Sept. 23, at Stanford
2016 Record: 10-3 (6-3)
2016 Recap: Here's a funny joke you can travel back in time and tell yourself circa-2005: In 2016, Stanford had a down football season...and won ten games. That's about the story on the Farm these days, where David Shaw has kept the Jim Harbaugh train rolling pretty much seamlessly since taking over six years ago -- if anything, he's taken the program to even greater heights, and greater consistency over that time.
Last year was indeed a down year, with Stanford's offense not clicking anywhere near the level it did in 2015. The Cardinal had to break in several new offensive linemen, while also dealing with some instability at the quarterback position and an injury to Christian McCaffrey. Defensively, the Cardinal was very solid, but probably not the elite unit that it had been in recent years. And, even with all of that, Stanford lost just three games, including a beyond bizarre 10-5 loss to Colorado that redefined unwatchable, even for lifelong Buffs fans like myself.
Yes, Stanford got molly-whopped by both Washington schools, but those losses came before the Cardinal started to gel over the last half of the season. In those final six games, the offensive line really seemed to come together and the Cardinal also achieved some stability at the quarterback position, with Keller Chryst seizing the reins. It sets up Stanford for what should be a resurgent year -- and a resurgent year after a 10-win down season should be something to see.
Returning Starters: 16 (eight on offense, eight on defense)
2017 Projection: This could be, and very well should be a Pac-12 championship contender. Despite losing Solomon Thomas on defense and McCaffrey on offense, the Cardinal are otherwise loaded, and they added some significant talent in recruiting that, even though Stanford rarely plays freshmen, could absolutely see the field in year one. Even if guys like Sarell and Little see little more than jumbo package time, the Cardinal once again has continuity and talent on the offensive line. The Cardinal have a full two-deep of talented players, and when Stanford has that sort of depth of talent on the offensive line, it usually means great things for the offense.
Now, there is a chance that Chryst isn't available to start the year. He suffered an ACL tear at the end of last year and was unavailable for spring. ACL recoveries have gotten quicker in recent years, so the expectation is that he'll be available in some capacity in training camp. Depending on how he looks there, either he or Ryan Burns will start the opener. Burns is no great player, but he was semi-serviceable at times. In an ideal world, Stanford would only need him to start the opener against Rice -- after that, the Cardinal gets two weeks off before an early-season rumble with USC, where all hands will likely need to be on deck. Stanford also replaces McCaffrey, which is a blow, but Bryce Love looked good in his stint last year, and with a very good offensive line, losing a running back, even one as multi-talented as McCaffrey, isn't such a tremendous blow.
Defensively, the issue for Stanford will once again be a lack of depth up front, though not a lack of talent. Harrison Phillips, if healthy, is one of the best defensive linemen in the conference, and he'll be joined most likely by Dylan Jackson and Eric Cotton. Behind them, though, there's not much experience. That's been the case the last few years for Stanford, though, and they've been able to get by with a pretty short rotation of linemen. Injuries up front would be a major issue. The linebacker corps should be solid, and the secondary could be among the best in the Pac-12.
The schedule looks somewhat tough, but manageable if Stanford is as talented as we think they might be. The Cardinal should have an easy win against Rice no matter who starts at QB, but the other two non-conference games are at San Diego State (no cakewalk these days) and against Notre Dame (which wasn't as bad as its 4-8 record indicated last year, and should be better this year). The conference slate sets up OK, but there is the opener on the road against USC which could be trouble, especially if Chryst isn't available. The other three road games are at Utah, at Washington State, and at Oregon State, and all three of those are games where the Cardinal will likely be favored. With UCLA, ASU, Washington, California, and Oregon all at home, we wouldn't be shocked to see a very solid 7-2 conference season from Stanford and 10-2 overall, which would likely set Stanford up for a win in the Pac-12 North.
Outlook for UCLA: If you're looking for a year for the Bruins to finally knock off Stanford...well, probably keep looking! This is the second road trip in a row for the Bruins, who will have just wrapped up its non-conference slate with a game at Memphis (which we think might be the actual toughest game in the non-conference season for UCLA). The Cardinal should also be better and more physical offensively than they were in 2016, and probably similar defensively. We're not sure what improvements UCLA is going to make at this point, but at this point it's uncertain whether the Bruins will be substantially improved.
Stanford is virtually always good at stopping the run, so this will be UCLA's first big challenge offensively. As we said, the first three games could serve as a nice testing ground for the running game, to see what works and what doesn't, and hopefully that will give the Bruins some effective tools to use in this one. The Cardinal being a little limited up front could help ease the pressure on Josh Rosen, which might allow the Bruins to do some things through the air.
Getting this win would obviously take a huge monkey off the back of Jim Mora and this program, and if Stanford ends up as good as we think, might even be that long-awaited signature win the Bruins have been looking for. It's just hard to see it happening, given what we know about both teams heading into the summer.
Next up: Colorado