July 30, 2018
By Brian Edwards
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Stanford looks poised for an elite season in 2018. David Shaw’s team went 9-5 straight up and 7-7 against the spread last year, but it lost four of its five games by 11 combined points. Furthermore, first-team All-American running back Bryce Love was injured and missed key portions of three-point losses at Washington State and vs. USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Stanford returns nine starters on offense and six on defense. The offense averaged 32.4 points per game in 2017, and this unit is absolutely stacked with talent and will be one of the nation’s best this year.
For starters, Love is the country’s premier RB. Despite missing a comeback win at Oregon St. and playing on a sprained ankle in his team’s last six games, he still rushed for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns while averaging an eye-popping 8.1 yards per carry. Junior Cameron Scarlett is a solid back-up who ran for 389 yards and eight TDs with a 4.3 YPC average in 2017.
Phil Steele’s preseason magazine ranks Stanford’s offensive line No. 1 in the Pac-12 and the fourth-best in the nation. The Cardinal has five offensive players who are All-Americans in Steele’s mag. Love and junior offensive guard Nate Herbig are first-teamers, while redshirt sophomore tight end Kaden Smith is a second-team selection. Also, OT Walker Little is a third-team AA and WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside is a fourth-teamer.
Smith tore his ACL late in his senior year of high school and had to redshirt as a true freshman. The Marcus High School (Flower Mound, TX., in the Dallas area) product was a four-star signee who chose Stanford over Alabama. For whatever reasons, certainly ones that appeared moronic once the calendar got deep into November, Smith wasn’t getting many snaps for most of September and October.
Nevertheless, after making 10 receptions for 188 yards and four TDs in the last two regular-season contests and the Pac-12 Championship Game, Smith garnered first-team All-Pac-12 honors. He single-handedly kept the Cardinal in the game against USC in Santa Cruz, making a pair of spectacular TD grabs on third-and-long plays in the second half. (see highlights below in embedded tweets)
Shaw called Smith “the next Zach Ertz” at Pac-12 Media Days last week. Ertz, the Stanford alum, won a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles last year and earned a trip to the Pro-Bowl thanks to 74 catches for 824 yards and eight TDs.
QB Keller Chryst took over as Stanford’s starting QB midway through the 2016 campaign and helped his team to six wins in a row after a 4-3 start with Ryan Burns under center. However, Chryst tore his ACL in a 25-23 win over North Carolina at the 2016 Sun Bowl.
Chryst started seven of the first eight games for the Cardinal last season, but redshirt sophomore QB K.J. Costello was given the starting nod in the last six outings. Costello completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 1,573 yards with a 14/4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. With Costello solidifying his spot as the starter moving forward, Chryst elected to go to Tennessee as a grad transfer this year.
This makes Costello’s health a top priority for Shaw with no experienced depth behind him. Junior QB Jack Richardson has only appeared briefly in two career games. Stanford did sign a pair of highly-touted QBs in the 2018 class, including Tanner McKee and Jack West, but neither player left high school early to participate in spring practice.
Arcega-Whiteside, a junior, has 14 TD catches in his first two collegiate seasons. He hauled in 48 receptions for 781 yards and nine TDs last year. Senior WR Trenton Irwin has 28 career starts to his credit. The former four-star signee had 43 catches for 461 yards and two TDs as a junior in ’17.
Stanford’s defense allowed only 22.7 PPG last season. In what speaks to how outstanding the stop units have been for Shaw in his seven years as HC since replacing Jim Harbaugh, that was the most points a defense of his had ever given up.
Stanford loses its top two tacklers and four of its top six. In his Pac-12 Unit Rankings, Steele has the Cardinal’s defensive line ranked fifth. The linebackers are tabbed as the conference’s second-best and the secondary is ranked fifth.
Senior LB Bobby Okereke has started 27 consecutive games and is a first-team All-Pac-12 pick in all preseason publications. He recorded 94 tackles, four sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, four QB hurries, one pass broken up, one interception for a 52-yard pick-six and one forced fumble in ’17.
Junior LB Sean Barton had 14 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble before going down with a season-ending injury in Week 3 last year. As a freshman in ’16, he produced 35 tackles, 3.5 TFL’s, two sacks and one forced fumble. Barton is poised for a bounce-back year, as is senior LB Joey Alfieri, who had a career-low 37 tackles last season.
Alfieri had two sacks, two TFL’s and a pair of QB hurries in ’17. As a junior in ’16, he had 51 tackles, two interceptions, 5.5 TFL’s, five sacks, one forced fumble and one QB hurry. Alfieri had 40 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3.5 TFL’s and five QB hurries as a freshman in ’15.
Senior CB Alijah Holder anchors the secondary and is a first-team All-Pac-12 selection in Steele’s preseason mag. In his first three seasons, Holder has recorded 73 tackles, 16 PBU, four forced fumbles, four TFL’s, two interceptions and one pick-six in 21 career starts.
Special teams are going to be a strength. Steele has punter Jake Bailey ranked No. 1 in the nation in his projections for players who are eligible for the upcoming NFL Draft. Kicker Jet Toner is ranked as the country’s 19th-best. Steele’s National Unit Rankings have Stanford at No. 2 behind only Utah.
Stanford’s season win total is 8.5 at all betting shops. The Westgate has the ‘under’ at a -130 price, while the South Point Hotel has the ‘under’ at -125.
Sportsbook.ag has Shaw’s squad listed with 10/1 odds to make the College Football Playoff. The offshore website has Stanford with 5/1 odds to win the Pac-12 Championship Game and at 55/1 to win the CFP.
Sportsbook has Stanford as a four-point home favorite vs. USC for this Week 2 showdown in its Games of the Year section. Also, the Cardinal is pick ‘em at Oregon, a three-point underdog at Notre Dame, an 11-point road ‘chalk’ at Arizona State, a 9.5-point underdog at Washington and a 10-point favorite at California.
After losing a 20-17 decision at San Diego State last year, Stanford will be in revenge mode for its season opener against the Aztecs. Most books have the Cardinal listed as a 14.5-point home favorite for this Friday night battle at 9:00 p.m. Eastern on Fox Sports 1. The “Friday Night Lights” spot will give Shaw’s team an extra day of rest and preparation for the Trojans, who lost by a 27-10 count in their last trip to Stanford Stadium in ’16.
Stanford is probably going to be a double-digit favorite in seven of its 12 games. USC and Utah won’t be easy home wins by any means, but I’m confident the Cardinal will prevail in both contests. With that in mind, I see a minimum of nine wins if its most valuable pieces (particularly Love and Costello) can stay healthy.
The two swing games are back-to-back road trips at Oregon and at Notre Dame on Sept. 22 and Sept. 29, respectively. I think Stanford earns at least a split in this two-week stretch, which would make for high stakes when it goes to Washington on Nov. 3.
If Stanford is 7-1 when it faces the Huskies, it will be in the driver’s seat to win the Pac-12 North with a victory at UW. Assuming the winner has one loss or fewer at the time, it will also be right in the mix to earn a CFP berth.
Prediction: I like Stanford to go ‘over’ 8.5 wins for three units. I’ll also recommend a one-half unit wager on the Cardinal to win the Pac-12. The best price I’ve seen is +660 at 5Dimes (paid $660 on $100 bets).
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
-- Love is the 6/1 favorite to win the Heisman Trophy at Sportsbook.ag.
-- Steele’s National Unit Rankings have Stanford at No. 1 at the RB position, No. 33 at QB, No. 13 at WR, No. 49 on the defensive line, No. 4 at LB and No. 28 in the secondary.
-- Stanford has won outright in nine of its past 14 games against ranked opponents.
-- Stanford has been an underdog of 9.5 points or more just three times on Shaw’s watch. The Cardinal has won outright in all three of those instances.
-- Shaw owns a 13-4 spread record in 17 games as an underdog during his tenure in Palo Alto.
-- Barring a rash of injuries in August or in the opener against Rocky Long’s team, Stanford isn’t going to be a home underdog this year. We’ll nonetheless note that Shaw has won outright in all four games of his tenure as a home ‘dog, including a 30-22 win over Washington last year and a 38-20 triumph vs. Notre Dame.
-- Steele ranks Stanford’s schedule as the Pac-12’s fifth-toughest and the nation’s 29th-toughest.
-- According to Pro Football Focus College, Smith's 2.65 yards per route run in '17 ranked third-highest among returning FBS tight ends.
Follow Brian Edwards' sports gambling opinions on Twitter at @vegasbedwards.
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