That starts Saturday when they meet in a season opener.
''It's the opportunity of a lifetime,'' Northwestern safety Traveon Henry said. ''Some say this is a bowl game for us. Some say it's the academic bowl. There's a lot built into it. We respect those guys a whole lot. They have a great model and we've seen them have success.''
Stanford is trying to show that a strong finish last year was not just a late-season tease. The Cardinal closed with a three-game winning streak to finish 8-5 after playing in BCS bowls the previous four seasons.
Northwestern is trying to improve on back-to-back 5-7 seasons after making bowls the previous five years and going 10-3 in 2012. It's been a difficult stretch for a team that looked as if it was ready to challenge the Big Ten powers, with the losses mounting and the unionization issue hovering above the program.
The school recently won an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board, settling that issue at least for now. A victory Saturday would go a long way toward showing coach Pat Fitzgerald's team is returning to form.
Some things to watch when Stanford visits Northwestern:
NEW FACES: Only one team in the nation gave up fewer points per game last season than Stanford (16.4) and that was Ole Miss (16.0). The Cardinal also led the Pac-12 in rushing and passing defense while holding opponents to league-low 282.4 yards overall. But they come into this season with some big holes on the line and in the secondary. The secondary took several hits with safety Jordan Richards graduating, cornerback Alex Carter jumping to the NFL after three seasons, cornerback Wayne Lyons transferring to Michigan and safety Zach Hoffpauir getting taken by Arizona in major league baseball's draft and signing with the Diamondbacks. The Cardinal are also inexperienced on the defensive line with Henry Anderson in the NFL.
''There was a little bit of a concern at the beginning of the camp, but now I am confident,'' coach David Shaw said. ''We have the talent to do it.''
EXPERIENCE BEHIND CENTER: Last year was not an easy one for Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan. After leading Stanford to two Rose Bowls, he had to deal with the death of his father during his junior season. He still threw for 2,792 yards and 19 touchdowns on the year and was particularly good down the stretch, completing 76.3 percent of his passes over the final three games. With 24 wins as a starting quarterback, Hogan trails only Ohio State's Braxton Miller (26) among active FBS players.
INEXPERIENCE BEHIND CENTER: While Stanford comes in with an experienced quarterback, Northwestern will be starting a freshman in Clayton Thorson. A dual threat who starred at suburban Wheaton North High School, about 40 miles from Ryan Field, he beat out senior Matt Oliver and sophomore Matt Alviti to replace Trevor Siemian.
GOOD START: Northwestern's Justin Jackson made quite an impression when he ran for 1,187 yards last season and joined Tyrell Sutton (1,474 in 2005) as the only Wildcats freshmen to run for 1,000. He figures to be tested right from the start even if Stanford has some new faces on defense.
CARDINAL RUN: Six straight seasons with at least a 1,000-yard rusher and years of overpowering opponents with the run game came screeching to a halt in 2014. Remound Wright led the team with 601 yards, but Stanford is counting on big gains on the ground again. One reason for that is Christian McCaffrey, who ran for 300 yards and averaged 7.1 per carry as a freshman. He added a few pounds in hopes of becoming stronger without sacrificing the speed that made him a threat in the passing game.