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Stanford might be a year from greatness ... and win the Pac-12 anyway

David Shaw’s Cardinal squad is loaded with juniors.

NCAA Football: Rice at Stanford Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

When we go about trying to figure out who’s going to be good each college football preseason, each team outlook basically comes down to four questions:

  1. Who’s back?
  2. How good are they?
  3. Who’s gone?
  4. How good are their replacements?

That tends to be the way preseason projections work, too. Whatever inputs are added to the projections machine are designed to hone in on at least one of those four things.

If a set of projections incorporates recruiting rankings in some way, it’s to address Question 4. Said rankings might be imperfect, but it’s the best way of determining whether you’re going to be able to maintain a certain level of play once a set of stars has departed.

In a given year, Stanford tends to have to replace fewer players than others. David Shaw’s Cardinal have not signed a full class of 25 recruits since 2010, and only twice from 2011-17 did they sign more than 20. You can only bring in guys if you have scholarships available, and Stanford loses fewer players to transfer than most. Meanwhile, the average Stanford recruit in that span had an average 247Sports Composite rating of 0.8862, nearly four-star caliber. The Cardinal have inked 45 four- or five-star recruits, and most of them have become contributors.

If you’re replacing fewer players from year to year and you’re replacing them with high-caliber talent, it stands to reason that you’re going to both project and perform pretty well. And if you recruit well at quarterback, you can perhaps withstand the loss of a multi-year starter without too much of a reset.

Sometimes, though, you don’t have control over when new stars become new stars. At USC last year, Sam Darnold didn’t differentiate himself in practice enough to overtake Max Browne on the first string when 2016 began. After Browne’s early struggles, though, Darnold got a chance and went 9-1.

Up the interstate a ways in Palo Alto, a similar, mistimed story was playing out.

Sophomore Keller Chryst, a former blue-chipper thought by most to be the long-term replacement to four-year stater Kevin Hogan, began the season behind junior Ryan Burns, and to his credit, Burns was solid out of the gates. He went 14-for-18 in the season opener against Kansas State, and five games into the season his passer rating was a respectable 138.5, his completion rate 66 percent.

Unfortunately, the run game wasn’t doing its job. Star running back Christian McCaffrey was battling nagging injuries, and a line that had to replace three multi-year starters (including Outland Trophy winner Joshua Garnett and all-conference tackle Kyle Murphy) and was having to deal with injuries and shuffling from week to week, hadn’t yet gelled.

After a steady 3-0 start to the season, which featured McCaffrey grinding out 5.5 yards per carry and shouldering a major load, McCaffrey slowed down dramatically, and the passing game couldn’t pick the offense up. The Cardinal lost three of four games with the offense scoring a combined 44 points.

Burns had maxed out what he could do, and it was time to see if Chryst could breathe life into a pathetic attack. He did ... eventually. He struggled against Arizona and Oregon State, but a healthier McCaffrey erupted for 368 combined yards, and Stanford won both easily. Then the lightbulb came on.

Over the last three games of the regular season, Chryst completed 43 of 65 passes for 610 yards, seven touchdowns, and no interceptions. He found a lovely rapport with redshirt freshman receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside (nine catches for 220 yards in this span) and properly checked down to McCaffrey (11 catches in these three games) when necessary.

Granted, it probably helped that the last three games were against the defenses of Oregon, Cal, and Rice, and granted, it was only three games. But Stanford exploded for 46 points per game and 8 yards per play in this span, and when you expect to see a breakout, you don’t need as much evidence to assume a breakout has occurred.

Stanford won its final six games of 2016, and now the Cardinal return not only Chryst, but also No. 1 receiver Trenton Irwin and Arcega-Whiteside, four of five starting offensive linemen, and 74 percent of their defensive production.

Basically everybody not named McCaffrey or Solomon Thomas is back, in other words, and Shaw just signed what was, on average, his best recruiting class. The tiny class of 14 includes what was, per 247, three of the top 15 players in the class and four of the top 36. Stanford has fewer players than normal to replace and is bringing in an even higher caliber of replacement.

Sounds like a pretty good year might be in store, yeah?

NCAA Football: Stanford at Notre Dame
David Shaw
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

2016 in review

2016 Stanford statistical profile.

Stanford’s midseason offensive funk was pretty devastating from a numbers perspective. The Cardinal looked the part of a potential top team for the first three games and the last three of the regular season*, but they couldn’t lean on McCaffrey during the six games in the middle, and the offense became directionless. And then, McCaffrey came back full-force, Chryst looked the part, and all was suddenly well.

* The Sun Bowl win over North Carolina featured neither McCaffrey, who sat out, nor Chryst, who was injured after six passes, so we can’t draw much from that.

  • First 3 games (3-0): Avg. percentile performance: 84% (~top 20) | Avg. yards per play: Cardinal 5.8, Opp 5.2 (plus-0.6) | Avg. score: Cardinal 25, Opp 12 | Stanford passer rating: 127.1
  • Next 6 games (3-3): Avg. percentile performance: 52% (~top 60) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.5, Cardinal 4.7 (minus-0.8) | Avg. score: Opp 22, Cardinal 17 | Stanford passer rating: 102.2
  • Last 3 games (3-0): Avg. percentile performance: 86% (~top 18) | Avg. yards per play: Cardinal 8.0, Opp 5.2 (plus-2.8) | Avg. score: Cardinal 46, Opp 25 | Stanford passer rating: 174.9

The sudden offensive success had a bit of an ulterior effect — after allowing just 11.2 possessions per game for opponents through nine games, the Cardinal allowed 12.7 over the last three regular season games. That meant more points allowed. But it was worth it.


Stanford offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

It’s harder to switch to Plan B midseason than it is to prepare for it in the offseason. The Stanford offense that coordinator (er, Andrew Luck Director of Offense) Mike Bloomgren intended starred McCaffrey as pack mule. He had 79 carries and 12 receptions in the first three games and 78 carries and 11 catches in his last three. And with defenses distracted, he was able to create pretty easy passes for first Burns, then Chryst.

When Plan A didn’t work, however, everything fell apart. Sophomore Bryce Love rushed 23 times for 129 yards in the McCaffreyless win over Notre Dame but managed just 30 yards in eight carries in the Cardinal’s three losses. Even with McCaffrey less than full-strength, Bloomgren leaned on him all the same.

Having someone as good as McCaffrey to lean on almost negated some of the competition inherent in the Stanford attack. Shaw leans on heavy competition everywhere on the field and attempts to play more guys than anyone in the country if they’ve earned the reps. Without last year’s pack mule, Shaw and Bloomgren will be forced to lean on the fruits of that competition. That could pay off.

Granted, Love will still carry a decent-sized load. He found a major spark late in the year. Over his last six games, he rushed for 522 yards at 8.2 yards per carry, and without McCaffrey in the Sun Bowl, he led the way with 119 rushing yards and a 49-yard touchdown reception.

With Love and six offensive linemen with starting experience (68 career starts) returning, one assumes that Stanford will again skew slightly run-heavy, especially if four-star sophomore Cameron Scarlett or youngsters like Trevor Speights, Connor Wedington, or Sione Lund begin to look the part. And with Chryst far more comfortable, Bloomgren will be able to better take advantage of opponents stacking up against the run.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Oregon
Keller Chryst
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Either things work for the Stanford offense or they very much do not. In Shaw’s six years in charge, the Cardinal have ranked 15th or better in Off. S&P+ three times and have ranked 40th or worse three times. Quarterback has been the key — Andrew Luck was running the show when Stanford ranked fifth in 2011, and Kevin Hogan was healthy and effective in both 2013 (15th) and 2015 (12th). 2014 (54th), not so much.

If his late-season play is what we can expect moving forward, Chryst should carry Stanford’s offense back to the top 20. Not only will he likely have an effective run game to lean on at times, but he will also have an exciting, receiving corps at his disposal. Irwin and Arcega-Whiteside each had a success rate over 50 percent, and the competition at tight end should be fierce. Junior Dalton Schultz, redshirt freshmen Kaden Smith and Scooter Harrington, and blue-chip freshman Colby Parkinson will all be battling for reps.

Hell, if Chryst struggles or gets hurt, the competition at QB could also be strong with Burns, blue-chip redshirt freshman K.J. Costello, and blue-chip true freshman Davis Mills all available. In the absence of a pack mule, Stanford seeks competition, and it appears there should be quite a bit of it.

Oregon State v Stanford
Trenton Irwin
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images


Stanford defensive radar

Stanford is in the middle of its most sustained stretch of awesome play since Pop Warner was head coach, but the pieces haven’t all synced together in a while. In 2014, the offense fell to 54th in Off. S&P+ while the defense ranked fourth; in 2015, the offense surged and the defense fell to 43rd. In 2016, the offense plummeted, and the defense rebounded to 18th.

It’s fair to wonder how much the offense will rebound in 2017, but the defense should be able to hold steady, and not only because 2015 is the only glitch on defensive coordinator Willie Shaw Director of Defense Lance Anderson’s record. Improvement might be tricky without end Solomon Thomas and a couple of solid safeties, but another top-20 performance should be expected, at least as long as the injury bug is kind up front. Stanford mostly played only four linemen, and two are gone; a couple of well-placed injuries could mean extreme reliance on redshirt freshmen up front.

If the line holds up, though, the back should be incredible. Stanford rebounded defensively despite an extreme reliance on sophomores both at linebacker and in the secondary.

Stanford v Oregon
Joey Alfieri (32) and Ben Edwards (9)
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The list of potentially awesome juniors-to-be is long:

  • Outside linebacker Joey Alfieri (10.5 TFLs, five sacks, three passes defensed in 2016)
  • Safety Justin Reid (four TFLs, seven PDs)
  • Corners Alameen Murphy and Quenton Meeks (combined: 15 PDs)
  • Inside linebacker Sean Barton and Bobby Okereke (combined: 9.5 TFLs, five sacks, one PD)
  • Safeties Ben Edwards and Brandon Simmons (combined: 4 PDs from backup roles)

Okereke, a former four-star recruit, was a wrecking ball this spring. Plus, senior linebackers Peter Kalambayi and Kevin Palma will play roles in what is an extremely deep, exciting back eight.

Thomas was obviously a key to last year’s defense, not only because of his production (15 TFLs, and no, they didn’t all come in that masterful performance against UNC) but because of the attention opponents had to give him. There’s nothing saying the two major contributors up front — senior tackle Harrison Phillips and sophomore end Dylan Jackson (combined: 10.5 TFLs, mostly from Phillips) — will be as productive without him. And while there are plenty of former four-stars in the mix at linebacker and in the secondary, most of the linemen (sans redshirt freshman Michael Williams and freshman Ryan Johnson) were mid-threes. The disruption potential might not be that high. Plus, a thin, iffy line was probably the biggest issue in 2015.

If there’s a plus here, it’s that even with Thomas, disruption up front wasn’t a key to Stanford’s resurgent D. The Cardinal only ranked 97th in defensive line havoc rate and 112th in stuff rate. The linemen’s job will be occupying blockers as much as anything. Do that, and the linebackers will dominate.

NCAA Football: Stanford at UCLA
Dylan Jackson (97) and Harrison Phillips (66)
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

The defense had something else in its back pocket for most of the year, even when the offense was dead: field position. Stanford ranked third in Special Teams S&P+, thanks to A-grade efforts from Jake Bailey in kickoffs and punting, Conrad Ukropina in place-kicking, and Christian McCaffrey in kick returns. The only efficiency category Stanford was even average in was punt returns, and McCaffrey managed a few explosive returns to offset the inefficiency.

McCaffrey and Ukropina are gone, but Bailey’s back to serve as the primary field position weapon. The primary question mark will be in the place-kicking department, where it appears the job will fall to one of two redshirt freshmen — Jet Toner (a scholarship guy) or Collin Riccitelli (a walk-on). Toner was the rare three-star kicker and has a huge leg, but you never know about kickers until they’ve had to kick in front of 50,000 people.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
26-Aug vs. Rice 120 32.8 97%
9-Sep at USC 7 -5.9 37%
16-Sep at San Diego State 52 12.1 76%
23-Sep UCLA 34 13.6 78%
30-Sep Arizona State 58 17.7 85%
7-Oct at Utah 45 11.0 74%
14-Oct Oregon 23 9.3 71%
26-Oct at Oregon State 54 12.4 76%
4-Nov at Washington State 40 9.8 72%
10-Nov Washington 13 2.9 57%
18-Nov California 55 17.5 84%
25-Nov Notre Dame 17 6.3 64%
Projected S&P+ Rk 12
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 34 / 9
Projected wins 8.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 16.4 (7)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 16 / 16
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 2 / 1.1
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 75% (76%, 74%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 8.2 (1.8)

There are basically two Stanfords — the one that has one excellent unit compensating for a shaky one, and the one for which everything has clicked. The former is a top-20 team that will win eight to 10 games. The latter is a Pac-12 and perhaps national title contender.

We haven’t seen the latter since 2013, when the Cardinal lost three games by a combined 13 points, won the other 11 games by a combined 199, and ranked fourth in S&P+. The 2015 team nearly sneaked in the CFP’s back door after a gross early loss to Northwestern, but the defense was quite shaky by Stanford standards.

So which one are we going to see in 2017? I lean former, but I at least see a rebound coming. Last year’s midseason funk landed Stanford at 23rd in year-end S&P+, but if the defensive line holds up and the run game gets going, this is easily a top-15 team. The problem is that, with USC and Washington, the Pac-12 has a couple of teams with higher ceilings. Granted, the Huskies have to visit Palo Alto in early November, an aside from an early trip to USC, the conference schedule as a whole is pretty kind.

The good news? This is a junior-dominated team. That probably means very, very good things for 2018, especially considering what might happen when a few of 2017’s star recruits have had some development time.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.