Stanford could be the Pac-12's best team
Much of the focus out west thus far has been on Utah and Cal, and rightfully so. Utah may own the most impressive resume in the country with wins over Michigan, Oregon and Cal, and last week’s loss to the Utes is the only blemish to date for the Bears, who are led by the best QB in the country, Jared Goff. While many are even pegging Utah as a top playoff candidate (they come in at number seven in our most recent top 25 rankings), it is now time to add a third team into the Pac-12 championship discussion.
Stanford was all but dismissed after an ugly 16-6 loss opening weekend against Northwestern, but no Pac-12 team has been more explosive since conference play began. The Cardinal have lit up the scoreboard for 194 points in their last four games, and not surprisingly are ranked in the top 5 of our overall offense rankings. While QB Kevin Hogan has taken on more of a caretaker role this season (he hasn’t attempted more than 24 passes in a conference game this year), his improved play since the Northwestern loss (an excellent +12.9 grade) has given Stanford quality balance on offense.
The run game is led by senior OG Joshua Garnett (+18.4 run-blocking grade, one of the highest in the nation) and emerging Heisman contender RB Christian McCaffrey, who has racked up an impressive 720 yards on the ground in conference play after needing only three quarters against UCLA to post a school record 243 yards (+6.0 rushing grade for the game, which is a Leonard Fournette level of good). Since the start of Pac-12 play McCaffrey has broken 17 tackles and has also proven to be a major threat in the return game.
On the other side of the ball, we rank Stanford as the third-best defense in the conference, paced again by solid play up front in the run game (+42.5 run defense). Getting back to the comparison against Utah, the Cardinal secondary has even surprisingly outplayed the Utes’ unit +9.6 to -11.0 (through Week 6).
Stanford also holds a favorable schedule down the stretch, as it not only already owns wins against conference bluebloods USC and UCLA, but all of the toughest remaining conference games are at home (Washington, Oregon and Cal).
What Utah has accomplished to date should not be understated, and its top-10 ranking is certainly deserved. However, if it manages to run the table it will likely need to go through Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game in order to secure a coveted spot in the four-team playoff for the national title. That won’t be easy.