College football countdown: Will Stanford make the Playoff?
Note: Over the two weeks leading into the first full slate of college football games, we will take a look at 14 of the top teams heading into 2016 and analyze their chances at making the 2016 College Football Playoff. We continue this series with Stanford, a team that finished 12-2 last year and is ranked eighth in the 2016 AP preseason top 25 poll.
|Stanford will make the CFP because...||Stanford won't make the CFP because...|
Janie Harris: Stanford remains a fairly interesting team. After their loss to Northwestern in the first game of 2015, many didn’t believe they would go far. However, the Cardinal was able to pull off a 12-2 season under the leadership of some pretty powerful key players.
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What do you think, Ryan?
Ryan Cooper: I like this Stanford team a lot, but like last year that saw a couple of losses that it probably should have won keeping it out of the Playoff, I just don't think the Cardinal has enough firepower.
Obviously Christian McCaffrey is not of this planet and will do the heavy lifting on offense, but who is going to help him? He was the team's leading receiver last year despite being a running back, and that's asking a ton for him to do it again. With some major changes on defense and a competition to succeed one of the best quarterbacks in program history that wasn't settled until this week, I see too many question marks to predict the Cardinal to be as good as last year, which still wasn't enough to go to the Playoff.
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Receivers Michael Rector, Francis Owusu and Trenton Irwin look to become some of new quarterback Ryan Burns’s go-to targets.
Rector, passing up an opportunity to move on to the NFL, starts the 2016 season ready to play his last year of college football. He was able to post 34 receptions for 559 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015, and he looks to make an even larger impact in 2016. Also, Owusu, another senior, tallied 13 catches for 175 yards and one touchdown, and, as a freshman last year, Irwin made 12 catches for 150, reminding us that even new players can make an impact on a team.
Also, tight end Dalton Schultz looks to get some love in 2016, especially since last year as a sophomore he made 10 catches for 121 yards and a touchdown.
These men know what they are doing on the field and have had experience to know what needed to be worked on in the offseason, so with McCaffrey running and this multitude of players receiving, Stanford’s offense should be talented enough to improve from last year and make it to the CFP.
RC: Those aren't bad options, but I don't see any of them putting enough fear in the opposing defensive coordinator that he doesn't focus just about all the attention on slowing down McCaffrey as much as possible. And if McCaffrey doesn't put up a historic pace again, I think we can both agree that this offense looks more than a little suspect.
And speaking of which, let's talk about Burns, who will be taking over for the graduated Kevin Hogan, at least for the opener. This is a guy who is in his fourth year with the program and has thrown a grand total of one pass. Now obviously it's not his fault that the school's all-time winningest quarterback was in front of him during that time, but is that who I want to hand the reins of a potential Playoff team over to? Probably not.
Maybe he continues the great line of Stanford quarterbacks that has formed with Andrew Luck and Hogan, albeit in a short amount of time due to the eligibility already burned, but that's a very risky bet, in my eyes. And if Burns' inexperience proves too much for the offense to scoot by with, the man he beat out for the job, Keller Chryst, is in the exact same boat.
JH: While Burns only played in four college games for his career, he has shown a lot of promise in camp as well as during the spring game. He displays a solid understanding of the Cardinal’s complicated offensive style, which is something to be said. With the other offensive weapons on the field, I don’t think a young, talented quarterback that just hasn’t had his chance to shine should be anything for the Cardinal’s fans to fear.
However, the QB's performance also depends on the offensive line, and Stanford's will have to break in a set of three new linemen for 2016. However, when looking at Stanford’s history during these situations, the Cardinal usually pulls together a string of fresh talent that performs well.
Plus, Stanford has McCaffrey, who can make plays and carry the team to win even if the O-line or the new quarterback struggles for the first few games.
RC: It seems to me like a whole lot of things have to go right and a lot of pieces need to fall into place. Granted, that's the case for every team when one mistake can cost you a CFP spot, but more inexperience and question marks often leads to more mistakes.
It looks to be more of the same on defense, with a good amount of talent having to compete with its own inexperience and fresh faces. Leading tackler (by 84 tackles) Blake Martinez is gone, as are the two biggest playmakers in the secondary, Kodi Whitfield and Ronnie Harris. Both defensive end spots also have big shoes to fill, as Brennan Scarlett and Aziz Shittu leave 9.5 sacks behind.
There's some talent without question, but I struggle to see how Stanford learns quickly enough on both sides of the ball to finish the regular season and Pac-12 Championship Game with just one loss at most. Games against USC, Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA in the regular season will all be big challenges, and I'm not sure a team that has a ton of pieces that have never been there before can pull it off.
JH: The defense will most likely lean on defensive tackle Soloman Thomas and safety Zach Hoffpauir for their experience. However, while it may seem like there is a shortage of returning talent on the defensive side this year, that is just not true. Center Harrison Phillips returns to the field after tearing his ACL last year ready to make an impact. Also, linebackers Kevin Palma (44 tackles last year), Peter Kalambayi (52 tackles last year), and Joey Alfieri (40 tackles last year) look to fill the void left by those you mentioned who left.
Overall, while the defense will have to undergo some changes, they still look to become a strong unit, especially if they can generate a few more turnovers in 2016.
As for the schedule, Stanford’s conference continues to improve, and it won’t be easy defeating those teams, but, especially if the Cardinal overtakes Oregon, winning those games could mean another Pac-12 title and a solid chance at the CFP.
The Cardinal has a load of talent on the team; it all just depends on how it uses it this year. There is a reason that even with changing talent the Cardinal has held on to the Pac-12 title for three of the past four years. The team knows how to overcome these challenges. Yes, there are big shoes to fill, but there is also some big talent to fill them.