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Why Stanford Will (or Won't) Win the Pac-12 Championship in 2016

Christian McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey

Stanford won its third Pac-12 championship in four seasons last year. In some ways, the 2015 crown proved to be the Cardinal’s most impressive.

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Stanford flipped the script from the previous two title runs under head coach David Shaw. Whereas the 2012 and '13 teams relied on top-tier defense to set the tone, with a methodical offense that bordered on plodding, last season's squad was explosive.

Having a fourth-year starting quarterback, Kevin Hogan, leading the offense certainly factored into the Cardinal’s 37.8-point per game eruption (No. 18 in FBS). But make no mistake, the face of Stanford's high-powered attack was Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey.

McCaffrey capped his starring sophomore season with a bang in the Rose Bowl Game rout of Iowa, where he scored a touchdown on his first touch of the game. Fans tuning in to watch the Cardinal in 2016 will expect more of the same.

With McCaffrey back and Shaw still on the sidelines, Stanford remains a front-runner in the Pac-12’s championship race despite losing some key pieces. The Cardinal check in at No. 12, behind only No. 11 Washington among Pac-12 teams in the Athlon Sports Preseason Top 25.

Why Stanford Will Win the Pac-12 in 2016

In two words? Christian McCaffrey. In five words? Christian McCaffrey and David Shaw.

OK, so that might be oversimplifying things somewhat. As good and as multifaceted as McCaffrey was in 2015, becoming just the third player in NCAA history to score five ways in one season, football remains a team game. Stanford needs a total team effort to overcome a competitive Pac-12.

As has often been the case under Jim Harbaugh and later Shaw, Stanford boasts an impressive defense. Three of the team’s top four tacklers are gone - Blake Martinez, Aziz Shittu and Kodi Whitfield - but returners Dallas Lloyd, Quenton Meeks and Peter Kalambayi ensure minimal drop-off.

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Similarly, the offensive line loses Outland Trophy winner Joshua Garnett. Replacing top-flight line talent has been of no issue for the Cardinal though, and Shaw said he was pleased with the unit’s overall progression during the course of spring practices.

The fundamental cornerstones on which Stanford’s recent success were built remain largely intact. For another program to take the conference crown, it must figure out how to unseat the Cardinal.

Why Stanford Won’t Win the Pac-12 in 2016

Hogan’s value to Stanford football may not have always received the attention nor the respect it deserved. Following last December’s Pac-12 Championship Game, however, Shaw said the four-year starter belonged on the Cardinal's version of Mount Rushmore with predecessors John Elway, Andrew Luck and Jim Plunkett.

There’s no overstating Hogan’s importance to Stanford during its three-title run. Likewise, there’s no overstating how important it is for either Keller Chryst or Ryan Burns to perform adequately in Hogan’s stead.

Related: Ranking the Pac-12's Quarterbacks for 2016

Whether Chryst or Burns, Stanford’s next quarterback must succeed without top receiving weapons Devon Cajuste and Austin Hooper. Cajuste, a wide receiver, and Hooper, a tight end, filled the Cardinal’s typical quota for big targets. Their presences on the field a season ago opened things up for McCaffrey to do his damage.

The process of replacing some critical playmakers begins with the Cardinal facing a treacherous schedule.

Stanford’s early-season kicks off with home games against Kansas State and USC, then a difficult double-dip in Pac-12 play against UCLA and Washington. Each of those first three conference games come against teams also appearing in the Athlon Sports Preseason Top 25.

That first month could make or break Stanford’s aspirations for a fourth conference title in five years. For a team breaking in youngsters in key roles, that’s less than ideal.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45