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Tuteja: An early game-by-game prediction of next season: Part I

I get that some people may feel it’s way too early to start projecting wins and losses for next football season — especially given that this school year hasn’t even ended. However, being from the South, I’ve grown up knowing that college football has a 365-day season, and as such, it’s almost always on my mind. Without further ado, here’s how I see the first six games of next season going down. The last six regular-season games will follow in another column, as will my bowl projections for the team. In case it’s worth anything, I predicted a 7-5 regular season for this past season a year ago, which unfortunately came true.

Week 1: Saturday, September 5 at Northwestern: W 24-7

It’s easy to look at Northwestern and immediately write a W for Stanford in the column. Last season, Northwestern finished 5-7 overall and 3-5 in a terrible Big 10 conference. Despite a forgettable season, the Wildcats did have two impressive wins over a then-No. 17 Wisconsin and a then-No. 15 Notre Dame — the latter of which Stanford lost to in South Bend. Clearly, these wins don’t replace losing to Cal at home (like Northwestern did Week 1 of last season), but the point is that the team can play some ball. The problem with the Wildcats this upcoming season is on the offensive end — they have yet to name a starting quarterback. In my opinion, Northwestern’s best offensive player is running back Justin Jackson, who rushed for over 1,000 yards last season as a true freshman. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they lack experience on the offensive line, and even if they had a strong line, you simply aren’t beating Stanford on the ground. I think Stanford rolls 24-7 on the road in Evanston.

Week 2: Saturday, September 12 vs. UCF: W 31-10

The Knights are coming off a second straight American Athletic Conference title and finished last season 9-4 overall, with a loss in the St. Petersburg Bowl to North Carolina State. Unfortunately for the Knights, this isn’t 2013, and they no longer have Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson. While returning quarterback Justin Holman found his stride toward the end of last season and had a good spring game last month, this season’s UCF team is simply lacking at the wide receiver position, with last season’s standout WR Breshad Perriman going in the first round of last month’s NFL draft. In my opinion, the easiest way to beat Stanford is through the air on offense, and UCF isn’t capable of doing that at Stanford Stadium on the road. I think Stanford cruises at home 31-10.

Week 3: Saturday, September 19 at USC: L 24-10 

This season’s USC team will be good — very good. In fact, I think USC has a great chance of winning the Pac-12 this season, and ESPN’s Mark Schlabach has the Trojans at No. 5 in his latest preseason rankings. Cody Kessler has continued to improve since arriving at USC, and despite the losses of WR Nelson Agholor and Javorius “Buck” Allen to the NFL, USC still has a number of stars on offense like Juju Smith and Adoree’ Jackson, the latter of which may slowly be becoming the Pac-12’s next Myles Jack in playing both offense and defense. On the defensive side of the football, USC lost the No. 6 overall pick in last month’s NFL draft in Leonard Williams, which figures to give the Cardinal a slight advantage in the running game and in pass protection. However, with left tackle Andrus Peat also gone to the NFL and the offensive line coming off a shaky performance last season, I’m not sure Stanford’s offense can fully capitalize and run the ball on USC. At the end of the day, I see USC winning 24-10 at the Coliseum.

Week 4: Friday, September 25 at Oregon State: W: 30-10

In my opinion, Week 4’s matchup against Oregon State is what some people call a “trap game.” I think Stanford will enter the game at 2-1, coming off a road loss to USC the previous Saturday. The tricky part for the Cardinal will be to recover from a physical game against the Trojans on a short week of rest, as the game against the Beavers is another road game and on Friday rather than Saturday. Fortunately for the Cardinal, Oregon State has many holes to fill from its already subpar team a season ago. Sean Mannion, one of the most prolific passers in the history of the conference, is off to the NFL, as are four other defensive players from last season’s team. Mannion’s replacement is Seth Collins, a true freshman who early-enrolled in Oregon State this past semester. While Collins had a strong spring game for the Beavers, it will be difficult for him to produce against Stanford if only for lack of playmakers at the RB and WR positions. Also, it’s tough to have any confidence in Oregon State’s defense after seeing it all of last season. A Stanford offense that struggled to score all year put up 38 on the Beavers at homecoming last season at Stanford Stadium, and Oregon State’s defense has only gotten worse. Stanford will dominate Oregon State to a tune of 30-10.

Week 5: Saturday, October 3 vs. Arizona: L 35-32

While Stanford doesn’t get to play Arizona every season, Stanford fans are undoubtedly familiar with the improvement the Wildcats have had during head coach Rich Rodriguez’s tenure. Last season, the Wildcats were Oregon’s sole regular-season loss and played in the Pac-12 championship game and the Fiesta Bowl.

The Wildcats’ high-powered offense is led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon, who threw for 3,793 yards along with 28 touchdowns and only 9 interceptions last season. Along with Solomon, running back Nick Wilson and wide receiver Cayleb Jones figure to highlight the Wildcats offense. While the defense had trouble stopping anyone last season (and I mean anyone — Cal scored 45 on Arizona last year), the Wildcats return a lot of players from a successful team and will surely have another great season. If the Wildcats start the season winning, I think there’s a very real possibility Anu Solomon could contend for Pac-12 Player of the Year. At the end of the day, I see Stanford vs. Arizona as a matchup similar to so many from this past season: Stanford has the edge on defense while Arizona has the edge on offense. Usually, I would say matchups like these are coin flips and I’d maybe even give the edge to the home team, but after seeing Stanford’s offense consistently come up short a season ago — I think Arizona edges Stanford out in a close one on the road. I’m going Arizona 35-32.

Week 6 Thursday, Oct 15 vs. UCLA: W 28-7

I do not think that this season’s UCLA team will be like the 10-win Bruins teams we’ve seen the last few seasons. For one, UCLA no longer has Brett Hundley, Erick Kendricks or Owa Odighizuwa. In fact, UCLA has yet to name a starting quarterback, and the process of naming one is only more complicated by the emergence of freshman Josh Rosen in UCLA’s spring game. While I think Jerry Neuheisel will end up with the starting job at quarterback, UCLA will search for production at running back and wide receiver from some inexperienced players, which could cause some problems. The game is at Stanford this season on a Thursday night, and I think the atmosphere could be similar to the Thursday night game two seasons ago against Oregon at Stanford Stadium. The Cardinal will roll over the Bruins for a second straight year. Stanford will trounce the Bruins 28-7.

So there you have it: I have Stanford at 4-2 through the first six games, which is identical to last season’s record through six games. Stay tuned for my picks for the rest of Stanford’s next season.

When he first came up with the idea for this column, Shawn Tuteja and his otherworldly SEC bias threatened to make Stanford a 5-7 team next season. His editor was pleasantly surprised to see that Shawn, in fact, decided to play this one rather reasonably. Ask Shawn why the Pac-12 can’t stand up to the unstoppable tide of the SEC at sstuteja ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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