Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
Football is a messy, small-sample activity that rarely leaves us with crystal-clear answers. You lose games to lesser teams, you beat better teams, and because we’re dealing with a 12-game regular season and not, say, 82 or 162, we learn to live with the lack of transitive clarity.
Stanford has become a rather interesting exception to the rule. Since 2013, David Shaw’s Cardinal haven’t lost to a team that finished with a losing record. They also haven’t beaten all that many particularly good teams. Over the last five years, they’re 9-17 against teams that finished with nine or more wins and 39-2 against everyone else.
The 2018 season was particularly stratified. Stanford whipped up on bad teams, beat decent teams, and lost to good ones. The defense stopped bad offenses and got gashed by good ones, and quarterback KJ Costello did great against bad defenses and was merely solid against good ones.
- Stanford vs. teams ranked 31st or better in S&P+ (0-4) — average score: Opp 37, Stanford 25 | yards per play: Opp 6.3, Stanford 6.0 | average percentile performance: 58% | Costello’s passer rating: 143.7
- Stanford vs. teams between 32nd and 75th (6-0) — average score: Stanford 24, Opp 14 | yards per play: Stanford 5.7, Opp 5.4 | average percentile performance: 64% | Costello’s passer rating: 158.4
- Stanford vs. teams ranked 76th or worse (3-0) — average score: Stanford 42, Opp 23 | yards per play: Stanford 7.0, Opp 5.4 | average percentile performance 58% | Costello’s passer rating 166.9
At first glance, it appears that Stanford began the season on fire (4-0), hit a mid-year funk (1-4), and finished strong (4-0). Really, though, the Cardinal were mostly the same team — the funk just happened when the best teams on the schedule showed up.
This is about as predictable an existence that college football offers. Is it a happy one?
Just more than a decade ago, with Shaw on staff, Jim Harbaugh pulled off one of the starkest program-building jobs of the 21st century. He inherited a Stanford program at one of its lowest historical ebbs — the Cardinal had averaged just 3.2 wins per year over the previous five seasons and had finished ranked just three times in 29 years — and got the foundation laid in just a couple of years. From 102nd in S&P+ the year before he arrived, he improved them to 78th in 2007, 60th in 2008, 35th in 2009, and fourth in 2010.
Harbaugh left for the NFL, but Shaw has kept the house intact. Stanford has established itself as a constant top-25 caliber program that plays more physically than you do and recruits better than its admissions standards would lead you to believe is possible. When they keep their starting QB healthy, the Cardinal win a lot of games. When they don’t, well, they still win quite a few games.
Their S&P+ rating has also acted like a house settling into its foundation — on average, it sinks slightly each year.
Stanford has, per S&P+, gotten at least a tiny bit worse in six of the last eight seasons. They are projected to make it seven of nine seasons this fall.
This is an odd place to be. A decade ago, only ranking 32nd, as they are projected to this fall, would be a cause for celebration. And based on basic long-term health indicators — investment in the program, proximity to eligible recruits, etc. — it’s still a hell of an accomplishment. But when it is demonstrated that you can do more than that, it still feels disappointing.
Costello was rock solid last fall, carrying an offense that got a massively disappointing contribution from its run game, but he’s nearly the only known entity returning on offense. His top running back (Bryce Love), top two WRs (JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Trenton Irwin), top tight end (Kaden Smith), and four of five line starters are gone. It’s Costello, all-world left tackle Walker Little — admittedly not the worst starting point — and a lot of mysteries on offense.
The defense should improve after fielding an uncharacteristic number of freshmen and sophomores, but will it improve enough to offset offensive regression? Is Costello good enough to avoid that regression altogether? We can assume that whatever level Stanford establishes, the Cardinal will beat the teams below that line and lose to the teams above it, but where might that line be?
This is not the radar one would expect from a team that had a running back drafted in April:
The Cardinal headed into 2018 with maybe the scariest running back in college football and a massively experienced line. They proceeded to rank 107th in Rushing S&P+ and eighth in Passing S&P+. Over 24 percent of their non-sack carries were stuffed at or behind the line.
Love was battling knee and ankle injuries from basically the first snap of the season, and the line didn’t have a single guy who started all 13 games. Love was never a particularly efficient back — Stanford’s 2017 success basically came from waiting around until he exploded for a 50-yard gain — but in 2018 he lost most of his explosiveness too. He had 30 rushes of 20-plus yards in 2017, then just eight last year.
Backup Cameron Scarlett was a bit more efficient than Love but was even less explosive. Youngsters Trevor Speights and Dorian Maddox offered nothing in either category.
With a worthless run game, Stanford slowly opened things up. Costello averaged 28 passes per game in September and 38 per game through the rest of the regular season. And despite this one-dimensionality, he completed 65 percent of his passes and finished 16th in overall passer rating. Arcega-Whiteside, Irwin, and Smith became the rocks that Love couldn’t, and Stanford somehow finished 26th in Off. S&P+, only 10 spots worse than 2017.
So was it Costello or his receivers? Was he making them look good, or vice versa? The answers to those questions will determine whether Stanford can withstand attrition.
Costello does get tight end Colby Parkinson back; the junior and former blue-chipper was easily the most explosive of the primary targets (16.7 yards per catch), but he was far less efficient, too. He was an all-or-nothing weapon in a corps of constants, and he’ll need to become more consistent this fall because Costello might be leaning on him a lot.
Shaw has recruited remarkably well in the receiving corps. Parkinson is a former top-40 recruit, and Stanford currently boasts six four-star freshman, redshirt freshman, or sophomores at wideout. Sophomore Osiris St. Brown looked the part in a small sample, gaining 204 yards in just eight receptions. Three more young blue-chippers (Michael Wilson, Connor Wedington, and Simi Fehoko) combined for 24 catches as well, but this isn’t much to lean on.
One assumes that Shaw and offensive coordinator — pardon me, Andrew Luck Director of Offense — Tavita Pritchard will strive for balance if at all possible. Can Scarlett carve out an efficiency niche with the turnover up front?
Granted, Little’s not alone; three others (juniors Devery Hamilton and Dylan Powell and sophomore Drew Dalman) have combined for 21 career starts up front, and sophomore blue-chipper Foster Sarell could figure things out at any moment. But the line still has a lot more to prove than we would normally expect of the Stanford line.
Shaw has pretty consistently fielded an elite unit on either offense or defense. He has never managed to field two in the same year. He has had three offenses finish 16th or better in Off. S&P+, but Stanford averaged a Def. S&P+ ranking of 46.3 in those years. He has had four defenses rank 12th or better, but his offense averaged 44.8 in those years. Very strange.
Last year was the first under Shaw in which Stanford had neither a top-16 offense or defense. Granted, that might have been different had Love and the O-line remained semi-healthy, but either way, the defense was a mediocre-for-the-talent-level 43rd.
This was almost encouraging. Stanford actually improved ever-so-slightly on defense (from 44th) despite massive youth. Eighteen defenders made at least 13 tackles last season, and nine of them were freshmen or sophomores. This probably explains why
defensive coordinator Willie Shaw Director of Defense Lance Anderson played so conservatively: Stanford was 39th in marginal explosiveness but 87th in marginal efficiency and 61st in overall havoc rate. That’s awfully bend-don’t-break.
Maybe it’s encouraging, though, that those nine freshmen and sophomores made over half of Stanford’s havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles). One of those youngsters, Paulson Adebo, was maybe the best cornerback in the Pac-12 last year despite his redshirt freshman status.
Paulson Adebo headlines the strong group of cornerbacks returning for action in the Pac-12 this year. pic.twitter.com/qpjyBG1ufA— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 30, 2019
Even with bend-don’t-break rules applying, Adebo defensed 23 passes (second in FBS, behind only Virginia’s Bryce Hall) and recorded 3.5 tackles for loss and three run stuffs as well. Adebo, junior Obi Eboh, and sophomore Kendall Williamson give Stanford maybe the most exciting CB corps in the conference despite the loss of starter Alijah Holder. Safety Malik Antoine returns, too, though there’s not another experienced safety on the roster. With these corners, Anderson might get the itch to be more aggressive, but we’ll see if the safety situation allows it.
The defensive line returns mostly intact, too. Seven linemen recorded at least two tackles, and six were freshmen or sophomores. Junior-to-be Michael Williams was the leading tackler up front, and despite lining up mostly as two-gappers — intended to be more block-occupiers than play-makers — ends Jovan Swann and Thomas Booker combined for 11 tackles for loss and eight sacks.
The major turnover comes at linebacker, where four of last year’s primary seven are gone. But Jordan Fox, Gabe Reid, and Casey Toohill (Stanford’s most active linebacker, recording seven havoc plays in seven games but missing six games with two different injuries) are still back. But they were all OLBs last year. Stanford has a lot of exciting defensive talent, but it has to be disconcerting that the backbone of the D — namely, the inside linebackers and safeties — is where most of the turnover occurs.
Maybe we should call future Stanford special teams coaches the Pete Alamar Director of Special Teams. Alamar came to Stanford as special teams coordinator in 2012 and has brought spectacular consistency to what is generally the least consistent unit on the field.
Stanford has ranked eighth or better in Special Teams S&P+ in each of the last four seasons, and with the return of place-kicker Jet Toner, he’ll have a chance to make it five straight. He has to break in a new punter and punt returner, however.
2019 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|28-Sep||at Oregon State||105||17.0||84%|
|16-Nov||at Washington State||36||-1.3||47%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||32|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||37 / 39|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||17.9 (12)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||21|
|2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||3 / 0.9|
|2018 TO Luck/Game||+0.8|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||54% (45%, 63%)|
|2018 Second-order wins (difference)||8.4 (0.6)|
This is an odd time for Stanford. The Cardinal have indeed been inclined to regress slightly for most of Shaw’s tenure, but they still have plenty of upside, and they might be starting as few as one senior on each side of the ball. Depending on which underclassmen go pro, they could be building toward something massive in 2020.
Thanks to home-road splits, though, now’s the time to overachieve. The three most highly-projected teams on the Cardinal’s schedule (Notre Dame, Washington, Oregon) all visit Stanford Stadium, and while they are projected underdogs in six games, all six of those games are projected within a touchdown.
If some young receivers step up for Costello, and if the aforementioned defensive backbone is just sturdy enough to allow exciting edge defenders to make plays, then every game on the schedule is winnable. Of course, if neither of those things happen, then about nine games are losable, too.
We won’t have to wait long to get our answers about this team. Of five projected top-30 opponents, three show up on the schedule in the first four weeks, and that’s after a visit from defending Big Ten West champion Northwestern.