STANFORD -- Henry Anderson grew up in the heart of SEC country and rooted for the Georgia Bulldogs until they declined to offer him a scholarship. Now a fifth-year senior, Stanford's starting defensive end hopes to finally get a shot at one of the SEC kingpins he grew up watching.
The inaugural College Football Playoff increases the likelihood that his hope will become reality.
"I'm glad college football has it," said Anderson, who's from Atlanta. "I'm not thinking too far ahead, but it's something we're aiming for. And not just getting in, but winning it."
After four consecutive appearances in the Bowl Championship Series and back-to-back Pac-12 titles, Stanford has one step remaining on its journey from laughingstock to powerhouse: the national championship.
In past years, a shot at the title required the Cardinal to be one of two teams left standing at the end of the regular season -- a brutally difficult task given the strength of its schedule and the near certainty that a team from the SEC would gobble up one of the spots.
The playoff doubles the number of contenders. Four teams will participate in the semifinals, hosted by the Rose and Sugar bowls, with the winners advancing to the title game at Cowboys Stadium.
"If we get to a point late in the year where we're vying for a chance to go to the Pac-12 championship, then (the playoff) will become reality," said Stanford coach David Shaw, whose team is ranked 11th in The Associated Press preseason poll. "Now, it's a pipe dream that just about every school has."
Stanford's playoff drive depends on how quickly the offensive line coalesces, the emergence of a productive running game and filling holes on a defense hit hard by attrition -- issues that have been well-documented for the past eight months.
But there are other issues at play, beginning with the end -- the end of games.
The Cardinal was built with brute force in mind, with a ground-and-pound approach that wears down opponents over the course of the game. Sure enough, Stanford outscored its opponents 424-304 in the fourth quarter over a four-year span that ended in 2012.
Last year, the Cardinal lost its grip on the final quarter. It was outscored 92-85, failing to make the necessary plays against Utah, USC and Michigan State. And it nearly wasted away two victories, hanging on against Washington and Oregon despite being outscored by a combined 27-3.
"One of our mottos is, finish strong," Anderson said. "Look at the Rose Bowl -- we didn't finish. The way we play, we want to pound it out, and by the fourth quarter, the other team just doesn't want any more.
"Conditioning is a big part of it, but you've got to be mentally tough enough, too."
Tough enough to navigate a rugged schedule that includes six teams ranked in the AP preseason poll: USC, Oregon, UCLA, Arizona State, Washington and Notre Dame. All except USC are on the road.
But the games that worry Shaw the most, it seems, are those with lower profiles.
Stanford has had little trouble when the spotlight is brightest, winning 10 of its last 11 against ranked opponents. But in each of the past two years, the Cardinal lost to unranked foes: in 2012 to Washington, which finished 7-6, and in 2013 to Utah, which went 5-7.
The road to the playoffs includes sinkholes and black ice.
"The biggest challenge for this team is (playing) our 12 best games on those 12 dates," Shaw said. "For us to think we can not play our best and beat anybody on our schedule is folly.
"This is going to be hard. We have to realize it's going to be a tough road. We're going to have high points, and that's great. But what happens when we have a low point?
"How will we handle that?"
The playoff selection committee will be watching.
Montgomery, who doubles as an All-America kickoff returner, is awaiting clearance from the medical staff. He had offseason shoulder surgery and did not participate in contact drills during training camp.
In addition, Kelsey Young is the No. 1 tailback on the depth chart, ahead of Barry Sanders, Ricky Seale and Remound Wright.
Blake Martinez is the listed starter at inside linebacker (Shayne Skov's old position), and Kyle Olugbode, a former walk-on from Bellarmine College Prep-San Jose, is the No. 1 safety.
Opening game: Saturday, vs. UC Davis, 1 p.m., Pac-12 Networks
Key date: Sept. 6, vs. USC.
Difference maker: Top receiver Ty Montgomery is also an All-America kickoff returner.