We open this week's Gekko File with a great sense of humility and reverence. You see, we are in the presence of true greatness. To hear Coach David Shaw tell it at media day (before any games have been played, no less), the Stanford Cardinal possess several of the "mosts and bestests". The "most" versatile fullback in the nation. Check. The "best" tight end trio in the nation. Check. The "most" underrated Running Back in the nation. Check. The "best" front seven in the nation. Check.
Wow. I have to tell you, I'm impressed. But it says here in the Gekko File that the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football (otherwise known as head coach) is being far too modest even for the jaded among us who believe that his two-year habit of pandering for "respect" is extremely off-putting. In fact, Stanford is tops in many more categories that are just as germane to the national debate over "who is the best". Allow me to illuminate:
Best Running Back by Committee in the Nation.
Not really, but I just wanted to say it before David Shaw did. I'm sure it was an oversight on his part at Media Day.
Best Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football in the Nation.
Best Coattail Riding of a Future #1 NFL Draft Pick in History.
Best All-Time LB Who Never Actually Did Anything on the Field.
This one was for you, Kirk.
Best All-Time Use for a 6-8' TE in History
Who would have thunk it? Have your all-everything QB, you know, throw it to him. BRILLIANT!
Best Fanbase in the Nation
I'm partial to the case made by Michigan fan, but... yeah... how can you argue with the Cardinal having the best fanbase anywhere? What with that band, that tree and all those sellouts.
As you can see from the Gekko File, there is a lot to like about this years Stanford team. They are currently or have been the "best ats" in a lot of categories over the last 12 months. But the outlook for 2012 looks a little more hazy. More on that as we open the Gekko File on Stanford.
The Cardinal had a great season in 2011, going 11-1 on the regular season, getting a ton of love in the media, producing a Heisman finalist and finishing in a nailbiter of a BCS game - their second such appearance in two years. By all accounts, it was a stellar season.
Everything started off as planned with dominant road victories versus San Jose St and Duke. Although those games didn't feature the kinds of statistical dominance fans were looking for out of all-everything QB Andrew Luck, they did feature the kind of winning that Stanford fans expected to see: power, defense, running and, in the end, imposition of their will upon their opponent. Things would continue to roll for the Cardinal as they breezed through a favorable Pac 12 schedule in the early going with their first four games coming @Arizona, vs Colorado, vs UCLA and @WSU. They would score no fewer than 37 points in all of those games and allow nobody to score 20 or more. Although they were feasting on what many perceived as the easiest schedule in the nation at that point, they were doing so in impressive fashion.
The second half of their season started out with their first "difficult" test - a home game vs UW who, incidentally, would be the first team to score 20+ on them in a game. Of course, the ensuing blowout did nothing to slow their dominance. The cracks in the Stanford armor showed a little more in a 3OT victory the next week vs USC - a game that ended controversially - but did not stop their BCS campaign. After an easy win vs Oregon St, the Cardinal would end the season struggling to maintain it's dominant momentum. Oregon crushed them and they barely pulled out victories versus Cal and Notre Dame before moving on to their BCS matchup against Oklahoma State. The Fiesta Bowl was a wild back-and-forth affair that ended with the Oklahoma St strength (their O) being better than the Stanford strength (their D) in a thrilling OT loss for the Cardinal.
Despite concluding Andrew Luck's career with a loss, the season was viewed as a wild success for rookie head coach, David Shaw. Luck would go on and finish as a runner up in the Heisman competition - a remarkable achievement given the fact that he failed to finish in the top 3 in any major statistical area for a QB including Passer Rating (#5), TD passes (#4), Yards/Game (#23), Yards/Att (#6), and Interceptions Thowrn (#91 in terms of fewest). Luck was given a ton of credit for his game management and decision making. He had the help of two NFL Draft first rounder talents in OT Jonathan Martin and OG David DeCastro and first round pick TE Coby Fleener in creating the special season. RB Stepfan Taylor also had a tremendous season, posting 1300 yards and 10 TDs. All in all, Stanford finished up as an effectively balanced offense, finishing 18th in the nation in rushing offense and 22nd in passing offense.
But the story was the Defense and, in particular, the performance of that front seven in the pass rush. The Cardinal would finish second in league in sacks and first in terms of negative yards created. DE/LB Chase Thomas tied with Nick Perry and Josh Shirley in leading the PAC 12 in Sacks with 8.5. His partner in crime, LB Trent Murphy, finished fourth with 6.5. DL Ben Gardner - shifting between DT and DE - chipped in 10 tackles for loss of his own. It was a dominant statistical performance by a front seven. Still, the Cardinal struggled when challenged by the best of the best. The Cardinal D was too slow to keep up with the speed of Oregon and Oklahoma St and could not withstand the power of the Trojans. In fact, the Cardinal would only go 2-2 in their matchups against ranked opponents last year leaving the coaching staff and the fans with a somewhat unsatisfied feeling as they turn the page to 2012.
2011 Look Back: UW @ Stanford
When UW traveled to Palo Alto, they came in ranked as the #25 team in the nation and represented what was supposed to be the first true test for a Stanford team that had benefited from a cakewalk schedule to date. After a slow start in the first quarter (typical for Stanford), the Cardinal let loose in the second quarter by ripping off 28 points and shutting down a very dinged up Keith Price from that point forward. The Cardinal would rack up nearly 450 yards in rushing in gashing Nick Holt's Defense and the Husky Offensive Line was completely exposed in the undressing. Along the way, the Cardinal pulled no punches, including unleashing a long TD at the end of regulation to pad the record book.
This game would be a pivot point for both teams. For the Huskies, it proved a point made during the Nebraska game ... they were not close to being ready to hang with the big boys despite having entered the top 25 for the first time in two years and having a QB who, at the time, was #2 in the nation in TD passes. For the Cardinal, it showed that they were able to dominate the "better teams", but their inability to stop Chris Polk (who had two long TD runs) showed the lack of speed they had on the defensive side - particularly the secondary - and provided a blue print for other teams to study. This game also effectively threw Andrew Luck off his Heisman path. He might as well of had the week off as he hardly had to do anything to push the Cardinal to victory and his stats fell behind as a result.
There is no doubt that the Cardinal took some significant hits in the offseason. No team can simply withstand the loss of a player the caliber of Andrew Luck and not feel a push back towards the mean, particularly in a conference like the PAC 12. The list of losses by Stanford on the offensive side of the ball doesn't end there, either. Gone are the two stud OLs in Martin and DeCastro, WR Chris Owusu, leading WR Griff Whalen, leading TE Fleener, and their leading reserve RB Tyler Gaffney. That is a lot to replace not just in terms of talent, but - more importantly - execution. Consider for a minute that the Cardinal led the PAC last year in both red zone conversions (an unreal 97%!) and third down conversions (an impressive 52%) and it is easy to see why I expect a significant regression in 2012. The collection of players lost were talented, but they were also exceptional in execution.
Replacing these offensive stars is a tall task. The QB competition is falling to Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes - both of whom are former 4-star California QBs. Nottingham is the bigger and more athletic of the two, but Nunes appears to be the more consistent of the two. In an offense that is going to emphasize ball control and mistake minimalization, my bet is that Nunes will be the guy in the end despite the fact that Nottingham is the media odds-on favorite. The offensive line is also a concern. Shaw is already talking openly about one of his three incoming true frosh stepping up to start at Tackle or, if not, shifting starting OG David Yankey to Tackle. The depth at RB is also worth watching. Taylor and FB Ryan Hewitt are a versatile duo. However, Anthony Wilkerson and Ricky Seale are very much unproven commodities in an offense that can't afford to have a decrease in running production.
Not everything is a question mark here. The Cardinal passing game do return two physical marvels at TE in Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. Hewitt is also a key playmaker in the passing game (Spider 3 Y Banana!). Outside of those three, it is hard to know who is going to catch passes, but they are still a great start. The other big strength going for the Cardinal is their front seven - in particular the LB corps. The key players are sack leader Thomas, OLB Murphy, leading tackler Jarek Lancaster, DL Gardner and returning leader Shayne Skov. Much has been made about Skov's return, despite his offseason trouble. I'm not a big Skov believer and, frankly, I'm not sure he could even win back his job. Lancaster is the guy he'd have to replace and, right now, Lancaster is a far more productive player. James Vaughters is the other middle guy and, in reality, he probably has the most upside of any of Cardinal very talented LB corps. Vaughters is a young stud LB who chose Stanford over Georgia, Alabama and Ohio St, to name a few. Frankly, I'm not even sure that Skov is better than AJ Tarpley at this point. Regardless, it is an embarrassment of riches that the Cardinal are going to have to rely upon to not only cover up for a less-developed secondary but to feature as the core strength of their entire team in 2012.
- If you have not seen the Gruden QB Camp session with Andrew Luck where they review "Spider 3 Y Banana) ... click here. You will not regret it.
- Once again, Stanford led all Pac 12 football programs in APR with a score of 977.
- How good was Andrew Luck? So good that they changed the title of the Offensive Coordinator position to become the "Andrew Luck Director of Offense". Ironically, the man who will hold the position is the same man that coached Luck last year - OC Pep Hamilton.
- Despite having eligibility left, last year's backup RB Tyler Gaffney has quit football to focus on baseball. Gaffney finished last year with nearly 500 yards rushing and 7 TDs - a very big hit.
- The Cardinal suffered another big loss for 2012 when co-defensive coordinator, Jason Tarver, opted not to return. Tarver moves on to the NFL to join the Raiders as their DC. Derek Mason is the defensive coordinator left standing.
- Shayne Skov was arrested back in February for drunk driving. Such boorish behavior is a rarity for Stanford athletes. David Shaw displayed his iron hand by suspending Skov for the first game, against San Jose St no less. This is how real Bradford M. Freeman Directors of Football handle discipline!
- Skov is also still rehabbing a knee injury that knocked him out in the third game of the season last year. While he is back on the field now, it is not all that clear that he would even be ready by the San Jose St game. Since he is suspended, I guess it doesn't matter.
- RB Ricky Seale was the star of spring practice despite only rushing 6 times for 23 yards last season. Coach Shaw, never one prone to hyperbole, said this spring that Seale was good enough to start for most programs in the nation. He will likely start out third on the Cardinal depth chart. Sigh.
- The Cardinal recruiting has taken off in the last few years. The last class included some pretty big names including OL Joshua Garnett and some kid named Barry Sanders.
- Stanford is a great university that offers a uniquely liberal education. So liberal, in fact, that shirts are optional on campus.
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. The conference continues to get faster on offense - a trend which is hard for a powerful Stanford D to continue to contain. I'm also not sold that there will not be a significant regression to the mean by the Stanford Offense. While there is still talent at the TE position, the tools to work with at WR are below PAC 12 standards and the offensive line is sure to take significant steps back from last year's dominance. This will take its toll on the rushing attack - which I still expect to be good as long as Taylor stays upright - and it will stunt the progress of whichever young QB takes over for Luck. No matter who it is, 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.
You might think that dropping Stanford to fourth is too far a drop. I thought so, too, when I started this. However, when you take into the considerations noted above you can see some of the initial rationale. When you also layer in the schedule, the picture begins to take focus. While Stanford has the same easy opening of Duke and San Jose St., their PAC 12 schedule is much different this year. Week 3 is a home game against USC - a heck of an introduction for a new QB. Week 4 is a night game...on ESPN ... at Century Link Field (the loudest stadium in the NFL)... against Washington. Frankly, I'll be surprised if Stanford, under a new QB, wins either for those first two conference games. From there, they get to go home to play Arizona before going on the road to Notre Dame and then the Big Game vs Cal - which is now a mid-season affair as a result of scheduling quirks necessary as a result of the PAC 12 Network conversion. All told, the Cardinal will play a front-heavy schedule with only four home games in conference play. Two of those home games are very losable - against USC and against a pass-intensive WSU team (the worst matchup the Stanford D could conceive). The Stanford misses are Utah and ASU.
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. I do not think that this is as much a conviction of their lack of talent, but as a result of the transition that they invariably have to endure in what is probably the most competitive division among all the major CFB conferences. I don't think that the drop will be very long - the Cardinal continue to recruit very well - particularly at LB, QB and OL. Chalk 2012 up as a hiccup in what should be a long, competitive run for the Cardinal.