STANFORD, Calif. — The loss of record-breaking running back Christian McCaffrey to the NFL turned out to not harm Stanford as much as expected thanks to a breakthrough season for Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love.
Love's decision on whether he'll leave for the NFL after setting Stanford's single-season rushing record or return for a fourth season will play a major role in determining the expectations for the Cardinal next year.
No. 15 Stanford (9-5) got a taste of life without Love when he nursed injuries in the second half of the season. There is no heir apparent on the roster as there was when McCaffrey left early for the draft a year ago.
Love, a biology major and aspiring pediatrician with an interest in stem cell research, has not made a decision yet on whether he will skip his senior season or stay for another year.
Love set a Stanford record with 2,118 yards rushing this season, set an FBS record with 13 runs of at least 50 yards and topped the 100-yard mark 12 times despite being hampered by a sprained ankle the second half of the season and a hand injury the 37-35 Alamo Bowl loss to No. 13 TCU on Thursday night.
The Cardinal have several other players with eligibility remaining who could leave early for the NFL, including safety Justin Reid, tight end Dalton Schultz and injured cornerback Alijah Holder.
"A lot of guys have some decisions to make whether to leave or not, but when I look at what's coming back, and there's so much work to do, but I'm so excited, so excited for what we have coming back on this football team, and there's a lot of work to be done and a lot of things that we can improve and so many areas that we are going to get so much better," coach David Shaw said following the bowl loss.
"So many guys played tonight. I have a firm belief that when we start next year, you may not recognize them. I think we're going to make a huge jump, and I think we need to."
The team will also lose star defensive lineman Harrison Phillips and key offensive lineman David Bright among others but there are some key pieces in place that provide optimism for the future.
One of the most important pieces is quarterback K.J. Costello, who progressed after taking over for good from Keller Chryst in November.
Stanford has seen some spotty play at quarterback the past two seasons, with Shaw shuffling between Ryan Burns, Chryst and then Costello. But Costello showed signs of being able to solidify the position with his play down the stretch.
He played a strong game in a win against Washington that proved key in helping the Cardinal win the Pac-12 North. He then had four TD passes in the regular-season finale against Notre Dame.
He threw two more touchdowns in a Pac-12 title game loss to Southern California before adding three more in the bowl game. But he was unable to lead a late comeback with Love on the sideline, and his second interception of the game sealed TCU's bowl win.
"It was a couple mistakes that we were making at the end of the day, and that's a really good feeling knowing that heading into the off-season there's a lot of things we did well," he said. "There's a lot of areas that I'm looking forward to working on in the off-season."
AP Sports Writer Jim Vertuno in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report
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