Our ranking: No. 17 STANFORD
Coach: David Shaw (64-17, entering the seventh season; 64-17 overall)
2016 record: 10-3, 6-3 in the Pac-12, finished third in North Division
Look back: Stanford opened the 2016 season by winning its first three games for the first time since 2013. That included wins over Pac-12 South foes USC and UCLA. But the Cardinal followed that up with a disappointing blowout loss to Washington (44-6) in Week 4, during which the team allowed a season-high eight sacks. The next week, the team dropped a 42-16 decision to Washington State, effectively ending the team’s chances at another North Division title. The team rebounded to win its final six games, including a 25-23 win over North Carolina in the Sun Bowl.
Offensive starters returning: 7
Offensive starters lost: 4
Defensive starters returning: 8
Key losses: RB Christian McCaffrey, WR Michael Rector, OL Johnny Caspers, WR Francis Owusu, DT Solomon Thomas, S Dallas Lloyd, DB Zach Hoffpauir
Top returnees: QB Ryan Burns, QB Keller Chryst, WR Trenton Irwin, OL Jesse Burkett, DT Harrison Phillips, FS Justin Reid, LB Joey Alfieri
Strengths: For the second consecutive season the quarterback position is clouded in uncertainty. Keller Chryst, who suffered an ACL injury during the team’s win against North Carolina in the Sun Bowl last December, returned ahead of schedule in time to take part in preseason camp. Whether he’s 100 percent or not could leave the coaching staff to turn to Ryan Burns for the team’s opener against Rice. Luckily for Stanford, Burns has enough experience to guide the offense.
Once again, Stanford’s strength will come from its offensive line. The unit returns four starters led by senior tackle Casey Tucker, who has 21 career starts but missed time last season due to injury.
Bryce Love was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection after finishing second on the team in rushing (664 yards) behind Christian McCaffrey. His 7.5 yards per carry career average makes him a legitimate threat in the Cardinal backfield. The strength of the Cardinal defense lies in the middle at the linebacker position. The group returns four starters including a pair of outside linebackers in Joey Alfieri and Peter Kalambayi, who finished with a combined 88 tackles and 15.0 tackles for loss.
Weaknesses: The departure of a pair of stellar defensive ends in All-American Solomon Thomas and Jordan Watkins leaves Stanford in transition when it comes to its defensive front. DT Harrison Phillips came on strong late in the season with one or more sacks in six of the team’s final eight games.
K Conrad Ukropina finished his college career as the school’s all-time leader in field goals leaving freshman Jet Toner to fill his shoes. The Cardinal finished among the leaders in the country in field goal percentage (81.5).
Outlook: Honestly, last season must have seemed like a disappointment. Stanford has played for the Pac-12 championship three of the past five seasons, so finishing third in the North Division behind conference champ Washington and Washington State is a little eye-opening. The division schedule favors the Cardinal a bit, with home contests against Oregon, California, and Washington.