Team Overview: Palo Alto is still in mourning over losing the Fiesta Bowl in January after missed chip-shop field goals were wide to end regulation and begin the only overtime. It was a shame that Andrew Luck’s career at Stanford ended in a loss after he did exactly what you would expect from any (expected) first pick in the upcoming NFL draft, driving the Cardinal into winning position yet again as he did all year, but life must go on. So for Stanford, 2012 marks a bit of a new beginning while also keeping business as usual under head coach David Shaw.
The new beginning is on offense of course, where Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes are battling to take over the team leadership role, while the offensive line tries to regroup after losing superstar David DeCastro and another NFL caliber starter in Jonathon Martin. Neither of the qbs are anything near the talent of Luck, but they have their own sets of skills and Stanford isn’t known much for their qbs (outside of the incomparable Elway and Luck) anyway. This is where Stanford football is business as usual with a top flight running attack and a relentless defense that ranks among the top in the Pac.
The schedule is extremely balanced for the Cardinal in 2012 and should lend an interesting challenge to a team that may be able to fly under the radar a bit at times, but will be in the full midst of crossfire at others. It begins with a couple warm up games at Stanford Stadium against SJSU and Duke. Although San Jose State plays hard and is an improving team and Duke jumps up from time to time to bite somebody, those should be fairly easy wins by the second half of each game. Vaunted, hated and revenge-minded USC visits in week 3, which should well be the marquee matchup in the early part of the Pac-12 schedule, before Stanford visits Washington and then comes back home for a contest against Arizona. That pits 4 of their 6 home games within the first five overall, so Stanford really needs to start strong (which I expect they will) because the back end has a whole lot of traveling attached to it, as well as the intensity ramping up in a hurry.
The next 2 games are probably going to define whether or not Stanford is good enough to at least challenge for a BCS bid for the third straight year as their annual rivalries against ND and Cal take center stage on back to back weeks. As mentioned in the Cal preview, neither the Cardinal nor the Bears wanted this game in the middle of their season but the difficult scheduling of the Conference after the expansion has made it impossible to field The Big Game as the last game of the season every year. Everybody knows that you have to bring everything you’ve got to go and win at Notre Dame, so after riding full emotion into South Bend and coming out of there likely bruised up a bit, the Cardinal turn directly around and head to hostile Berkeley. The Bears (like the Trojans) will be fired up after losing to Stanford by only 3 on the road last season and the fans should be in full throat enjoying their remodeled gem of a Stadium. We shouldn’t expect many points in that game but fireworks happen when these two meet up. To finish Stanford gets a break in the schedule with the Cougs and Beavs visiting and the Cardinal taking a trip to Boulder. Finally Oregon hosts Stanford to end the year with yet another rivalry matchup.
The Good: Outside of a top 10 recruiting class which will pay off in the next couple years, the Defense is simply very stout and is the calling “Card” for this squad, ranking first in the conference in rush yards allowed and just second in overall defense last season. 8 starters return and anyone who has seen the Cardinal play knows that Chase Thomas and friends are the real deal and will cause havoc throughout the season. The question marks are in the secondary, where 3 valuable contributors were lost to graduation. The group is still fairly seasoned with several juniors and seniors, but losing 2 top flight safeties is never easy to replace.
The running game and the tight ends are the other things you can count on with Stanford. The terrific threesome of Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson rushed for over 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2011 and will be featured even more in 2012. Taylor himself rushed for 1300 and was regarded as one of of the best backs in the country with his combination of power and speed, but his replacements are maybe equally as talented, with maybe a little more quickness to boot! Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz could grow into the top tight end duo in the Pac, as much as Shaw likes to feature this position in the passing game, especially in the red zone. They are both big, faster than average and have soft hands.
The Bad: Well, it’s no picnic playing 3 a road rivalry game and the Cardinal have 3 of them to deal with, not to mention their two biggest in back to back weeks! Can they deal with the intensity and then come back and win a less hyped game against an improving Pac-12 group of teams? It’s certainly not ideal. By the way, those “less hyped” games are going to be featuring some really spread out, passing heavy teams, which as I pointed out is the not so strong piece of the Cardinal “D”. Is this bad news? Probably.
The pass game is not proven in any capacity. Nottingham only threw for 78 yards last season behind Andrew Luck and the three top receiving threats of Owusu, Fleener and Whalen are gone. I’m not even sure there’s much else to say. This is a major concern for the coaching staff and Stanford fans and will be the most serious issue as the year rolls on against the high octane Pac-12. Ty Montgomery is going to have to step up in a big way on the outside to keep defenses from stacking the box on every single down, but I’m not sure he can be a premier receiver in the league, even with 1 on 1 coverage the entire year.
Final Assessment: Stanford can’t possibly live up to their last 2 seasons, can they? The team was fortunate to keep “Luck” on their side as long as they did, but the day of the #1 pick saving their tails is over. I think we understand that teams are gunning for these guys with really bad intentions. Stanford is good, but with no passing game they won’t be great. We are going to assume that the BCS run is over for the Cardinal, but with Shaw’s defense in tact they will still make a good bowl and get ready to restate their claim as a top 15 team in 2013 with more experience at Quarterback.
The Pac-12 South Champs are on the docket for next week, as we hit up Pasadena to preview the Ucla Bruins. We’re set for a big week in Cougar land as we begin our CougSclusive Series, so keep in touch!