STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford and Arizona State will give the Pac-12 an early-season matchup of ranked teams here today, and both teams can make statements that might resonate throughout their respective seasons.
The stakes, however, are higher for the fifth-ranked Cardinal. When you're widely viewed as a national title contender, you not only can't afford to lose, you need to take advantage of opportunities to record style points for a national audience. On a weekend that features few marque national games, the Cardinal have a stage on which to announce their presence with authority.
Arizona State, which is coming off a controversial win over Wisconsin, is looking to streamline the narrative for its season. If the Sun Devils win on the road against a top-five team, most folks will stop talking about that Pac-12 officiating debacle from last week. At that point, the Sun Devils’ rise under second-year coach Todd Graham would take a decisive step forward. A win over the Cardinal with no Oregon on the schedule also would turn up the pressure on top South Division rival UCLA.
It should help Arizona State that it's already played a high-quality foe. Not only that, the Badgers and Cardinal are power, line of scrimmage teams. The Sun Devils should know what they are in for, and might even have some new ideas for attacking with their speed.
The Sun Devils’ defense loves to attack. It led the nation in 2012 in tackles for a loss. Stanford counters with one of the nation's best offensive lines. If that line can thwart the Sun Devils’ array of stunts and blitzes, there should be opportunities for QB Kevin Hogan to make plays downfield.
There is a bit of mystery with Stanford. Neither San Jose State nor Army offered much of a challenge, so it seems likely we will see a lot more from the Cardinal on both sides of the ball. Hogan is of particular interest. Last year as a first-year starter, he was an efficient game manager. The Cardinal's national title hopes might hinge on him advancing from that to playmaker.
It's been raining here most of the afternoon. A wet field typically would favor the power team and hurt the speed team, but the field is in good condition and, at the moment these words are being typed, it's not raining.
Also of note, Stanford will be without defensive end Henry Anderson, one of the Pac-12's most underrated defensive players. After starting 16 consecutive games, he's out four to six weeks with a knee injury, so the Sun Devils might attack his backup, Josh Mauro, though he is an experienced, capable player, in an effort to wear down a position that might be depth-challenged.
Stanford needs this one more than Arizona State, which gets a key home test next weekend against USC. The homestanding Cardinal don’t want an early-season loss to severely damage national title hopes, and they don’t want to give up a game in the North Division standings to Oregon.
But the Sun Devils would be pretty happy to get people talking about another big win, not an officiating screwup.