No. 16 Stanford (2-1) at Washington (4-0)
1:15 p.m. Saturday, Husky Stadium
The line: Stanford by 7.5
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With the Huskies' four-game, nonconference schedule -- or was it a preseason schedule? -- out of the way, this week presents the first true challenge of the season in terms of predicting a winner.
Stanford is a team the Huskies have matched up with pretty well in the last two years, beating the Cardinal at CenturyLink Field in 2012 (the beginning of the end of the short-lived Josh Nunes era), then losing a tightly-contested 31-28 decision last season in Palo Alto. This series has developed into one of the Pac-12's more interesting second-tier rivalries, especially with all the controversy last season over Steve Sarkisian's accusations that Stanford faked injuries (though that's obviously no longer a storyline from the UW side with Sarkisian now at USC).
Looking at the purported strengths of each team, this has the potential to be another pretty good matchup. Stanford's offensive line is somewhat inexperienced, but not particularly young, as the Cardinal have developed enough depth on both sides of the ball that it doesn't have to rely on freshmen and sophomores to fill in for departed NFL draft picks. So, they're still pretty stout up front with players like former Puyallup star Joshua Garnett, and left tackle Andrus Peat, their only returning starter. And Washington's defensive line is maybe as experienced and talented as it has been at any point since the Don James era, with Danny Shelton and Hau'oli Kikaha combining for 13 sacks through the season's first four games. How they fare against Stanford's power running game -- which is a far cry from the days of Toby Gerhart, but still formidable -- could very well be the biggest determining factor in whether the Huskies win or lose.
But you can't overlook quarterback Kevin Hogan, a fourth-year junior who isn't typically mentioned as one of the Pac-12's premier passers -- Marcus Mariota or Brett Hundley, he is not -- but is completing 73 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and only one interception through three games.
It helps that he has a talented group of receivers to catch his passes. That starts with Ty Montgomery, one of the most dynamic players in the conference -- remember his two kick returns against the Huskies last season? -- and includes Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector and Austin Hooper.
"They’re efficient as all get-out," Huskies coach Chris Petersen said of Stanford's passing game.
So, while the Cardinal's reputation as a power team is well-established, don't forget about the damage they can do by throwing the ball, too.
Washington's offense, meanwhile, seems to still be searching for its identity. The Huskies are going to try to run the ball against every team they face, and that likely won't change against Stanford, even if the Cardinal has shut out two of its first three opponents (UC-Davis and Army, though). Stanford doesn't have Shayne Skov, Ben Gardner and Trent Murphy patrolling the field anymore, but again, they didn't toss zeroes on the board by accident. UW will not only have to establish a solid running game early, but will also have to prove it can throw the ball farther than five yards downfield, and that starts with providing requisite protection for Cyler Miles in the pocket. Regaining receiver John Ross should help.
Both of these teams have a lot to prove. Washington was shaky in four nonconference wins, and Stanford, while ranked 16th in the AP top 25 poll and coming off consecutive Pac-12 championships, is trying to quiet doubts about its worthiness as a conference title contender after a tough loss to USC.
I see another competitive game. But Washington's nonconference inconsistency makes me hesitant to pick the home team here. The pick: Stanford 31, Washington 27.
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple