Coach David Shaw has every right to feel positive about his 2018 team. The four-time Pac 12 coach of the year gets another season to coach Heisman hopeful running back Bryce Love, sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello has valuable experience, the pass game should be lethal and the defense returns six starters. There’s no need to motivate this team because they are hungry for a Pac 12 title after falling to USC in the conference championship game. The offense will need to find ways to get Love more touches out in space because he’s deadly with the ball in his hands. The receivers and tight ends are a strong unit and should provide Stanford with a great balanced attack on offense and take some of the heat off of Love. Place kicker Jet Toner is one of the best kickers in the Pac 12 and is on the Lou Groza Award watch list.
Team strengths: Offensive firepower. The offense returns 96 percent of its total scoring from last season and averaged 32.4 points per game. Love ran for 19 touchdowns. Wideouts Trenton Irwin and JJ Arcega-Whiteside combined for 91 catches for 1,242 yards and 11 scores. The offensive line is full of veterans and returns four starters, led by preseason All-American left guard Nate Herbig. The two top tight ends combined for 33 receptions, 511 yards and nine touchdowns and form the best duo in the country. For opposing defenders to try and stop this offense is almost like asking them to pick their own poison.
Team weaknesses: The defensive line and secondary. Not many people outside of the Pac 12 knew how much defensive tackle Harrison Phillips meant to this defense. He was the heart and soul of it and led the team in tackles last season. His departure will be felt along the front four and the defense finished in the bottom half of the conference against the run. The secondary lost Justin Reid and Quentin Meeks to the NFL. The Cardinal defense ranked 80th nationally against the pass, surrendering 236.1 yards per game through the air. That’s not a good sign when playing in a pass-happy Pac 12.
Players to watch: Quarterback Costello, running back Love, wide receiver Arcega-Whiteside, tight end Kaden Smith, linebacker Bobby Okereke. Costello went 3-3 over the last six games of 2017. He threw for nearly 1,600 yards, with 14 touchdowns, with just four interceptions and three rushing scores. Love won the Doak Walker Award last season, had over 2,100 yards rushing, was the conference offensive player of the year and finished second in the Heisman voting. Arcega-Whiteside was a match-up nightmare for defenders in man-to-man coverage. He led the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns last season. Smith is a preseason All-American after hauling in 23 catches for 414 yards and five touchdowns in 2017. Okereke was a beast at his linebacker position and tallied 96 tackles, including 7.5 from behind the line of scrimmage, four sacks and an interception. He is the teams’ leading returning tackler, a captain for 2018 and a great reason why the defense forced 28 turnovers last season.
The schedule: Challenging. The good news is that the Cardinals hosts all three teams that beat them on the road during the regular season in 2017. The bad news is the brutal road slate with trips to Oregon, Notre Dame, Washington and UCLA.
My take: This offense has a chance to be something special and it wouldn’t surprise me if Stanford put up 40 points per game. The team needs to keep Love healthy by giving more carries to backup running back Cameron Scarlett. The defense and tough schedule might be what holds this team back from its fourth Pac 12 title under Shaw.