Let's take a look at the critical matchups that will decide the Stanford-Northwestern game.
1. A new Northwestern quarterback gets to pick on a new Stanford secondary
Whoever wins the battle between Clayton Thorson and the relatively green Stanford secondary will probably decide the difference between tight contest or Stanford rout. The Cardinal are relatively strong in the front seven, but if the Wildcats offensive line can hold their battles, Northwestern can capitalize.
Ronnie Harris must figure out how to get his defensive backs in order. Thorson is the best quarterback Northwestern has had in quite some time, and if he's ready to go he could be a huge trouble spot for the Cardinal.
2. The revamped Stanford line talent must disrupt the Northwestern offensive line
Let's be clear. This is not a good Northwestern line. It wasn't until Justin Jackson started proving that the run game had some mettle that they started performing up to part, but for most of last year they were really disappointing, surrendering sacks and pressures to their quarterbacks on a frequent basis.
That is not a good sign when they have to match up against one of the nastiest defenses in the Pac-12. Stanford is revamping their defensive line but most of their pass rush remains i
3. Will it be early season Stanford offense or late season Stanford offense?
While Northwestern has many questions offensively, they are a pretty underrated defense. Their run defense will not allow explosive plays (which doesn't bode well for Christian McCaffrey Heisman campaigns), and their pass defense likes to keep completion rates low (which could lead to Kevin Hogan incompletions and interceptions).
Stanford's rival Cal ambushed Northwestern at the start of last year, but then the Wildcats put the clamps down in the final 20 minutes and nearly gave their adrift offense a chance at the upset. You could see something similar, where Stanford talent puts them up early before Northwestern starts the "hangin' around" game. A lot will depend on an improved Hogan coming in and delivering passes with accuracy. If he can play with experience and poise he can blow this game open early.