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College Football Preview 2017-2018: 21. Stanford Cardinal

21. Stanford Cardinal

Can the offense improve without its best player?

  • Location: Palo Alto, Calif.
  • Conference: Pac-12 (North)
  • Schedule
  • Roster
  • Coach: David Shaw (seventh year)
  • Last Years Record: 10-3 (6-3 Pac-12)
  • Bowl Result: Victory in Sun Bowl


Blessed with one of the nation's most dynamic players in running back Christian McCaffrey, Stanford looked ready to vie for the program's first-ever Playoff appearance in 2016. Yet, despite McCaffrey's brilliance the offense hit a wall mid-season, managing just 11 points over a four-game span that included three losses (to Washington, Washington State and Colorado).  That deflating stretch may have ended Stanford's Playoff hopes, but the Cardinal recovered to win their final six games, including a Sun Bowl victory with McCaffrey absent. This off-season, McCaffrey opted to leave for the NFL a year early, but that shouldn't stop the success David Shaw has built in Palo Alto. A new star ready to emerge in the backfield, an improved quarterback situation and a deep defense all point to another tough Stanford team, and one still ready to challenge for a Pac-12 crown.

Bryce Love
Offense: The main hope for Stanford as they head into fall camp and a new season is figuring out the quarterback situation. Ryan Burns began last year as the starter for the Cardinal but was eventually unseated by former highly-touted recruit Keller Chryst. Chryst showed excellent command of the offense after taking over for Burns and the results speak for themselves, as he led Stanford to a 6-0 mark. However, Chryst tore his ACL in the team's Sun Bowl victory and missed the entirety of spring. The Cardinal believe that he will be back for 2017, but it's unclear if he'll be able to go Week One, which may reopen the door for Burns or redshirt freshman K.J. Costello. Costello was a major get in the 2016 recruiting class and played well in the spring, so he may have the best shot to run the offense if Chryst isn't able to go. The Cardinal will obviously miss do-it-all back Christian McCaffrey, but the running back position could actually still be a strength in '17. Junior Bryce Love impressed in the Sun Bowl, and he has the potential to have a breakout campaign. Love doesn't quite have McCaffrey's immense playmaking potential, but he's a speedy runner with a lot of shiftiness. He could double his 783 yards with more touches. He will be joined in the backfield by sophomore Cameron Scarlett and established blocker Daniel Marx at fullback. The Cardinal are never going to be a pass-happy team but with this receiver corps, they have the potential to be very solid through the air. Junior Trenton Irwin is a proven playmaker, who 37 catches for 442 yards a year ago. When paired with sophomore J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Stanford possesses some serious speed and explosiveness. Stanford has long been a great place for developing great tight ends, and the cycle continues with junior Dalton Schultz. Schultz is a very fine pass-catcher, who caught 22 balls last year. With Irwin and company stretching the defense, Schultz could get plenty of opportunities underneath and in the red zone, where he should thrive. Redshirt freshman Kaden Smith and true frosh Colby Parkinson will also likely see snaps in a tight-end heavy offense. Up front, Stanford should be very stout, as usual. The offensive line has four starters back, and brings very impressive depth. Senior David Bright and junior A.T. Hall are exceptional at the tackle spots, while junior center Jesse Burkett is an anchor in the middle. A group that specializes in run blocking, this group should help open up gaping holes for the dangerous Love to work with. 

Peter Kalambayi
Defense: While Stanford will need help from their offense if they have any shot at winning the Pac-12, they will always be a defensive-orientated team. That won't change in '17, even with some losses, as enough reinforcements arrive for a stingy group. On the defensive line, Stanford will miss No. 3 overall draft selection Solomon Thomas. Thomas was never overly dominant while in Palo Alto but was a very consistent and reliable pass rusher, and absolutely shown in the Sun Bowl. The Cardinal will look for even bigger production from senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips. Phillips has proven he can get after the quarterback (6.5 sacks a year ago), but may face more blocking attention without teams having to worry about Thomas on the edge. Neither defensive end spot should be considered a major strength, but the Cardinal still have plenty of potential. Senior Eric Cotton looks primed to put together a big season. Cotton had just three tackles last year but played much better in the spring and is a very knowledgable football player. On the other side, it's unclear who will take over the starting DE spot, as sophomores Thomas Schaffer and Dylan Jackson appear to be the main competitors. The strength of the team, as it so often is, will be their physical rush defense. Last year, the group allowed 144.5 yards per game on the ground, which was pretty good but not quite up to their usual standards at 38th nationally. However, with all four linebackers returning with significant experience, this group could be absolutely dominant. They'll be especially great on the outside, with junior Joey Alfieri and senior Peter Kalambayi. Both of the veterans have proven they can attack the backfield off the edge, particularly Alfieri, who prides himself on being a pass rushing specialist. Kalambayi is a very good athlete with plenty of experience facing a wide variety of offenses in the interesting Pac-12. Senior Kevin Palma won't wow anyone with his physical gifts, but is a smart football player that relies heavily on his impressive instincts. Junior Bobby Okereke is also returning at an inside linebacker spot. Adding to the strength of the linebacker corps is the fact Stanford returns a bunch of quality rotational players and young guys ready to step into larger roles such as sophomores Curtis Robinson and Sean Barton. In the secondary, Stanford appears to be very strong. The unit rarely has seen elite stars pass through their ranks, but has consistently done well stopping the pass, which should once more be the case in '17. Junior Justin Reid is a key returnee at strong safety, as the team's leading returning tackler, with 57 in total. Cornerback should also be a notable strength for the Cardinal, as juniors Quentin Meeks and Alijah Holder should lock down starting roles. Meeks tied for second on the team in interceptions last year with two, while Holder has impressed as a reserve throughout his time in Palo Alto, including recording six pass deflections last season. Free safety is the only spot breaking in a new starter, but junior Brandon Simmons is expected to take over after 15 tackles a year ago.

Special Teams: Stanford will undergo a transition in the kicking game, where the school's all-time leader in field goal percentage, Conrad Ukropina, departed. Untested sophomore Jet Toner is expected to take over where Ukropina left off. In the return game, the combination of Bryce Love and sophomore Jay Tyler is expected to replace McCaffrey's impressive production.

Under the leadership of David Shaw, and Jim Harbaugh before him, Stanford has evolved into a perennial threat, even one that should be able to withstand losing one of their best players in school history. Bryce Love should have no troubles adjusting to a larger role, the offensive line could be the best in years, and the defense should once again be stout. The big X-factor for the Cardinal is clearly the passing game, which averaged a lowly 158 yards per game last year. Stanford must hope that Keller Chryst can return healthy and regain his old form, or else take a chance on a less proven option, such as K.J. Costello. If the passing game doesn't reemerge or at least take a few steps forward, it's hard to envision Stanford winning a conference that is extremely improved, with Washington and USC looking like legitimate National Title contenders. Even so, the model of consistency in Palo Alto should keep producing. The Cardinal are a pretty safe bet to win 9-10 games, and maybe, just maybe, find a way to overcome UW and win the Pac-12 North.

Player to Watch
Dalton Schultz, TE
To say Stanford has become a factory for producing high-quality tight ends may be an understatement. The Cardinal have six tight ends currently in the NFL, including Coby Fleener, Austin Hooper and Zach Ertz, all who were dominant in the collegiate ranks. The hope around Palo Alto is that junior Dalton Schultz can be the next in the long line of star tight ends. Schultz had 23 receptions for 222 yards a year ago, but his physical nature and big frame could enable him to be an absolutely imposing red zone presence.

Five-Year Trend
2012: 12-2 (8-1 Pac-12)*
2013: 11-3 (7-2 Pac-12)*
2014: 8-5 (5-4 Pac-12)*
2015: 12-2 (8-1 Pac-12)*
2016: 10-3 (6-3 Pac-12)*

*= Bowl appearance

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