There are two clear-cut favorites in the Pac-12 entering the 2017 season, two teams that went to major bowl games last year and return rosters loaded with experience led by talented quarterbacks. It's hardly unusual for this conference to have two teams seemingly predestined for success. It's just that the two teams that are the overwhelming frontrunners have abruptly changed.
For several years, the obvious choices were Stanford and Oregon, who filled the vacancy left by USC's downfall and combined to win all seven conference championships from 2009-15. Now, however, there's been a perceived changing of the guard, and it feels foolish to pick anybody but USC or Washington to emerge victorious from the Pac-12 in 2017. The Trojans and Huskies don't play each other in the regular season, and after going to the Rose Bowl and the playoff, respectively, they seem predestined to play each other in the Pac-12 title game.
It's logical and more likely than any other result to be correct. But while it's easy to see why Oregon isn't viewed as a top contender anymore after collapsing to 4-8 and changing coaches, there is one problem in the USC/Washington takeover plan: Stanford is still Stanford.
For decades, that wouldn't mean much. Prior to 2010, Stanford hadn't had fewer than three losses in a season since going 7-2-1 in 1969. John Elway never even played in a bowl game. There is a long football history attached to the Cardinal, with a long list of individual stars, but Jim Harbaugh built Stanford into a budding power and David Shaw has maintained that status after decades of mixed results featuring plenty of solid season but few sustained runs of success.
Before Harbaugh arrived, Stanford had four winning records in its previous 14 seasons, including a 1-11 record in 2006 the year before he took over. While Harbaugh needed time to build, he quickly earned a signature win -- this year marks the 10th anniversary of the monumental upset of USC -- then recruited players like Andrew Luck and established a physical, throwback identity built around powerful offensive lines.
Since the start of this decade -- including Harbaugh's finale in 2010 -- Stanford is 76-18, good for an .809 winning percentage that trails only Alabama, Ohio State and Florida State, who have combined to win five national titles in that span. The Cardinal have four AP top-10 finishes and six top-12s with double-digit wins in the past seven years. In other words, Stanford has become something like this decade's version of 2000s Virginia Tech, consistently winning at a high level and contending for conference championships as the most stable and reliable program in its conference, something that would have seemed impossible a decade ago.
The Cardinal are coming off a somewhat strange season, and it's easy to see why expectations have been tempered. They were blown out on a Friday night by Washington last year -- with injury trouble in the secondary and to star Christian McCaffrey -- and followed that up with a decisive loss to Washington State. A couple weeks later, they lost to Colorado 10-5. They beat USC convincingly, but that was in September before Sam Darnold took over and the Trojans hit their stride.
Nevertheless, despite last year's problems -- injuries, mediocre quarterback play, less-than-dominant O-line -- Stanford ended the season on a six-game winning streak, edged Mitch Trubisky and North Carolina in the Sun Bowl and won 10 games yet again, placing 12th in the final AP poll , which is something it did only once between 1972 and 2009 but now is to be expected.
That such a season could be viewed as a bit of disappointment says everything about just how far Stanford has come, and expectations haven't changed: Stanford is capable of making a run at the Pac-12 crown.
Two major questions hover over the Cardinal's ability to compete with Washington and USC: Who's playing quarterback? And how will Christian McCaffrey's multi-dimensional production be replaced?
We already got a glimpse of the latter when McCaffrey sat out the Sun Bowl and promising tailback Bryce Love started. Against a weak UNC run defense, Love had 22 carries for 115 yards and a 49-yard touchdown catch. We haven't seen a ton of him yet, but in two seasons primarily as McCaffrey's backup, Love has averaged 7.2 yards per rush and caught 23 passes for 333 yards, looking like a potential All-Pac-12 player with explosive playmaking ability. He's not going to live up to the impossible standard set by McCaffrey, but he's primed for a breakout running behind a more experienced offensive line that should take a significant step forward after an underwhelming 2016.
The key is giving him help. The Cardinal finished 97th in yards per pass attempt, with Ryan Burns ceding the job to Keller Chryst -- a top QB recruit in 2014 -- before Chryst injured his knee in the Sun Bowl, an injury that required surgery and kept him out of spring practice. After a middling start, Chryst was sharp down the stretch, but he played against the weakest defenses on the Stanford schedule, so there's plenty to prove as he bounces back from the injury.
Chryst will try to re-establish himself as the starter over a group that includes Burns, redshirt freshman K.J. Costello (a top-50 overall recruit last year) and incoming freshman Davis Mills, the No. 1 QB recruit in the class of 2017. In a conference featuring Jake Browning, Sam Darnold, Luke Falk, Josh Rosen and Justin Herbert, the Cardinal have a whole lot to prove in their passing game, especially against a brutal schedule that features all of those players. There's enormous potential here, given the quality of Shaw's quarterback recruiting, but it's tough to tell if it will pay off in 2017 or down the line.
The good news is that Stanford is as equipped to handle opposing passers as anyone in the league. Star defensive lineman Solomon Thomas is gone, but Stanford returns eight of its top 10 tacklers. Harrison Phillips is poised for a breakout season on the line, the linebacking corps is loaded with experience and the defensive backfield is one of the nation's best. Last season featured some lapses, but Stanford has been in the top four in the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed in five straight seasons and could have its best defense in a few years.
While Stanford visits USC, it gets UCLA, Oregon, Washington and Notre Dame at home. It should be healthier this season, with improved play on the offensive line and on defense, and it finished last season strong. Recent history says that Stanford will likely win at least 10 games, and if it develops enough of a passing game by November, it's certainly capable of getting revenge on Washington in the pivotal Pac-12 North showdown.
Stanford will rightfully enter this season as the conference's No. 3 team behind the Trojans and Huskies, both considered playoff contenders, but it would be a huge mistake to consider the Cardinal some sort of third wheel. Oregon's drop-off has turned it into an unpredictable sleeper, but Stanford has earned something greater than sleeper status until proven otherwise. It's still a top contender.