STANFORD – Stanford has won the Pac-12 North five times in the past seven years, but hardly anyone is predicting the Cardinal will make it six times in eight years.
Washington got 40 of 42 votes in the Pac-12 preseason media poll and was a unanimous pick by CBS Sports, and for good reason. The Huskies return 16 starters from a 10-win team, including quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin, and will have home-field advantage when they plays Stanford on Nov. 3.
Still, Stanford recently has made a habit of exceeding expectations. Only once, in 2016, was Stanford picked to win the Pac-12 in the preseason media poll.
Here’s what needs to happen for Stanford to unseat Washington in the North this year:
The case for Stanford starts with Bryce Love. On the one hand, it seems unrealistic to expect the Heisman runner-up to do better than last season, when he ran for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns. Then again, he injured his ankle on Oct. 14, so what would have happened if he were fully healthy for an entire season? And Love thinks there’s still room to grow – he’s stronger after gaining 10 pounds since last year, claims to have a better understanding of play-calling and blocking schemes, and expects to be a bigger threat as a receiver.
It’s not just Love coming back. K.J. Costello threw for 14 touchdowns and four interceptions last season, despite making five of his seven starts against ranked opponents. All four top receivers return, with some intriguing newcomers in the mix, and tight end Kaden Smith is an AP preseason All-America. Even Love’s backup, Cameron Scarlett, averaged 112.2 all-purpose yards last season (eighth-most in the conference) and was named the most improved player in camp by coach David Shaw.
SKILLED UP FRONT
Line-play will always be key in Stanford’s system, and four all-conference offensive linemen return – first-team guard Nate Herbig and three honorable mention selections, tackles A.T. Hall and Walker Little and center Jesse Burkett. Besides clearing the way for Love, the line allowed just 17 sacks in 14 games last season. And with former NFL assistant Kevin Carberry replacing Mike Bloomgren (now the head coach at Rice) as the run-game coordinator, expect some new wrinkles that could add to Stanford’s explosiveness.
Fifth-year linebacker Bobby Okereke made 96 tackles last season, the most by a Stanford returnee in 10 years. But in stark contrast with the offense, the defense lacks star power. Tackle Harrison Phillips and defensive backs Quenton Meeks and Justin Reid all have moved on to the NFL. And Stanford gave up almost six yards per play last season with those players. Clearly the Cardinal needs new playmakers to emerge. The defensive line will be tested right away Friday against San Diego State, which is physical up front and shares Stanford’s offensive philosophy. “These guys can run the ball down our throats if we’re not where we need to be,” Shaw said.
Injuries always are a factor. Last season, Stanford caught Oregon when quarterback Justin Herbert was out and held the Ducks to 33 passing yards. Stanford played Oregon State when Love was out and nearly lost to a team that went 1-11. If Stanford can avoid major injuries and its division rivals can’t, that would be a huge edge. Early returns aren’t promising – in the opening game, Stanford will be without cornerback Alijah Holder, the best player in the secondary, who has played only 12 games over the past two season due to a pair of major injuries. Holder is one of six major contributors, including Burkett, who will miss the San Diego State game.
Hosting the head-to-head matchup isn’t the only schedule advantage Washington has over Stanford. The Cardinal must cross over against USC, while the Huskies get Colorado (both teams also play Arizona State and UCLA from the South Division). Still, Stanford has one edge: its bye is right in the middle of its 12-game schedule. Washington, on the other hand, must play 10 straight weeks – and the 10th week is against Stanford. If the Cardinal can keep pace with the Huskies until then, Washington could be beat up by the time Stanford arrives in Seattle.