Sept. 21, 2010
at No. 1 North Carolina (7-0, 0-0 ACC)
Date: Sunday, Sept. 26
Site: Chapel Hill, N.C.
Time: 10 a.m. PT
at No. 8 Wake Forest (6-2, 1-0 ACC)
Date: Monday, Sept. 27
Site: Wake Forest, N.C.
Time: 12 p.m. PT
STANFORD, Calif.- Already enjoying an impressive start to the season, No. 18 Stanford now has an opportunity to make an even bigger statement.
Upcoming road games against No. 1 North Carolina and No. 8 Wake Forest represent the most difficult tests of Stanford's 2010 schedule, which reaches its midway point this weekend.
The Cardinal (5-2, 2-1 NorPac) has looked solid early on, thanks to a balanced, possession-based offense and stingy defense. Both of Stanford's losses have been competitive, one-goal defeats, with the opponent putting home the game-winner in the final five minutes.
Despite the losses- the most recent coming in the form of a 2-1 defeat to rival California on Sunday at home- Stanford has managed to hold on to its national ranking. Even after dropping two spots to No. 18 in the latest edition of the Kookaburra/NFHCA National Coaches Poll, the Cardinal has earned enough respect nationally to remain in the top-20. Stanford has now spent a school-record 13 consecutive weeks in the national rankings dating back to Sept. 18, 2009.
But the Cardinal will be extremely challenged this week. North Carolina and Wake Forest have combined to win five of the last eight national championships.
Defending NCAA champion North Carolina is unbeaten in seven matches and simply overwhelming its opponents, holding advantages in goals (33-3), shots (156-30) and penalty corners (71-18).
An upset of the Tar Heels would be historic: Stanford has never defeated the nation's No. 1-ranked team and its biggest win in school history was a 2-1 stunner over No. 3 Michigan State back on Aug. 31, 2001.
Wake Forest had won six of its first seven to start the year before a 3-2 loss to Ohio State last weekend, but the Demon Deacons also allowed inferior NorPac foes Longwood and Davidson to hang around before posting closer-than-expected victories.
However, these matchups should prepare the Cardinal well for the remainder of its schedule, which features another likely top-10 squad in Syracuse and a key rematch against California in late October that should determine the NorPac West Division regular season champion.
A win against either North Carolina or Wake Forest would provide Stanford the kind of signature victory that goes a long way in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Regardless of the outcomes, simply having North Carolina and Wake Forest on the schedule increases Stanford's RPI. The Cardinal entered the week with an RPI of 30, while North Carolina checks in at No. 6 and Wake Forest is currently No. 10.
Is Stanford capable of pulling off an upset in either contest? Of course, and here are two key reasons why:
The Cardinal has faced one other top-10 opponent this year and that game was winnable. Back on Sept. 6, then-No. 7 Michigan State received a game-winning goal with less than two minutes remaining to come away with a 3-2 win despite Stanford controlling tempo while holding considerable advantages in shot attempts and penalty corners. The Spartans are back at No. 7 this week, so the Cardinal has a blueprint for what it takes to compete against a top-10 program.
Long recognized as a weakness, Stanford continues to excel on the road. The Cardinal is 4-0 this year in games played away from the Varsity Turf, including a three-game sweep of Kent State, Iowa and Robert Morris two weeks ago in Ohio. Stanford's road games have featured blowout wins over Pacific (6-0) and Robert Morris (5-1), a gritty 2-1 overtime victory against Iowa and a better-than-it-looks 3-1 triumph over Kent State, which is No. 17 in this week's national rankings.