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Spelfogel: Is Stanford the best of the West?

Saturday night, Stanford provided as much entertainment as the rabbit that broke loose on the field midway through the first quarter (cue the Bryce Love to rabbit comparisons). To date, the rampant rabbit video has racked up tens of thousands of views on social media, while Love is finally favored to win the Heisman by Las Vegas oddsmakers.

Yet even after Stanford’s dominant 49-7 victory over arch rival Oregon, pundits are still skeptical of both Love’s Heisman chances and Stanford football as a whole. The former is heresy at this point. For every yard that Saquon Barkley of Penn State averages, Bryce Love runs for 60 percent more. Love also has nearly twice as many rushing touchdowns and a ridiculous 496 yards after contact. But this is a moot point; Bryce Love’s stats will do the talking the remainder of the season, regardless of what any Penn State running back does.

More interesting is the ladder conversation — that about the Pac-12 title race at this point in the season. Stanford now sits at 4-1 and in sole possession of first place of the Pac-12 North. Thanks to losses by both Washington schools, Stanford’s path back to the conference title game in a rematch against USC seems plausible. While Stanford does have five games remaining on its schedule, only two are important in the context of the conference championship. Those are the head-to-head games at Washington State and then home against Washington the following weekend (both teams that beat Stanford last season).

With all three teams at just one conference loss a piece, these head-to-head matchups will be pivotal in the title race. There is really only one likely scenario where Stanford can afford to lose either of those games and still be a Pac-12 North champion. This would occur if Stanford loses to a Washington school, and that team goes on to lose in the Apple Cup the final week of the season. This would create a three-way tie atop the Pac-12 North, and a fair amount of chaos could ensue. Regardless of other outcomes, if Stanford defeats both Washington schools, it will most certainly be playing at Levi’s again for the Pac-12 title.

Given that Stanford is now back in the driver’s seat for its division, how does it stack up against other teams around the country? Well first, USC is the other obvious threat in the way of Stanford’s Pac-12 title dreams. The Trojans defeated Stanford handily earlier in the season and have only lost once, on the road at Washington State. A chance at a rematch against USC at the end of the season would be a tantalizing game, especially since both schools have been on a roll the past few weeks.

It is harder to say how Stanford stacks up against other teams in different conferences thus far. While Stanford is ranked just 22nd in the country in the AP Top 25 poll, the Pac-12 and the Big-10 are two of the most powerful conferences this year. The SEC West is a shell of what it once was, save Alabama, and the ACC is cannibalizing itself. The Big-12 still shows a propensity not to play defense in games, but both TCU and Oklahoma look strong. Once Notre Dame plays USC and then Stanford, it will be easier to stack up the Pac-12 against the competition. This will be particularly important in two weeks, when the CFP committee releases its first rankings. Stanford will have played at Oregon State and at ranked Washington State, so two road victories would go a long way in improving the Cardinal’s stature.  

Stanford, despite two early losses, has much left to play for this season. With a terrific slate of tough conference games, as well as a visit from the Fighting Irish on the last week of the season, Stanford has an incredible opportunity to improve itself nationally. This, combined with a Heisman caliber season from Bryce Love, and the Cardinal are back on their way to classic form. In the next week, Stanford needs to figure out its QB situation as well as improve on rushing defense so that it can be prepared for a difficult stretch against the Washington schools. But if the win over Oregon taught us nothing more, Stanford is for real this season.

 

Contact Michael Spelfogel at mspel ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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