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If Stanford's Defense Can Hold The Line, The Cardinal Are Going Places

Illustration for article titled If Stanfords Defense Can Hold The Line, The Cardinal Are Going Places

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. 21 Stanford. 

I sure hope Stanford fans are soaking up every season they get with David Shaw.

Since taking over for Jim Harbaugh in 2011, Shaw has not only kept the ship afloat but turned the Cardinal into a steadily climbing program. Remember, with Harbaugh, Stanford needed three seasons before he hit double digits in the win column; with Shaw, they’ve achieved that in five out of seven seasons, to the point that last season’s 9-5 finish registered as a disappointment. That happens when you’ve put two Rose Bowl trophies in the lobby in your first decade on the job.


A former Cardinal football player and Stanford graduate with a dad that coached at Stanford, Shaw seems content with his current situation—when asked about the LSU job opening a couple years ago, he laughed off the question entirely. Stanford seems to have lucked into a situation where a good coach preceded a great one, and it feels like the folks of Palo Alto will be watching top-flight football for a long time to come.

But also, Shaw, a man with a $5.1 million salary that rightfully makes him one of the best-paid coaches in the land, can be kind of a dick! Yes, he might have taken a shot at the South, or maybe just all of America, when he said, “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 not it, really—nobody is surprised at a Stanford grad being a pompous ass (said the pompous-ass Duke grad). It’s more to do with how in the wake of the O’Bannon trial, he was a complete and total ass about players being compensated

Exhibit A:

I’ve been saying this for years: It’s our job to teach them how to make a living at the university and not to give them their living at the university. Then, we’re not teaching the proper lessons at the school.


Exhibit B:

Let’s give them more perks, Let’s make sure their daily lives are better so they can have the time to go to school and play football and make sure they are on pace to graduating. The food allowance changes — those things are great. But just giving an 18-year-old a bunch of money? That is gonna cause more problems than anything else in my opinion.


Again, this asshole makes $5.1 million per year. And, to keep things on track, here’s what that buys you—incredibly dense, unfairly talented recruiting classes. This is the result of the Stanford coaching staff’s small-ball approach, in which they focus their recruiting efforts on a tight group of recruits they plan their system around. In 2017, the Cardinal and Clemson were the only two top-25 class with less than 18 athletes; both signed 14 recruits.

Much to the relief of first-year offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard, and thanks largely to the return of Heisman runner-up Bryce Love, Stanford may be looking at one of the best offenses it has fielded since the time when Andrew Luck could still throw a football.


The Cardinal return their quarterback in sophomore K.J. Costello, who is back to 100 percent after rehabbing from off-season hip surgery. Based off last season’s play, Costello isn’t a game-changer and he’s not going to be in Stanford’s memory long, but as long as he does his job, he shouldn’t get in the way of them making a push for the Pac-12 title. When he slows down and sees the field, like he did in a four-touchdown outing against Notre Dame, you see what Shaw is hoping to pull out of him. He’s just mobile enough to keep plays alive for that extra beat while maintaining the pocket, and his mid-to-deep ball has plenty of zip and accuracy to make the deep third of the field a very real threat for the Cardinal this season.

Senior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will embody that deep threat, while junior tight end Kaden Smith and senior Trenton Irwin will provide sure hands for Costello to rely on to get the Cardinal down the field.


The running game should once again be near-unstoppable with Bryce Love opting to play his senior season after testing the NFL waters. Love instantly makes the offense must-watch television. Last season, he ranked second in the nation in rushing yards with 2,118 and fourth in yards per attempt at an insane 8.1, all to go along with 19 trips to the end zone. Expect more of the same this year.

The offense doesn’t really pose that many questions aside from whether Costello can string together a full season after splitting time with Keller Chryst last year. It’s on the other side of the ball where Stanford’s playoff hopes are being tested.


The defense is going to be a bit spotty this season, especially up front. The Cardinal are down first-team All PAC–12 defensive lineman Harrison Phillips and his 103 tackles after he elected to skip his senior year and head to the NFL. In terms of experience, they only return Jovan Swann and his 0.5 sacks. Gone too are linebackers Peter Kalambayi and Kevin Palma, as well as All Pac–12 safety Justin Reid and corner Quenton Meeks.

The turnover on the line could end up not being a deal-breaker. Stanford ran out of a 2-4-5 formation for a large chunk of last season, meaning having some good beefy linebackers and top-tier safeties can be implemented to make up for the inexperience they’re facing in the trenches. But, as noted above, the Cardinal are staring at inexperience in those positions, too.


The secondary will be fine but not spectacular, with Frank Buncom IV and Brandon Simmons stepping in as the new talent. It will go a long way for the crew if corner Alijah Holder can remain healthy. In both 2016 and 2017, he had seasons that looked like potential breakout years cut short by injuries, first to his shoulder then an undisclosed injury to his leg.

The linebacker position will be a pretty precarious spot for Stanford. Per 24/7, the last Cardinal recruiting class to include inside linebackers came in 2015—that means this year’s interior will belong entirely to seniors and fifth-years. Bobby Okereke and Jordan Perez will be the two inside men; they’ll be backed up by a rotation of four players, two of which are returning from serious health issues. Sean Barton is rehabbing from a knee injury suffered in Week 3 last year that kept him out of the rest of the season, though he will be expected to play often. Ryan Beecher announced in January that he was being treated for non-Hodgkin Lymphoma; in July, he reported that he had completed chemotherapy and had a clear PET scan, though it’s not clear when he’ll be physically ready to return to the field. Joey Alfieri and Caset Toohill will line up outside, and likewise hopefully not get hurt.


It’s crucial Stanford shore up its interior and fix its rush defense. Last year, opponents racked up 4.6 yards per carry, the highest total the Cardinal have allowed in a dozen years. It didn’t bring the entire defense crumbling down—Stanford allowed 22.7 points per game, good for 34th in the nation—but it kept them from climbing atop the Pac-12. Lance Anderson is in his fifth year as defensive coordinator, and this may be his toughest challenge. With this group, he has to concoct a defense capable of surviving some truly rough Pac-12 road trips so as to not fuck up what should be a slim but present opportunity to replace Washington in the playoff hunt.

A Guy To Know

Bryce Love is A Guy You Should Already Know. He’s the best running back in all of college football and, for some wonderful reason, we get to watch him zip through college defenses for an entire extra season.


Love finished as the runner-up in the 2017 Heisman race and enters this season as the favorite in 2018, and for good reason. In 2017, Love seamlessly blended the quick-footed, high-octane Stanford running game that Christian McCaffery established with a style that needs but one foot planted upfield to completely undo any play-call a defense has lined up. He’s not just fast, he’s nearly prophetic in his ability to see the cuts before the cuts. He thrives in those brief moments when two defenders seem to be closing in on him, only to left in a crumpled heap wondering where it all went wrong.


Love posted the second-highest rushing yards total in Pac-12 history, all while carrying an offense that couldn’t quite make its mind up under center. This season, with the quarterback supposedly locked into place and a talented offensive line that is built to run, Love is coming for the Heisman. He’s the reason Stanford’s going to be in the running for another Pac-12 North title and dammit, you should watch this magic before it’s lost to the NFL.

The Assistant Coach Tweet Of The Day 


God, even their dumb football tweets are pretentious.

Can They Make The Playoff?

Maybe. A lot of that will be tied into the conference race. Washington is being considered the team to beat in the Pac-12 thanks to the return of Jake Browning, but along with USC, Stanford appears to be the only other Pac-12 team that might be prepared to knock them off. It doesn’t do the Cardinal any good that they have to go into Seattle to play Washington this season, either. The Huskies should feel confident as the conference’s top team, but as Stanford proved last season when it downed them 30-22 in Palo Alto, the Cardinal can beat Washington at its own game with a worse defense and better running back.


If, if, Stanford can survive its season-opener against San Diego State and Week 2 matchup with USC, it then has to go to Oregon, Notre Dame, Washington, and UCLA to collect victories. The chances are incredibly slim that this defense survives that ringer, but with an offense ready to line up and sprint with any team on that list, don’t be shocked if that Nov. 3 showdown in Seattle ends up deciding the North, and just maybe, that fourth playoff spot.


Aug. 31: San Diego State

Sept. 8: USC

Sept 15: UC-Davis

Sept. 22: @ Oregon

Sept. 29: @ Notre Dame

Oct. 6: Utah

Oct. 18: @ Arizona State

Oct. 27: Washington State

Nov. 3: @ Washington

Nov. 10: Oregon State

Nov. 17: @ Cal

Nov. 24: @ UCLA

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