The answer is "no". As in, "no, I do not seriously think that the Stanford Cardinal are going to finish in last place in the P12 North in 2013."
My pick of Stanford as the "#6" team is not so much a forecast as it is a protest vote that is premised on the following notions:
- Kirk continues to think I'm obsessed with Stanford. This proves he is right.
- I continue to think that the ESPN P12/Stanford blog is obsessed with Stanford. This doesn't prove I'm right, but amuses me as I consider how Ted and Kevin are processing this statement.
- The idea that Stanford is a "national championship contender" as argued in the popular media is very hard to substantiate - at least as I see it - and deserves a counter balancing view couched in as dramatic a form as I can muster.
- There are more reasons than you might think to have concerns about Stanford in 2013 and what better way to draw your attention to it than with this little stunt?
- I find David Shaw to be a publicity-seeking, diva-like coach who panders to the media to prop up the idea of his coaching brilliance. That fact alone warrants this otherwise meaningless token of rebut (obviously, Shaw is an excellent coach who doesn't need theatrics to prove it).
Over the last few years I've taken some well-deserved shots for consistently under-selling the prospects of the Cardinal. They've been taken in stride. Nothing tossed my way in protest to my ill-conceived insights has been out of bounds or unfair. All critiques aimed at me - except for the notion that I have a personal vendetta against Stanford (which isn't true at all .. they are the only other team in the P12 that I actually root for on UW bye weeks) - are legit and warranted. Still, one must ask, is this the year that I finally get it right when it comes to the Cardinal?
Let's open the Gekko File and see.
Gekko File Accountability: What I Said Last Year
I admit, I was not bullish on the Cardinal prospects in 2012 as I pulled together the Gekko File. Here is what I said:
I'm predicting a return-to-earth finish for the Cardinal in 2012. While I expect the front seven to be effective - particularly in rush defense - I don't see them quite as good as they were in 2011 when they were playing an easy schedule and playing from way ahead most of the time...No matter [who wins the QB job], they simply won't be as good as Luck was at recognizing defenses, converting third downs or executing in the red zone and they won't have the same type of protection that Luck enjoyed....
...All in all, I see this as a 6 or 7 win season for Stanford. I think they'll start out 0-2 in the PAC and drop others along the way to Notre Dame, WSU, Cal and Oregon. While I think they finish with about the same number of wins as Washington, they will finish fourth as a result of the tiebreaker.
In fairness, I did get right the loss to Washington and the fact that the Cardinal would not perform nearly as well on third downs, in the red zone or in pass protection (all big drop-offs from the year before). But, sheesh, I wasn't otherwise anywhere close. Let's see if I can make that mistake again.
2012 Recap: Stanford
The season in Palo Alto opened with one simple question: Who could possibly replace Andrew Luck?
The answer to that question, of course, is "nobody". And, as such, it was inevitable that the immediate replacement for Luck was destined to bomb. The honor of being the guy who would fail to replace Andrew Luck ultimately was awarded to the winner of a QB race that featured the more experienced but less athletic Josh Nunes and the previous year's backup Brett Nottingham. As the Gekko File prognosticated, Nunes was the brilliant choice of David Shaw and was given the keys to the pound and grind Stanford offense.
Of course, the QB is not the feature of the of Stanford offense. A good QB is an obvious benefit, but the focus is on establishing a clock-thinning, defense-mashing rushing attack that pounds opposing defenses into second half submissions and creates easily converted third down opportunities. All the QB needs to do is make good decisions, protect the ball and not fumble the Center exchange. Nunes was good enough as the Cardinal ripped off three straight wins to start the season. While none of Stanford's wins are ever "easy", these three were somewhat choppy in that the Stanford offense couldn't seem to get totally on track behind Nunes. Still, a win is a win and the Stanford Cardinal always takes them, especially when USC is involved.
A hiccup against UW - which exposed some weakness in the vaunted Cardinal D - turned into a near-death experience in a bizarre game against Arizona. In that one, the Cardinal needed overtime to pull out a 54-48 shootout. Matt Scott racked up nearly 500 yards passing against Stanford that day, but Josh Nunes was up to the task as he passed for 360 yards, tossed two TDs and then ran another three TDs himself. It was a crazy game that led to another let down the next week against Notre Dame. The first half of the season would conclude with Nunes leading the Cardinal to wins over Cal and WSU, but with little momentum in the offense. By the time that the second half rolled around, David Shaw had seen enough and decided to insert his phenom, Kevin Hogan.
Hogan "ignited" (not really, but this is what Stanford fans think, so we'll go with it) the Stanford offense in his first start - a 48-0 blowout of Colorado and went on to lead the Cardinal to 5 more wins - all of them against top competition - on the way to a 12-2 overall record. This streak included big wins against Oregon - a 17-14 affair that was really a show of force by the Stanford D - and a Rose Bowl win over an over-matched, unranked Wisconsin program that had lost 2 of it's last 3 before arriving in Pasadena.
Obviously, any season in which a Rose Bowl is won is an accomplishment worthy of praise. The Cardinal earned it by playing the style of ball that they had perfected under Jim Harbaugh and continued under David Shaw. Doing it without Andrew Luck makes it all the more special. Still, when you look at the season as a whole, it is hard to not look at it and see the formation of cracks at the foundation. After three straight years as the #2 scoring offense in the Pac 12 (three guesses as to who was #1 each of those years), the Cardinal fell to 7th in the P12 in 2012 - even with those huge outbursts against Arizona and Colorado factored in. The Cardinal really were not any better in scoring under Hogan than they were under Nunes. Even if you throw out the Duke game to make it more of an apples to apples comparison, the team scored about the same points per game under each QB and the yards per game were just 20 more under Hogan than Nunes (and, keep in mind, Nunes played against legit defensive competition in USC, SJSU, UW and Notre Dame). The big difference, of course, is that the upside of Kevin Hogan is far higher than anybody else on the roster and the potential that he has to make plays with his arms and his legs make the Cardinal eminently more dangerous. It was this intangible, plugged into a stellar conclusion to the season that leads Cardinal fans to the conclusion that the 2013 season holds so much more promise than did 2012.
2012 Rewind: Stanford at UW
As noted above, the Cardinal's fourth game of the season was a Thursday night affair that Stanford, no doubt, expected to be an easy win over a UW team that hadn't been competitive with them for several years and whose offense was sputtering to start the 2012 season.
What they were not counting on was a revamped Husky defense that would, from that game forward, become the foundation of competitiveness that the Huskies would lean on for the entire season.
If you don't know the story by now, it can be summed up pretty easily:
Thursday Night. Bishop Sankey. 61 yard fourth down TD scamper. Kasen William. Man amongst boys. Another victory for Sark over a top 10 ranked P12 program.
If you read the ESPN P12/Stanford blog, you can't help but to think that the Cardinal is poised for a legit National Championship run. The "cards" are stacked in their favor, so to speak. Focusing on their elite defense, there is no reason to not share in this enthusiasm. The Stanford D is absolutely loaded. With the exception of the outstanding Chase Thomas and some pieces in the secondary, the Cardinal return just about every key piece in 2013 from a team that was 11th in the nation in Scoring D and 20th in the nation in Total D. Funny, as I researched this, I expected their rankings to be higher.
Still, there are a lot of reasons to be excited. The core of the team is formed in the linebacking corps. The leader is the somewhat overhyped Shayne Skov - an solid player who has been idolized in Palo Alto and one that I freely admit that every program would love to have. Skov is heralded for a lot of phantom production, but he is an emotional leader who combines athletic potential with field general smarts. His reputation is no doubt boosted by the elite playmakers around him including Trent Murphy and Jarek Lancaster. James Vaughters, an eminently talented player who has waited in the wings for the past two seasons, gets his chance as the heir apparent to Thomas. These guys back up a nasty Defensive Line that is anchored by Ben Gardener. Gardener is clearly one of the top two or three D-Linemen in the P12 - a 275 lb DE with an non-stop motor - and a player that creates opportunities for his LBs. I love Gardener (7.5 sacks, 15 TFls). He is a classic "no star" type of recruit that developed the right way and is now laying waste to offensive linemen all over the conference. He is joined by fellow seniors Henry Anderson - a huge DE who had 5.5 sacks last year - and David Parry. Beyond these guys, the line starts to get thin as the rest of the rotation is made up of players with minimal experience. Young ends Aziz Shittu and Jordan Watkins are both going to be given a chance to contribute. But the interior line could get really thin really fast if any of the seniors get nicked up along the way. The defensive secondary is an average unit overall, despite whatever line the ESPN bloggers are selling you. Last season, the Cardinal ranked 105th in passing yards allowed despite not necessarily blowing out every opponent they played. Most of that unit returns this year. The key players in this unit are Ed Reynolds and, my personal favorite, Jordan Richards. Richards is a player who shows good instincts in pass D - a rarity among a Stanford backfielders who are oriented to defend the run first and foremost.
If the Stanford D seems like an embarrassment of riches, don't worry. The Offense isn't quite as impressive. Reloading under new offensive coordinator, Mike Bloomgren, things are sure to look different for the Cardinal this season. The key for me, and this is where I begin to see things a little differently than the popular media, is the Stanford Offensive Line. Two years ago, with two NFL talents in David DeCastro and Jonathon Martin, this unit was among the best in the nation. Last season was a different story. Still one of the better in the conference, the Stanford O-Line went through some serious growing pains in 2012 as they replaced their two stars. The evidence is in the numbers. At 4.4 yards per carry, Stanford was only 7th in the P12 in rushing offense last year - their worst performance since 2007. The Cardinal also surrendered 19 sacks last year - a low number to be sure. But, given their high run/pass ratio, 19 sacks allowed is their worst performance as a unit since 2008. This year, the rebuilding gets compounded as the Cardinal replace their leader, C Sam Schwartztien. The best player is clearly David Yankey. A SR Guard with 27 career starts, Yankey is deservedly considered the best pound-for-pound lineman in the conference despite his position. Beyond that, things still need to get worked out. One of either Khalil Wilkes or Kevin Danser is likely to win the C job with the other, presumably, starting elsewhere on the line. The talented but inconsistent Andrus Peat is surely going to start at LT with talented prospects Kyle Murphy and Josh Garnett waiting in the wings to apply pressure. Cameron Fleming is the other likely starting OT. Fleming is a guy that some folks argue is an All American guy this season. I'll guess I'll have to have that proven to me as he seems more of a placeholder for one of the younger players. Unquestionably, there is tons of talent here, but we all know about "talent" when it comes to offensive linemen. Nothing is assured until you see it on the field.
The rest of the Cardinal offense is somewhat pedestrian. Hogan has the potential to be a big playmaking QB who can make things happen with both his arms and his legs. This basically describes almost every QB in the P12 in this day and age. The difference between Hogan and some other QBs are the lack of proven pieces to work with. Gone are the big TEs, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo as is top wideout Drew Terrell. Listening to the coaches, it is clear that the dreams of the Offense lie with the hoped-for breakout of the heretofore underwhelming Ty Montgomery. The good news is that there is more young talent in these ranks than ever before. If the Cardinal can get something out of young players like TE Luke Kaumatule, WR Kodi Whitfield, WR David Cajuste, or WR Michael Rector, it will be huge for Hogan. Either way, the running game will continue to be front and center for the Cardinal. Replacing the best RB in Cardinal history, the reliable Stepfan Taylor, will be no easy task. The Cardinal will be relying on Tyler Gaffney, a backup who quit football last season, to step back in and lead the team. He will be supported by reliable reserve Anthony Wilkerson and, hopefully, by the young and exciting Barry Sanders. Not to be overlooked, the steady FB Ryan Hewitt will be a key contributor in both the rushing and passing attacks while the Cardinal develop their other weapons.
- The Stanford D is built to win and to win now. Their D will feature 10 - count them, 10! - seniors as key rotation players in 2013. These include key pieces like Skov, Gardner, Parry, Henry Anderson, Murphy and Jarek Lancaster. The rebuilding gets seriously underway in 2014.
- Despite the seniority on defense, the 15 starters returning to the Cardinal overall is among the lower half of the rankings in the P12. Key areas of rebuild are the rushing game, the receiver corps, the defensive line depth and the backup QBs.
- Don't ask David Shaw about what he's going to do should something happen to Kevin Hogan. With the transfer of Brett Nottingham and the injury retirement of Josh Nunes, the Cardinal are scraping the bottom of the barrel with their backups. Junior Evan Crowder is the presumed back up.
- The canonization of Shayne Skov continues to mystify me. To be clear, I think he's a great player and I wish he were on my team. Still, he is venerated by many as among the best LBs to ever grace the P12 and among the best in the nation today. Gemmell called him Stanford's most important player. For those kinds of compliments, you would think that the man would have some damn impressive production over the years. But to look at his career numbers would leave you a little confused and dismayed. Last season, Skov had 42 solo tackles, 8 TFLs and 2.5 sacks. Stacked up against the rest of his team, these are pretty pedestrian numbers for a full-time player. Stacked up against the rest of the conference and he's not even in the discussion among MLBs, much less all defensive players. And, it isn't like he just had a "down year". If you take 2010 numbers and look at them (he missed most of 2011), what you see is a spike in sacks - which looks more like an aberration in hindsight - with similar pedestrian tackles and tackles for loss numbers when compared to teammates and the league. Some folks will resort to the old "intangibles" argument, which (conveniently) is impossible to prove. Some will point out to the fact that he has other great players around him that soak up his stats. If that were true, how do you explain guys like Anthony Barr (who had Erik Kendricks, Cassius Marsh and Datone Jones) or Michael Clay (Kiko Alonso, Dion Jordan, and John Boyett)? The truth is that the hype doesn't match the production for Shayne Skov who looks like a good player on a great unit moreso than an elite player on a great unit.
- Sorry, that last one was a long dot.
- Despite all the recognition they receive for "efficiency", the Cardinal actually ranked below the Huskies in Completion % last season and their 3d down conversion rate was 79th in the nation (they were third in the nation in 2011 and first in 2010). At least that part of the Gekko File 2012 prediction was correct.
- The Cardinal no longer have a Defensive Coordinator. Derek Mason is now the "Willie Shaw Director of Defense". This endowment comes a year after the OC role was renamed the "Andrew Luck Director of Offense".
2013 Forecast: Stanford
As I've alluded, I'm not buying into the idea of a Stanford National Championship run in 2013. That isn't to say that this isn't a great team. Clearly, the Cardinal are a great team. I especially admire how they've gone against the grain and made a commitment to a certain style of play that 99% of college programs would not have the balls to commit to. For that, I offer tremendous respect to the coaching staff, to David Shaw and to the administration at Stanford. They've found a way to forge success in an environment where consistently delivering a winning football program is challenged by hurdles and barriers not seen at many other institutions.
However, the pieces that have enabled Stanford to play at a level that exceeds their talent levels over the past three seasons are slowly breaking away leaving more question marks with every coming season. This is not to say that Stanford didn't earn what they achieved last season - of course they did. They earned it with guts, with commitment, with physicality and with cohesion. But this year's team isn't last year's team. And last year's team - which was weaker in pass defense, more inconsistent on the offensive line, and far less efficient - in particular on third downs - was worse than the team from year before. In short, the Cardinal are on a slight downward trend heading into 2013.
Clearly, there comes a time when the pieces lost from elite teams cannot be so easily replaced. Stepfan Taylor is gone and he is replaced by a journeyman who skipped all of last year. The offensive line, which, by all measures, took a step back following the 2011 season, loses another MVP-type player in Schwartztien. The team's best receivers, Ertz and Terrell, are no longer available to act as safety blankets for Hogan's dink and dunk passing game. The D, while still dominating, do lose 11.5 sacks between Thomas and backup LB Alex Debniak (Debniak also forced two fumbles in 2012). This much is undebatable: the 2013 team will feature a less accomplished rushing attack, a diluted receiving corps and, perhaps, an equal offensive line as the younger players gain more experience. Much will be expected of Kevin Hogan to up his game to compensate, and the best that we can say is that there isn't any reason to think he won't respond, but we've just never seen him perform at the level that his team will require if it wants to keep the pace.
All this being said, there is zero reason to believe that the Cardinal won't be as good if not better on D in 2013. The entire front seven sans Chase Thomas returns and, even then, the highly touted James Vaughters will get a chance to step in. But, this D is going to have to be better than in 2012 in order to compensate for an offense whose prospects look down. The good news is that there is definitely room for improvement and I expect that the Cardinal D will deliver on it.
Stanford should get a little cooperation from their oddly-constructed schedule. Their conference schedule features five home games and misses against Arizona (yay!) and Colorado (boo!). Out of conference, they feature the familiar duo of San Jose St (who gave them all they could handle last year) and Notre Dame while adding Army. It is a very manageable schedule with all of their more challenging opponents well spaced out and with their home and away games alternating on a weekly basis all they way up to the end of the season. If anything, the heart of the schedule is a little back-loaded, which should give the young players (Hogan, the O-Line, the receivers) time to gel.
The Cardinal are media darlings right now based on this stretch of three stellar seasons that have been stitched together. However, it is important to recognize that the difference between good and not good is a much more narrow margin for the Cardinal in 2013 - particularly if depth problems at QB and on the D-Line materialize. If the Cardinal are a little "less lucky" than they were in 2012, and the improvements of young teams like UCLA, ASU and Washington continue on the upward trajectory that they've been on, then things could unravel for Stanford pretty quickly. Still, Coach Shaw and the Cardinal have earned the benefit of the doubt. I'm projecting a 8 to 10 win campaign that should keep them in the hunt for the P12 North title but leave them well short of a title and - probably - a fourth straight BCS appearance.