Remember back when you used to hear Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit gush about Stanford's tight ends and power running game? It seemed like every game was in prime-time, and every time out, Stanford would pound the ball down their opponents' throats and they couldn't do anything about it.
From the start of 2014 through midway through the UCF game, that feeling was mostly gone. The hype around the program dwindled, and we didn't hear Brent and Kirk's familiar voices. Stanford wasn't Stanford anymore: they were some other 8-5 team that we didn't know, full of question marks, inconsistency, and heart-breaking losses.
After becoming an afterthought, the Cardinal is back, and might be in their best shape in recent memory, even with a loss to Northwestern on their resumé that doesn't look all that bad now, on paper at least.
In the USC and Oregon State games (And half of the UCF game), we finally got back to seeing Stanford football. It gave you that feeling you get when you uncover the last fry in the bag after thinking they were gone, except an endless supply of them.
We saw a staple of Stanford-dom, the running game, come back to life, looking like someone slapped a Stanford jersey on Toby Gerhart and brought him back. Maybe Christian McCaffrey didn't get bigger, after all. He certainly put on a Gerhart-esque performance on Saturday when he rushed for 206 yards, becoming the seventh player in Stanford history to do so.
It wasn't just McCaffrey: the team ran all over the Beavers and Trojans, averaging 260 yards per game on the ground, with the help of some Barry Sanders Jr. jukes, some Remound Wright plow, and some Bryce Love speed. Wright has the most touchdowns in the nation in the last seven games, a stretch in which Stanford has unsurprisingly gone 6-1 and looked like their old selves. The smash-mouth, rumbling Stanford we all remember is back. Watch out, Pac-12 front sevens.
The oft-criticized Kevin Hogan has been a big reason why the Cardinal has been so hot in this seven-game stretch that has vaulted them back into national relevance. I had to break out my calculator for this one, but he's averaged 9.8 yards per attempt in those contests.
For context, Andrew Luck averaged 8.9 yards per attempt over his career at Stanford. Don't call him a game manager: over this stretch, he's been one of the best signal-callers in college football, except for the dang nab Northwestern game. I've always hated Wildcats. What is a Wildcat, anyway?
He's been throwing bombs to his tight ends, conjuring up memories of the Big Three of Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, and Levine Toilolo from just a few years ago. This offense is starting to look a lot like those Luck offenses, which I know doesn't sound fair to the current unit.
But they've looked the part in the last couple games — they have looked fast, which David Shaw always talks about in his post-game press conferences when the offense is humming along well. This offense is very balanced, and has depth at all the skill positions, with a young and talented offensive line that will get Kyle Murphy back this week. Stanford's offense is back to where it needs to be: not fast in the Oregon sense, but fast in being in a rhythm and chewing up the clock.
And the defense, although a little sketchy in the first half of the Oregon State game, can hone in when it needs to keep the team in the game. On Saturday, they held the Beavers to a whopping zero rushing yards in the second half, helping the Cardinal pull away in what was a back-and-forth game. Sure, they're not dominant by any stretch of the imagination, but they've gotten the job done when they needed to.
Although not elite, this defense projects very well going forward, and will continue to get better as the season progresses because they are so young. And they're getting Aziz Shittu and Brendan Scarlett back for the Arizona game, which will ease a lot of fans' qualms about such a depleted defensive line.
With such a balanced team, Stanford looks poised to return to being Stanford, right back to being a legitimate Pac-12 and College Football Playoff contender. With only Cal and UCLA as legitimate road blocks to winning the Pac-12 North, Stanford is right where it wants to be: in the driver's seat. They could be this year's Ohio State, losing early and going on a tear that makes the voters forget about that slip-up in Evanston. Get ready to hear a lot of Musburger this season.