The Stanford Cardinal are on quite a roll - they won the Pac-12 last year, and have taken three of the last four conference titles. When you think of where this program was not too long ago when Jim Harbaugh took over, that is truly a remarkable accomplishment. Now, though, they are no longer the plucky upstart, but rather the hunted favorites. Add to that a division that isn't getting any easier - Oregon might not be quite as scary as they were at their peak, but Washington is seriously on the rise - and the pressure in Palo Alto is significant.
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Can this team, which faces a lot of changes this year, live up to the challenge and again prevail? Or will time catch up to them and force them back down the pecking order?
There is good news and bad news for Coach David Shaw and company. Thankfully, the good news is very good - in Christian McCaffrey they have perhaps the most explosive and dangerous player in all of college football. The running back can do it all, and he makes this offense explosive just by his presence. That's a very good thing, because the bad news is that the team has a whole lot of challenges to overcome on that offense. They also face some challenges on defense, as we will see in the next section. The ability of this team to reload and regroup without taking a step backward - and when facing a pretty tough schedule - will dictate how the season goes.
Key Additions and Departures
Starting at the top, the team faces a big challenge in replacing the very competent Kevin Hogan at quarterback. In Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns they have two guys who were very successful in high school, but they have combined to throw just 10 passes at Stanford. Chryst could have a slight edge in the race, but regardless of who comes out on top the team will need him to be effective early on. To make matters more difficult, the winner of that battle will have to work behind a line that features three new starters and is without the incredibly good Josh Garnett, who is up the road now with the 49ers. That isn't ideal for the confidence of the raw starting QB, or potentially for the all-World running back that will be very heavily relied upon to carry this offense. Luckily, the program has a tradition of offensive line excellence, and the receiving corps is in good shape, so it isn't necessarily all doom and gloom here.
Defensively there are some hurdles to overcome as well. All three position groups have lost players, but the biggest hit is that Blake Martinez, the linebacker who led the team and the conference in tackles, now plays for the Packers. They have some players at linebacker, but guys will certainly have to step up to fill that void. The depth at defensive line is much more of a concern as they just don't have as many reliable players as they would like to have at this moment. Harrison Phillips, for example, will have to carry much more of the burden than is ideal at nose tackle given that he is coming off of a season lost to an ACL injury. The secondary had the least turnover and gets an interesting boost as former starting safety Zach Hoffpauir returns to the team after a Michael Jordan-esque mid-career break to play minor league baseball.
Stanford Cardinal Schedule Analysis
Let's not mince words - this schedule is really tough. After what should be a fairly straightforward opener hosting Kansas State followed by a bye week, the Cardinal launch into a five-game stretch as tough as any team will face this season. They start by hosting USC, a team that may actually be ready to live up to the hype and avoid crushing the dreams of their supporters. Then it's a two-game trip that takes them to the homes of two likely ranked opponents - first UCLA and then Washington. Next up is a home game against the quirky and always dangerous Washington State. Finally, they head on the road to South Bend to play Notre Dame, which has the potential to be a Top 10 team. That is a gauntlet. The second half of the season is easier, but not at all easy - they have to make road trips to Arizona, Oregon and Cal. You would have to work hard to find a schedule any more brutal than that.
2016-17 Stanford Betting Odds and Trends
Bovada has Stanford at +2000, which ties them with Notre Dame as the ninth choice to win the national title. That makes them the highest-ranked member of the Pac-12. Not surprisingly, then, they are the +300 favorite to win the conference, ahead of UCLA at +350 and Washington at +400, and the +160 favorite to win the Pac-12 North ahead of Washington at +175. BetOnline has their season win total set at eight games, with the "over" solidly favored at -145.
Last year they were champions of the Pac-12 and among the champions for bettors as well - they were a stellar 10-4 ATS on the season. They were a less useful but still profitable 8-6 on the over when betting the total.
2016-17 Stanford Predictions and College Football Picks
I am not optimistic. I love McCaffrey - how could you have eyes and not? - but I don't know that he has the support he needs around him to salvage this offense. Those five games after the opener are just a brutal stretch to break in a new quarterback and a new line. Washington is going to be very hungry, and they have more experience in key spots - and an explosive running back of their own. This team will certainly not embarrass themselves, but I just see too many tough spots on the schedule to have faith in their chances of repeating in the division or conference. I see no value at all in betting on them.
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