2011 Season Preview: Cooking Channel Commercials And The Stanford Cardinal

Jim Harbaugh made building a powerhouse look a little too easy in 2010. Will quarterback Andrew Luck and Stanford survive not only the departure of Harbaugh, but also a stud defensive coordinator and a good portion of their underrated front seven?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you hate numbers, just skip to the words.

Full disclosure: if I'm not watching football or football reruns, I'm probably watching the hell out of either Food Network, Cooking Channel or the "Woman With Crazy Eyes Who Fixes Up Houses And Is Always One Step Away From A Complete Breakdown And I Don't Want To Miss The Episode Where She Snaps" show on DIY. I am not yet okay with this new facet of my personality, but announcing it is the first step toward acceptance.

Anyway, in every single commercial break on Cooking Channel, they show an ad for a dessert show called Unique Sweets. Every quote from this commercial is a quote that could have come from every single commercial for every single dessert show ever made.

"It's like eating ... a candy bar." Heard that line a million times. And by the way, you know what's also like eating a candy bar? Eating a candy bar. It even makes for a great dessert.

"It's the most highly addictive dessert I've ever sank my teeth into." Cliche of a cliche. But at least she didn't use 'addicting.'

"The most decadent little slice of heaven." A yawn of a cliched cliche.

And my favorite: "It kind of changes the whole concept of how you think of pie." It's exactly what you think you're supposed to say if you're reacting in pretentious fashion to something on a show called Unique Sweets, and it says absolutely, positively nothing. And yet...

...when I was thinking of how to go about an intro for Stanford today, all I could think was ... Stanford kind of changes the whole concept of how I think of college football in 2011. Everything I think I've learned while immersing myself in statistics was called into question with Stanford. Recruiting rankings matter? Tell that to Jim Harbaugh, who signed mostly two- and three-star players and coached them up to three and four stars. Recent history matters? Harbaugh took a terrible team, made them bad in 2007, decent in 2008, good in 2009, and great in 2010. Fans of millions of down programs think, when a new coach is hired, that the new guy is going to bring them swiftly and surely to respectability, then greatness; but it doesn't actually happen that often. It happened with Harbaugh and Stanford.

Unfortunately, Harbaugh was a little too good and was snatched away by the San Francisco 49ers. He installed a strong, tough, powerful identity onto a team in need of one, and now he hands the reins to David Shaw. Harbaugh's offensive coordinator last year, Shaw is the new head coach Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football (oh, Stanford); he will attempt to maintain the momentum and identity and take advantage of the fact that Andrew Luck is uniform for one more season.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 12-1 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk**: 4
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Sacramento State
52-17 W 34.5 - 17.3 W
11-Sep at UCLA 35-0 W 25.6 - 25.9 L
18-Sep Wake Forest 68-24 W 49.7 - 33.1 W
25-Sep at Notre Dame 37-14 W 37.7 - 23.7 W
2-Oct at Oregon 31-52 L 50.4 - 35.4 W
9-Oct USC 37-35 W 43.1 - 32.6 W
23-Oct Washington State 38-28 W 27.1 - 37.7 L
30-Oct at Washington 41-0 W 36.6 - (-5.4) W
6-Nov Arizona 42-17 W 46.0 - 26.8 W
13-Nov at Arizona State 17-13 W 31.3 - 21.6 W
20-Nov at California 48-14 W 48.3 - 21.6 W
27-Nov Oregon State 38-0 W 37.5 - 8.1 W
3-Jan vs Virginia Tech 40-12 W 55.9 - 7.1 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 40.3 9 17.4 10
Adj. Points Per Game 40.3 2 22.0 28

Without powerful running back Toby Gerhart, Stanford was expected to perhaps tread water a bit in 2010. They came in 27th in the AP preseason poll, and while people knew that Andrew Luck might be the real deal, they didn't know just how real he would be. Without Gerhart, the offense opened up a bit, and it was as spectacular (on a per-play basis) as almost any in the country.

Though the offense was consistently good (36.9 Adj. PPG in September, 39.3 in October, 40.8 in November, and incredible against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl), the defense came out of nowhere after three substandard games against Oregon, USC and Washington State.

First Seven Games: Stanford 38.3 Adj. PPG, Opponents 29.4 (+8.9)
Last Six Games: Stanford 42.6, Opponents 13.3 (+29.3)

From October 30 onward, Stanford was perhaps the best team in the country. They were so good that they finished ahead of Oregon in the final F/+ rankings despite the head-to-head loss. And the Orange Bowl performance was near-perfection. Virginia Tech appeared to bring their A-game (or close to it) early on, and Stanford simply absorbed a couple of nice left hooks then unleashed some savage flurries to put the game out of reach. It was a great way to end an unbelievable season. If only they had drawn Oregon in November instead of on October 2, I guess.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 2 4 5
RUSHING 22 23 19 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 2 1 2 39
Standard Downs 12 14 13 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 2 2 2 1
Redzone 21 17 28
Q1 Rk 3 1st Down Rk 32
Q2 Rk 12 2nd Down Rk 3
Q3 Rk 21 3rd Down Rk 2
Q4 Rk 1

The offense was pretty simple for Stanford in 2010: run on standard downs, tell your golden boy quarterback to go make a play on passing downs. Stanford ran more frequently than the national average on standard downs, and when they fell into passing downs (which was rare), they quite easily dug their way out of them. It is easy to assume that, when you've got a high-profile quarterback like Luck (3,338 yards, 9.0 per pass, 71% completion rate, 32 TD, 8 INT; 501 pre-sack rushing yards, +14.1 Adj. POE, 3 TD), you toss the ball around quite a bit. But that wasn't the Stanford way in 2010, and little is likely to change with Shaw now in charge.

Even blue-chip quarterbacks still struggle with checkdowns and multiple reads, but Luck seemingly mastered the art of knowing when to go downfield and when to check down. That he had a 71% completion rate despite throwing a slightly disproportional amount of time on passing downs is astounding, but he did it with checkdowns. For the season, he completed 64 of 85 passes to tight ends (75%) for 833 yards and 43 of 52 passes to running backs (83%) for 448 yards. Running back Stepfan Taylor (1,137 rushing yards, 5.1 per carry, +5.7 Adj. POE, 15 TD; 266 receiving yards, 1 TD), in particular, caught 28 of 32 passes thrown his way (88%!). Stanford was No. 1 in the country in avoiding sacks, and while I'm sure the line had quite a bit to do with that, Luck's uncanny dump-off ability did too.

That all three primary halfbacks (Taylor, Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney; only fullback Owen Marecic departs from the backfield) and two of three tight ends (Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz) return means Luck will probably be more than capable of absorbing the loss of his two most frequently targeted wide receivers, Doug Baldwin (857 yards, 14.8 per catch, 69% catch rate, 9 TD) and Ryan Whalen (439 yards, 10.7 per catch, 64% catch rate, 2 TD). Luck will be looking to Chris Owusu (396 yards, 15.8 per catch, 71% catch rate, 3 TD in seven games) and Griff Whalen (249 yards, 14.6 per catch, 71% catch rate, 1 TD) as his primary downfield options, but the fact that all three running backs return helps both the running game and the passing game.

Other tidbits:

  • While the losses to Baldwin and Whalen can be overcome, the line has been hit rather hard by attrition. Gone are all-conference center Chase Beeler and two players -- guard Andrew Phillips, tackle Derek Hall -- who garnered honorable mention all-conference. All-conference guard David DeCastro and tackle Jonathan Martin have combined for 50 career starts, but there will be some new pieces around them. And yes, four of five Stanford linemen got at least honorable mention all-conference. Not bad.
  • Luck may be the toolsiest "pro-style" quarterback college football has seen in a while, but what sets him apart is the fact that, while you may picture Peyton Manning and Dan Marino when you hear "pro-style," Luck can run. And hit. And run some more. Honestly, it is kind of unfair to watch.

 

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 21 30 11
RUSHING 20 24 17 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 24 42 13 53
Standard Downs 36 56 19 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 58 61 52 28
Redzone 76 58 80
Q1 Rk 15 1st Down Rk 23
Q2 Rk 23 2nd Down Rk 51
Q3 Rk 47 3rd Down Rk 41
Q4 Rk 104

What took Stanford to another level last year was not the offense. Honestly, according to Off. F/+, the offense actually took a tiny step backwards last year without Toby Gerhart. The defense, however, surged. And as we see above, it was a mid-season leap that gave them their best defensive ratings in recent history. After treading water a bit over the first half of the season, first-year coordinator Vic Fangio started to figure out what this unit had to offer. Throw in the growing maturity of a couple of sophomore linebackers (Shayne Skov, Chase Thomas), and Fangio's hybrid 3-4 began to confuse the living hell out of the opposition.

Unfortunately, like Harbaugh, Fangio was a little too good at his job: Harbaugh took Fangio with him to San Francisco this offseason. In his place are co-coordinators Derek Mason (Stanford's DBs coach last year) and Jason Tarver (outside linebackers coach for the 49ers last year, meaning Stanford and the 49ers basically worked a trade of coaches). With attrition both in the coaching booth and on the field, it's quite likely that Stanford's defense will take at least a small step backwards.

Confusion is the name of the game with a 3-4 defense, and Stanford proved they could attack from all angles; nine players compiled at least 2.0 TFL/sacks, led by the aforementioned linebackers, Skov (67.0 tackles, 10.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 5 PBU) and Thomas (59.5 tackles, 11.5 TFl/sacks, 2 FR, 3 PBU). That they return is a great thing, but they might find the waters a little more difficult to navigate with the departures of tackle Sione Fua (18.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF), stalwart ILB Owen Marecic (40.5 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 5 PBU) and OLB Thomas Kelser (30.5 tackles, 9.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU).

Other tidbits:

  • The attrition in the secondary is a bit more manageable, though three of the top seven DBs are gone. Sophomore corner Barry Browning (14.0 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PBU) will likely take over for departed cornerback Richard Sherman (45.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 4 INT, 2 FF, 9 PBU), teaming with Johnson Bademosi (38.0 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PBU) on the outside. Meanwhile, safeties Michael Thomas (52.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 3 FF, 3 PBU) and Delano Howell (53.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 2 FR, 5 PBU) could see a bit more demand placed on them with a shakier front seven.
  • Moment of silent admiration, please, for Marecic, now a Cleveland Brown after going old school at Stanford and playing both ways. It is, to say the least, rare these days to see a player rack up five rushing touchdowns and 5.5 tackles for loss in the same season ... or career, for that matter. Harbaugh was able to fuse together an incredible aura of toughness in this team, and players like Marecic helped so much in that regard.

Stanford's 2010 Season Set to Music

Since there's no song called "Smart Kids Will Kick Your Ass" on my iPod, how about we go with Wilco's "The Late Greats" instead? I was going to go with Iron & Wine's "Such Great Heights," but ... thinking of football and Iron & Wine at the same time makes my head hurt. That, and I don't particularly like Iron & Wine.

 

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 28
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 30
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +13 / +15
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 11 (5, 6)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -6.9

It's just not supposed to be as easy as Harbaugh made it look. Stanford improved in every year of his tenure, and while I am not nearly as optimistic about the David Shaw era as a whole (if for no other reason than Harbaugh was a great coach, and even if Shaw's only good, there's a step backwards on the horizon), 2011 should still be a great one for the Cardinal. Whether "great" means another nine or ten wins, or whether it means a shot at the national title, will depend on how much regression we see on the defensive side of the ball. I see the offense rolling at a high level, particularly in October and November (once the offensive line has gotten a change to gel), but the defense is quite a question mark. A unit tends to regress a bit after sudden ascension, anyway, but when you throw in the loss of the defensive coordinator and a good portion of the front seven, that's a problem.

As a whole, however, when the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 is released (coming soon!), you're going to see lofty projections for Stanford, in part because the role of coaching changes on projections is so dicey. But coaching change or no, the early schedule will give them a chance to work out whatever kinks have settled in this offseason. Perhaps the biggest game on the schedule is the September 17 trip to Arizona. The Wildcats are facing their own demons at the moment (no offensive line and Juron Criner's up-in-the-air position on the team, to name two), but if Stanford gets past that one, a 7-0 start is likely. The schedule is backloaded (at USC, at Oregon State, Oregon, California, Notre Dame in the last five), but this is a team built to improve as time progresses. We'll worry about Stanford's prospects for 2012 and beyond in 2012 ... for now, they should have one more really nice run in them. Whether they can match 2011's "decadent little slice of heaven" remains to be seen, but they should at the very least contend for a "highly addictive" division crown.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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