The Cardinal rank No. 17 in Athlon's Top 25 for 2017.
Stanford must replace a pair of top-10 NFL draft picks in running back Christian McCaffrey and defensive end Solomon Thomas, but don’t expect the Cardinal to take too many steps back. Eight starters return on both sides of the ball, the offensive line will be as solid as usual and the secondary is deep and talented. The key will be what happens at quarterback and if Bryce Love can fill McCaffrey’s big shoes as the primary ball carrier. Considering Stanford won 10 games in 2016 in what was considered a “down” season, it’s probably safest to not bet against David Shaw and his players.
Previewing Stanford Football’s Offense for 2017
Priority No. 1 is knowing exactly when returning starting quarterback Keller Chryst will be available. He injured his knee during Stanford’s 25–23 win over North Carolina in the Sun Bowl, leaving Ryan Burns and touted 2016 recruit K.J. Costello as the only scholarship quarterbacks available in the spring. Burns began 2016 as the starter but was unseated by Chryst — who helped the Cardinal go 6–0 during that stretch with wins over Oregon, Cal and the aforementioned bowl game.
“We won’t rush it,” coach David Shaw says of Chryst’s status. “If he’s not 100 percent at the beginning of training camp, that’s fine. We’re not going to hit the panic button. He’s doing really well... We’re gearing toward him participating relatively early, if not Day 1 of training camp.”
Regardless of who wins the job, the quarterback will be handing off to one of the most explosive players in the conference in Bryce Love (111 carries, 783 yards, three touchdowns). Used primarily as a change-of-pace option to Christian McCaffrey, Love is poised to take over as the primary back with McCaffrey’s departure. “Bryce Love will be one of the most dynamic running backs in college football,” Shaw says.
Another stout offensive line — headlined by four returners with quality starting experience — should pave the way for Love.
While the Cardinal will miss the speed and reliability of receiver Michael Rector, JJ Arcega-Whiteside (team-high five receiving touchdowns) and Trenton Irwin (team-high 37 receptions) make a nice pair. Look for Dalton Schultz, who had 23 catches last season, to build off of those numbers at tight end.
Previewing Stanford Football’s Defense for 2017
The defensive line will once again be an issue as the Cardinal look to replace backfield menace Solomon Thomas. Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips has the most experience of the group after posting 6.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for a loss in 2016.
The centerpiece of the front seven is outside linebacker Joey Alfieri, who is one of the most versatile defenders the Cardinal have had in years. He posted 5.0 sacks and 10.5 tackles for a loss last year, and the coaching staff spent much of the spring working with him in a hybrid inside/outside linebacker role to take full advantage of his impressive athleticism.
Where the Cardinal defense should really excel is in the secondary, where Stanford can go eight deep with talent and experience. It’s a unit that could be one of the best in the country. Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder make up one of the top cornerback tandems in the league, and Justin Reid is a returner at strong safety. Brandon Simmons also has some starting experience at free safety.
Previewing Stanford Football’s Specialists for 2017
Kicker Jet Toner has big shoes to fill in replacing Conrad Ukropina, the school’s all-time leader in field goal percentage. The sophomore didn’t make any appearances in 2016 but was highly regarded coming out of Hawaii. Jake Bailey returns at punter after finishing fourth in the conference last year with an average of 43.5 yards. Look for Love and Jay Tyler to contribute on returns.
The Cardinal have reached a point where going 10–3, as they did in 2016, actually feels like a down year. But two of those losses were to the North Division champ (Washington) and the South Division champ (Colorado). The Huskies show no sign of slowing down in the North, and USC looks to be rising again in the South. The Cardinal will have to find a way to beat Washington if they hope to return to the Pac-12 title game.
NATIONAL RANKING: 17
PAC-12 NORTH PREDICTION: 2
Don't forget to check out Athlon Sports' entire college football Top 25.