In a 2014 season filled with inexplicable moments, the Stanford Cardinal's final act did not disappoint.
While Card's 45-21 curb stomping of Maryland left no questions over who was the better team to take the field that day, the Foster Farms Bowl produced several head-scratching moments. From near-freezing temperatures and gale force winds sweeping through northern California to a fake Ed McCaffrey striking a Heisman pose after his son-but-not-really-his-son Christian hurdled a defender, it was a another bizarre day in a bizarre season.
But perhaps the strangest part of it all was watching the Cardinal absolutely pummel Maryland into submission. We knew going in that Stanford probably had the advantage talent-wise, but David Shaw's squad looked so freakin' good. Behind a punishing power-running game, a nasty defense, and a brilliant performance by Kevin Luck Hogan, many were left wondering how a team stuffed with talent all over the field was playing in a bowl featuring singing chickens.
It's hard to figure out what to make of Stanford's 2014 season. It's easy to dismiss the Card's most recent campaign as a rebuilding year after one of the best four-year runs in all of college football. Every program - outside of maybe Alabama - is due for a rebuilding year, and I think all Stanford fans knew deep down that the team would come back down to earth at some point. But can we really call this past season a rebuilding project? With the amount of talent loaded on that roster and the way the Cardinal thoroughly dismantled a top ten UCLA team that had everything to play for, this wasn't a Stanford team simply reloading for a run in future seasons.
This squad absolutely had the talent to play on New Year's Day, but ran into a minor identity crisis and a train wreck of a schedule that turned things sour very quickly.
The "rebuilding year" argument takes an especially big hit when you consider Stanford's elite, championship-caliber defense. Outside of that 60-minute nightmare at Autzen Stadium, Lance Anderson's group was statistically the best group in the country. After losing NFL talents Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner, Ed Reynolds and Josh Mauro, no one in their right mind thought the Stanford defense would be able hold a candle to last year's group. And -for most of the season - they were better.
With the defense widely expected to take a step back in 2014, all eyes were on the Stanford offense to take the next step and guide this team to the Promised Land. No one was prepared for the absolute anemic performance we saw out of this offense: 10 points against USC, 14 against Notre Dame, and only 7 in regulation versus Utah.
For most of the season, the discrepancy between the offensive performance against ranked teams and unranked teams was startling - especially for a team that almost always came out on top against good competition in prior seasons. After starting his career 11-0 against ranked opponents, Kevin Hogan - and the rest of the offense - struggled mightily against teams with a number out in front while dominating the likes of UC Davis, Army, and Oregon State. Clearly, the Cardinal had the talent to wipe out overmatched teams, but struggled with execution and finding an offensive identity in close games.
As the team's revamped, highly-touted offensive line of five juniors experienced the growing pains of becoming full-time starters, the Cardinal began to move away from the power running game that has become synonymous with the program, but still limited the touches for explosive weapons like Christian McCaffrey and Michael Rector. In 2014, Hogan had attempted thirty or more passes in four of the first seven games after only throwing the ball over thirty times once in his career.
The Cardinal undoubtedly had key holes to fill on the offensive side of the ball, particularly on the line and at running back. The brutal nature of the early schedule, which featured the talented defenses of the Trojans and the Irish, put the offensive on its heels early; it wasn't until the final stretch of the season - Cal, UCLA, and Maryland - when the Cardinal finally established its bludgeoning offensive ground game behind the emergence Remound Wright and figured out how to incorporate the elite athleticism of McCaffrey.
That Stanford team we saw in late November looked like the team optimistic fans drooled about in the preseason: a balanced, explosive offensive attack coupled with a bruising defense. Despite Stanford's success the last half-decade, there have been a lot of "what-ifs" surrounding this team amongst fans and in the media. "What if Luck and company finally overcame Oregon?" "What if Stepfan Taylor scored the touchdown against Notre Dame in 2012?" "What if Stanford took care of business against USC last season?"
The Cardinal's dominating finish to the season might raise a lot of its own "what-if" questions, but I don't think that's how we should remember this season. This team might have fallen short of its potential, but it's important not to understate the late-season turnaround. At a time when the locker room and the season could have fallen apart, Stanford kept it together and will bring a lot of continuity into next season, especially with the retentions of Shannon Turley and Lance Anderson.
Ultimately, 2014 was not a rebuilding year, but it was a year of growth. It was a crucial stretch in this program's new place in the upper echelons of the sport as it regained its footing after a tough start. That's a testament to the strength of the team and, in my opinion, the biggest takeaway from a season that was neither the best of times nor the worst of times, but definitely the strangest of times.