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Know your Northwestern football opponent, Week 1: Stanford

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Stanford enters the 2015 season coming off a relative down year, but is a sneaky bet to return to national relevance — and therefore is a tough matchup for Northwestern to open the season.

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

With our Summer Guide now complete, you probably have a general sense of Northwestern's outlook for the coming season. But breaking down any given team's strengths and weaknesses doesn't paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team's win-loss potential, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important.

Come game week, we will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent, but in the interim, we present to you our Know Your Opponent series. It's our look ahead at all 12 teams on Northwestern's 2015 schedule. So by the time training camp rolls around, you'll have a fuller view of the upcoming season.

First up, we have Stanford, Northwestern's opponent in the season opener on September 5:

The Basics

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 4
2014 Record: 8-5 (5-4 Pac-12)
Coach: David Shaw, 5th year (42-12 overall)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2014 S&P Overall Rank: 15th
2014 S&P Offense Rank: 45th
2014 S&P Defense Rank: 5th
2015 S&P Projection: 11th

2014 Capsule

Riding a stellar 2013 season that concluded with a Rose Bowl loss to Michigan State, Stanford faced high expectations in 2014. David Shaw's team was pretty good, winning eight games in the top-heavy Pac-12, but never lived up to its No. 11 preseason ranking. The Cardinal opened the year 3-1, with the only blemish coming against a tough USC team at home, but lost four of six — including a defeat at the hands of Notre Dame — to fall out of the Top 25 and drop to 5-5 overall. But with back-to-back season-ending wins over in-state rivals Cal and UCLA, plus a bowl win rout over Maryland, Stanford ended the up-and-down campaign on a high note.

Offensive overview

Stanford returns its most important player in senior quarterback Kevin Hogan. Hogan hasn't had a standout career, but seemed to progress late last year, and could be primed for a big 2015. Hogan is joined in the backfield by an intriguing trio of ballcarriers. Remound Wright (601 yards, 11 TDs in 2014) was the leading rusher a year ago, and was complimented by two players with quite famous fathers. Barry Sanders — yes, the son of the NFL Hall-of-Famer — backed up Wright a year ago, and Christian McCaffrey, son of former NFL wideout Ed, was used in an all-purpose role. Expect McCaffrey's role to expand in what is only his sophomore season.

There are two major losses on offense. Ty Montgomery — who posted over 2,000 receiving yards and 15 TDs as a wideout in his Stanford career — was a third-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in this May's draft. And offensive tackle Andrus Peat was a first-round selection of the New Orleans Saints. But wide receiver Devon Cajuste, emerging sophomore tight end Austin Hooper (40 receptions, 499 yards as a freshman) and McCaffrey could combine to fill the void left by Montgomery. And aside from Peat, the offensive line returns intact. The left side, anchored by senior guard Joshua Garnett and senior tackle Kyle Murphy, is particularly strong, and the entire starting five should be seniors.

Defensive overview

The defense took a sizable hit this offseason, with only four starters returning and four key guys lost to the NFL via the draft. With safety Jordan Richards (52 solo tackles and 3 INTs in 2014), cornerback Alex Carter (33 solo tackles, 1 INT, 10 pass deflections), defensive end Henry Anderson (14.5 tackles for loss and 8 sacks) and nose tackle David Parry (8 TFL, 5 sacks) all gone, guys like linebacker Blake Martinez will have to step up and anchor a relatively inexperienced defensive unit.

Stanford employs a 3-4 scheme, one of the few opponents on Northwestern's schedule to do so, and with Martinez in the middle and pass rushers Kevin Anderson and Peter Kalambayi on the edge, the linebackers are the Cardinal's best unit on this side of the ball. The entire defensive front is new, and there are major questions in the secondary. But in this era of Stanford football, reloading isn't a problem. There's enough talent coming through the ranks to potentially make this one of the Pac-12's best defenses once again.

Three players to know

Kevin Hogan, QB - Hogan, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound fifth-year senior, has been Stanford's starter under center for the past two seasons, and has proven that he can hurt defenses through the air. He has thrown for 48 touchdowns (compared to just 21 interceptions) throughout his career. The issue has been consistency. When Hogan is asked to put the ball in the air 30-plus times per game, he has a tendency to struggle. But if the running game is clicking, as it is when Stanford's offense is at its best, Hogan can be lethally efficient. That's what he was in the final three games of last season. The question is if he can take the next step in 2015.

Christian McCaffrey, RB/KR/PR - McCaffrey could be one of the most exciting players in college football in 2015. As a true freshman in 2014, he averaged 7.1 yards per carry and caught 17 balls for 251 yards out of the backfield and from the slot. He started to see more work as a rusher late in the season and should be Stanford's primary offensive threat this year. His big play ability will also be something to watch out for in the return game.

Blake Martinez, ILB - Martinez is likely Stanford's top returning player on the defensive side of the ball. The senior led the Cardinal in total tackles (with 102) and tied for the lead in interceptions (with three) last season, and is the unquestioned leader of the defense now that four of the team's six leading tacklers from 2014 have graduated. An athletic linebacker who can drop into coverage or defend the run well, Martinez is a playmaker who could make life difficult for Northwestern's young offense.

Behind enemy lines

SB Nation Stanford blog Rule of Tree writer Jack Blanchat gives best and worst case scenarios for Stanford this season:

Best Case Scenario:

Probably a 10-win season and a division title, led by the offense. It's going to be tough to win the Pac-12 and unseat Oregon from their spot - especially with a defense that lost 8 starters - but a seasoned Kevin Hogan, an explosive Christian McCaffrey and an improved offensive line might give the Cardinal the firepower necessary to win the conference.

Worst Case Scenario:

A year much like last year - four or five losses, a flat offense, and no chance at a Pac-12 North title. There's a lot of young talent on the defense and some highly-touted backup QBs, so should Stanford fall on its face early in the year, expect David Shaw to give younger, more unproven players a shot later in the season.

Season Prediction:

I think Stanford is probably about a 9-win team given its talent on offense and history of success on defense, but they face a tougher schedule than last season - so I expect them to challenge for the Pac-12 North title but also wouldn't be shocked if they fell a win or two short of an appearance in the Pac-12 title game.

Final thoughts

Last December, against a flawed Maryland team, the Cardinal rolled with ease, winning 45-20 and demonstrating just how far the rest of the Big Ten — save Ohio State and Michigan State — was in 2014 from touching a strong conference like the Pac-12. But that Stanford team lost a bunch of crucial players to both the NFL and graduation, meaning David Shaw will need unchallenged guys to step up and fill the places of top-level talent. Still, with Hogan under center, a decent set of offensive weapons, a powerful offensive line and some young talent on defense, the pieces are there for the Cardinal to return to national prominence. This will definitely be a tough matchup for the inexperienced Wildcats.

The Game

Date: Sept. 5
Time: 11 a.m. CT
Home/Away: Home
TV: ESPN
Betting Line: Stanford -13