Palo Alto, CA (KPIX)- The Pac-12 and, by association, Stanford, isn't getting much in the way of preseason hype with college football's Week 1 just four days away.
The Cardinal, ranked 25th in the Associated Press' preseason Top 25 poll, are one of five programs ranked heading into the year, but none are in the Top 10. Now, preseason rankings are not worth much, as games haven't been played. But it's safe to say that not many people are expecting a team from the Pac-12 to make a run at the College Football Playoff come December.
CBS Sports college football analyst Aaron Murray tends to agree with that, seeing the conference as a competitive one, but not one that necessarily has a CFP contender.
"Overall, I do think the Pac-12 is very competitive. There are a lot of good teams from top to bottom," said Murray. "They play that ninth conference game which really does hurt you a little bit. But, at the end of the day it's tough to see a Pac-12 team in the playoff."
That said, the Cardinal are likely more worried about trying to win the conference first. With returning quarterback KJ Costello, they have a veteran under center who flashed as one of the better, though less talked-about, quarterbacks in the nation. With Bryce Love hampered by injuries for much of the season, the offense relied a bit more on the passing game than in years past, and Costello delivered, with over 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. Heading into his senior season, Murray thinks Costello has earned the right to continue being the focal point of the offense.
"I think he has earned the trust from his coaching staff. I know Stanford is thought of as playing 12 or 13 personnel with two or three tight ends and pound, pound, pound on the ground. But, also, a good coaching staff -- and David Shaw is a very good coach -- understands that you have to play to your strengths. Heading into this year, your strength is a very good quarterback," said Murray. "But they had Andrew Luck, and they were still in 21 personnel. Stanford isn't going to show up and start running RPOs with three and four receivers, but at the end of the day, if your quarterback can throw the football, and you can win through the air, you are going to mix it up a little bit more than we're used to seeing."
That will likely remain the case, as Stanford has become a factory for churning out NFL-caliber tight ends, and junior Colby Parkinson is back hoping to build on last year's seven-touchdown effort. The top two wide receivers, JJ Arcega-Whitside and Trenton Irwin, are gone, but a pair of potential star-caliber guys could be ready to step up in junior Osiris St. Brown and sophomore Michael Wilson.
The defense, usually a strength under David Shaw, has a little bit more uncertainty to deal with, as seven starters are gone from last year's unit. Some new faces will be asked to play bigger roles. Stud outside linebacker Jordan Fox (61 tackles 9.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks) returns as the potential leader of the group, but it will be an interesting puzzle for Director of Defense, Lance Anderson, to piece together this season.
Due to that uncertainty, Stanford was picked to finish third in the North division behind both Washington and presumptive winner Oregon. With Utah picked as the favorite in the South, it feels a little odd for Murray, who grew up with other program's names usually leading the way.
"As a kid growing up on the East Coast, when I thought of the Pac-12, it was USC, Oregon and maybe Stanford when they were rolling with Andrew Luck," said Murray. "It amazes me that this year it is Utah and possibly Oregon with Herbert and the offensive line they have. But it is pretty much those two teams. It is a little bit foreign to me, I think it is a little bit foreign to most people especially with Utah."
The good news for the Cardinal's bid to win the North division is that they get both the Ducks and Huskies at home. However, the opening four weeks of the season could be tough, kicking off with a home game against Northwestern, an away game with the enigmatic USC, a road trip to Orlando to face UCF, and then a return home for the date with Herbert and Oregon. Still, Stanford has the capability to keep up with all of those teams. They'll know very quickly whether or not they are in the driver's seat in the Pac-12 North.
Here is Stanford's complete schedule:
8/31 vs. Northwestern, 1:00 p.m. PT
9/7 @ USC, 7:30 p.m. PT
9/14 @ #17 UCF, 12:30 p.m. PT
9/21 vs. #11 Oregon, TBD
9/28 @ Oregon State, TBD
10/5 vs. #13 Washington, TBD
10/17 (Thursday) vs. UCLA, 6:00 p.m. PT
10/26 vs. Arizona, TBD
11/9 @ Colorado, TBD
11/16 @ Washington State, TBD
11/23 vs. Cal, TBD
11/30 vs. #9 Notre Dame, TBD
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