Despite opening 2017 with a rocky start, losing two of the first three games, Stanford came on strong to appear in its fourth Pac-12 Championship Game since 2012. The emergence of running back Bryce Love filled the void of record-setting Christian McCaffrey nicely, giving the Cardinal their fourth Heisman Trophy finalist since 2009.
The defense flexed its muscle in a variety of ways, and the passing game — a concern since the departure of Kevin Hogan after the 2015 season — came alive late in the season. All told, 2017 was a solid season for David Shaw and Co.
All that remains is the Alamo Bowl. In the meantime, here are the players and moments that defined Stanford's 2017 campaign.
Offensive MVP: Bryce Love, RB
No doubt about it, Love was the star of Stanford's 2017 season. Head coach David Shaw said following 2016 that he expected no drop-off in the run game despite 2015 Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey's departure for the NFL, citing Love's performance in games without McCaffrey. But that was just the beginning.
Love rushed for 1,973 yards in 12 games and scored 17 touchdowns — and did so playing much of the season on an injured ankle. He broke off carries of 50-plus yards in every single game.
Defensive MVP: Harrison Phillips, DT
Defensive tackles are not typically stat-sheet stuffers, but Phillips is an exception to the rule. The man in the middle of Stanford's defense put together a monster 2017, racking up 16.5 tackles for a loss, tied for 16th-most in the nation and ranking him alongside what were primarily defensive ends and outside linebackers. All that havoc in the backfield also resulted in a pair of forced fumbles.
Phillips also made an impact on special teams with a blocked kick.
Best Freshman: Walker Little, OL
Throughout Shaw's tenure as head coach, Stanford as an ongoing and distinguished track record on the offensive line. Little ensures that tradition will continue. The former 5-star recruit earned his way into the starting lineup by the third game and became a stalwart of the front five, helping pave the way for Bryce Love's run to the Heisman ceremony.
Little shared Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors with Arizona running back J.J. Taylor.
Best Play of the Season: Bryce Love's 69-yard, multiple-cutback touchdown run vs. UCLA
Considering Love's season resembles a mixtape, picking out just one of his plays for best of the year proves virtually impossible. Nevertheless, plenty of jaws are probably still dropped after having watched him take a pitch Sept. 23 against UCLA, find a seam in the defense, and break off a pair of cutbacks that left Bruins defenders falling to the turf.
Best Performance by a Player in 2017: Bryce Love vs. Arizona State
Three-hundred and one yards on 25 carries. Let that sink in a moment: 301 yards, 25 carries. With a 12-yard per carry average, Love put on arguably the single-most impressive individual performance of the entire 2017 college football season.
Best Game (Team Performance): 38-20 Regular-Season Finale vs. Notre Dame
The alternative title to this game is gone in Gone In 373 Seconds. Notre Dame took a 20-17 lead in the late third quarter on Nov. 25; then, over the subsequent 373 seconds, Stanford blew out the Fighting Irish.
The deluge started with a gorgeous K.J. Costello touchdown pass to Kaden Smith, followed the very next play with a Curtis Robinson interception. Two rushes later, and Costello danced around defenders and looped a pass to Dalton Schultz for another score. A fumble recovery on the kickoff, some work by Bryce Love, and then Cameron Scarlett slammed the door on the most intense six-minute stretch of the season.
Biggest Surprise: J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, WR
Arcega-Whiteside teased his lofty potential in 2016, catching a game-winning touchdown at UCLA early in the campaign, then producing back-to-back 100-yard games down the stretch. But his ascent to become one of the most exciting pass catchers in the Pac-12, and a potential breakout star further down the road, was a surprise.
Arcega-Whiteside averaged almost 17 yards per reception, best showing off his big-play ability with two grabs for 87 yards in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Biggest Disappointment: Pac-12 Championship Game Goal-Line Stand
The entire momentum of the 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game swung with a second-half fumble recovery by Solomon Thomas. In a similar vein, a Justin Reid scoop in the fourth quarter gave the Cardinal possession and a three-point deficit.
The march down field put Stanford right in front of the goal line, but a pair of remarkable tackles — one by Chris Hawkins, one by Uchenna Nwosu — denied the Cardinal on third and fourth downs. USC then went 99 yards for what proved to be the game-winning score, denying Stanford its fourth Pac-12 championship under head coach David Shaw.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Harrison Phillips, DT
Phillips was wildly underrated on the national landscape, but there's no doubt those down on The Farm will recognize his absence in 2018. Phillips was not a finalist for the Outland Trophy, rather shockingly, nor was he up for the Bronko Nagurski Award. His production very much consideration for both, however, as he played a role that is rare for defensive tackles.
Recreating his production on the interior will be a huge challenge for the Cardinal in 2018.
Player to Watch in 2018: K.J. Costello, QB
Stanford's prospects for 2017 swung dramatically when Costello earned the starting quarterback job down the stretch. The promising young talent made showed he could be an effective game manager, as was the case in the monumental win over Washington, but he could also be a game-changer, as demonstrated against Notre Dame. Costello finished the season with six touchdown passes in the final two games and no interceptions.
He had moments in 2017 that were reminiscent of Kevin Hogan in 2015 — that's a very good thing for Stanford's 2018 outlook.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Running Game Outlook
Stanford has managed to effectively replace one standout running back after another, going from Toby Gerhart, to Stepfan Taylor, to Tyler Gaffney, to Christian McCaffrey, to Bryce Love. Love has a season of eligibility remaining, but he would be a highly coveted prospect should he leave for the NFL.
That begs the question: Can Stanford replace generational talents at the same position in two straight years?
David Shaw might not have to if Love returns. Should he go, however, the cornerstone of a strong 2017 season needs replacing.