4. USC Trojans
5. Utah Utes
Who will be the 3rd best team in the Pac-12 North?
Answer: The Stanford Cardinal
San Jose State
@ Oregon State
Predicted Record: 8-4
Consider this: in the fourteen games Stanford played last year, only four games were decided by more than a touchdown–the Cardinal played in ten games where the result of a mere one or two plays determined the outcome of the entire game. You can call that good coaching, the ability to overcome adversity and all that other jazz, but you must also attribute a portion of it to pure luck.
Without Stanford’s defense, the Cardinal would not have been anywhere near 12-2 last season, as its offense ranked in the bottom half of the conference in all major categories. Though Stanford will again have the best defense in the Pac (it returns eight starters, including frontline studs Trent Murphy, Shayne Kov and Ben Garner, as well as defensive backs Jordan Richards and Ed Reynolds) and one of the best defenses in the country, its offense takes another step back this year and therefore exposes gaps wide enough to eliminate the stroke of luck Stanford had last season in pulling out as many close games as it did.
I don’t think people realize just how important Stepfan Taylor was to Stanford’s offense. Taylor was not one of the best running backs in the Pac just because he had one of the best offensive lines in the conference–the stellar offensive line being the reason why many analysts think the Cardinal will be just fine on the ground this year despite the fact Taylor is now gone–it was what he did after getting through the line that made him so special. The load he carried last year for the Cardinal’s offense was gargantuan. The running game will still be good, but it won’t be Taylor good. There is a difference.
Taylor wasn’t the only weapon the Cardinal will sorely miss. All-American tight end Zach Ertz and tight end Levine Toilolo both left Stanford early for the NFL, leaving the tight end position extremely thin of experience. Opponents of last season could not just commit to defending Taylor because of how effective Ertz and Toilolo were, making Taylor more effective. Likewise, opponents could not just commit to defending Ertz and Toilolo because of how effective Taylor was, making Ertz and Toilolo more effective. Two of the Cardinal’s most dangerous offensive weapons–and the essential armor of their offensive philosophy–is severely dented.
Last year, Stanford beat Oregon State at home by only four points. This year, the Beavers will get a shot at redemption on their own home turf and the Cardinal–this time–will find the stroke of luck going in the other direction. The outcome of that game will be the difference between second place and third place in the Pac-12 North.