College Football Top 25 Previews: Stanford Cardinal

Photo: Dec 28, 2017; San Antonio, TX, United States; Stanford Cardinal head coach David Shaw looks on prior to a game against the TCU Horned Frogs in the 2017 Alamo Bowl at Alamodome. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford Cardinal

2017 Record: 9-5 (7-2) – Lost 2017 Alamo Bowl

2018 Coaches Poll Top 25 Rank: No. 13

Season Outlook

Does Stanford have enough firepower to knockoff the Huskies two years in a row? That's the only question right now.

With the Pac-12 South power both resetting in 2018, the path to conference championship goes through the Pac-12 North. Stanford was a trendy playoff pick last season, riding a six game win streak to end the 2016 season. But QB Keller Chryst's play came back down to earth, and the defense didn't have an answer to the loss of EDGE Solomon Thomas. An early upset loss to San Diego State all but knocked them out of serious playoff contention.

With QB K.J. Costello under the helm, the Stanford offense certainly has more explosive potential -- obviously, getting RB Bryce Love back is also a huge boost. Bryce looks poised to repeat a Heisman-worthy 2017 campaign, back to 100% health and running behind a line that sees five of six starters returning (it's Stanford).

The Cardinal also returns its top four receivers from last season, including alpha downfield threat WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and athletic TE Kaden Smith, both of whom showed great chemistry with Costello down the stretch. The success of the offense all hinges on Costello's development -- if he can harness his natural talent, Stanford may have their most balanced offensive attack in quite some time.

But the defense was an issue last season, and those issues may remain unresolved. They only posted 31.5 sacks as a team, and their top two producers both left for the NFL Draft -- that's DT Harrison Phillips (7.5) and EDGE Peter Kalambayi (4.0). Joey Alfieri is returning to more EDGE play after filling in at off-ball linebacker last season, and redshirt sophomore Dylan Wade-Perry looks to create more interior disruption in Phillips' absence. But neither project as impact players in the conference.

And on the back-end, CB Alijah Holder is a big returner after an injury-plagued 2017 campaign tempered his Draft expectations. But with CB Quenton Meeks and S Justin Reid both off to the NFL, again Stanford turns to uncertain up-and-comers. Is Alameen Murphy a boundary corner or a nickel? Does Malik Antoine transition well to safety? Can redshirt sophomore Paulson Adebo hold his own on the outside?

When checking out the schedule, Stanford sees USC and SDSU early again this season -- an 0-2 stretch last year. But they come in with more experience across the board, have both games at home, and USC will be touting a freshman QB. The out of conference schedule is strong enough to bolster Stanford's profile for the playoffs, if they can survive back-to-back road trips to Oregon and Notre Dame. An early November visit to Seattle looms.

Washington should remain the favorite for Pac-12 representation in the CFB playoff, but don't sleep on Stanford's high-powered offense keeping them right in the thick of things in the Pac-12 North.

Top 5 Draft-Eligible Prospects

1. Wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside

I think Arcega-Whiteside profiles as an NFL WR1, and he has a huge opportunity with K.J. Costello to show it. Costello loves to give him chances down the field, and it showed in J-Jaw's last few games with the young quarterback. Arcega-Whiteside is well rounded, with impact plays at all three levels of the field, but his downfield ability is really special. He bullies corners.

2. Running back Bryce Love

In an NFL that increasingly values explosive plays, Bryce Love will prove a dangerous weapon. His knack for third-level running, coupled with his unbelievable straight line speed, makes him a true threat to house it on every play -- it's not just lip service. Does he have the frame to withstand NFL play? How about the hands to become a receiving threat? These are the big questions.

3. Tight end Kaden Smith

A promising but inexperienced unknown, Kaden Smith rides a storied line of successful Stanford tight ends to his preseason hype. He proved an excellent red zone and big play threat in limited action last year, especially impressing in his body control to make acrobatic catches down the field.

4. Cornerback Alijah Holder

Holder might have something, folks. He's not a stellar athlete, and his tightness may prove an issue at the NFL level eventually -- but I like what he offers in press, in terms of measured aggressiveness and location of the strike. He's also a carefully aggressive zone defender, which helps him make some plays. I expect a product season in more CB1 responsibilities.

5. Linebacker Bobby Okereke

Okereke can explode downfield, man -- for that trait alone, I'm gonna be watching him closely moving forward. I'm uncertain that he has the requisite physicality to play anything but run-and-chase WILL at the NFL level, and if he's stuck in that role, I wonder if he has the change-of-direction ability to cover down the field. He's one of those WR-lookin' linebackers the Pac-12 loves.

Others to Watch: QB K.J. Costello, iOL Brandon Fanaika, OT A.T. Hall, iOL Nate Herbig, iOL Jesse Burkett, LB Joey Alfieri

Written By:

Benjamin Solak

NFL Draft Analyst

NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Deputy Editor of Bleeding Green Nation. Undergrad at UChicago.