Sept. 24, The Rose Bowl
2015 Record: 12-2 (8-1)
2015 Recap: 2015 was just another ho-hum elite season for Stanford, which has bizarrely become the most consistent program in the Pac-12, stringing together double-digit win seasons in five of the last six years. In 2015, Stanford went 12-2, winning the conference after a beatdown of USC in the Pac-12 title game, and then steam-rolling No. 6 Iowa in the Rose Bowl. By the end of the season, Stanford had an argument that it was playing as well as any team in the country. Of course, there was the annual inexplicable loss, this one coming in the opener against Northwestern, but aside from that, Stanford rode an explosive, efficient offense to an excellent season, and its third conference championship in five years under David Shaw, who has pretty solidly claimed the title of best coach in the Pac-12 -- even if he is good for one game-long brain fart every year.
Returning Starters: 11 (5 offense, six defense)
2016 Projection: Stanford loses a lot of starters from last year, which should, in theory, make the Cardinal a little bit weaker than last year. We've played that game before, though. Stanford has a way of reloading, since Shaw and company run it like an old school college program, with virtually all freshmen redshirting and growing within the program. So, while other teams that lose a bunch of starters have to turn to true freshmen or redshirt freshmen more often than not, Stanford typically has the luxury of turning to a redshirt sophomore who's already physically ready for this level of play, and has already gotten seasoning in a backup role.
Case in point: Keller Chryst. The big Stanford quarterback will take over for Kevin Hogan, the longtime starter, but it's not like they're putting in a true freshman. Chryst has been in the program for two years already, and even got some playing time last year. While he's probably not going to be anywhere near as good as Hogan was last year, when Hogan suddenly became one of the top three quarterbacks in the league, you can probably expect Chryst to be a cut above the typical new quarterback simply because he's had some seasoning in the program and on the field.
Of course, Stanford also returns Christian McCaffrey, the should-have-been Heisman winner from last year, and he'll be used in all the same ways he was last year -- as a receiver, running back, kick returner, and more. He'll be running behind a slightly new offensive line, but if we've learned anything over the years with Stanford, it's that the Cardinal has no trouble replacing offensive linemen year after year.
As a whole, the offense should be a slight step down from a year ago, simply because of the changing of the guard on the offensive line and at quarterback, but with McCaffrey, a mostly intact receiving corps, and that very effective, brutal scheme, we imagine the Stanford will still be a pretty darn good offensive team.
Defensively, they could have a few more issues. The defense wasn't particularly good last year, and the Cardinal lost two starting defensive linemen from a year ago. The back seven should be better, with three linebackers and three defensive backs returning, but the depth up front could be an issue again this year.
That said, it's probably going to be a slightly weaker league, and Stanford still projects as one of the top two teams in the North. The issue for the Cardinal is that they don't have the easy slate this year. Stanford has to go at UCLA, at Washington (which should be much improved in 2016), at Notre Dame, at Oregon, and at Cal. They avoid Arizona State and Utah, but the road split makes this probably a tougher overall schedule than last year. Still, it's going to be another good to very good Stanford team, and the Cardinal will probably once again be in the top tier in the league.
Outlook for UCLA: So, at this point in the season, UCLA has already gone on the road twice against good non-conference opponents, so it's a fair bet that the Bruins walk into the game against the most physical team in the Pac-12 already a little beaten up (and that's not even counting the number of times BYU players punch them in the groin). That's not ideal.
Stanford has obviously been the biggest thorn in Jim Mora's side at UCLA, with the Bruins 0-5 against Stanford over the last four years. In theory, Stanford should be a little vulnerable at this point in the season, what with breaking in a new quarterback and several new starters on both lines. What's more, while UCLA will have played three games, Stanford will have only played two, so perhaps Chryst isn't quite in a rhythm yet by this point in the year. Hopefully whoever hypnotized Hogan into believing he was Peyton Manning every time he played UCLA isn't available to hypnotize Chryst.
It's the conference opener for UCLA, with eight games remaining, but we can't help but figure that this will be a pivotal game for the Bruins. There's a decent chance that UCLA will take at least one loss between A&M and BYU, so notching this win could get the season completely back on schedule. A loss, though, would put UCLA at 2-2 with several tough games remaining. And at this point, for the overall psyche of the program, every game against Stanford is a must-win, at least until UCLA actually wins one.
Next up: Arizona...