All eyes will be on Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, the Heisman Trophy runner-up a year ago, when the eighth-ranked Cardinal opens its football season Friday night at 6 p.m. against visiting Kansas State.
Stanford's success, though, may depend upon Ryan Burns, who will be making his first career collegiate start at quarterback. Palo Alto grad Keller Chryst is also expected to receive some playing time.
Cardinal football coach David Shaw, in his sixth season at the helm, said there wasn't a lot of difference between the two quarterbacks.
"There hasn't been a huge separation between the two," Shaw said. "Both guys have played extremely well. Ryan has been enough ahead to get the nod."
Stanford quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard likes the way Burns has progressed.
"It's Ryan Burns' fourth year in the program and we saw him make a big jump from last fall's camp to this fall's camp," Pritchard said. "He really made some big strides in the spring, and tremendous strides towards running our West Coast offense; all facets of our offense from the passing game, checks at the line of scrimmage and the ability to operate under center."
Burns played in four games last season but did not throw a pass. He rushed for 13 yards. His lone pass attempt in 2014 went for 13 yards.
"His growth has been what's most impressive about Ryan," Pritchard said. "When you talk about his skills as a quarterback, what you see is what you get; big, physical, strong-armed, incredible ability to run and hurt defenses with his legs. We'll look for him to continue that growth in our offense, but also to attack defenses the way he's able to with all the physical gifts that he's been given."
Chryst said the two frontrunners (freshman K.J. Costello was also in the mix) never saw it as a competition. They were both looking to get better.
"I need to get better every single day," Chryst said. "Show the team I can lead them. I need to have some positive results. That's about all I can do."
The Cardinal returns 48 letterwinners (20 offense, 24 defense, four specialists) and 14 starters (five offense, six defense, three specialists) from last season's Pac-12 championship team that finished 12-2 and won the Rose Bowl Game against Iowa.
McCaffrey holds the most recognizable name recognition after his record-setting year in which he was named AP Player of the Year and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year.
He set a FBS record with 3,496 all-purpose yards and averaged 144.2 rushing yards per game.
"Christian McCaffrey has been locked in since about 10 minutes after the Rose Bowl," Shaw said.
Without Remound Wright, responsible for short yardage situations last year, McCaffrey might be able to finish scoring drives he helped create.
"We've had a lot of success. It's going to be a lot of fun," McCaffery said. "We have a great group of O-line that can definitely get the job done. I feel confident back there."
Cardinal running back Bryce Love, who is dealing with a lower body injury, is questionable for the season opener. Like McCaffrey, he's a play-maker. Sophomore Cameron Scarlett is the next running back.
Daniel Marx is the top fullback, Francis Owusu, Trenton Irwin and Michael Rector the top wide receivers. Dalton Schultz is ahead of Greg Taboada at tight end, but that doesn't mean much with Shaw, who likes to use several skill players depending on the offensive packages.
Center Jesse Burkett, guards David Bright and Johnny Caspers and tackles Casey Tucker and A.T. Hall are the nucleus of the offensive line, though different packages also mean different players there too.
Defensively, safeties Dallas Lloyd, Zach Hoffpauir and Justin Reid form the core of the secondary, along with corners Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder.
Linebackers Kevin Palma and Bobby Okereke play inside and Peter Kalambayi and Joey Alfieri play outside.
Harrison Phillips returns to the defensive front, along with Solomon Thomas and Dylan Jackson.
The defensive line bears little resemblance to last year's thin line, especially with the return of Phillips, who missed nearly all of last season with an injury. The linebacker corps also is deep, with 4-5 players expected to rotate in and out of the lineup. And the secondary may be even deeper.
A lot of the improved line depth is due to the emergence of Jackson.
"We have six guys now that can come in and play and because Dylan Jackson came in and worked extremely hard," Shaw said. "Dylan has matured so much. He's learned a lot with technique, how to use his hands, what to do within the defense."
Thomas also has noticed his teammate's improvement.
"I've seen his technique grow better and better," Thomas said. "I feel like he matured mentally, in understanding schemes, and in what's going on."