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College Hotline - Stanford football: Grading the Week (and preview of the selection...

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    The first CFP rankings will be released Tuesday (4 p.m.), and Stanford figures to be in the top 6 or 8 or 10 or 12. It’s impossible to know with any degree of certainty, but the potential exists for the Cardinal to be a few spots higher in the committee rankings than it is in the AP poll (9th). The committee is supposed to cut through the pomp and the cupcake wins and take a close look at nuance (SOS, quality wins, how teams are playing).

    Whether Stanford is No. 4 or 12 or anywhere in between, it’s in the race. There are an endless number of unknowns at this point in the process (both known unknowns and unknown unknowns).

    But as I see it, there are also four certainties that involve the Cardinal, and here they are:

    1. These rankings are meaningless.

    They’re an academic exercise for the committee that will be released to the public every Tuesday for the rest of the season because ESPN wants the programming. Last year, three of the semifinalists were not in the top four of the initial rankings, and eventual champ Ohio State was No. 16.

    2. There will be a lot of losing down the stretch by teams directly above and below Stanford.

    We know this because many of the teams play each other in college football’s ridiculously back-loaded November schedule (no MLB playoffs, sweeps month, etc): Ohio State not only has to play Michigan State but Michigan, too. Alabama and LSU collide this weekend, as do Clemson and Florida State. And in the Big 12, all four ranked teams have to play each other.

    3. Stanford must win the Pac-12 title to reach the playoff.

    Yes, a two-loss team will make the cut, either this season or in a season upcoming. And yes, a Power 5 runner up will make the cut someday, as well. But a two-loss runner up isn’t getting an invite — not until the playoffs expand to eight teams, which will happen later rather than sooner (i.e., eight or 10 years).


    4. Stanford cannot lose to Notre Dame, even if it goes on to win the Pac-12 title.

    The Irish would have one or two losses and the head-to-head win over two-loss Stanford — they would assuredly and justifiably be ahead of Stanford in the pecking order and eat up one of the four spots. Would a two-loss Cardinal gain entry to the playoff ahead of all the undefeated/one-loss teams from the Power 5s? Nope. Such a scenario would cause the committee to question the strength of the Pac-12, where the champ was 0-2 against quality non-conference opponents. (The Irish also beat USC, which beat Utah, which will probably win the South.)

    To the grade …/

    Result: Won at Washington State 30-28

    Grade: B-

    Comment: Better to be lucky than good.

    Saturday night, Stanford was pretty good and very fortunate.

    It was fortunate with the Christian McCaffrey fumble/non-fumble/out-of-bounds play, which deflated the Cougars and swung the momentum decisively: Stanford scored 17 consecutive points.

    And Stanford was lucky Erik Powell missed the 43-yarder at the end after he had made all five previous attempts, two of them longer than 43.

    But any team that puts together a stellar season has a razor-close call or two.

    And if you’re looking for signs that this is a season blessed by the football gods, add that missed FG to the list that includes all the rookie opposing quarterbacks — Colorado’s starter is banged up (more below) — and only one major injury of their own thus far (Harrison Phillips.)

    *** In the bigger picture, there is this to consider: Washington State’s marvelous defensive performance is a blueprint for future Stanford opponents.

    Of course, you have to have the coaching and the talent to execute. I’m not sure Colorado, Oregon and Cal have the talent, and I’m pretty sure at least one doesn’t have the coaching (wears green, can’t tackle, unsound).

    WSU was aggressive and it was fast. Its front seven repeatedly beat Stanford’s offensive line at the point of contact and disrupted Kevin Hogan’s rhythm; its linebackers and safeties were able to track down McCaffrey on perimeter runs; and the Cougars did a fabulous job on Austin Hooper.

    And really, Stanford’s offense is all about the line controlling scrimmage and the triumvirate of Hogan. McCaffrey and Hooper making plays.

    *** Not much to say about Hogan, other than he has been in a zone personally and on the field all season, saved the game and kept Stanford on pace for a possible playoff berth.

    Instead of making big plays through the air — again, WSU completely disrupted the timing of Stanford’s passing game (and the weather didn’t make things any easier) — Hogan made them with his legs:

    His 40-yard run set up Stanford’s first touchdown. He then unleashed a 59-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter. And early in the fourth, his short touchdown run gave the Cardinal a 27-22 lead.

    David Shaw: “Nothing else was working. We won this game because of his heart. To will this team to victory was just phenomenal.”

    *** Stanford in situational football:

    Turnover margin: Even
    Third-down conversions: 4 of 13 (WSU was 2 of 14)
    Red zone TDs: 2 of 5 (WSU was 2 of 6)

    *** Defensively, the Cardinal was successful in stretches against WSU’s well-conceived offense — an offense, I’d add, with a veteran QB (something Stanford had faced only one other time this season).

    Again, WSU’s quickness was an issue — Stanford’s back seven is not the swiftest around. It’s almost always well prepared and well positioned but is susceptible to backs like Gerald Wicks.

    Next up: at Colorado

    The matchup: Favorable.

    The timing? We’ll see. Kickoff is 10 a.m. pacific, and Stanford’s only other morning affair didn’t work out so well.

    But let’s face it: The Buffs are built to handle Stanford’s power game. Their defense is 11th in the Pac-12 in total yards allowed (489 per game) and 11th against the run (244.6) in conference games. Also, expect the Cardinal OL to ramp up its execution after getting outplayed by WSU.

    In other words: It could be a huge homecoming for the Denver-born/Castle Rock-raised McCaffrey.

    *** Also to watch: Colorado QB Sefo Liufau injured his wrist late in the loss to UCLA. He stayed in the game, but it remains to be seen whether it worsened overnight and affects his preparation this week.

    *** Stanford is favored by 16. It’s easy to envision an early surge by CU that gives way, in the third quarter, to Stanford’s advantages in brute force and execution.

    The Cardinal is favored by 16. Colorado isn’t Washington State. If Stanford plays reasonable well, it should win comfortably.

    xxxxxxx

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    by Jon Wilner
     

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