In an unpredictable 2016 season, perhaps no story in the Pac-12 is more surprising than the success enjoyed at Colorado. That's the consensus of the Athlon midseason awards and predictions, certainly.
The Buffaloes' run to a 5-2 start and first-place standing in the South midway through the campaign stands as one of the first half's more intriguing development. By the same token, defending Pac-12 champion Stanford's struggles — or as much struggle as one can glean from a 5-2 record — come as something of a shock.
It's not so much that Stanford lost twice, which has happened every season in head coach David Shaw's tenure, but rather the lopsided margin of defeat suffered against Washington and Washington State. The Cardinal's hopes to repeat as conference champions are likely dashed as a result of a two-game deficit against the Huskies and Cougars, which Stanford would need both to lose three times, while running the table itself.
Colorado at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 22 at 3 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Stanford -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Christian McCaffrey's Availability
Stanford's recent stagnation on offense coincides with 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey nursing an undisclosed injury. McCaffrey sat for most of the Washington State loss, and missed the entirety of last week's win at Notre Dame.
Bryce Love broke out for 123 yards against the Fighting Irish, but the Cardinal offense is undoubtedly better when it can employ both. A multifaceted run game is key with Stanford still lacking consistency in the passing attack. Quarterback Ryan Burns completed 10-of-19 pass attempts with an interception and no scores against the Irish; Keller Chryst was used sparingly, as has been customary throughout the campaign.
2. Can Stanford Pressure The Quarterback?
In Colorado's lone Pac-12 loss, USC successfully pressured quarterback Steven Montez, getting to him for four sacks. Montez returned to the sidelines last week for Colorado's blowout win over Arizona State, with senior Sefo Liufau taking over once more as the starter.
Liufau's experience and poise in the pocket leave him less vulnerable to the pass rush than his younger counterpart. However, few teams bring as tenacious a blitz as the Cardinal, starting with defensive end Solomon Thomas.
Thomas won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors for his effort at Notre Dame in Week 7. He's playing at an All-American level with four sacks, six tackles for a loss, five quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He and Harrison Phillips will test Liufau's wheels early.
And, should Stanford put the pressure on the quarterback in the opening possessions, Buffaloes running back Phillip Lindsay must build off a career night of 219 yards and three touchdowns in the rout of Arizona State.
3. Depleted Secondary vs. Deep Receiving Corps
Both Washington and Washington State capitalized on injuries in the Stanford secondary. Cornerbacks Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks missed the Pac-12 dates, and Holder's likely still out for Saturday's affair. Meeks returned to the lineup against Notre Dame, a huge plus for the Cardinal, but this unit is still feeling the other absences.
Conversely, Colorado rolls onto the Farm with one of the deepest receiving corps in the Pac-12. The quartet of Bryce Bobo, Jay MacIntyre, Devin Ross and Shay Fields have 114 catches between them with 12 touchdowns and nearly 1,600 yards.
Each provides a unique element to the Buff passing attack: Ross is a consistent, every-down target, with Fields and Bobo both providing big-play ability. The diversity makes the group collectively tough to defend — particularly for an injury-thinned secondary.
Stanford's blowout win at Colorado a season ago helped propel Christian McCaffrey into the Heisman race, as the dynamic running back threw a touchdown pass against the overmatched Buffaloes — a quintessential, highlight-reel moment.
The last year has made a world of difference for both teams. Stanford's probably better than its two, lopsided losses in conference play might suggest, but Colorado's grown into one of the best squads in this year's Pac-12. Head coach Mike MacIntyre has the Buffs playing fast, physical, and with confidence.
Colorado's veteran-laden lineup will have had to learn from the sluggish start at USC to quiet the Cardinal this week. Sefo Liufau needs protection to get the offense clicking, as a defensive struggle is Stanford's only likely path to a win.
Expect the lesson to have resonated. Liufau should be able to take advantage of the holes in the secondary enough to set an offensive pace Stanford's ill-equipped to match — especially sans McCaffrey.