The end is near and a mid-November clash between the Oregon Ducks and Stanford Cardinal may determine the outcome of the Pac-12 conference. The casual fan may not understand the complexity of the rivalry between these two programs, but most recognize they are the powerhouse duo in the west.
Not much else can be said about the Cardinal that has not already been said about any great champion. In 2015, Stanford was near flawless, especially at the end of the season. The Pac-12 Champions went 8-1 in conference with their only loss coming at the hands of the Ducks, 38-36, in a thriller from Stanford Stadium.
Stanford recorded a final record of 12-2 and concluded their season on two grandiose notes. Not only did Stanford cruise past Southern Cal in the Pac-12 Title Game by an embarrassingly wide margin, but they did even more damage in their 29-point Rose Bowl win over the Iowa Hawkeyes.
The “protege” of Andrew Luck is long gone as Kevin Hogan looks for greener pastures in the National Football League with the Kansas City Chiefs. Yet, the catalyst of the Cardinal is clearly Christian McCaffrey. Some have touted him as one of the best college running back’s in history already. Meanwhile, others are waiting to see what he has in store for an encore to his historic 2015 campaign.
The Heisman frontrunner rushed for 2,019 yards last season, including six touchdowns on the ground. He added a preposterous 645 receiving yards on 45 receptions, alongside five more touchdowns.
Christian McCafferey, duh. The swan song season for the prodigal son of Stanford is upon the Cardinal faithful. The lone question remains, can he carry the load yet again, this time with a new quarterback under center? This writer believes the clock will strike midnight on his storied college career this season, alongside another Oregon upset...but we’ll save that prediction for the end.
NEW COWBOY IN TOWN:
For the past seven years, head coach David Shaw and company have enjoyed a steadiness at the quarterback position unseen by the likes of many top-tier college football programs. Luck and Hogan did the heavy lifting for the recent success of the program, but now it is on Shaw to prove that he can win with an inexperienced signal caller.
Senior Ryan Burns and junior Keller Chryst have been battling for the top-spot all spring, but neither one has taken hold of the critical position. The two have combined to throw 10 total touchdowns during their careers, respectively. Yet, one will have to not only secure the spot, but prove he is worthy of it thereafter.
No matter who Shaw decides to start, the scrutiny will be sure to follow. Yes, the team can survive most of its tough contests on the broad shoulders of McCaffrey. However, the big question is can the new QB make enough plays to alleviate pressure from opposing defenses against the Heisman candidate?
WHEN STANFORD IS ON DEFENSE:
Only Utah allowed less points from their defensive unit than Stanford last season. In 14 games against the Cardinal from California, opposing offenses scored just 316 total points for the year. This season will be no easier for Pac-12 teams trying to outscore Stanford.
Solomon Thomas is the leader and returning star of the Stanford defense. Thomas will look to solidify a depleted defensive line, alongside a unit that is looking to fill holes with rampant inexperience. For years, the Cardinal have been able to retool their defense even after stars leave the program. David Shaw has proved his innate ability to get the best out of his players time and time again.
Shaw will not have to motivate his sterling safety Zach Hoffpauir, who recently rejected an opportunity to play Major League Baseball. Clearly, Shaw’s secondary needs are the least of his worries in 2016. Leadership from his defense will not be hard to find, but is it seemingly easy to assume Stanford will boast one of the best defensive team’s in the nation yet again this season?
WHO TO WATCH:
Christian McCaffrey is too simple an answer for this section. Every team in the country is already focused on stopping the son of former NFL receiver, Ed McCaffrey. The one to watch for Stanford this season is their offensive line as a whole.
Complete widespread changes are in process, as the Cardinal will feature three new starters on the line this season. The lack of playing experience could eventually lead to mass problems for Stanford, especially during the first season without both Luck and Hogan under center.
Johnny Caspers and Casey Tucker clearly may have a future in the NFL, but they are the only two known entities on the line entering the 2016 campaign. The big question is can the other three spots be filled with players ready to play now? Ironically, the Ducks are in a similar boat with just Cameron Hunt and Tyrell Crosby set to return as veterans of the Oregon o-line.
It is not easy to predict the same upset two years in a row, but that is exactly what I am going to do. With the setting this season switched to Eugene at the noise house known as Autzen Stadium, Oregon is primed to make it back-to-back upset wins over their neighbors from California.
The Ducks will surely be in for another thriller, much like last season, yet it would be wise for Oregon to pull a Stanford and control the clock. The less that McCaffrey is on the field, the better.
One would assume that the Cardinal will give everything they have to hand the Ducks a dose of their own medicine, but Oregon will prevail on the back of Royce Freeman who will rush for over 200 yards against a questionably vulnerable Stanford defensive line.
The Ducks will rally from a 14-point halftime deficit to yet again upset the Cardinal, 17-14, in a low scoring affair this time around. Oregon will shut out Stanford in the second half of the November 12 showdown.