STANFORD — Since Stanford won the Pac-12 Conference and the Rose Bowl last season, momentum has been building toward a few pivotal points on the schedule.
One of those is now.
After victories over San Jose State and Army, the competition is about to get a whole lot tougher. The fifth-ranked Cardinal (2-0) will begin Pac-12 play against No.<WC><TH><WC1>23 Arizona State (2-0) on Saturday at Stanford Stadium.
The Cardinal also will host No. 17 Washington, No. 13 UCLA and No. 2 Oregon between away games against Washington State, Utah and Oregon State over the next seven weeks.
"Everybody in our conference has a run of five or six games in a row that you look at and say, 'Whew. Here we go,' " Stanford coach David Shaw said Tuesday. "And that's to me what makes it hard, and that's to me what makes it special."
Just how good the Cardinal can be is still somewhat of a mystery.
Stanford rarely routs opponents, even those that are overmatched. The Cardinal grind out games behind a power running game and an opportunistic defense, which makes measuring progress tough — sometimes even for the coaches.
"I feel good, not great," Shaw said. "There are some gains that we made from Week 1 to Week 2. I don't know that we're operating anywhere close to our capabilities."
Tyler Gaffney has run for 104 and 132 yards in the first two contests. Kevin Hogan has completed 62 percent of his passes for 395 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. And Ty Montgomery has been every bit the No. 1 wide receiver coaches had hoped, catching 10 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns.
The defense has faced two completely different opponents, from San Jose State's spread passing attack to Army's funky triple-option runners. Stanford has allowed an average of 292 total yards and 16? points in the first two games, smothering ball carriers one minute and missing tackles the next.
"I think everyone is comfortable but not satisfied," defensive end Josh Mauro said. "There've been flashes of this team being something special in the first two games, but we really have to put it together for 60 minutes or more if necessary."
Unlike most weeks, the Cardinal at least have some idea of how the Sun Devils will try to defend them.
Coaches and players watched Arizona State's controversial 32-30 win over Wisconsin on the flight back from West Point on Saturday night. Stanford, which beat Wisconsin 20-14 in the Rose Bowl, has been a better version of the Badgers again this season.
Both feature a mammoth offensive line, power running game and improved downfield passing while using fullbacks and tight ends all over the field. While Wisconsin gives the Cardinal a glimpse of what the Sun Devils might do, they also know Arizona State will benefit from playing against a similar opponent.
"It does take it up another level," Hogan said.
The stakes will be higher, too. Even one loss could put a major dent in the only goal Stanford coaches ever talk about — winning the Pac-12 title, putting increasingly more pressure on the preparation with a conference game every Saturday until the week before a Thursday night game against Oregon on Nov. 7.