Oregon, whose Autzen Stadium is the loudest in the Pac-10 and one of the toughest in the country.  Although if anyone should be able to handle crowd noise, Stanford's offense, with 10 returning starters and a three-year starting senior quarterback, should be the unit.

- Oregon is used to opening against teams from power conferences.  In fact, previous to their 38-24 victory over Houston in 2005, Oregon's last four openers all came against BCS teams.  The Ducks lost to Indiana in 2004 as mentioned above, swept Mississippi State in a home-and-home in 2002 and 2003 and, in a game that most closely mirrors this one in terms of location (Eugene) and line (approximately Oregon by 11), squeaked past Wisconsin 31-28 in 2001.  Meanwhile, no disrespect to San Jose State or Navy, but Stanford has not opened with a BCS conference opponent since a home-and-home split with Boston College in 2001 and 2002.

Edge to Oregon, who presumably is used to physical play from the first whistle of the season.

- Teams tend to run more in their season opener.  Stanford gained 181 ground yards against Navy, its second-highest mark of the season (behind only 218 in Pullman), while Oregon's 206 rushing yards versus Houston was its best mark of the season.

Advantage, Oregon.  On offense, Stanford would probably rather pass the ball with Trent Edwards, Mark Bradford and Evan Moore arguably the three best players on the team, and Oregon star safety J.D. Nelson uncertain.  On defense, Stanford is breaking in far more new faces in the front seven than in the backfield.  Plus, Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart, the top ranked back in the nation out of high school two years ago, is a more proven commodity than the passing attack, with relatively untested junior Dennis Dixon at quarterback and top receiver James Finley not at 100%.

- Finally, opening games tend to be higher scoring.  Oregon averaged 60 total points in its last five openers versus about 56 on average, and Stanford 55.4 total points in the last five openers (and 63.3 in the non-SJSU contests) versus an average under 50.

Advantage Stanford, who probably needs a shootout to win.

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