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the Gekko Files: Stanford 2014 Preview

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All of Stanford's state secrets get spilled in today's Gekko File.

Stanford Coach David Shaw faces an uncertain outlook in 2014.
Stanford Coach David Shaw faces an uncertain outlook in 2014.
Harry How

Open Letter to Stanford Fans:

Today is the day that I open the Gekko File on your excellent football team.  It has been rumored on this site as well as in the dark corners of the Internet that I am not a fan of your program and that I actively root against it every year.  While I can admit a certain amount of disdain for your former head coach Jim Harbaugh, let me assure you that these rumors have about as much merit as kidney thieving operations in Mexico and the millions that Ms. Muwambe has stashed away in Nigeria (by the way, I can split the money with you if you would just email me your address and social security number).

The truth is that I recognize Stanford for what it is:  a revelation in a college football world that has gone crazy with up tempo offenses, hybrid linebackers and diva quarterbacks who like to party with Drake while sipping Cristal on a yacht in the gulf.   When Chip Kelly zigged with up tempo and the read-option, you zagged with Spider 3 Y-Banana and something called the "Ogre" position.

I love that.

You've also provided us Husky fans with some entertaining moments.  Remember this?

Ez_view_td_medium_medium

via cdn2.sbnation.com

In dropping your admission standards and widening your purview to a national recruiting strategy, you've also demonstrated that elephants can, indeed, dance and you serve as a reminder to programs like UW, schools who continue to hold on to the fleeting moments of glory in their football past, that reincarnation is possible.

Some of you are a little worried about 2014.  I can understand that.  Your D has lost its "heart and soul" leaders.  Your offensive line is replacing four starters.  You have depth questions at running back.  Your QB, as much as you love him, is going to be asked to be the featured playmaker for the first time in his career.  The schedule is tough.  The rest of the Pac is rising.  There is a lot to contend with.

If you would really like to know how things are likely to go, then please read on.  These are my personal files.  The Gekko Files.

Sincerely Yours,

The Gekko.

2013 Recap - What I Said

In 2013, the Gekko File on Stanford predicted a strong campaign that would leave them as a close runner-up to Oregon in the Pac 12 North.  Here are the datapoints:

Predicted Div Finish 2nd
Actual Div Finish 1st
Predicted P12 Record 6-3
Actual P12 Record 7-2

Contrary to popular opinion, I don't always bet against Stanford.  Here were some of my verbatims:

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...

Clearly, there comes a time when the pieces lost from elite teams cannot be so easily replaced...

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.

For the most part, my forecast for Stanford was spot-on.  They were never a real serious national title contender thanks in part to an early season loss to Utah, but they were the best team in the Pac 12 as evidenced by their tremendous run through the rest of the conference and the claiming of the Pac 12 title.

Early season questions about the Cardinal seemed justifed after a couple of sluggish wins over their first two weeks against San Jose State and Army.  Their week three thrashing of Arizona State seemed to get the momentum going for the team and led them to a huge blowout vs WSU the following week.  They almost stubbed their toe against the Huskies - a game where UW clearly outplayed the Cardinal in two out of three dimensions (ugggh, special teams), and then paid the price the next week in the aforementioned Utah upset.  A huge upset of Oregon a few weeks later would become their marquee win of the season, but their euphoria from that would be burst quickly after they gave up a close one to USC.  Most of you know how the rest of the season played out - the Cardinal would seize the North thanks to the Arizona upset of the Ducks and would end up claiming the Pac 12 Championship only to see themselves get completely outclassed by Michigan State in the Rose Bowl.

The entire season was one that was big on W's, but never completely passed the "eyeball test" as this Stanford team seemed the least potent of the teams that we had seen out of Palo Alto since David Shaw took over.  Tyler Gaffney racked up 1700 yards, but his yards per attempt were seventh among Pac 12 starting RBs (and 13th overall).  Their losses against USC and Utah were shockingly decisive.  Their wins against Oregon and Washington both involved some pretty lucky breaks.  Their TEs were pretty much not a factor in their receiving game.  These things were all non-Stanfordy.

Of course, there were several things that were very Stanfordy.  The offense was efficient in both the Red Zone and on third down.  Their yards per attempt (8.9) in the passing game were second in the P12. They led the Pac 12 at fewest sacks allowed at 1.14.  Their Defense was outstanding - they topped the Pac 12 in Sacks (followed closely by UW) with 44.  Their special teams ranked #2 in the nation in F/+ (second only to Alabama).  Yup, that's Stanford football right there.  Dull, unabashed and unapologetic Stanford football.  The kind of output that gives reason to believe that more is in store for 2014.

Previewing 2014:  The Cardinal

The big storylines for the Cardinal in 2014 are how they are going to cope with mass defections from their outstanding Defense, how they will replace four starting offensive linemen, and how they will backfill key coaches like Defensive Coordinator Derek Mason (the architect of the "stop-Oregon" defense) and QB coach Mike Sanford.  David Shaw, who has been outstanding in manning the ship that Jim Harbaugh built, is getting challenged in areas of program building that heretofore he has not had to grapple with.

Let's start with a look at that outstanding Stanford D.  Without a doubt, this is the most significant transition year that the Cardinal has had to face since Harbaugh took over.  Gone is their defensive coordinator (and a few assistants) plus multi-year starters in LB Shayne Skov, DE Ben Gardner, DE/LB Trent Murphy, DL Josh Mauro, FS Ed Reynolds and CB Devon Carrington.  The losses of Gardener, Skov and Murphy are crippling not only because of the production (20 of 44 sacks from those three alone), but also the leadership of the unit as a whole.  Take away their leader and playcaller in Mason and you have a major rebuild on your hands.

The good news is that Stanford has recruited very well and, in the front seven in particular, they have plenty of bodies.  The heart of their D remains the Linebacking corps.  Seniors OLB James Vaughters and ILB AJ Tarpley are rocks to build around and should be able to keep this unit at the top of the conference in production.  Their stats will be somewhat dependent on how well Stanford can update it's defensive line.  Henry Anderson is a legit All-Pac 12 candidate as a 3T, but his strength is in rush defense.  The question of who replaces the critical role Ben Gardner played as a QB-pressuring end will be answered by a couple of guys who weren't even defensive ends last year - Blake Leuders (formerly an OLB) and Luke Kaumatule (formerly a TE) are the top candidates.  Stud recruit Aziz Shittu may have to step in if this situation doesn't pan out well.

The defensive secondary is a different story.  This unit is good,  but is somewhat overrated by the media due to the prowess of the Stanford front seven.  The good news is that they do have returning depth and may become a more legitimate strength in 2014.  Safety and the question of replacing Ed Reynolds is most pertinent here.  This appears to be a two-man competition between former WR Kodi Whitfield and the thumper Kyle Olugbode.  Bet your money on the latter.  The rest of the secondary is pretty set with returnees S Jordan Richards, CB Wayne Lyons and CB Alex Carter (assuming he's healthy).  This is a solid-not-great unit who will really get tested by opponents in the Pac.

Offensively, the Cardinal are certain to get a bit of a makeover in 2014.  While I don't expect that David Shaw will turn away from "three yards and a cloud of rubber-mulch-powder" in his philosophy, the strength of this side of the ball is clearly in it's passing game.  Junior Kevin Hogan is now in his third year as a starter (can you believe that?) and enters the season as a controversial figure with some Stanford fans thinking he's the second-coming and others thinking he is terrible.  I won't get into the statistical analysis on Hogan (although, I do think it is hilarious that one Stanford blog had to make up their own passing game stat in order to make the pro-Hogan argument).  The bottom line for me is that Hogan is an efficient game manager who can make plays happen when he's given a pocket to pass from - something that can be said of a lot of QBs.  He's reliable in his offense and he wins.

The big question, of course, is how good his pockets are going to be in 2014.  Stanford is replacing four ... yup, four ... offensive linemen.  That's a big task, even if you are friggin' Alabama.  The good news is that there is no shortage of elite talent in T Andrus Peat, T Kyle Murphy and G Joshua Garnett to build around.  Beyond those big three - and they are excellent pieces to be sure - questions start getting raised.  Look for Brendon Austin, Nick Davidson, Johnny Caspers and David Bright to compete for the remaining G/T roles in the rotation.  At C, the athletic Graham Shuler looks like he's going to get his chance.  This is a very talented offensive line, but expect to see them take plenty of lumps in the early going against rising Pac 12 talent as they attempt to build their cohesiveness as a unit.

The real strength of this team may be its receiving corps.  Sr. Ty Montgomery is a legit super star after having a breakout season in 2013.  Devon Cajuste, now cast correctly as a WR, is a serious challenge as a big receiver.  Expect to see him lining up frequently as a split end.  Michael Rector provides the depth in what is a multi-faceted group.  This group has the balance between size and game-breaking ability that most previous teams have lacked.  However, note the lack of any TEs in this discussion.  The Cardinal situation at TE is the worst it has been in years.  Look for some new faces to usurp incumbent Charlie Hopikins.  Austin Hooper, Eric Cotton and incoming true frosh Dalton Schultz are all names to watch.

If the O-Line situation doesn't have you worried, you might try on the Cardinal RB situation.  I know, I know, we have this discussion every year.  First, it was how do you replace Toby Gerhart.  Then it was Stepfan Taylor.  Now it is Tyler Gaffney.

Trust me, this year is different. Last year, the Cardinal had to rely on Gaffney to return to the team he had left the year previous in order to replace Taylor as the depth was not shaping up.  This year, they have to replace both him and Anthony Wilkerson, his primary backup, from a selection of backs that were not ready to get on the field last season.  The presumed starter here is Remound Wright due in part to his overall reliability and abilities in pass protection.  The Cardinal would love to see Barry Sanders, Jr. finally emerge as a playmaker, but nobody has yet seen convincing evidence that the young speedster is ready to contribute.  Still, the odds are pretty good that either he or Ricky Seale will get a lot of field time in hopes that one will emerge as a gamebreaker.  If neither does, look for Shaw to lean more heavily on his passing game.

Three Questions and a Comment:  Jack Blanchat, Rule of Tree

1.  How will the Stanford D look in 2014 after losing so many key contributors?

The Stanford defense should look quite similar in execution, if not very similar in terms of star power. Losing Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy and Ed Reynolds all in the same year is a big gap to fill, and I don't think it will be a seamless transition. However, there's more talent along the defensive line this year and some natural replacements for Skov and Murphy at their linebacker spots. In fact, the linebacker position is one of the Cardinal's most stacked groups, with a lot of depth and young talent. The inside linebackers were probably the best position group in the spring game. The big question is at the back end, where Reynolds won't easily be replaced and David Shaw had to move two offensive players (QB Dallas Lloyd and WR Kodi Whitfield) to safety to try and give that position some depth. Overall though, I think Stanford's defense should still be a top 20-25 defense.

2.  Upset alert - what one team that Stanford will be favored to beat has you most concerned and why?

Even with all the personnel turnover they will have, Washington is a natural choice because the Stanford-UW games have been battles the last two years, but I'm probably most concerned about the USC game at home in week two. Stanford should be favored over the Trojans, but the USC roster is full of guys that can cause problems for the Cardinal, and the Stanford D made Cody Kessler look like Peyton Manning for a half last year. It's going to be a huge litmus test for Stanford early in the season, and it's a game I won't feel comfortable about at all.

3. Should Kevin Hogan be viewed by fans as a top 3 level QB in the Pac 12?

I'll use the classic Facebook relationship status to describe Kevin Hogan: It's complicated. I would say he is a top 3 QB based on his record, but also say that he isn't a top 3 QB based on his pro talent. The paradox with Hogan is that he's the best option Stanford has at quarterback - he's a rugged player who tends to not makes mistakes - but his pure physical limitations are also pretty clear at this point. He's not a very accurate short passer, sometimes gets gun-shy when dropping back to throw and had poor ball security at times in 2013. Overall, his ability to throw the deep ball and good feet make him a cog that helps the Stanford offense go, and while he's not as talented or as flashy as Marcus Mariota or Brett Hundley, the fact that he helps the Cardinal succeed is enough for me to say he's one of the better QBs in the conference. He's the one player I get asked about the most often, and I've made my peace with the fact that he's a decent quarterback who helps the team win, if not one who strikes fear into the hearts of opponents..

Stanford is a National Championship contender if ...

The offense can average 35+ points a game. That will require a lot of things coming together: Kevin Hogan developing into a top-tier QB, the offensive line (which is replacing 4 starters) gelling quickly and the run game sorting itself out quickly. Losing 4 starters on the offensive line and a running back like Tyler Gaffney means that the passing game (which had some superb moments a year ago) might have to carry the load for a while. Last year the Cardinal averaged 32.3 points per game thanks to a few blowouts, but Stanford won't have a chance at hanging with Oregon or UCLA or any of the national heavyweights if it can't put 35 on the board week in and week out. Altogether, I don't see the Cardinal as a playoff team - more like a 9 win team - but there are some reasons for optimism as well..

Predicting 2014:  The Stanford Cardinal

The Cardinal are still a formidable team in the Pac 12 North.  Offensively, they have a QB who they can win with, the makings of an elite offensive line which should hit its stride halfway through the season, a still-nasty defensive front seven and a receiving corps that could open up some big plays.  It is, of course, fair to sweat the cumulative losses of all the talent they've had there the past two years.  After all, the hit rate that Stanford has had on players they've recruited is ridiculously high.  Even the best programs see promising athletes wash out.  It wouldn't be unfair to expect some normalization in that regard, but it would be unfair to underestimate just how good Stanford recruiting has become.

There are two things that really gnaw at me about this iteration of the Stanford Cardinal.  First is the lack of a true workhorse back.  See my dot above that describes how Stanford have used their tailbacks since Harbaugh took over.  For the first time since before Harbaugh, they will have to employ a running back committee which will lead, no doubt, to a heavier mix of pass in their attack.  Even assuming the O-Line is up to snuff, I'm still not sure Kevin Hogan can be that kind of QB - especially without reliable TEs to lean on.  Oh, and watch out should the Cardinal have to dip into their backup QB ranks.  Sr. Evan Crower simply is not a threat, and the next best guy is true frosh super-recruit Keller Chryst.

The other thing that stands out to me as a major concern is the state of the defensive line.  I know that Stanford has recruited well and, in truth, I don't see any reason that Vaughters can't replace Murphy fairly well as that rushing OLB.  However, I don't think one can overstate the importance of Ben Gardner to this unit.  He was a pretty special player and the Cardinal realized how difficult it was to go without him once he went down with injury last year.  Replacing him with two guys making position changes - even though one is as talented as Leuders - seems to be a desperate move.

Stanford's schedule is also much less forgiving in 2014 than it was when they played all ranked teams at home in 2013.  In fact, this may be one of the top two or three most difficult schedules in the Pac 12.  First of all, they have no real time to break in all their new players as they host USC in week 2 and then travel to UW in week 4.  Second of all, they play 6 road games for the first time since 2010.  Of those road games, critical P12 matchups against UCLA, UW, ASU and Oregon are all included.  For good measure, Notre Dame (now with QB Everett Golson back) is also on the road.  Finally, their P12 misses are Arizona and Colorado - two teams that they would match up very well against.

In all, I like Stanford to perform at a high level.  However, I can't see them necessarily operating at a higher level than they did in 2013 when they won the Pac 12 but lost in the Rose Bowl.  If the RB situation doesn't work out, then I can actually see Stanford playing a higher-risk form of offense that their team really isn't built to play.  Layer on top of that the much more difficult schedule along with the rising tide of many other Pac 12 teams and, well, I truly do see this as a step back kind of season for Stanford.  They should still win upwards around six games in the conference, but I see them racing with UW for the runner-up role in the North.