Pac-12: Stanford Cardinal

Despite making a commitment to Alabama last week, ESPN 300 offensive tackle Isaiah Prince said Wednesday he's visiting Maryland and will give the Terps a solid look.

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Stanford added its second ESPN 300 defensive back Wednesday in Frank Buncom IV. Continue reading to see what Buncom means for the Cardinal's rising 2015 class:


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Stanford enjoyed a resurgence to end the 2014 season, but the Cardinal have their work cut out for them if they intend to carry that success over into 2015. The offense, of course, must show that it can consistently maintain the standard it reached during the final stretch. But it's the Stanford defense that's losing the most talent to graduation.

Position to improve: Defensive line. For the first time in several years, Stanford loses all its starters from the backbone of its defense -- Henry Anderson, David Parry and Blake Lueders are all gone. The Cardinal reloaded admirably following last season's departure of defensive star power, but they didn't have to replace all of their front-line strength. This is a new -- and perhaps more daunting -- challenge.

Why it was a problem: Parry, in particular, carried a massive part of the defensive load in 2014. The 305-pound lineman absorbed frequent double-teams, and that disrupted opposing offenses while opening things up for the rest of the Stanford defense. But Parry missed some time because of injury, and the otherwise dominant Cardinal defense immediately struggled (remember their troubles against Arizona State and Oregon). That's because Stanford's depth behind Parry was severely lacking -- a combination of bad luck (see Ikenna Nwafor's career-ending foot injury) and recruiting misses meant that true freshman Harrison Phillips, still about 40 pounds underweight for the position, was forced into premature action. With Parry and his fellow fifth-year senior starters now gone, Stanford's suspect defensive line depth is naturally shifting into the starting spotlight, so the need for improvement there is urgent.

How it can be fixed: This is a particularly critical offseason for revered sports performance director Shannon Turley and defensive line coach Randy Hart. If Stanford is going to have enough capable bodies to maintain success up front, Turley and Hart must succeed in further developing rising sophomores Phillips and Solomon Thomas, both of whom were touted recruits. They'll also have to maximize the productivity of seniors Aziz Shittu and Luke Kaumatule, two physical specimens who haven't yet blossomed to their full potential.

Early 2015 outlook: The Cardinal are in a precarious situation. They've developed many players remarkably well in the past several years, but they've also missed on some, and there's absolutely no margin for error in the defensive line room this offseason. This unit forms the bedrock of Stanford's 3-4 scheme, and it's losing a trio of fifth-year stalwarts who have provided toughness and blue-collar continuity within the program since the Jim Harbaugh days. The optimist will see this as a true opportunity for a new crop of trench talent to establish itself as the Cardinal's backbone at the line of scrimmage; the pessimist will predict that Stanford's well of beefy talent is running dry. This offseason will determine who's right, as the improvement of the Cardinal's defensive line talent represents a true hinge point.

Pac-12 morning links

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
9:00
AM ET
So, Peter, you've become a pirate.

Leading off:

Super Bowl media day has come and gone. With it there were a few notable appearances and quotes by some former Pac-12 players (there are 18 former conference players and five former conference coaches between the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots). Notes/team updates/recruiting nuggets:
Just for fun:

On Tuesday, Arizona State quarterback Mike Bercovici and safety Jordan Simone attended Super Bowl media day to add to some of azcentral.com's coverage of the event. We'll have a story later on today with Bercovici's thoughts on the day and his advice to other reporters (now that he has such a deep understanding of the profession), but as a preview to some of the in-depth and exclusive content you'll get from the Bercovici-Simone media team, check out this tweet:



We're sure it was enlightening. Someone get this man a Pulitzer.

Weekend recruiting wrap: Pac-12 

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
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It was a busy weekend in the conference, as 14 prospects made commitments between Friday and Monday night and several others backed out of Pac-12 recruiting classes. It looks as though this could be a sign of things to come, as the conference recruiting race is heating up with little more than a week until signing day.


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Pac-12 recruiting class breakdowns

January, 26, 2015
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Here's a look at how programs in the Pac-12 are faring on the recruiting trail heading into national signing day on Feb. 4.

Arizona

Commitments: 28

ESPN 300 commitments: 1

Who they have: The Wildcats hit it big with their top two commitments in ESPN 300 offensive tackle Keenan Walker and ESPN JC 50 defensive tackle Anthony Fotu. Arizona also will add four-star tackle Cody Creason, three-star tackle Harper Sherman and three-star guards Alex Kosinski and Nathan Eldrige to the offensive line. There are a number of skill players on both sides of the ball, including running backs Orlando Bradford and Darick Holmes Jr., cornerbacks Shun Brown, Anthony Mariscal, Samuel Morrison and Dane Cruikshank, wide receiver Cedric Peterson and athletes Antonio Parks and Brion Anduze.

Who they want: There aren't many spots left in this class for the Wildcats, but there are a few important names left on the board. The wide receiver spot could see another addition with Jaylinn Hawkins, though rival Arizona State will put up a fight there. Arizona also will look to continue its run of success in Louisiana, as teammates Arthur McGinnis and Darrell Clark (New Orleans/Warren Easton) are two of the top prospects left for the Wildcats, as well as teammates of Arizona commit Kendal Franklin.



To read the rest of our Pac-12 recruiting class breakdowns, click here Insider.

Pac-12 morning links

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
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And in the morning, I'm making' waffles.

Leading off:

The 2015 Senior Bowl has come and gone, and there were plenty of great showings from Pac-12 players. Here's a brief compilation of some of the content you can find regarding the event:
  • CBSSports' Senior Bowl stock report of 10 players who looked good -- one Beaver shows up on this list and it's not the one you're thinking of ...
  • FOX Sports made a list of guys who helped their NFL draft stock the most. On this listing you've got a Husky and a Ute (these are probably the ones you're thinking of).
  • Sports Illustrated had some similar praise to that of FOX Sports. SI's Chris Burke writes that "[Danny] Shelton's showing for the North team solidified his status as a likely first-round pick."
  • The Atlanta Journal Constitution put together a photo gallery of the weekend.
  • Former Wazzu receiver Vince Mayle does a video interview for the Senior Bowl.
  • Former UCLA defensive lineman Owamagbe Odighizuwa also did a video interview at the Senior Bowl.
  • Catching up with Sean Mannion following the Senior Bowl.
  • Henry Anderson wrote six "diary" entries from AL.com during Senior Bowl week. You can check all of them out right here.
  • Nate Orchard picked up some MOP honors at the Senior Bowl.
News/notes/team reports:
Just for fun:

There was some #Pac12Trolling happening Sunday as former Arizona State defensive lineman Will Sutton decided to comment on Taylor Kelly and Jaelen Strong's autograph session. Always nice to see a few (fun) shots taken between teammates when it comes to this kind of stuff.

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Also, if anyone has a chance, check out Sutton's photo at the top of his Twitter page. It's pretty fantastic. Especially if you're a fan of The Lion King ...
This past season, Stanford's offensive productivity tumbled to its lowest levels since the pre-Andrew Luck era, but there's a sense of optimism coming from the program that 2015 can be a big one for the Cardinal.

At face value, those two components seem to be incompatible, especially since there's very little room for an infusion of fresh talent, as the Cardinal return almost all pieces of the very same offense that struggled throughout most of 2014.

But this evaluation -- and the outlook for next season -- is more complex than that. A lack of talent isn't the real issue; this particular Stanford situation is more about the team's ability to properly maximize its productivity, something that eventually happened last season after the Cardinal had lost five games.

Quarterback Kevin Hogan salvaged his season with three strong closing performances against California, UCLA, and Maryland. The journey was likely more difficult than anyone on the outside realized: Hogan's father had been suffering from illness throughout the course of the season and passed away in early December.

Stanford's successful final act might not convince the naysayers -- only five teams nationally surrendered more points than Cal, while UCLA and Maryland also didn't feature true defensive juggernauts -- but it represented a massive turnaround from the team's struggles during the first 10 games of the season.

Stanford had struggled to adapt to their lack of a power running back, but the staff finally achieved rushing success with smaller -- yet more explosive -- weapons. In the closing run, true freshman Christian McCaffrey enjoyed at least five field-stretching plays per game (12 against UCLA), and Remound Wright shouldered the load near the goal line to address a red-zone efficiency problem, scoring nine of his 11 touchdowns in the final three games.

With the running game revived, Hogan was able to rediscover success off playaction. His stellar 16-for-19, 234-yard performance against the Bruins sparked a 180-degree reversal of narrative entering the offseason: Stanford's offense could survive without a 220-plus pound power back, after all.

Now, it must be noted that the 31-10 pummeling of UCLA was the only game in which Stanford's offense enjoyed real success against a top-25 team. Their scoring output that afternoon was 21 points above their season average in regulation against ranked opponents. Conventional wisdom warns us to be wary of a potential one-game fluke, but the offense's success was built on a stable foundation that can be replicated in the future.

Proof of that lies in the ground attack: The Cardinal amassed over 200 yards rushing in the last three games after not reaching that threshold a single time throughout the first 10. For a run-first offense, that helps generate balanced, methodical success.

Moving forward, it's about being consistently efficient.

The Cardinal still boast a powerful line capable of dominating at the point of attack to go along with versatile weapons that can create match-up headaches on the outside. It's about properly utilizing that talent, and a confident Hogan gives Stanford a chance to do that.

Here's an early, pre-spring practice, position-by-position look at likely starters and key pieces for the Cardinal offense next season:

Quarterback
Starter: Kevin Hogan
Reserves: Keller Chryst, Ryan Burns, Evan Crower

Outlook: David Shaw has all but indicated that Hogan will be Stanford's starter in his fifth year on campus. The coach has frequently praised Crower, last season's second-stringer, for his command of the playbook, but one would expect Chryst, a highly regarded redshirt freshman, to emerge as the primary backup. One interesting question here: Will Shaw insert Chryst into the lineup in an occasional package role? That's how Hogan got his feet wet in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDevon Cajuste
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsDevon Cajuste will be the focal point of Stanford's passing game after a fast finish to 2014.
Backfield
RB: Remound Wright/Barry Sanders
ATH: Christian McCaffrey, Kelsey Young
FB: Patrick Skov, Daniel Marx

Outlook: Wright might only weigh about 200 pounds, but he did serious damage in short-yardage situations at the end of 2014. There's solid mix-and-match potential here with McCaffrey's explosiveness, Sanders' elusiveness, and Young's pure speed, but Stanford can't get carried away with a by-committee approach. As the end of last season showed, McCaffrey needs to get touches for this offense to thrive -- a lot of them.

Receivers
X WR: Devon Cajuste
Z WR: Michael Rector/Francis Owusu
Y TE: Austin Hooper
F TE: Eric Cotton/Greg Taboada

Outlook: Stanford loses Ty Montgomery, one of the Pac-12's most dangerous weapons. But the Cardinal excelled without him in the final three games, a testament to the match-up nightmare Cajuste (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) presents in conjunction with Rector's speed. The tight end position emerged late, too, and should make its full return for Stanford next season: Don't forget that Dalton Schultz, the nation's top tight end prospect in the 2014 class, will likely break into the mix, too.

Offensive line
LT: Kyle Murphy
LG: Joshua Garnett
C: Graham Shuler
RG: Johnny Caspers
RT: Casey Tucker

Outlook: Andrus Peat is gone, and Stanford will plug another former five-star recruit (Tucker) into his spot. Murphy's versatility might encourage Mike Bloomgren to shift him to Peat's old spot on the left side (protecting Hogan's blindside), and Tucker would grab the right tackle spot in that case -- but that's just a guess heading into spring practice.

Pac-12 morning links

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
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You've gotta ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?

Call it, Friendo.

Two quotes today... because Happy Friday.

Leading off

In case you suffer from football withdrawals at any point this weekend, take solace in the fact that plenty of elite college talent will be suiting up for the Reese's Senior Bowl this Saturday. The Pac-12 is sending an entire gaggle of representatives to this game. Most will be representing the North team, but UCLA's Anthony Jefferson and Owamagbe Odighizuwa will play for the South.

There'll be a nasty collection of defensive line talent on the North team: Think Danny Shelton, Henry Anderson, Hau'oli Kikaha, and Nate Orchard -- all on the same unit. Seeing that group play together should create a fun dynamic for avid Pac-12 fans who have watched those players terrorize quarterbacks over the past few seasons.

On the other side of the ball, Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion may have a chance to throw to receivers from Stanford (Ty Montgomery) and Washington State (Vince Mayle).

Other Pac-12 representatives: Hayes Pullard and Josh Shaw (USC), Eric Rowe (Utah), Damarious Randle and Jamil Douglas (ASU)

This one will feature plenty of hustle, as it's the final live game opportunity for these seniors to raise their NFL Draft stock.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun
Did you know Ronnie Lott played basketball at USC? That guy needs to be on the football team. Sign him up!

It’s been a sensational three-year run for the Stanford defense, and 2014 brought yet another imposing push forward. The unit, arguably the program's best ever 2012 and very good again in 2013, actually improved this past season. In the end, the departures of Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner, Shayne Skov, Ed Reynolds, and Josh Mauro -- all of which generated significant doubt prior to the season -- didn't slow down defensive coordinator Lance Anderson's freight train as it powered full steam ahead.

Stanford led the Pac-12 by sizable margins in every single noteworthy defensive category. The unit surrendered a measly 4.2 yards per play, a full yard better than the second-best defense in the conference. The 16.4 points per game that the team yielded: over a full touchdown better than the league runner-up.

Simply put, the Cardinal posted certifiably eye-popping numbers on the defensive end in 2014, and a brief look at this production doesn't seem to reconcile with the team's five losses. The defense delivered a championship-caliber campaign, but for most of the season, Stanford's offense and special teams didn't hold up their ends of the bargain.

This reality surprised many. Given the aforementioned loss of star power entering 2014, a popular preseason notion centered around the idea that the Stanford offense would have to up its productivity to pick up the slack for the team's projected looming defensive decay. That theory, of course, ended up falling flat on its face: The defense statistically improved -- so there was no slack to pick up -- and that actually saved Stanford from a truly precipitous fall, because the offense took sizable steps backward.

Moving forward to 2015, the Cardinal defense must replace eight starters. That conjures the money question: Is history repeating itself? When it comes to Stanford's future outlook, that familiar "the offense is going to have carry the weight" theory is resurfacing. There's a prevailing thought that the Cardinal defense will finally slip under the weight of turnover.

But since Anderson's unit so deftly shook off the losses of Murphy, Skov & Co. -- some of the best players in program history -- it might be time to entertain the notion that Stanford has become a defensive factory, a program that's discovered the elusive combination of right-fit recruiting and schematic effectiveness that unlocks consistency on the field even through turnover.

That notion -- we'll call it the "system defense theory" -- will be put to the test in 2015. Here's an early position-by-position look at how the puzzle pieces may come together for Stanford's defense. Remember that this is a very early look at projected starters and that spring practice should help add some clarity to the currently murky situation.

Defensive line
DE: Luke Kaumatule/Solomon Thomas
NT: Aziz Shittu/Harrison Phillips/Alex Yazdi
DE: Nate Lohn/Jordan Watkins

Outlook: For those who contend that Stanford's defense will suffer a drop-off in 2015, this is the position group that provides the most ammunition. The defensive line has been the foundational pillar of the Cardinal's dominant 3-4 defense, and this is the first time in several years that the program has had to replace all three starters up front. Six-foot-6 end Henry Anderson was one of the best players in the Pac-12, and nose tackle David Parry's block-gobbling 305-pound man strength was the centerpiece of the Stanford defense. When Parry and backup Aziz Shittu were both hurt this past season, the Cardinal's weakness showed: 255-pound true freshman Harrison Phillips was forced into action at the nose, and that 50-pound downgrade sent shockwaves throughout the defense.

The ability of sports performance director Shannon Turley to develop Parry's replacement may be Stanford's most critical battle this offseason: The early favorite to start here is the versatile Shittu, but it may be a by-committee effort. The Cardinal need the 6-foot-7, 276-pound Kaumatule to seize his potential in 2015.

Linebackers
OLB Kevin Anderson
ILB Blake Martinez
ILB Kevin Palma/Noor Davis
OLB Peter Kalambayi

Outlook: A.J. Tarpley and James Vaughters are gone, but Stanford has recruited and developed the linebacker position extremely well. Vaughters' graduation means more time for Kalambayi, one of the most talented speed rushers in the Pac-12. Anderson has also developed into a force. Plenty of developing talents should have a shot to earn valuable playing time in the linebacker corps -- remember the names of Mike Tyler, Bobby Okereke and Joey Alfieri.

Secondary
CB Wayne Lyons
FS Zach Hoffpauir
SS Kodi Whitfield/Dallas Lloyd
CB Ronnie Harris/Terrence Alexander

Outlook: Given Alex Carter's early departure at the opposite corner position, Lyons' return for a fifth year was a big boost. His versatility allows him to slide over and provide a physical nickelback presence, an essential tool of the Stanford defense. Replacing strong safety Jordan Richards will be a major challenge. The Cardinal signed many talented defensive backs in their 2013 recruiting class. That batch will have had a year of development under their belts by 2015, so keep an eye out for names like Alexander, Brandon Simmons, Denzel Franklin, Alijah Holder, and Alameen Murphy. This is a critical "bridge" year for Duane Akina's unit, which has a very fair share of potential firepower.
Strength of schedule is an important part of the College Football Playoff selection process, and cross-league battles are a fun way to gauge the strength of each conference. Here's a look at the 2015 nonconference slate of the Pac-12 North. A look at the Pac-12 South's agenda is coming later today.

September 5
Eastern Washington at Oregon
Weber State at Oregon State
Washington at Boise State
Portland State at Washington State
Grambling State at California
Stanford at Northwestern

Weekend take: Don't forget the 2014 game in which Eastern Washington rolled up 52 points and 475 passing yards at Husky Stadium. The Eagles start their campaign at Autzen Stadium in 2015, so a reloading Oregon team must be sharp right out of bed -- they won't be kicking off their next season with the traditional cupcake gimme.

Chris Petersen's return to Boise supplies an early marquee nonconference battle. Washington's visit will be the Broncos' first game since their Fiesta Bowl victory over Arizona, so this is an early opportunity for the Pac-12 to exact some revenge for that defeat. It's tough to play on the blue turf, though, and the Huskies are confronted with enormous questions entering next season. Can they replace loads of star power on the defensive end, or can they find the offensive productivity to mask those big losses? The season opener will mark a trial by fire for Petersen's crew in his second year at the helm.

Stanford's trip to Northwestern pits two of the top academically performing programs in college football against each other. The Wildcats lead the nation with a 97 percent graduation rate, while the Cardinal aren't far behind at a stellar 93 percent. On the field, Stanford looks to have the definite edge, but this game is certainly a much bigger challenge than their 2014 opener against UC Davis.

September 12
Oregon at Michigan State
Oregon State at Michigan
Sacramento State at Washington
Washington State at Rutgers
San Diego State at California
Central Florida at Stanford

Weekend take: The action heats up in Week Two, as the Pac-12 North faces only one FCS opponent (Sacramento State). A trip to East Lansing promises to be an early sink-or-swim test for new Oregon quarterback Jeff Lockie. The Ducks must find their footing fast if they aspire to return to the College Football Playoff next season. Coincidentally, both schools from the Beaver State will play in Michigan on the same day. New Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh will make his home debut against new Oregon State coach Gary Andersen in Ann Arbor. That promises to be a potential tone-setting game for two programs looking to get up off the mat under new regimes.

Washington State will have its chance for revenge against Rutgers following a heartbreaking loss in Seattle this past year, while Stanford kicks off a rather exotic home-and-home with Central Florida. The Knights are in the midst of a very successful stretch, so that could be a hard-hitting match-up against a Stanford team harboring high hopes entering 2015.

September 19
Georgia State at Oregon
San Jose State at Oregon State
Utah State at Washington
Wyoming at Washington State
California at Texas

Weekend take: As league play approaches, the North's nonconference slate in the season's third week isn't quite as illustrious as the Saturday prior. But there's still some sizzle here: Cal's visit to Texas will certainly remind Bears' fans of their 2004 BCS nightmare, when the Longhorns jumped their team in the final regular season rankings. This shut the Bears out of their best Rose Bowl chance in decades, and one can bet that this game means a little something extra to the program because of that whole episode. This also happens to be a critical game for Sonny Dykes' team, which will be gunning for bowl eligibility under its third-year coach.

In other action, Washington shouldn't sleep on Utah State -- the Aggies have been on a successful run of their own over the past few seasons.

November 28
Notre Dame at Stanford

Weekend take: This one is obviously very far away, but if Stanford proves it can maintain systematic defensive success while carrying over its late-season offensive spark into 2015, it may mean a whole heck of a lot. The Cardinal and the Irish have delivered dramatic finishes in two of the past three seasons, and Stanford will again be looking for revenge here. It should be noted that David Shaw's club has a strong 2015 nonconference schedule -- this clash with Notre Dame caps off a slate that also includes Northwestern and Central Florida.

Pac-12 morning links

January, 22, 2015
Jan 22
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Leading off:

The NCAA is investigating 20 colleges, according to Brad Wolverton of the The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Wolverton reports that 18 of the cases are with Division I programs, so Pac-12 fans should certainly pay attention. Even if it's not affecting one of your programs it might be affecting a program that you're playing in 2015.
The cases are at various stages, from preliminary inquiry to awaiting a hearing with the Division I Committee on Infractions, and they involve a variety of missteps, including allegations that players received impermissible assistance from professors, academic advisers, or people outside of an athletic department.
News/notes/team reports:
Just for fun:

Pac-12.com did a fun #ExplainThe90s theme today on Twitter and the results are quite entertaining. Anytime there's a 90's throwback, the Pac-12 Blog is there, so we're all about this.

The debate has already begun swirling in regard to Pac-12 play in 2015. So writers Chantel Jennings and David Lombardi sat down to debate what team is the early frontrunner in both the North and South Divisions of the Pac-12.

They started with the North…

Lombardi: Stanford’s offense didn’t click until the very end of the 2014 season, and that cost them. But when it finally came together against UCLA, the Cardinal looked like a 10-plus win team. With most of the offensive pieces returning, expect the Stanford attack to carry its late success over into next season. Sure, there’ll probably be some drop-off on the defensive end -- eight starters depart -- but since the Cardinal actually improved defensively this season after losing a ton of talent, who says Lance Anderson’s system can’t reload again?

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesWith Kevin Hogan and a bunch of contributors returning, Stanford might have the offensive firepower to cruise to a Pac-12 North title.
Jennings: I'm totally with you David, I think the Cardinal are going to be very strong next season and will look and play better than they did in 2014. It's just so crazy, though, because I feel like the Pac-12 North in 2015 is going to be like the Pac-12 South in 2014. It's such an open race and cases can be made for many different teams. A lot of people think Oregon will be a strong challenger again, but I'm not sold on the Ducks yet. Jeff Lockie hasn't looked like a confident QB to me yet and even with so many weapons around him, if there isn't a confident QB running that offense it's not going to be very efficient. Plus, the defense loses a ton of starters and that defensive performance against Ohio State gives me very little to go on for what that group will look like next season. I think Gary Andersen could get a good thing going at Oregon State. I covered Luke Del Rio when he was a high schooler and he impressed me then, so I think he could do big things with the Beavers. Heck, if California makes as big of a jump from 2014 to 2015 as it did from 2013 to 2014, who's to say the Golden Bears couldn't be a dark horse? And with a new defensive coordinator and with what Luke Falk showed at the end of the 2014 season, could Washington State make a push? Honestly, is there any team in the North that doesn't have a shot?

Lombardi: I see that you’re taking the prudent approach, Chantel, but I’m going to go out on a limb and take the foolish one: I think that Stanford is in a good position to emerge as a clear winner. I know, I should have learned my lesson from the minefield that was the Pac-12 South this past season. Given the post-Marcus Mariota uncertainty at Oregon, there's a chance that the North will follow suit and lose any semblance of order this next season.

But at the end of the day, I still think that the Ducks and the Cardinal are a cut above the rest of the division. Andersen will need time at Oregon State, Cal still needs to prove that it can play competent defense, Washington is losing considerable star power on defense, and Washington State is in a similar boat as the Bears.

Until I see tangible on-field proof from those programs, Stanford and Oregon are the two frontrunners in my book. You mentioned most of the questions facing the Ducks, but I think the loss of Jake Fisher is particularly huge: They gave up an average of six sacks per game when he didn’t play in 2014. The Ducks must reload quickly, because I think the schedule really lines up in Stanford’s favor. Aside from missing Arizona State and Utah, the Cardinal get Oregon at home.

Jennings: That's all fair. But remember when we started this season and Brett Hundley and UCLA were the favorite in the South? After that it was USC... Arizona State... and then Arizona. This is the #Pac12AfterDark. No one even considered Utah as anything other than an afterthought. Yes, maybe Stanford is a cut above the rest, but this is the conference gave us multiple Hail Marys, this is the conference that gave us insanity after everyone on the East Coast thought it was safe to go to bed. Maybe Stanford is going to be the most talented team in the Pac-12 North next season, but I'm not sure if that's enough to really make me buy them as the eventual representative in the Pac-12 championship game. I think we're going to have a crazy, crazy season, which makes me want to go with a dark horse candidate.

Lombardi: I just have to see to believe, Chantel, and I haven’t seen any convincing signs of life from the rest of the Pac-12 North in a long, long time. In fact, Oregon and Stanford have combined to go 39-1 against the other four Pac-12 North teams this decade (I’m including 2010 in that tally). The only blemish on that record is Stanford’s 2012 loss to Washington. That’s staggering, and for me it’s convincing: The Cardinal and Ducks own this division until proven otherwise.

Jennings: And I think there’s a solid shot that in 2015 “otherwise” could occur.

Pac-12 morning links

January, 21, 2015
Jan 21
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People should know when they're conquered.

Would you, Quintus? Would I?

Leading off

Ah, late January is here. The college campaign is over, and the final, disheartening end to the American extravaganza that is football season looms. It's a time that evokes nostalgia, but it's certainly not a time to break from gridiron thoughts. The annual chance to flip the page and start reading the next chapter in advance has arrived. Jon Wilner comes through with one of the early looks, offering his prediction of the 2015 Pac-12 all-conference team in The Mercury News. Meanwhile, our friends at Pacific Takes have surveyed the field and taken the team-wide approach, releasing their way-too-early Pac-12 power rankings for 2015.

As your read, coaches are feverishly blazing the recruiting trail, paying some final visits before National Signing Day on February 4. Spring ball comes after that, and that'll be followed summer conditioning, a little time off, and then training camp. We may just now be winding down, but don't blink -- college football season will be back in a flash. Here's the latest news from the 365-day cycle that keeps churning on:

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

This has already made rounds on social media, but former Arizona star Rob Gronkowski deserves acknowledgment on the Pac-12 blog for this, too. Seems like a perfectly reasonable explanation for the current scandal surrounding the Patriots.

Season review: Stanford

January, 20, 2015
Jan 20
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Our 2014 season Pac-12 team-by-team grades continue. If you want to check out last season's reviews, click here.

Stanford Cardinal

Offense: Looking at Stanford through the prism of performance in relation to potential, it's clear that the offense underperformed throughout most of 2014. Even despite a hot three-game finish, the Cardinal finished second to last in Pac-12 scoring offense (27.2 points per game), marking their worst showing in that regard since 2008 -- the pre-Andrew Luck era.

For the first time since Jim Harbaugh's arrival in 2007, Stanford didn't feature a bona fide 220-plus pound power back, and the offense sputtered as a result. It took longer than expected for the Cardinal's highly-touted talent along the offensive line to jell, and quarterback Kevin Hogan struggled under increased burden to throw the ball. By the time Stanford successfully adapted to its new-look personnel -- true freshman Christian McCaffrey helped the team achieve necessary running success in a nimbler, more explosive way than years prior -- the team was already saddled with five losses. Stanford's hot finish bodes well for next year (and spares them a failing grade), but as far as 2014 is concerned, the unit's late improvement simply affirmed the disappointing notion that the offense languished for most of the season and likely cost the team a trio of wins. Grade: D

Defense: In a season following the graduations of Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Ed Reynolds, Ben Gardner, and Josh Mauro, many doubted the Stanford defense's ability to remain atop the Pac-12. But despite that loss of star power, the unit actually posted significant improvement in all relevant statistical categories this season. Stanford allowed 16.4 points per game, 4.2 yards per play, 3.1 yards per rush, and 5.4 yards per pass attempt -- all figures that were far and away the best in the Pac-12.

So score one for first-year defensive coordinator Lance Anderson, who has another huge challenge on his plate now: Stanford loses eight starters entering 2015. The system, though, flexed its muscles this past season, and that gives hope for continued sturdiness. This was a true team-wide effort: Though anchors David Parry, Henry Anderson, James Vaughters, A.J. Tarpley, Jordan Richards, and Alex Carter all registered fine years, the story should be focused on how the Cardinal defense meshed as a whole. Grade: A

Special teams: This wasn't a banner year for Stanford's special teams unit, which dropped to No. 79 in Football Outsiders' FEI ratings just one season after finishing ranked second nationally behind only Alabama. Kicker Jordan Williamson missed seven field goals during his shaky campaign, though his kickoffs remained powerful. But kickoff efficiency is the only metric in which Stanford remained ranked in the FEI's top 25. Despite a Ty Montgomery punt return touchdown in the season opener, they tumbled everywhere else -- including a drop from first to 70th in kickoff return efficiency. Grade: C-

Overall: The big picture is relatively simple here: An underperforming offense and disappointing special teams unit held back Stanford's elite defense. All facets finished strong to bring the Cardinal to 8-5, but that's more of beacon of hope for 2015 than a grade inflater for 2014. Grade: C

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