Stanford Is The Struggling Pac-12's Only Hope For Playoffs
There is a deep, dark, ancient secret that those on the East Coast might not want you to know about. Every Saturday night, when Nick Saban is swaddled in his footie pajamas and Urban Meyer is eight slices deep into a Papa John's Meat Lover's Pizza, college football is just getting underway in a land where Pumpkin Spice Lattes flow like water. I'm speaking of course of the West Coast, home of the Pac-12. Yes, the Pac-12 is used to getting no respect from East Coast media. But perhaps this season those critics have a point.
The truth is, the Pac-12 has only itself to blame this season for being one of the forgotten Power Five conferences in 2015. Compared to the SEC, Big Ten, and Big 12, which have a combined 13 teams in the Top 25 in either the AP or Coaches Poll and seven of the top ten teams, only three Pac-12 teams find themselves in the Top 25 and it doesn't help that the conference continues to cannibalize each other, especially at the top. Last week No. 3 Utah's perfect season was obliterated by USC, 42-24 in Los Angeles which few outside of Las Vegas saw coming. The Trojans of course are the conferences' most talented team once again but just as the case has been every year in the post-Pete Carroll era, inconsistency has been their downfall. USC was ranked as high as No. 6 in the country before dropping three games amid the Steve Sarkisian scandal. Things look just as bad up North in Eugene, with Oregon already falling three times including a astonishing 42-point loss to Utah in Autzen Stadium. The rest of the conference has looked mostly mediocre to bad with no team even close to challenging for a playoff berth. That is, besides the smart guys of course.
Flashback to week one of the college football season and you might think any chance of Stanford making the Playoff was as unlikely as Donald Trump hosting the Latin Grammys. The Cardinal, a team known for their bullying, physical style of play since Jim Harbaugh rebuilt the program in 2007, got a taste of their own medicine when Northwestern dominated them from start to finish, coming away with a 16-6 victory. Stanford's power run game was held in check against the Wildcats as the Cardinal only managed 85 rushing yards while giving up 225 rushing yards of their own. One big factor why Stanford struggled so much may have to due with the fact that the Cardinal had to travel half-way across the country and play a game that started at 9 a.m. Pacific time.
Whatever the reason may be for Stanford's sluggish start to the season, things have certainly turned around since. After their opening loss, the Cardinal have won their last six games by an average of 21 points. Stanford is undefeated in the Pac-12 at 5-0 in the conference, including dominate victories over then No. 6 USC and then No. 18 UCLA. The Cardinal win over the Bruins may best be known for when receiver Francis Owusu made the catch of the year in college football.
In their six game winning streak, Stanford is at 42.6 points per game and have rediscovered their run game, averaging 244 yards on the ground. After falling out of the top 25 following the loss to Northwestern, the Cardinal is now ranked No. 8 in both polls.
|Northwestern||Average in Last Six Games|
Senior quarterback Kevin Hogan has been his usual steady self, tossing 14 touchdowns and limiting his turnovers. Hogan has done his job but who the Cardinal have really leaned on is multidimensional superstar Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey, the son of former Denver Broncos Receiver Ed McCaffrey, is technically a running back but this season he has proven to be much more. The sophomore from Denver has 1,818 total yards which leads the entire nation and has put him in the Heisman conversation. Not only has McCaffrey run for 953 yards but he has also made 21 catches for 284 yards and returned a combined 27 punts and kickoffs that give him another 581 yards. Wearing the number five jersey, McCaffrey looks a little like USC's most recent Heisman winner Reggie Bush who finished the 2005 season with 2,611 total yards and got the ball in every way possible as well.
Stanford's spectacular offense has been needed as the Cardinal defense has yet to look like the dominant unit it has been for the past few seasons. While the defense hasn't been poor, ranking 32nd in the country in both defensive yards allowed and points allowed, they have yet to play some of the most explosive teams on their schedule. One of the most glaring deficiencies in this year's defense is the lack of an elite pass rush, which is what Stanford's defense has been built on in the past. This year, the Cardinal only have ten total sacks which is tied for 103rd in the nation and second to last in the Pac-12. Since David Shaw took over as head coach in 2011, Stanford has been near the top in the country in sacks which means it is less about the scheme and more about the players. Six players have a sack for Stanford but four of those players have only one.
This lack of pressure could spell doom for Stanford down the stretch starting at Washington State on Saturday. The Cougars are second in the country in passing, averaging 415 yards through the air and are finally looking like Mike Leach era Texas Tech. If the Cardinal do survive Saturday up in the Palouse, they still have a tough gauntlet of Oregon, Cal, and Notre Dame, and a potential Pac-12 Championship Game to close the season.
Fans of West Coast football know what kind of program Stanford has built. They know that despite a brutal opening loss that the Cardinal can rebound and make themselves relevant again. They know that Stanford is tough enough to close out a season even against good competition. They know that David Shaw and his team are mentally strong enough to play well even when the stakes are raised late. If all that does come to fruition, perhaps the East Coast will finally know as well.