Before the season, I predicted that Stanford would be 4-1 with a loss to Notre Dame heading into the Utah game. That’s exactly where they stand (Point, King), but the record is about the only thing that hasn’t surprised me through the first month of play. Who would have thought that JJ Arcega-Whiteside would be the Offensive MVP so far (and that Bryce Love might not be in the top five)? Who would have thought the offensive line would be the weakness of a Stanford team?
September was a wild roller-coaster ride, with the highest of highs in the comeback win over Oregon and the lowest of lows in the blowout loss to Notre Dame. But although the Cardinal have shocked, thrilled, surprised, and often disappointed us, all of their goals are still on the table. Pac-12 North title, Pac-12 Championship, New Year’s Six Bowl, College Football Playoff (okay, probably not the playoff, but who wants to play Alabama anyway?). And with Stanford’s obvious deficiencies, a 7-5/8-4 season is still very possible as well.
Where will Stanford go post-September? Here’s some best case/worst case/predicted case scenarios for the next three months.
Best Case: If Stanford gets the offensive line figured out, this team has every chance to finish the regular season 11-1. KJ Costello went from decent to dominant in the offseason. His numbers aren’t fantastic (246 ypg, 62.4% passing, 11 TDs, 4 INTs), but his leadership and big-play ability have been on display in every game. Although it took three turnovers to make it possible, KJ created the comeback victory in Autzen Stadium. And his receiving weapons are the best in the Pac-12. JJ Arcega-Whiteside is second in the country with 8 receiving touchdowns. He’s second-to-none in red-zone jump ball ability. Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson make up the best tight end duo in college football and maybe the NFL too. Osiris St. Brown is one of just three FBS players with three catches of over 45 yards. Trenton Irwin has caught five passes in every game since 1911. Stanford has the red-zone monster, the possession superstars, and the big play threat. Now if they can just find the offensive line and running game to help them out…
Bryce Love’s season has obviously been disappointing statistically, but I don’t think it’s his fault. The offensive line just feels weird. They can’t create any holes for the Bryce or the other running backs, and if the Notre Dame game is any indication, they’re struggling to pass block as well. The Irish collected five sacks on KJ. If that keeps happening, QB1 is going to end up crippled or concussed. But if they can get it figured out, this offense is filled with playmakers and should be one of the most explosive in the Pac-12. And the defense has been good enough, although we’ll get to them later.
So now on to the scenario: Assuming Stanford gets better offensive line play, they should breeze through the October slate of Utah, Arizona State, and Washington State. Then comes the de facto big game against Washington. Despite a raucous crowd in Seattle, KJ outduels Jake Browning and leads a game-winning drive late. Stanford then destroys Oregon State, picks up their ninth straight win in the literal Big Game, and demolishes UCLA to end the regular season 11-1. They go on to beat [Insert Pac-12 South team here] in the Pac-12 Championship but are relegated to the Rose Bowl thanks to #EastCoastBias. Still, after a win over Penn State on New Year’s Day, the 2018 season is remembered as one of the finest in Cardinal history.
Worst Case: So far, I’ve avoided talking about the defense, but they’re all over the worst case scenario. Overall, the Cardinal defense was just fine in September. After Week 3, they were briefly ranked as the top scoring defense in the country. But we knew that was a facade, and sure enough their true colors were revealed when Justin Herbert torched Stanford to the tune of 25 of 27 in regulation. Still, the Cardinal defense forced three turnovers and held the Ducks to one touchdown after halftime. They made plays when they needed to. Then came Notre Dame. The Irish have a new car scent to them with Ian Book under center, and that suddenly dominant offense rolled up 550 yards on Stanford. Even so, the defense only allowed 24 points through three quarters and kept the Cardinal in the game until the offense completely unraveled. Lance Anderson’s defense has always and will always be a bend, don’t break unit. They don’t have to be great at stopping teams, they just have to be great at keeping them out of the end zone. With Stanford’s offensive talent, that should be enough. But what if it isn’t?
If the offense continues to struggle, this defense might start breaking a lot more often. They still don’t have high-caliber talent or depth on the defensive line. The linebackers are really good, but Casey Toohill’s injury has created tenuous depth there as well. The cornerbacks have been excellent, but the issues at safety have made the secondary vulnerable. Stanford’s defensive success so far might be built on a house of cards. They need the offense to start producing or else it might all come crashing down.
So here’s the scenario: If Stanford’s defense starts breaking instead of bending, the Cardinal could very well lose to Arizona State, Washington State, and Cal. And they will absolutely fall to Washington if the defense takes even a tiny step back. This unhappy universe where Stanford can’t block or tackle leaves the Cardinal at 7-5 with a trip to the Artist Formerly Known as the Foster Farms Bowl (now the Redbox Bowl). Stanford gets to Levi’s Stadium one month too late. The good news is that Stanford takes out its frustration in a blowout victory over Iowa. But the 8-5 finish to the season is tied for Coach Shaw’s worst ever and leaves the Cardinal with some massive questions heading into the offseason.
Predicted Case: As you might expect, I’m predicting something in between these two exciting/terrifying scenarios.
Despite how bad they looked in that ugly fourth quarter at Notre Dame Stadium, Stanford is still a pretty good football team. They have one of the best collections of skill position talent in the country. They have a quarterback growing into stardom. They have playmakers all over the linebacking corps and secondary. The offensive line and defensive line are a weakness, but considering the young talent that Stanford has in those two position groups, they’re only going to get better. Plus, for all the playcalling frustration, David Shaw is still an excellent football coach who always improves his teams over the course of the season.
Stanford will be just fine. But they won’t beat Washington because in order to beat a great football team on the road, you have to be great. So the Cardinal will finish 10-2, and with losses to such high-profile opponents, that puts them in the Fiesta Bowl vs. UCF. That New Year’s Six matchup would serve as an early preview for a huge non-conference game next season, as the Cardinal will face the Knights in Orlando on September 14th. Stanford ends UCF’s long unbeaten streak in the first meeting to finish 11-2 with a New Year’s Day bowl game victory.
Since I’m predicting 11-2 with losses to Washington and Notre Dame, I’ve kind of given away my Utah pick. But for the sake of consistency, here’s my quick take on the game: Utah has the third ranked total defense in the country. They have the 109th ranked total offense. The Utes will likely keep this game low-scoring, and so the final score might be deceiving. Stanford should be able to move the ball through the air on this Utah secondary that surrendered 445 yards to Washington State QB Gardner Minshew last week. The Cardinal defense should bounce back to largely shut down any Utah passing attack. But the Utes will run the ball a little bit with Zack Moss, and their third ranked rushing defense will make life nearly impossible for the Stanford run game. Still, Stanford generates a few big plays in the passing game, and that’s enough.
Stanford 24, Utah 14
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