'09 Preview: The Backloaded Schedule

We're not just previewing opponents as we countdown the days until season's open, but are examining every angle we can think of -- including self-scouting Stanford and its schedule. So stay tuned for more pieces like this one, which examines what effect a schedule which progresses nearly perfectly from easy to hard might have on the 2009 Card and her fans.

California
USC
Oregon
Arizona State
Stanford
Arizona
Oregon State
UCLA
Washington
Washington State

Here's a Rorschach test for y'all. (The answers to this one aren't on Wikipedia, unlike for the real one, which apparently is generating quite the controversy among psychologists if the New York Times is to be believed.) What does this list represent?

At first glance, this looks remarkably like last year's Pac-10 standings, or this year's predicted Pac-10 standings. Sure, swap Cal and USC, but the three teams at the top are the recent class of the Pac-10, the two teams at the bottom are in a league of their own, and the five teams in the middle, your guess is as good as anyone's as to how they'll finish.

Turns out this is actually Stanford's schedule in reverse order. (I put Stanford right after Arizona State since ASU is homecoming, a bye comes right after the ASU week and fifth in the conference seems a reasonable guess for the Card.) When you add in the out-of-conference opponents, especially if you believe Wake is heading toward a 5-7ish season and Notre Dame a double-digit win one, as I do, the picture only crystallizes:

Notre Dame
Cal
USC
Oregon
Arizona State
Arizona
Oregon State
UCLA
Washington
San Jose State
Wake Forest
Washington State

Move both USC and Wake Forest up two spots (or back two weeks) and you have an entirely believable ranking of these teams. We all know playing Cal and USC toward the end of the season is hard, but this reverse schedule shows that Stanford has a nearly perfectly frontloaded schedule, and quite possibly the most frontloaded schedule in the country.

Two systemic factors help make Stanford's schedule progress from easy to death wish. First, as mentioned, Stanford traditionally plays Cal at the end of the season, and have also played Notre Dame late in November in all odd years, when the Card host the Irish. Both teams are pretty good. Second, of course, all BCS schools play most of their out-of-conference creampuffs toward the beginning of the season. Stanford is a bit of an exception in that one of its out-of-conference games is actually this year's season finale, the last four seasons' season opener has actually been a Pac-10 team, and two of its non-Pac-10 foes have been toughies, not creampuffs, the last few seasons, but the point remains.

The rest is probably random coincidence – the Card happen to open with the Washington schools this year after playing them late last season, then-No. 1 USC was the first Pac-10 opponent in 2004 (in a gut-punch come-from-behind loss that was my class' introduction to Stanford football) but comes right before Cal in 2008 and 2009. Nonetheless, though largely a quirk, this Rookie to All-Madden scheduling will likely impact Stanford's season – and certainly impact our perception of it as fans.

My initial take is that as Stanford is one of the league's most experienced teams, it'd be best to play the teams in the middle of the conference who we figure to be most competitive first, so the Card can catch them while they're still breaking in their starters, ala Oregon State last year. Don't know if our boys could have won that one in November. So getting the Washingtons first (both of whom are actually pretty experienced, for what it's worth) is a wasted opportunity, and the chances of an upset of Oregon, who returns just nine total starters, or USC, who returns just three starting defenders are less in November than they would be in September.

Then again, winning begets winning, and Stanford could conceivably start 9-0, as the only three opponents which will be clear favorites are the last three on the schedule. Obviously 9-0 is wildly optimistic – Stanford figures to be in a lot of coin-flip games and it's unreasonable to bet heads lands six times straight – but who in the first nine games do the Card have a little shot at beating? The Oregons are usually a tall task, but they return nine and 10 starters from last year and are facing rebuilding seasons. Maybe this will be the year that one of the Arizonas or UCLA, perennial underachievers all, finally put it together and make a push at 10 wins, but, hey, maybe this could be Stanford's year too. Instead of 9-0, let's say 7-2 is a reasonable best-case start. Stanford's quite possibly in the top-25, most certainly in the thick of the Pac-10 race, the players are working that much harder and, oh, think 7-2 might help recruiting a little bit?

So on the whole I do think this backloaded schedule is a good thing, not to mention that Washington State is probably less likely to knock out one of our stars for the season than USC, so better to have the Trojans second-to-last. But the one danger of such a schedule is the false confidence it breeds, and fans and players alike must be cautious in defending against that.

It'd be a wonderful position for this football team to be in, but maybe they're 6-1 and therefore take a 3-4 Arizona State for granted – in a way they wouldn't at 4-3 with a more balanced schedule. Or, if the Card start 5-2 but then lose four straight, just how up will they get for the season finale against Notre Dame with a bowl berth on the line? Maybe it'd have been better if USC and Cal hadn't been the two weeks before, not to mention the toll on players' bodies such a stretch must take.

So it's a zero-sum game, this scheduling, as the truth is it's always better to play easier teams than tough ones, regardless of when you face them. Still, such frontloaded seasons are nothing new to the Card. Last year, of course, the Card were briefly tied atop the Pac-10 and stood at 5-3 – before straight losses to Oregon, USC and Cal ended the season bowlless. In 2005, Stanford lost four of its last five after starting 4-2 to again narrowly miss out on a bowl. The blown 21-point fourth quarter lead against UCLA marked the first of those four losses, and maybe that game wouldn't mark the beginning of the end of the Walt Harris era just seven games after it begun had USC, Cal and Notre Dame not come in the four games that followed. 2004, Buddy Teevens' final year, was starker yet, as Stanford again started 4-2, with the two losses respectable near-misses against USC and Notre Dame, before losing five straight to end the season. Had the Card faced the Washingtons late, instead of ranked Arizona State and Cal, maybe Stanford would have squeaked into a bowl and, in turn, Buddy Teevens would have kept his job. Losing five straight tends to leave a bitter taste in everyone's mouth, and perhaps that was the final nail in the coffin for Teevens.

So given the butterfly-effect world that is college football, it's near-impossible to tell in advance whether a heavily frontloaded schedule is good or bad, and there are obvious advantages and disadvantages to Stanford's 2009 slate. What is indisputable, however, is that this schedule will have a major (and thus far hardly discussed) impact on Stanford's season, and fans and players alike would be wise to keep the imbalance of this slate in the back of their minds as the 2009 season progresses.


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