Game week has finally arrived. Stanford football is back.
By the time the Cardinal kick off against San Diego State on Friday night, 246 days will have passed since Dec. 26 — the last time Stanford took the field in the Alamo Bowl. The college football offseason feels eternal, but we survived.
Now, we will be rewarded with over four months of pure bliss. Congratulations, folks. You made it.
The days leading up to Week 1 are a period of college football limbo. It’s half offseason, half season. There’s games to preview, but (almost) none to recap. In honor of said limbo, this article will have both a brief preview of San Diego State and a few overarching predictions for the season, because the offseason’s not over yet, and there’s still time to type my crazy thoughts for the world to see.
Week 1: San Diego State
As I’ve said before, 2018 could be a special year for Stanford. But for any of their Pac-12 Championship/Rose Bowl/College Football Playoff dreams to come true, the Cardinal have to reach 1-0. Nobody’s sleeping on the Aztecs after last year’s stunning upset, but Coach Shaw and crew still must be tempted to look ahead to next week’s pivotal matchup against USC. If they succumb to those temptations, San Diego State will make sure Stanford’s Playoff dreams don’t reach Week 2.
There are many reasons to believe this matchup won’t be much of a contest. The Cardinal have a significant talent advantage over San Diego State. The game is inside Stanford Stadium. Stanford returns their best player (in case you live under a rock, his name is Bryce Love), while the Aztecs lost theirs (FBS leading rusher Rashaad Penny). But still, this opener make me uneasy. San Diego State may not be the better team on paper, but they’re good enough to ruin Stanford’s season in Week 1. Here are three keys to make sure they don’t:
1) Slow down the run
I say slow down and not STOP, because Stanford has essentially zero chance at completely shutting down the Aztecs’ vaunted running game. San Diego State has been in the Top-12 nationally for rushing yards per game each of the last three years. Donnel Pumphrey broke the FBS career rushing yards record in 2016, and then Rashaad Penny led the FBS in rushing one year later. That’s two 2,000 yard rushers in as many years. This season, junior Juwan Washington steps in after averaging 6.6 yards per carry the last two seasons. Suffice it to say, San Diego State can run the ball.
Meanwhile, Stanford struggled to stop the run last season. Cardinal opponents averaged 4.6 rush yards per attempt, putting Lance Anderson’s run defense at 7th in the Pac-12. And Stanford’s best run stopper, Harrison Phillips, is now a Buffalo Bill. If the talented, but inexperienced, front seven is not ready, then Stanford could get ripped apart by the Aztec run game. If Bobby Okereke and crew can slow down the run, San Diego State will struggle to move the ball and the Cardinal should be just fine.
2) Force San Diego State to respect the pass
In last year’s game, the Aztecs thoroughly dominated time of possession and forced the ball out of Bryce Love’s hands by keeping him on the sideline. After Love gashed them for 184 yards on just 13 carries, San Diego State will likely load up the box and force KJ Costello to beat them through the air. Last year’s matchup was one of Keller Chryst’s worst showings, as he managed just 3.8 yards per attempt and had a quarterback rating of 4.2. Costello is sure to be better than that, but the Aztecs are also sure to make life tougher on Love than last season, as they return five of their top seven tacklers.
San Diego State has one of the best secondaries on the West Coast. They believe they can put their cornerbacks on islands and commit all available resources to stopping the Stanford running game. Costello and his talented receivers have to make that strategy work to their advantage by beating the defense over the top. JJ Arcega-Whiteside is the best jump ball receiver in college football. If he can make a couple big plays through the air, the Aztecs will be forced to loosen up their defense. When they do, Love will remind them why he’s the preseason Heisman favorite.
3) Win the turnover battle
Admittedly, this one’s a cliche. And it’s true almost every week. The team that wins the turnover battle will likely win the game. But against San Diego State, it’s particularly significant. In last year’s matchup, Stanford committed three turnovers (all by Keller Chryst), while San Diego State had none. That’s what allowed a less talented team to win the game. The Aztecs held on to the football, letting them wear down down the Stanford defense and take advantage of their possessions. This Cardinal offense can score a lot of points if they don’t turn the ball over. Conversely, this defense can give up a lot of points if they don’t force turnovers. San Diego State will need to create big plays in order to win, and the Stanford secondary will have to take advantage of any opportunities they find.
Stanford should be able to reach 1-0 without too much fourth quarter stress, but I’m sure the Aztecs will hang around. With the line at San Diego State (-14.5), I’m picking the Aztecs against the spread. Final score prediction: Stanford 34, San Diego State 20.
Now onto the fun stuff. Season predictions. I’ve always made informal predictions at the beginning of each season, but this is my first chance to officially present them to the world. First, some best case/worst case scenarios for Stanford:
Best Case: Bryce Love becomes Stanford’s first Heisman winner since Jim Plunkett. KJ Costello is the First Team All Pac-12 Quarterback. The defense finishes inside the top 25 nationally while Bobby Okereke is an All-American. The Cardinal lose once in September but beat Oregon and Washington on the road to win the Pac-12 North. Then they defeat upshot Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship to advance to the College Football Playoff. There, Stanford bows out in the Orange Bowl against Clemson. Despite a loss in the final game, 2018 is still remembered as Stanford’s best year in the modern era and places David Shaw squarely in the conversation for best coach in the country.
Worst Case: The defense is awful, as the Cardinal can’t make up for the losses of Harrison Phillips and Justin Reid. KJ Costello does his best Keller Chryst impression and regresses in his second year as the starter. Bryce Love can’t stay healthy and his draft stock plummets. Stanford finishes September at 2-3 and ultimately ends up 6-6 in David Shaw’s worst year as head coach. After a Foster Farms Bowl loss, Stanford has its first losing season since 2008 and questions start to rise about whether the Cardinal’s run of success is over.
My Prediction: I’ll stick with my previous pick and put Stanford at 10-2 with losses to Notre Dame and Washington. With the Huskies winning the Pac-12 and going to the Rose Bowl, Stanford heads to the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day against Boise State.
And now the moment we’ve all (and by all, I mean probably just me) been waiting for: National Predictions!
ACC: Clemson (13-0) over Miami (11-2)
Pac-12: Washington (11-2) over Arizona (10-3)
Playoff: 1) Alabama over 4) Auburn
2) Clemson over 3) Penn State
National Championship: Clemson over Alabama
Heisman Trophy: Trace McSorley, Penn State
Some brief explanation: Call this a quarterback play. Trace McSorley and Jarrett Stidham are my favorite signal-callers in the country, and I believe both of them will lead their team through difficult schedules to the playoff. McSorley gives Penn State an edge in the loaded Big Ten East, and the attention he receives from multiple high-profile matchups will carry him to a Heisman trophy.
I’ve got Stidham finishing second in the Heisman race after a huge jump in his second year under Gus Malzahn’s system. Auburn manages to navigate a murderous slate undefeated before losing to Alabama twice in a row to end the season. The Crimson Tide, meanwhile, are on their way to a fourth-straight Championship game appearance. Tua Tagovailoa will also find himself in New York for the Heisman ceremony thanks to gaudy stats under a wide-open Alabama offense. But in the championship, Clemson’s incredible defensive line and resurgent offense under true freshman superstar Trevor Lawrence get revenge on the Tide, bringing Dabo Swinney his second national title in three years.
So, there you have it. With my predictions officially on paper, it feels like the eternal offseason is finally over. It’s time for the next incredible, unpredictable, frustrating and fun four months of college football. And in honor of the beginning of the season, allow me to step out of my journalistic neutrality for one second to say: Go Stanford!
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