This week's game at Arizona represents the toughest early-season test for sixth-ranked Stanford's rebuilt offensive and defensive lines and its new receivers and linebackers. It's also the first of 10 exams for the Cardinal's rookie head coach and first-year coordinators.
Former coach Jim Harbaugh took a considerable amount of brainpower with him to the 49ers, including Greg Roman, architect of the power running game, and defensive mastermind Vic Fangio.
Stanford's first two opponents, San Jose State and Duke, were overmatched physically. But the 10 teams left on the schedule -- nine conference opponents and Notre Dame -- are closer to the Cardinal's talent level. Which means coaching plays a greater role.
"It's tougher because they're good," Stanford coach David Shaw said of Arizona. "They have a well-conceived game plan and good players."
The Wildcats also have a keen sense for Stanford's personnel. Will Shaw and his staff make proper in-game moves and countermoves? How successfully will they tweak the playbook throughout the season as opponents stockpile videotape showing Stanford's tendencies?
As with the revamped lines, the coaching staff's ability to navigate the conference season is a question only because Shaw and Co. haven't had a chance to answer -- not because they've given the wrong answer.
"There's a lot less margin for error," said Pep Hamilton, who coached the receivers last season and has added
Stanford's philosophy remains unchanged from 2010, but the playbooks have been tweaked to account for different personnel and to reflect the personality of Shaw and his coordinators.
Co-defensive coordinator Derek Mason believes "iron sharpens iron" -- that putting the players in stressful situations during practice better prepares them for games. At the same time, too much information can backfire.
"You don't want to be chasing ghosts," he said. "If you overload the kids with material during your preparation, they're going to play slow."
The pairing of Mason and co-coordinator Jason Tarver, a Santa Clara graduate who spent a decade on the 49ers staff, has thus far been glitch free. Stationed in the press box during games, Mason calls the plays in addition to overseeing the secondary. Tarver, who coaches the outside linebackers, is on the sideline interacting with the players.
"Both give the other guy credit," Shaw said. "They watch film together. Any time I go into one guy's office, the other is in there."
Shaw, whose background is offense, works closely with Hamilton. Both draw heavily on their experience coaching in the NFL and believe -- perhaps to a greater extent than even Harbaugh -- that success starts with the running game.
"We want to make sure our guys understand that we're going to start the game running a power play and finish the game running a power play," Hamilton said. "The big plays in the passing game result from being able to run the ball downhill."
A successful running game forces the defense to position a safety near the line of scrimmage. That, in turn, creates openings in the secondary and plays to the talents of Stanford's game-breakers: the accuracy and arm strength of quarterback Andrew Luck and the speed of receiver Chris Owusu and tight end Coby Fleener.
"Our offense is predicated on featuring the talents of our best players," Hamilton said. "We dictate to the defense."
But starting this week, dictating to the opponent -- on both sides of the ball -- gets considerably more difficult.