Playoff contenders with hardest schedules

David Shaw and the Cardinal face a tough road to get to the playoff in 2014. Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

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Begin analyzing 2014 schedules, and it takes only a minute or two to realize that the rising Pac-12 has created some real hurdles for its member schools to get through the regular season unscathed.

Good thing for the new playoff, or the conference’s strength might cause a team from the league to get bounced from the national title discussion. It has happened before, after all. The Oregon team from 2012, clearly viable beyond that overtime loss to Stanford, comes to mind.

As for this year, the Ducks, Cardinal and UCLA Bruins should all start in (or close to) the top 10. But each playoff hopeful will be challenged along the way.

Oregon might have the most difficult nonconference opponent, Michigan State, but the majority of Stanford’s trying games are on the road. The Cardinal lead our look at schedules that could make it tougher for playoff contenders from the power conferences (plus Notre Dame) to reach the final four.

1. Stanford Cardinal

Challenges: USC (Sept. 6); at Washington (Sept. 27); at Notre Dame (Oct. 4); at Arizona State (Oct. 18); at Oregon (Nov. 1); at UCLA (Nov. 28)

The Cardinal is replacing a number of defensive standouts, including linebacker Trent Murphy and safety Ed Reynolds, and the D will be tested early by first-year coaches at USC (Steve Sarkisian) and Washington (Chris Petersen). The most challenging league games are all on the road, in Tempe, Eugene and Pasadena. Add, too, a trip to South Bend.

Stanford's recent calling card has been winning big despite losing a head coach, assistants and important players such as Andrew Luck. You name it, the program has seemingly overcome it to sustain success.

If the Cardinal can survive this schedule, again replacing a handful of core performers, we'll all again acknowledge just how good of a coach David Shaw is.