STANFORD, CA - Winning the Pac-12 is the only goal Stanford coach David Shaw talks about with his players before every season. This year, unseating Stanford is the goal of every other conference team.
The fifth-ranked Cardinal (2-0) open league play Saturday against No. 23 Arizona State (2-0), the first in a series of teams hoping to dethrone the defending champions.
"If you are going to be a championship team, all I do is evaluate Stanford and evaluate Oregon because those are the last four conference champions," second-year Arizona State coach Todd Graham said.
Stanford's six-year climb from conference cellar-dweller to champion was followed up by beating Big Ten champion Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl last season.
Now the program is faced with a new challenge: staying on top.
"The word that I avoid is sustaining," Shaw said. "Sustaining puts you in neutral. For us, we're about pushing and striving. It's about consistency. It's about playing great when people think you're not going to play great. It's about playing great when people think you are going to play great. It's about handling the adversities that come every season. That's always going to be the challenge."
After opening the season with victories over San Jose State and Army, Shaw should have a better idea about where his team stands in the Pac-12 opener.
The Sun Devils won eight games and had their first bowl win since 2005 last year, setting numerous records while beating Navy 62-28 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Arizona State began this season by blowing out Football Championship Subdivision opponent Sacramento State and then scored one of the program's biggest victories in recent years last Saturday night in a controversial 32-30 victory over then-No. 20 Wisconsin in Tempe that ended with Pac-12 officials getting publicly reprimanded.
The finish in the desert makes no difference to Stanford this week. Count the Cardinal among those who believe Arizona State might be good enough to represent the South Division in the league championship game.
"The first two games were real games, but now we're in our conference and we know there are no breaks," said Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan. "The real season starts now, so we have to step it up."
Here are five things to watch when Stanford and Arizona State meet in the only matchup between ranked opponents this week:
BIG BOYS UP FRONT: The Cardinal's massive offensive line anchors a power running game that has averaged 200 yards per game. The Sun Devils' defensive line, led by top NFL prospect Will Sutton in the middle, will need to be better than a week ago when Wisconsin ran for 231 yards. "Wisconsin is very similar to Stanford, similar philosophies and styles," Graham said. "I think Stanford is a better football team."
KELLY'S CANNON: Arizona State's Taylor Kelly had career-highs in completions (29), attempts (51) and yards passing (352) against Wisconsin. It also was the first time the Sun Devils won when Kelly threw an interception, going 0-5 previously. He will be facing a Stanford team that ranks seventh nationally in passing defense (132.5 yards per game) and has forced a turnover in 26 straight games, the longest active streak in the country.
THE GAFFNEY SHOW: Shaw talked all offseason about using a rotation of running backs to replace Stanford career-rushing leader Stepfan Taylor. Instead, it's been the Tyler Gaffney Show -- and for good reason. The fifth-year senior, who returned after a solid season playing baseball in the minors for the Pittsburgh Pirates last year, has been among Stanford's most impressive players with 236 yards rushing and four touchdowns.
THE TEMPO: Arizona State is a typical Pac-12 team that loves to speed it up and spread it out. The Cardinal might be the only team in the conference that still huddles, preferring to slow it down and pack it in for its run-first-and-run-often approach. How each team manages the game -- and its opponents' pace -- could be crucial.
RISING RECEIVER: Ty Montgomery has been every bit the No. 1 wide receiver Stanford coaches had hoped. He has caught 10 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns after struggling as a sophomore because of a nagging knee injury. Montgomery's rise has helped fill the void in a passing attack that has featured fewer tight ends and more deep balls, though the Cardinal are still working out the kinks. "There are some gains that we made from Week 1 to Week 2," Shaw said. "I don't know that we're operating anywhere close to our capabilities."