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Stanford has Bryce Love, 4 division titles in 6 years ... and clear room for growth

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The Cardinal’s ability to contend will depend on QB play and defense, both of which were a bit disappointing last year.

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Stanford vs Texas Christian
Bryce Love
Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

I’m not sure we appreciate Stanford enough. Just as Utah’s lot in life has changed over the course of 30 years, the Cardinal have made a 180-degree turn over the last 10.

Ten years ago, we were impressed with 4-8. In Jim Harbaugh’s first season on The Farm, the Cardinal moved past Walt Harris’ 1-11 campaign with a legitimately intriguing season. They pulled one of college football’s great upsets, a 24-23 defeat of No. 2 USC and beat Arizona and Cal as well, but depth issues and a rough schedule dragged them down. And they went just 5-7 the next season. But we were impressed!

Fast forward to the end of 2017. Stanford blew an Alamo Bowl lead to TCU and finished with a fifth loss for just the second time in the 2010s. Thanks to a defense more inefficient than expected and an offense that was a little too reliant on big plays, the Cardinal merely finished 9-5 and 32nd in S&P+. They only beat two top-10 teams (Washington on November 10, Notre Dame on November 25) and won their fourth Pac-12 North title in six years. This totally disappointing season meant that they couldn’t quite inch ahead of Florida State for “top five programs of the 2010s” status.

Average S&P+ ranking, 2010-17:

  1. Alabama (plus-26.0)
  2. Ohio State (plus-19.2)
  3. Oklahoma (plus-17.7)
  4. LSU (plus-17.4)
  5. Florida State (plus-15.8)
  6. Stanford (plus-15.7)
  7. Clemson (plus-15.5)
  8. Notre Dame (plus-14.9)
  9. Wisconsin (plus-14.6)
  10. Auburn (plus-14.0)

Stanford — between 2013 national champion FSU and 2016 national champion Clemson — went from “hey, 4-8 ain’t bad” to “9-5 feels disappointing” in 10 years.

Of course, a decent season in service of a greater 2018 is exactly what this preview series projected a year ago.

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.

So which one are we going to see in 2017? I lean former, but I at least see a rebound coming.

The good news? This is a junior-dominated team. That probably means very, very good things for 2018.

They weren’t as good as expected, even if their record was, and now head coach David Shaw has to replace offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, Rice’s head coach.

Plus, this year’s schedule features a ton of projected close games, not to mention road trips to Washington, Oregon, Notre Dame, and UCLA. So we’ll have to wait and see if “very, very good things for 2018” actually come to fruition.

But Stanford has Love, nine other offensive starters, and most of last year’s defensive back eight returning. The Cardinal are going to have a chance to do all the damage we’ve come to expect from them.

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Stanford vs Texas Christian
David Shaw
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

2017 Stanford offensive radar

Tevita Pritchard went down in Stanford lore for his two fourth-down completions on the game-winning drive against USC in 2007 — a 20-yarder to Richard Sherman (who would switch to defense a couple of years later) on fourth-and-20 and a 10-yard lob to Mark Bradford on fourth-and-goal with 49 seconds left. He finished the game just 11-for-30 for 149 yards and a ghastly passer rating of 82.7 against an excellent USC defense, but he completed the ones that counted the most.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that he takes over as coordinator a year after Stanford did a “make only the plays that count (and few others)” homage.

It’s incredible that Stanford was able to win nine games and dominate in the field position battle while ranking 94th in FBS, and dead last in the Pac-12, in efficiency.

2017 Stanford offensive efficiency & explosiveness

With this many three-and-outs, you’re asking a lot of your punter to make up ground. Luckily, Jake Bailey (45.2 punting average, 12th in punt efficiency) was excellent.

And luckily, Love wasn’t merely an all-or-nothing back — he was the most all-or-nothing back we’ve seen in quite some time.

Of the 40 FBS players to rush at least 200 times last season, Love ranked just 32nd in marginal efficiency (minus-3 percent) but was a distant first in marginal explosiveness.

Top 6 rushers in marginal explosiveness (min. 200 carries):

  1. Love (plus-0.63 points per successful play)
  2. SDSU’s Rashaad Penny (plus-0.31)
  3. UNLV’s Lexington Thomas (plus-0.21)
  4. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson (plus-0.20)
  5. Notre Dame’s Josh Adams (plus-0.19)
  6. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley (plus-0.08)

Translation: Love’s “successful” rushes, as determined by my success rate formula, produced 0.6 more expected points than the average successful college football play. So for every 10 successful rushes, he produced a touchdown more than expectation. By this definition, he was more explosive than Rashaad Damn Penny and far more explosive than Saquon Damn Barkley. He was Arizona’s Khalil Tate (plus-0.68 marginal explosiveness), only if Tate was rushing 20 times per game.

Love finished second in the Heisman voting, and I still don’t think we appreciated his big-play ability enough.

Better yet, thanks to those dismal efficiency numbers, his skill set still has obvious room for growth. Of course, that brings about a chicken-and-egg situation. If Love is more consistent, that could help his QB immensely ... but if Stanford actually has a stable QB situation for once, that would help Love.

Of the six seasons since Andrew Luck left for the pros, Stanford has struggled with either QB injuries or inconsistency in about four of them. Three-and-a-half-year-starter Kevin Hogan was constantly battling nagging injuries, and in three other seasons (2012, 2016, and 2017), Stanford’s had two different quarterbacks throw at least 136 passes each.

Keller Chryst was supposed to change that. The former blue-chipper seized control of the starting job midway through 2016 and produced a 65-percent completion rate and 182.2 passer rating over his final four games before leaving the bowl game early with a knee injury. But he was dismal out of the gates in 2017, going just 15-for-28 in a loss to USC and 9-for-20 with two picks in a loss to San Diego State, then got hurt.

K.J. Costello, the latest young former blue-chipper, looked good in wins over UCLA and Arizona State, briefly ceded the job back to a healthy Chryst, then took over for good after Chryst went just 16-for-33 against a dreadful Oregon State defense.

Costello then pulled a 2016 Chryst, helping to engineer an upset of Washington and looking strong down the stretch (last four games: 151.8 passer rating), then getting hurt — a hip injury cost him spring ball.

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Stanford vs Texas Christian
K.J. Costello
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

If Costello is able to follow up on last year’s late play, Stanford’s offense will have everything it needs. Last year’s top four receivers return, including big down-field threats in 6’3, 221-pound JJ Arcega Whiteside (781 yards, 10.4 yards per target, plus-16 percent marginal efficiency) and 6’5, 253-pound tight end Kaden Smith (414 yards, 10.1 per target, plus-13 percent marginal efficiency). Throw in senior Trenton Irwin, bouncy sophomore Connor Wedington, another blue-chip tight end (sophomore Colby Parkinson), and four-star redshirt freshman Osiris St. Brown, and you’ve got one of the most exciting receiving corps in the West.

You’ve also got four returning all-conference linemen in guard Nate Herbig (first-team), center Jesse Burkett (honorable mention), and tackles A.T. Hall and Walker Little (both HM) and the latest blue-chipper in the chamber, redshirt freshman Foster Sarell. Oh yeah, and Love’s backup, Cameron Scarlett, gained 563 yards himself in 100 intended touches (91 rushes, nine pass targets).

That’s pretty much everything you need. As long as you have a quarterback. We’ll see if Costello can do what Chryst (who has since transferred to Tennessee) could not: follow up on a late-year run. If he doesn’t, then another blue-chip redshirt freshman, Davis Milles, awaits.

NCAA Football: Washington at Stanford
JJ Arcega-Whiteside
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 Stanford defensive radar

Every time you start to trust Stanford’s defense, there’s a blip. The Cardinal improved from 82nd to 23rd in Def. S&P+ in Harbaugh’s last year in charge (2010), then slipped to 44th. They ripped off three consecutive top-five performances from 2012-14, then dropped to 43rd. They improved back to 18th in 2016 and returned eight starters last fall but slipped all the way to 59th regardless.

Stanford’s efficiency plummeted — the Cardinal went from 32nd in success rate to 101st, and while they were strong at big-play prevention on standard downs, they took some risks on passing downs. Sometimes that paid off (22nd in passing downs sack rate), but when it didn’t, really, really bad things followed (126th in passing downs IsoPPP, which measures the magnitude of successful plays).

So what happened? Why did Lance Anderson’s defense lose its groove? Linebacker injuries certainly didn’t help. Starter Sean Barton made it just three games, and backup Mustafa Branch made it just eight.

That’s not really all that much of an injury problem, though, even when you add in cornerback Alijah Holder’s late-season leg injury. And while the Cardinal had to replace star lineman Solomon Thomas (15 tackles for loss and eight sacks in 2016), Harrison Phillips replicated Thomas’ production (16.5 TFLs, seven sacks). Anderson didn’t deploy much of a line rotation (just four linemen made more than three tackles), but he didn’t in 2016 either.

The cause isn’t immediately evident, then. And that makes it hard to predict a rebound, considering two of last year’s top four linemen are gone.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Southern California vs Stanford
Bobby Okereke
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

On paper, there’s plenty here.

  • Sophomore end Jovan Swann flashed some play-making ability in a backup role last year, and junior end Dylan Jackson has seen plenty of reps over the last two seasons. And lord knows another couple of young ends (6’7 sophomore Thomas Schaffer and 6’4 redshirt freshman Ryan Johnson) are built like stars.
  • Inside linebackers Barton, Bobby Okereke, Branch, Jordan Perez, and Joey Alfieri are all back. That should lend to stability. And Okereke (7.5 TFLs, four sacks, two passes defensed) is a solid play-maker. Last year’s top two OLBs are gone, but junior Casey Toohill is a play-maker in waiting, and it’s not too late for former blue-chipper Curtis Robinson to become a steadier contributor.
  • Corners Alameen Murphy, Malik Antoine, and Holder combined for 11 passes defensed, and Holder forced three fumbles with a pair of TFLs in just eight games. If he can stay healthy for once — he’s missed 13 games in two years — he’s a potential star. And four-star redshirt freshman Paulson Adebo waits his turn.

There are potential depth issues at defensive tackle and OLB, and while there are plenty of experienced safeties, no one could match the play-making ability of the departed Justin Reid, who’s now a Houston Texan. But this still looks like a good Stanford defense. I’d just feel a little better if I could figure out specifically why last year was so disappointing.

NCAA Football: Washington at Stanford
Alameen Murphy
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

With drastic inefficiency on both offense and defense, Stanford asked a ton of its special teams unit. And it got a ton in response. The Cardinal ranked sixth in kickoff efficiency, 12th in punt efficiency, 15th in punt return efficiency, and 16th in kick return efficiency, and the closest thing to a weakness (41st in field goal efficiency) would have been a strength for most teams.

The better news: everyone’s back. Bailey is awesome, the wonderfully named Jet Toner is strong in both kickoffs and place-kicking, Cameron Scarlett and Dorian Maddox are excellent kick returners, and Jay Tyler and Trenton Irwin are steady in punt returns. There’s no reason to think this unit will be anything but tremendous this fall.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep San Diego State 55 11.9 75%
8-Sep USC 15 0.4 51%
15-Sep UC Davis NR 34.0 98%
22-Sep at Oregon 23 -1.9 46%
29-Sep at Notre Dame 7 -11.9 25%
6-Oct Utah 28 5.0 61%
18-Oct at Arizona State 57 7.1 66%
27-Oct Washington State 41 9.0 70%
3-Nov at Washington 4 -14.5 20%
10-Nov Oregon State 110 24.2 92%
17-Nov at California 65 8.0 68%
24-Nov at UCLA 39 3.4 58%
Projected S&P+ Rk 20
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 10 / 54
Projected wins 7.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 14.4 (9)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 27 / 21
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 16 / -3.8
2017 TO Luck/Game +7.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 66% (81%, 51%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 8.6 (0.4)

Shaw took over for Harbaugh after the Cardinal’s top-five finish in 2010 and has somehow turned a notoriously fickle program into one of the nation’s steadiest. Stanford loses star running backs and star assistants and keeps plugging.

That Love elected to return for his senior season was a gift to both Stanford and college football fans, and he will likely do a lot more Love things this fall.

But whether Stanford contends for a Pac-12 title will depend on everyone else. The QB position needs the stability it’s lacked the last two years, and the defense needs to fix ... whatever it was that went wrong last year.

Do that, and the sky’s the limit. The schedule’s still a bear, with games at Washington (projected No. 4 in S&P+), Notre Dame (No. 7), and Oregon (No. 23) and a visit from USC (No. 15), not to mention just one home game after October 26. But we know Stanford is capable of big things because we’ve seen big things for most of this decade.

Whether “big” means “top-five” or merely “top-20,” though, they bear a bit more burden-of-proof than normal at the moment.

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