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Toughest stretch: Stanford

All fans can look at their teams’ schedules and identify the stretches that will likely determine whether the season will be a success.

That’s our objective as we examine the schedules of all Pac-12 teams and attempt to identify the toughest two-to-four-game stretches for each club.

Up next: Stanford

Toughest stretch: First half of the season (Kansas State, Bye, USC, at UCLA, at Washington, Washington State, at Notre Dame)

Why: OK, we're bending the rules a bit to accommodate Stanford's situation. Our intro above says that each team's toughest stretch should be limited to a maximum of four games, but the Cardinal's schedule is exceptionally front-loaded, so much so that six of Stanford's toughest seven games come to open the season. There's only one matchup past the halfway point that can currently be classified as "brutal," and that's a November 12 trip to Oregon.

The first half of the season, on the other hand, features up to five doozies.

We'll assume that the Cardinal are strong favorites to open the season at home against Kansas State. Still, that game is no gimme: It's against a Power 5 foe, and it'll be the career starting debut for Stanford's new quarterback. The bye week immediately following that contest comes too early in the season to be of much utility.

Then the true brutality begins.

Stanford and USC, who have played their share of barnburners this decade, will face off for the third time in two seasons September 17. That promises to be a battle, as does the Cardinal's subsequent trip to the Rose Bowl, where they'll face Josh Rosen and UCLA on September 24.

If Washington is as good as many are projecting the Huskies to be, Stanford's September 30 visit to Seattle -- a Friday night game that'll be played on a short week following the previous road trip -- will be a monumental challenge.

After that, Washington State visits the Cardinal. In the not-so-distant past, home games against the Cougars were a chance for teams to lick their wounds. Not anymore -- Mike Leach's club gave Stanford all it could handle last year and more of the same can be expected with Luke Falk back under center in 2016.

If this string of battles doesn't seem daunting enough, the Cardinal head to Notre Dame immediately after that Washington State game. It'll likely be cold for their showdown against the Fighting Irish with the game starting at 7:30 local time in South Bend.

So there you have it. The defending Pac-12 champions will face what's possibly the toughest six-game stretch of any team in the country, and they'll have to tackle it with a new starting quarterback. Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns, you can both fasten your seat belts now.