Race for the North: Stanford

It’s way too early to have a good sense of how things will play out in the Pac-12 next season, but we're past the point where it’s OK to start trying to figure it out anyway. With some teams in the middle of spring practice, some just getting started, and others set to begin in a few weeks, it feels like a good time to try to gauge expectations for next season. Over the next two weeks, we’ll take stock of each team in the Pac-12 and see how things are shaping up for 2017. Next up from the North: Stanford.

Stanford's role in the division race: Last season marked the first time since Pac-12 expansion that a team other than the Cardinal or Oregon won the league title. Washington blew past Stanford in the North, but the Cardinal can't be discounted after only one year off the pace. They also stumbled in 2014, only to regain traction and return to the Rose Bowl in 2015. So Stanford must still be considered a contender, regardless of some pressing roster questions moving forward.

The Cardinal's schedule also offers a break that 2016 -- a particularly road-heavy year for the program -- didn't: This time around, Washington must visit Stanford Stadium. After suffering a 44-6 beatdown at the hands of the Huskies in Seattle, this is a welcome reversal for the Cardinal. But Stanford must travel to USC, Utah, and Washington State in 2017, so it still faces a treacherous path.

What constitutes success: Stanford notched a 10-win campaign last year, yet disappointment still lingered at season's end. Consider that for a moment: The Cardinal, the laughingstock of the league for much of the previous decade, now digest 10-win seasons with a sense of dissatisfaction. That's how far this program has come. After reaching three Rose Bowls in four years, 2016's midseason offensive malaise and a finish in the Sun Bowl marked a step downward.

That being said, Stanford must remain realistic. It may be harder than ever to climb to the Pac-12 North mountaintop now. Washington has emerged into a national power, while Washington State -- which also thumped the Cardinal last year -- remains a legitimate contender for the division. Both of those teams return good quarterbacks while Stanford is currently unstable at that position. Even if Stanford does find a way back to the top of the league in 2017, its prospects of doing so are daunting at the very least.

Instead of applying an outcome-oriented approach, it's more fair to apply a process-oriented one here. If the Cardinal can establish consistently solid offensive play, even against the best defenses on their schedule -- something that escaped them last year -- 2017 should be deemed a success.

Plus, if that key domino falls, there's a very good chance Stanford will end up back in the Rose Bowl.

Spring priorities: While starting quarterback Keller Chryst rehabilitates from a knee injury, the Cardinal would be wise to prepare Ryan Burns and K.J. Costello. They must also build enough defensive line depth to fortify a position that's losing stud Solomon Thomas. Harrison Phillips is the only heavily-experienced veteran up front, and that spells big trouble if competent talent doesn't quickly surround him.

There'll inevitably be much talk about Stanford's effort to replace Christian McCaffrey. But the Cardinal are relatively set at the running back position with speedster Bryce Love. It's their offensive line, which struggled in pass protection last year, that must improve. Some of that work will have to wait until summer, when touted tackle prospects Foster Sarell and Walker Little arrive on campus, but the effort is already underway.