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Why Stanford Will or Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2016

David Shaw

David Shaw

Every year but one since the 2010 season, Stanford has been in the race for the college football national championship deep into the campaign. However, the Cardinal have yet to actually play for the game's top prize.

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Coming off one of the most impressive single seasons amid this altogether remarkable run, the 2016 version of Stanford football has the pieces to not only again be in the mix for the national championship, but finally compete for one.

Related: Stanford Cardinal 2016 Preview and Prediction

Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey transformed the identity of the Stanford offense and returns to make another run at college football's top honor.

Also back for his sixth year at the helm is head coach David Shaw. Shaw's built one of the most impressive resumes in college football in short order. The only thing eluding him in his wildly successful tenure is that shot at the top prize. Might this be the year?

Three Reasons Stanford Will Reach the College Football Playoff in 2016

1. Christian McCaffrey

One man does not a championship team make, but seriously; have you seen this guy? McCaffrey looks like the Tecmo Bowl version of Bo Jackson, come to life.

Last season, McCaffrey rushed for more than 2,000 yards, functioned as the Cardinal primary pass-catching option with 645 yards receiving, and blew past coverage units as a returner.

He joined Reggie Bush (2005) and C.J. Spiller (2009) as the only players ever to score touchdowns in five different ways.

2. Offensive Line

Without a terrific offensive line, McCaffrey does not have the freedom to make those incredible plays that filled his highlight reel. And, despite losing Outland Trophy winner Joshua Garnett, Shaw gushed about the performance of Stanford's offensive line in April.

Though Stanford is tasked with replacing a four-year starting quarterback and short-yardage running back extraordinaire Remound Wright, the presence of a stout front five eases the learning curve.

By season's end, the Stanford line could be one of the most dominant in college football.

3. Defense Wins Championships

Stanford has enjoyed uncommon success in the Pac-12 by employing an uncommon style. The Cardinal relied on a traditional, huddle-up offense while much of the rest of the conference employed hurry-up spreads.

More importantly, the Cardinal's offensive philosophy functions as a complement to one of the most stifling defenses in all of college football.

Former defensive coordinator Derek Mason -- now the head coach at Vanderbilt -- crafted a scheme that pounded many of the up-tempo offenses prevalent around the Pac-12 into submission. Successor Lance Anderson has kept it going.

Stanford loses a few key pieces from the 2015 defense, like linebacker Blake Martinez. But with rising stars such as Quenton Meeks and Solomon Thomas, the pieces are there for defense to win a Pac-12 title for the fourth time -- and perhaps a national title for the first time in Stanford's modern era.  

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Three Reasons Stanford Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2016

1. Passing Game Questions

Since the start of its run of double-digit-win seasons in 2010, Stanford has finished each campaign with one of two starting quarterbacks: former No. 1 NFL draft pick and two-time Heisman runner-up Andrew Luck, and three-time Pac-12 champion Kevin Hogan.

Shaw has not exactly had to rebuild the offense much in his tenure as head coach thanks to the quarterback stability.

Both Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns came to The Farm with prep accolades, but their college experience is limited mostly to practices. Meanwhile, Stanford's corps of pass catchers boasts more experience with McCaffrey and Michael Rector back, but replacing tight end Austin Hooper and wide receiver Devon Cajuste will be a big concern -- literally.

The duo of Hooper and Cajuste towered over most defensive backs, giving the Cardinal quintessential targets in the red zone or up the middle on intermediate routes.

2. A Brutal Schedule

Stanford once again plays a schedule with 11 Power Five opponents, including perennial Big 12 overachiever Kansas State, and fellow College Football Playoff contender Notre Dame in non-conference action.

Related: Ranking the Toughest Games on Stanford's College Football Schedule in 2016

Those non-conference dates are particularly noteworthy, given that losses outside of Pac-12 play ostensibly denied Stanford two opportunities at the national championship.

The first came in 2012 in an overtime contest at Notre Dame. The Cardinal have not won in South Bend since 2010, and return there in October. The second was last year's opener at Northwestern.

The Kansas State game bears similarity that goes beyond the purple uniforms. Stanford will still be working out changes in its lineup, putting it at its most vulnerable against a quality opponent.

In Pac-12 play, Stanford travels to Oregon and Washington, as well as UCLA. The Ducks and Huskies figure to be the top two competitors for supremacy in the North division, and the Bruins are favorites in the South.

3. Replacing the Pass Rush

A tenacious pass rush played a key role in each of Stanford's successful seasons since 2010, and last year was no exception. The Cardinal registered 34 sacks and 83 tackles for a loss.

Somewhat surprising is that last season was among the Cardinal's least prolific in those categories. Even in 2014, when the Cardinal regressed below 10 wins for the first time since ‘09, they ranked in the top 20 nationally for tackles for a loss and top 10 in sacks.

Maintaining consistent pressure keys the Stanford defense, and coordinator Lance Anderson must find ways to do so without heavy hitters Aziz Shittu, Kevin Anderson and Brennan Scarlet. The aforementioned Thomas is a breakout star in the making at defensive tackle, but will need support to keep the #PartyInTheBackfield going.

Final Verdict

Stanford almost always schedules ambitiously, which last year was to the detriment of its College Football Playoff aspirations.

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A road trip to fellow Playoff hopeful Notre Dame looms large right in the middle of Pac-12 play. And, as far as Pac-12 competition goes, a team from the conference has run the table just once since USC in 2005. Coincidentally (or not), 2005 was the league's last year playing eight intra-conference games, and unbeaten Oregon in ‘10 marked the Pac-12's last champion before implementation of a league title game.

Until the Playoff Selection Committee proves it emphasizes strength of schedule, or Stanford goes through a brutal docket relatively unscathed, the Cardinal will always have a tougher road to the title. Shaw may get his shot soon, but probably not in 2016.

— 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.