Yahoo Sports' Top 25: No. 10 Stanford

Yahoo Sports

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.

Previously: No. 25 South Carolina, No. 24 Utah, No. 23 West Virginia, No. 22 Central Florida, No. 21 Texas, No. 20 USC, No. 19 Florida State, No. 18 Oregon, No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 16 TCU, No. 15 Michigan, No. 14 Boise State, No. 13 Notre Dame, No. 12 Auburn, No. 11 Michigan State

No. 10 Stanford

2017 record: 10-4 (7-2 Pac-12)
Returning starters: 9 offense, 6 defense

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Bryce Love is back, but what about the quarterback?

On the heels of 2,118 yards, 19 touchdowns and a Heisman runner-up finish, Bryce Love decided to return to Stanford for his senior season.

And what’s remarkable about Love’s 2017 efforts is that he was dealing with an ankle injury for much of the year. He even missed a game because of it.

Oh, and he can get better, too. Going through Love’s game logs is extraordinary. He had at least one 30-yard run in every game he played and at least a 50-yard run in 11 of his 13 games. But he can improve with his down-to-down efficiency. Getting stronger, one of his offseason goals, should help with that.

Playing behind one of the nation’s best offensive lines will help, too.

In fact, most of the Stanford offense is very good, especially at receiver with JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Trenton Irwin and tight end Kaden Smith.

But what about the quarterback? The position has not been a strength since Kevin Hogan’s senior year (2015). Entering 2018, redshirt sophomore K.J. Costello, who split time with Keller Chryst (now at Tennessee) last fall, is the unquestioned starter. Head coach David Shaw thinks Costello (1,573 yards, 14 TDs, 4 INT, 58.8%) is due for a “breakout year.”

For Stanford to reach its potential, Costello will need to follow through on his coach’s words.

The key to the defense is an improved line

When USC gashed Stanford for 307 yards on the ground in Week 2 last year, it quickly showcased the Cardinal’s biggest flaw. Stanford wasn’t terrible defensively, but it wasn’t as stout as the defenses we’ve become accustomed to in recent years.

Especially on the defensive line.

That’s especially surprising when you consider the defense’s best player, Harrison Phillips, played on the line. Phillips racked up a whopping 100 tackles from his end position, but there wasn’t much playmaking ability (just 32 sacks) or depth beyond him.

Even though Phillips is now in the NFL, there’s reason to believe the line could be better than most anticipate in 2018. Dylan Jackson is a returning starter at end and Jovan Swann, who made some noise late in the year, looks primed to slide into Phillips’ spot. Michael Williams and Dalyn Wade-Perry look like the main options at nose tackle in the Cardinal’s 3-4 scheme. And if guys like Thomas Schaffer (6-7, 290) and four-star freshman Thomas Booker step up, there can be a more healthy rotation than there was a year ago.

Behind the line is some serious depth at linebacker, especially in the middle with Bobby Okereke and Sean Barton back from injury. On top of that, the secondary returns three starters led by senior corner Alijah Holder.

Stanford safety Frank Buncom (5) and linebacker Bobby Okereke (20) walk on the field during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
Stanford safety Frank Buncom (5) and linebacker Bobby Okereke (20) walk on the field during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

The road schedule is brutal

Stanford was a pretty up-and-down team last fall. The Cardinal opened the year by destroying Rice in a game played in Australia. Back-to-back road losses to USC and San Diego State followed before a five-game winning streak. A narrow loss in Pullman to Washington State dropped the Cardinal to 6-3, but wins over No. 9 Washington and Cal clinched the Pac-12 North.

After a win over No. 8 Notre Dame, Stanford lost 31-28 to USC (again) in the Pac-12 title game before blowing a big lead to TCU in the Alamo Bowl. That loss, a 39-37 decision, was the team’s fourth by three or fewer points for the season.

Expect some more close games in 2018. Rematches with SDSU and USC, this time at home, kick off the season. The Cardinal also get Utah at home, but the most difficult games — Notre Dame, Oregon and Washington — are all on the road. In fact, four of the final six games are on the road, including a potentially tricky season finale at UCLA.

The Pac-12 North is top heavy, so there are chances to pile up wins, but the season’s potential very much relies on what Stanford does against Oregon and Washington. Playing Notre Dame in South Bend could provide a resume boost as well if Stanford ends up in Playoff contention.

Impact player: K.J. Costello, QB

Costello was just a redshirt freshman last year, and he showed flashes of his potential on multiple occasions. Early in the year, he engineered wins over UCLA and Arizona State. And after seizing the starting role from Chryst, the 6-foot-5, 215-pounder led the charge in big wins over Washington and Notre Dame.

With that big game experience under his belt, Costello can be the x-factor on an offense with so much talent. A hip injury kept him out of spring ball, but he should be good to go in Week 1.

Game to watch: Nov. 3 at Washington

The Huskies are everybody’s favorite to win the Pac-12 North and, in most cases, the Pac-12 as a whole. Stanford could put a halt that hype if it can upset Washington in Seattle.

Best-case scenario

At least one loss somewhere is inevitable, but if the rest of the league beats up on itself like in years past, Stanford could be in position to put itself into the College Football Playoff conversation. If Stanford is 8-1 heading into the Washington game, a win there would be a big step toward a potentially special season.

Worst-case scenario

A third straight loss to USC gets the season off to a rough start, and back-to-back trips to Oregon and Notre Dame make it worse. And it’s really not hard to find a few more losses from there.

Prediction

Stanford starts 4-0 with wins over USC and Oregon, but loses at Notre Dame and Washington. 10-2.

To listen to the Yahoo Sports College Podcast, visit Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or Google Play. (Interview segment with Houston’s Ed Oliver begins at the 37:20 mark.)

On this week’s College Football Podcast, Dan Wetzel, Pat Forde and Pete Thamel discuss Urban Meyer’s situation and have an interview with Houston’s Ed Oliver.
On this week’s College Football Podcast, Dan Wetzel, Pat Forde and Pete Thamel discuss Urban Meyer’s situation and have an interview with Houston’s Ed Oliver.

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