"There’s no such thing as carry-over. We’re not going to win games because we won last year."
Stanford head coach David Shaw told me that in an interview last offseason. He gets excited talking about his team's "David [vs. Goliath] mentality," how despite recent success, "we haven’t cemented ourselves in the football world’s psyche as much as we should have. There’s always the idea that we’re going to slide."
It's getting more and more difficult to convince outsiders that either of this year's Rose Bowl participants, Stanford and Michigan State, is going to slide anytime soon.
When head coach Jim Harbaugh left after Stanford's 12-1 season in 2010, we might have assumed the regression was coming. When quarterback Andrew Luck went pro following the 11-2 campaign of 2011, it was even easier to think the end was near. But that was two Pac-12 titles ago.
Why you should root for Stanford
by Jack Blanchat, Rule of Tree:
I could tell you that you should root for Stanford football. But chances are you already do.
At least, that's what a poll said before this season started: Stanford is the least hated of all college football teams.
Now, the astute observer could say that "least hated" does not necessarily mean most well-liked, but this is the world of college football, where nothing makes sense and equating those two distinctions is not a stretch.
So why do people from all over the country root for, enjoy watching, or at least not hate Stanford football? And why will many be rooting for Stanford in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day?
It's because Stanford football is an everyman's kind of religion, with a maniacal, googly-eyed tree mascot leading the way.
Put more directly, Stanford football occupies a space in the college football world where it can align with almost anybody's belief system.
If you hate SEC football, you can safely root for Stanford without having to align yourself with Oregon's garish ensembles or USC's overt obnoxiousness. If you're an SEC diehard, Stanford is more of an SEC analogue than perhaps any other team in the country: simple uniforms, an emphasis on the power run, and strong defense. (Although the SEC's insistence on the run game and strong defense is sometimes in flux, unlike its insistence on bow ties, dark liquor, and Parliaments.) One way or another, people just love watching Stanford play. Or they're at least in awe of it.
Stanford has gone 23-4 since the start of 2012, reeling in big recruits, crafting an offensive style around the components at hand, and tearing your head off on defense. After winning 33 games in the eight seasons following head coach Ty Willingham's departure for Notre Dame, Stanford has won an incredible 46 in the last four, with a chance at 47.
Michigan State has taken a similar road to the same place. The road was about as bumpy when Mark Dantonio inherited a Spartan squad known for perpetual underachievement. In 2003 under John L. Smith, State reached ninth in the country before fading to 8-5. Two years later, the Spartans reached 11th, then collapsed to 5-6.
They had been to only one bowl in five seasons before Dantonio arrived in 2007, a drought almost as bad as Stanford's. They haven't missed one since. And after averaging about seven wins per year in his first three years, they've averaged 10 in the last four, and that's with a 2012 campaign that saw them finish 7-6 and lose five games by a combined 13 points. State had never won more than 10 games in a season before Dantonio came to town; now they've done so three times. (And this was all before Dantonio name-dropped rapper Rich Homie Quan on national television. Time to reap the recruiting whirlwind!)
State was close to a breakthrough for a few years, and it finally came in 2013. Ohio State is not preparing for the BCS title game right now, because the Buckeyes ran into a Spartan sword in Indianapolis.
The reward: a long look in the mirror. Stanford and State will attempt a lot of the same tactics in Pasadena, and this game will probably look like a different sport than the one being played when Baylor and UCF face off in the Fiesta Bowl. If Baylor-UCF is basketball, State-Stanford is rugby. And both will be entertaining.
How they got here
Stanford's season to date
For two straight years, the tortoise caught the hare.
Remember when Stanford had an Oregon problem, when the Ducks were basically the only team Stanford couldn't figure out? The Cardinal went 23-1 against teams not named Oregon in 2010 and 2011, leaving control of the conference in the hands of the green and yellow squad up north.
In the last two seasons, however, Stanford has allowed Oregon to steal the headlines and tantalize with high-paced offense, then laid the hammer down, one-on-one. Stanford's victory over No. 2 Oregon on November 7, one that saw the Cardinal build a huge lead and hold on for a 26-20 final margin, turned the tables in the Pac-12 North race.
And despite losses to both Utah and a smoking-hot (at the time) USC team, the Cardinal went 7-2 in conference, then pasted Arizona State in the Pac-12 title game. If Stanford had figured out a way past either Utah or USC, the Cardinal are quite likely in the national title game right now. As it stands, they'll be attempting to win their second-straight Rose Bowl for the first time since 1971 and finish in the AP top 10 for the fourth -- fourth! -- consecutive season.
Michigan State's season to date
Two things kept Michigan State out of the national eye for a while. First, the Spartans' offense was abominable in September. It was what kept me from signing onto the Spartans being a darkhorse national contender in the offseason (whoops), and it was at times comically bad, averaging a combined 3.8 yards per play in the Spartans' first three games against FBS competition.
But State named Connor Cook the starting quarterback early on, stuck with him, and played to his strengths; it paid off. The offense was still rather hit-or-miss overall but averaged at least 5.5 yards per play in six of State's final eight contests, and that was more than good enough to pair with a defense that allowed six or fewer points in five of those eight games.
Following a frustrating 17-13 loss to Notre Dame on September 21, State wasn't seriously challenged for four straight quarters the rest of the year. The Spartans won their final nine games by an average score of 30-12, whipped Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, and went from unranked to fourth in the country in just over a month. It was a stunning rise for a team with one of the most enjoyable defenses in the country.
|Off F/+ Rk
|Def F/+ Rk
|ST F/+ Rk
|Std. Downs S&P+
|Pass. Downs S&P+
|First Down Rate
|Adj. Line Yards
|Power Success Rate
|Adj. Sack Rate
|Std. Downs Sack Rate
|Pass. Downs Sack Rate
|Std. Downs S&P+
|Pass. Downs S&P+
|First Down Rate
|Adj. Line Yards
|Power Success Rate
|Adj. Sack Rate
|Std. Downs Sack Rate
|Pass. Downs Sack Rate
|Field Position Adv.
|Punt Return Efficiency
|Kick Return Efficiency
|Stanford Special Teams
|State Special Teams
Stanford's biggest advantages
Get used to second-and-long. The stereotype for both of these offenses is probably something in the neighborhood of "run on first and second down, throw a safe pass on third down, punt away safely on fourth down."
Why you should root for Michigan State
by Chris Vannini, The Only Colors:
The season began with questions at quarterback and running back, with no real answers. The offense was a punchline, and everyone felt bad for the defense being paired with it.
Four months later, MSU had set a school record with 12 wins and reached its first Rose Bowl since the 1987 season.
How did this happen? And why should you root for Michigan State?
Because Connor Cook came out of nowhere.
Quarterback Cook was a three-star recruit out of high school without any major offers outside of MSU. He replaced starter Andrew Maxwell in last year's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and led the game-winning drive in the final minute. He replaced Maxwell in the opener against Western Michigan and got his first start the next week against South Florida. Still, his numbers were ugly, and fans were calling for a true freshman. But Cook finally got it going against Youngstown State and never looked back.
He went from completing 44 percent of his passes with no touchdowns through two games to Second-Team All-Big Ten by the end of the season, culminating in his 300-yard MVP performance in the Big Ten Championship. He kept Ohio State out of the national championship game. Isn't that enough?
Because Jeremy Langford finally got a chance.
The junior running back has moved from running back to cornerback to receiver and back to running back through his first three seasons, playing special teams and garbage time. He finally got a chance to be the top guy at running back, and he made everyone forget about Le'Veon Bell, putting up more than 1,300 yards and almost five yards per carry with a Big Ten-best 17 touchdowns.
He'll also put the dagger in the heart of the opponent, breaking off a run of at least 34 yards late in the fourth quarter of the past six games, five of which were touchdowns.
Because of that defense.
Yes, seeing 50 points a game is fun and all, but you can still appreciate defense, and you just don't often see it the way MSU plays it anymore. Broyles Award-winner Pat Narduzzi, who once said he wanted "60 minutes of unnecessary roughness," will blitz all night with Denicos Allen and his linebackers. He'll trust his defensive backs in one-on-one, including Thorpe Award-winner Darqueze Dennard, who gave up the fewest yards per pass attempt since the NFL Draft folks began tracking it in 1968.
Through two games, the MSU defense was outscoring the offense, with four returns for touchdowns, including three from defensive end Shilique Calhoun (nickname: "Bane.")
Because of Jim Bollman's mustache.
For all the jokes about his hire as co-offensive coordinator and MSU's offensive struggles early on, that side of the ball has to be one of the most improved in the country by season's end. He didn't call plays, but he worked on strategy and helped with the offensive line, which was the best in the Dantonio era.
Also: his mustache is fantastic.
And finally, because you want to see Mark Dantonio dance to Rich Homie Quan one more time.
Granted, that's not entirely inaccurate -- both teams are going to run, run, run on standard downs -- but both offenses are a lot more adept at bailing themselves out on second- or third-and-long than one might expect.
That said, while Stanford's offense isn't great on standard downs, Michigan State's is pretty bad. At 109th in Standard Downs S&P+, the Spartans rank behind, among other offenses, Purdue's (99th). That's a bad look, and it puts a lot of pressure on Cook to succeed on second- or third-and-long. He has done so quite a bit, and that's great, but he hasn't done so against Stanford yet.
The Cardinal don't do any one thing brilliantly on passing downs; the pass rush is almost better on standard downs, and this isn't an inordinately great secondary when it comes to breaking up passes. But they do everything well enough to rank 11th in Passing Downs S&P+. Odds are good that they will take away the rollouts Cook enjoys and force the Spartans to move to Plan B. If there is a Plan B.
You can get your hands on Cook's passes. There's no question that Cook has made serious strides in 2013. His passer rating was 116.1 in September and around 140 afterward. His development is exactly what you wish for when your team starts a sophomore quarterback.
But he's still been a bit lucky overall. On average, a team will pick off about one pass for every four it breaks up. Opponents have only picked off one for every eight against Cook. You can make a case that some of that is due to good placement or safe passing, and you could be right. But there's at least a little bit of luck involved, too.
In a game with minimal possessions -- whereas each team might have 14 or 15 possessions in the Fiesta Bowl, Stanford and Michigan State will be happy with just eight or 10 -- turnovers are magnified. And with two dominant defenses, the team that loses the turnover battle will be in an extreme hole. State almost never fumbles (nine times in 13 games), but if Cook is indeed forced to stay in the pocket and make passes downfield to move the chains, those PBUs could become INTs pretty quickly.
Stanford tilts the field about as well as anybody. So does Michigan State, of course; it's amazing what forcing three-and-outs does to your field position prospects. But Stanford has one of the best special teams units in the country.
Ty Montgomery is an incredible kick returner (31.2-yard average, two touchdowns), Kodi Whitfield is a decent punt returner, Stanford covers kickoffs well, and Jordan Williamson is almost automatic within 40 yards (13-for-14). Michigan State isn't awful in this regard, but Stanford's is better. Any unit with Montgomery returning kicks is probably going to be the better unit.
Michigan State's biggest advantages
The Cardinal want to run the ball. The Spartans welcome them to try. Stanford runs the ball 67 percent of the time on standard downs, 21st in the country. It is part of the Cardinal identity, something they will always do.
The problem: They're not very good at running the ball. And Michigan State is ridiculously good at stopping the run. The Spartans have 50 non-sack tackles for loss, 24 from linebackers Denicos Allen, Max Bullough, and Taiwan Jones. (The bad news for Michigan State: Bullough, a senior play-caller and two-time captain, is suspended.)
If Stanford cannot at least distract you with the threat of Tyler Gaffney left, Tyler Gaffney right, and Tyler Gaffney up the middle, it will be more difficult for the Cardinal to get rolling with the deep passing game. Quarterback Kevin Hogan has been able to connect deep with Montgomery and Devon Cajuste (combined: 1,528 receiving yards, 11.3 per target, 18.0 per catch), but if the safeties aren't distracted by run support, it's difficult to imagine that connection working out too well here, especially considering whom Michigan State lines up at cornerback.
Kevin Hogan can make up ground on passing downs. The Spartans welcome him to try. If you can break a big play against State, chances are pretty good that it will be a very big one. And lord knows Montgomery is a terrifying threat even on second- or third-and-long.
But you're probably not going to get more than about one of those per game. And without the deep ball, Stanford is limited to dump-offs or scrambles from Hogan, neither of which is likely to help Stanford avoid three-and-outs.
If you cannot stretch the field against Michigan State, you are going to find life quite difficult near the line of scrimmage. State takes you out of your comfort zone and dares you to do things college offenses cannot normally do; if neither team can get the running game going, we could see a lot of three-and-outs.
You can dink and dunk against Stanford. Stanford's defensive numbers above look about like what you would expect. The Cardinal are fourth on standard downs, seventh in Rushing S&P+, and fourth in Adj. Line Yards. They are 11th on passing downs, sixth in Passing S&P+, and a still-solid 27th in Adj. Sack Rate.
They prevent explosive drives, thrive in power situations, get into your backfield with ease against the run, and do a lot of the things one would expect from such a big, physical, experienced unit.
One number stands out, however: Stanford ranks just 115th in stopping methodical drives. A full 20 percent of its opponent drives go at least 10 plays. Part of this is by design, of course -- if you limit big-play opportunities, then college offenses will dink, dunk, and eventually make a mistake.
Lord knows Michigan State isn't particularly great at long, drawn-out scoring drives. But you know the Spartans are patient, willing to pound away with running back Jeremy Langford (20.7 carries per game, 5.0 yards per carry) and throw short rollout passes to the likes of Bennie Fowler, Tony Lippett, Macgarrett Kings Jr., and Aaron Burbridge.
If Michigan State can rip off a big play or two and manufacture a couple of 10-play scoring drives, then the math begins to work in the Spartans' favor.
Overreactions for 2014
We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?
The 2014 season will be a test of Stanford's staying power. The running game will be hitting the rest button after replacing Gaffney, No. 2 running back Anthony Wilkerson, and the entire interior of the starting offensive line. Plus, most of the defensive players you've heard of -- linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, end Josh Mauro, nickel back Usua Amanam -- will be gone as well. (Somehow free safety Ed Reynolds is only a redshirt junior; it feels like he's been in Palo Alto since about 2007.)
Shaw has recruited well enough, and Stanford could simply reload once again. But unless Montgomery (junior) and Cajuste (sophomore) torch a lovely State secondary, the Rose Bowl is probably not going to have much of an impact on how we view the Cardinal's 2014 prospects.
State, meanwhile, will enter a weakness-gets-stronger, strength-gets-weaker situation next fall. Almost everyone of consequence returns for the State offense, but the defense will have to replace, at the very least, both starting tackles (Tyler Hoover, Micajah Reynolds), Bullough and Allen at linebacker, and Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis in the secondary.
If State goes out and puts up 35 points or something on Stanford, that could cement pretty high preseason rankings, but otherwise I expect pollsters to knock the Spartans down a few pegs.
F/+ Projection: Stanford 20, Michigan State 11
Win Probability: Stanford 73%
The numbers love Stanford. The Cardinal showed a little bit more big-play ability on offense than State and did so against a tougher schedule. But they faltered against a mistake-free quarterback in the Utah loss, and their offense fell apart when USC stopped their run game and forced Hogan to make plays.
Michigan State feels like exactly the kind of team that can beat Stanford in 2013. But that will depend on whether Cook and the State offense can maintain their late-season consistency after a few weeks of sitting and getting patted on the backs. Stanford has been here before and has faced a tougher schedule, but State won't need many breaks to pull this one off.