Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 22 Stanford.
Stanford is not here for your bullshit, man. In just six years, head coach David Shaw’s program has compiled 54 wins while maintaining a top-10 strength of schedule every season. The Cardinal have two Rose Bowl victories in the past four years and are poised to return a team that will again challenge for the Pac-12 title. This is a program with a coach that will soon surpass Pop Warner as the school’s winningest head coach. This season will have its challenges—Shaw and Co. will have to win with a new quarterback and improve both lines if they want to maintain the school’s blistering pace of success—but don’t be surprised if the Cardinal manage to outlast the rest of the league and bank another conference title.
After the season-opener against Kansas State, who Stanford should handle easily, the Cardinal will face USC, UCLA, Washington, and Notre Dame. That’s a pretty brutal opening stretch for a team that will be adjusting to a new quarterback for the first time in four years. Quarterback Kevin Hogan went out strong last season, bumping up his touchdown total from 19 to 27 and posting a 67.7 completion percentage, his highest since his rookie season. But Hogan has since departed, along with reigning Outland Trophy recipient left guard Joshua Garnett and first-team Pac-12 left tackle Kyle Murphy. While the same level of talent may not step up in their absence, the Cardinal will replace their linemen with a group of five upperclassmen, and will have two fine candidates waiting to line up under center—they’ll be fine.
Sophomore Keller Chryst and junior Ryan Burns will continue to duke it out for the open quarterback position as the season approaches. Shaw has yet to pick a starter and likely won’t until he has a chance to evaluate his options in live action against real opponents. Burns is older, but Chryst is the only one who has actually seen the field, not that it really helps here—he went 5-of-9 for 59 yards and a score all of last season. These two are very similar players and either will fit the Cardinal system well.
Wide receiver Michael Rector and tight end Dalton Schultz will be the go-to targets for the new Stanford signal-caller, and when they are covered he can always just chuck one up to magician Francis Owusu.
The Cardinal return six starters on defense and will once again be thin on proven ability in the front seven. Stanford lost starting ends Aziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett; instead of replacing them with bright-eyed underclassmen, Shaw’s squad will have the luxury of filling those gaps with a pair of fifth-year seniors in Jordan Watkins and Luke Kaumatule. Sophomore end Solomon Thomas—who had 10.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and a fumble return for a touchdown last year—will provide a strong pass rush, and may finish the year as one of the conference’s top defensive ends.
Blake Martinez, the team’s standout linebacker and leading tackler in 2015, departed for the NFL this spring, leaving the door open for Peter Kalambayi to step in as the next impact linebacker in the Cardinal’s 3-4 scheme. He will likely be joined by redshirt sophomore Joey Alfieri and redshirt junior Kevin Palma.
The Stanford secondary finished sixth in the league in pass defense last season, a strong showing given its lack of experience. It’s not unreasonable to think this group, led by sophomore cornerback Quenton Meeks, will take another step forward in 2016.
After taking a year off to sock some dingers (well, dinger—he only hit one) in the minors, senior Zach Hoffpauir will bolster the safety group along with fifth-year senior Dallas Lloyd. These two are the veterans of the group, but be on the lookout for sophomores Justin Reid and Ben Edwards; both saw the field in at least 12 games in 2015 and will be solid options should the Cardinal opt to stay young.
It’s kind of hard not to be the Guy To Know on your team when you break Barry Sanders’s NCAA single-season all-purpose yards record by 338 yards and place second in the Hesiman voting as a sophomore. Christian McCaffrey racked up a staggering 3,864 total yards of offense last year, leading Stanford in rushing yards, receptions, and reception yards. Out of the backfield, McCaffrey was explosive as a receiver, averaging 14.5 yards per catch; as a return specialist, he set the bar high with 28.5 yards per kickoff return and 8.7 per punt return. His ability to cut laterally through traffic is unparalleled in the college game right now, and he’s a nightmare matchup for larger linebackers. Hell, he makes a living (not really, he’s in college) off snapping the ligaments of any defensive back merely attempting to come downhill and stop him.
As McCaffrey looks to somehow follow up one of the most surprising (for those outside Palo Alto) and explosive seasons in college football, the question Pac-12 opponents will have to ask themselves this season is how dedicated they are to stopping him. McCaffrey is a scoring threat in every aspect of the game except defense. Sure, you can kick and punt away from him, but you can’t control how many times Shaw and the offense opt to use him out of the backfield. The best part about McCaffrey, aside from his cuts, is that there are still areas in which the athletic 6-foot, 197-pound back can improve. His yards per carry and big play potential could both increase this year, which is saying something considering he ate up an average of 6.0 yards each time Hogan handed the ball off to him in 2015.
The Cardinal know what they have—McCaffrey is a shifty unicorn Stanford can ride to at east eight wins, even without a stable quarterback in its system. But that’s no longer the standard in Palo Alto, and expectations for both the program and its star player are high this year. If Shaw can successfully pick a quarterback that bolsters the passing game enough to help the team enter its Oct. 22 contest against Colorado with one loss, Stanford absolutely has a shot at closing the season with another Pac-12 title and shot at the playoff—but that’s a huge “if.”
Shaw is, by all accounts, fine. He’s a three-time and reigning Pac-12 Coach of the Year and has not committed any recent acts of high treason. He did, however, catch some flak for flouting Stanford’s academics when making the following comments on the great satellite camp debate. Via Yahoo Sports:
It doesn’t make sense for us to go hold a camp some place where there might be one person in the entire state that’s eligible to get into Stanford.
That’s pretty dick-ish! Per Al.com, he later backtracked, hopping on the Paul Finebaum Show to let the good people of the South know his parents are from the region and that, “I’m not going to take shots at the south, that’s ridiculous. You’ve heard me say repeatedly how much respect I have for the SEC and what they’ve accomplished and the coaches in the SEC.”
Hmm...sure sounds like the words of a guy who just unloaded a round on the SEC. Tread lightly, David—once us Southerners get this reading thing down, we’re going to have some some words.
Sept. 2: Kansas State
Sept. 17: USC
Sept. 24: @ UCLA
Sept. 30: @ Washington
Oct. 8: Washington State
Oct. 15: @ Notre Dame
Oct. 22: Colorado
Oct. 29: @ Arizona
Nov. 5: Oregon State
Nov. 12: @ Oregon
Nov. 19: @ Cal
Nov. 26: Rice