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Northwestern-Stanford preview: Can the Wildcats "Cal" Stanford?

Last year, an offensive wrinkle helped Cal catch Northwestern off guard and propelled the Golden Bears to an upset. Could Northwestern do something similar to Stanford?

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

For the third year in a row, Northwestern football opens its season against a Pac-12 school from Northern California. In 2013 and 2014, Cal was the first name on the Wildcats' schedule. In 2015, it's Cal's rival that will arrive in Evanston on Thursday and stroll into Ryan Field on Saturday to kick off the first college football Saturday of the year at 11 a.m. CT.

But this time, the roles are reversed. In each of the previous years, Northwestern was a considerable favorite over its Pac-12 foe. In 2015, it is Northwestern that is the double-digit underdog, and it is NU's opponent from out west that is the subject of considerable offseason hype.

Northwestern will be hoping the roles are reversed on the field too. Last year, the Wildcats perhaps came in overconfident after a relatively relaxed training camp, and were ambushed by the Golden Bears. Could Northwestern be the ambusher this time around?

Our Kevin Dukovic was at Stanford practice on Friday, and spoke to Stanford coach David Shaw (full report coming Tuesday). Dukovic not only noted that Stanford is focusing more on themselves than NU — they've reportedly watched a little film, but not much, whereas Pat Fitzgerald said last week that Northwestern began game-planning specifically for Stanford "a long time ago" — but also that, roughly 24 hours after the announcement was made, Shaw had no idea that Clayton Thorson had been named the Wildcats' starting quarterback.

It'd probably be naive to read too much into these tidbits of evidence. In reality, Stanford has, in all likelihood, done plenty of game-planning for NU. But it's impossible to ignore the dynamic at play here. For the Cardinal, this is just another game, a prelude to what could be bigger and better things. They are a top-25 team, and by most metrics, they play a top-ten schedule in 2015. On paper at least, Northwestern (projected S&P+: 62) is actually the easiest of Stanford's three non-conference games — the other two are UCF (60) and Notre Dame (16).

On the other hand, this is the game NU has had circled since at least spring ball. It's the game the Wildcats have been longing for. It's a chance to, in one fatal blow, shatter all modest expectations and announce themselves as Big Ten West contenders.

How can they do that? Perhaps by doing to Stanford just what Cal did to Northwestern a year ago. By "Cal-ing" the Cardinal.

Heading into last year's opener, the Wildcats were, at one point, 14-point favorites. But the Golden Bears, coming off a dismal 1-11 season, surprised Northwestern with a quasi-two-quarterback system. Cal coach Sonny Dykes intermittently inserted freshman Luke Rubenzer — whom Northwestern players, and quite possibly Northwestern coaches, had never heard of — as a running quarterback to throw NU's defense off balance, and the wrinkle allowed Cal to bolt out to a 24-7 lead. Northwestern was unable to recover.

It's not that Northwestern should attempt to perfectly emulate Cal. Although some sort of two-QB system could be used, the Matt Alviti package is not a secret, nor was it at all successful last year. What's important is simply the idea of surprise. Stanford has never seen Thorson play. They can go back and watch high school tape if they want, but when the former four-star recruit steps onto the field Saturday, Stanford will have no idea what to expect.

The rest is up to offensive coordinator Mick McCall. McCall has had all offseason to devise something new, something innovative, that will baffle Stanford. After the last two years, it's fair to be skeptical of his ability to do that. His failure to adapt and evolve his scheme, especially last year, was at times just as damning as injuries or a lack of talent.

But this year, McCall has all the tools he needs. That doesn't necessarily mean he has the talent at his disposal. It means he has the unknown quantities — the Luke Rubenzers. And it's not just Thorson. They're all over the field. In the backfield, behind Justin Jackson, he has a four-star speedster who has never seen a college field before (Auston Anderson), and an all-purpose back (Solomon Vault) whose full ability was obscured by injury last season. He also has a four-star superback (Garrett Dickerson) who caught just four passes as a freshman, but is ready to take on a bigger role. And on the outside, he has more unknowns: A No. 1 receiver (Christian Jones) who missed all of last year through injury; a deep threat (Miles Shuler) who battled drops and health in 2014, but also may have been misused; and two talented true freshmen (Jelani Roberts and Flynn Nagel) who are complete wildcards.

Furthermore, he has an opposing defense full of inexperience to toy with. The Cardinal lose nine defensive starters from a year ago, including the entire first-string defensive line, and return just four defensive players with starting experience. The replacements ooze potential, but for many of them, it will be their first college start.

Just like NU's offense, Stanford's defense is an unknown quantity. That's not to say the two are equivalent. Stanford ranked 3rd nationally last year in defensive rushing S&P+, and 4th in passing S&P+, while Northwestern ranked 111th out of 129 teams in offensive S&P+. Even if there's a wide range of potential outcomes for both units, the median outcome for Stanford's defense is far better than that for NU's offense.

But as a double-digit underdog, Northwestern fans must embrace the uncertainty, even if a win is unlikely. In many cases, "unknown" is a negative word. For example, if used to describe Northwestern's outside linebacker situation opposite Drew Smith, it implies weakness. But when expectations are low — when there is nothing to lose and everything to gain — "unknown" is synonymous with hope, and is decidedly positive. That's what it is in this case.

Because of that unknown factor, Northwestern very well could get blown out by Stanford. The offense could prove to be a train wreck.

But the Wildcats could also "Cal" Stanford. And if they do, an upset is absolutely within the realm of possibility.