Not many quarterbacks can say they've played in three Rose Bowls, much less one. Who would have thought that Kevin Hogan would become one of that exclusive group? Not even Andrew Luck could get Stanford to Pasadena, and neither could John Elway.
The fifth-year senior has a chance to win his second Rose Bowl against Iowa on New Years' Day -- which would have been his third had David Shaw not used the power running game as his two-minute drill. Sigh.
After all of these Rose Bowls, it begs the question: which Hogan team was the best?
There are a lot of compelling arguments for all three (2012, 2013, 2015). The 2012 squad was the first team to make it over the hump and win the Grandaddy of Them All in eons. The 2013 team partied in the backfield. And the 2015 team had the Heisman Trophy winner -- oh wait, never mind.
All of these teams were special in their own special ways, but here's the way I see how they stack up:
1. 2013 (11-3, 7-2 Pac-12)
This team will be forever remembered for doing what no one thought possible: dominating Marcus Mariota's Oregon Ducks. They were up on the Ducks 26-0 with ten minutes left, squashing the third-ranked Ducks' national title hopes. The 2013 squad played probably the most complete, dominant game I have ever witnessed against an elite team -- these Ducks had averaged nearly 60 points a game (!) before getting squashed by the party in the backfield.
Yet they didn't let that game define their season -- they made ASU's eleventh-ranked Sun Devils look like the Blue Devils in the Pac-12 Championship game on the road. Tyler Gaffney had a relatively quiet night, rushing for *just* 133 yards and 3 touchdowns, part of a season that should have earned him more recognition -- he only had 138 fewer yards than Christian McCaffrey did this year.
Yes, they did lose the Rose Bowl and the most games of these three squads, but hindsight lends itself well to this team. Their regular season losses could have gone either way -- they were six yards away from beating Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium and were oh-so-close to beating USC at the Coliseum. That's why ESPN's FPI had them ranked first in the nation that season Adjusted Win Probability, and the fifth-best overall team despite having three losses.
They were the most balanced team of the three, with one Stanford's best-ever defenses matched with one of the most prolific offenses. Behind a defense lead by Shayne Skov, Henry Anderson, Ben Gardner, and Trent Murphy to name a few, this Cardinal team led the nation in sacks while also having one of the best running backs in program history, Gaffney. This squad could win games with its offense and its defense, something the other two couldn't claim.
In fact, ESPN's FPI ranked their offensive efficiency 12th in the nation, while their defensive efficiency was 10th. Neither of the other Hogan teams could match this balance. If I had to win a game right now with any of these teams, the decision would be simple.
2. 2015 (11-2, 8-1 Pac-12)
Hopefully, this team -- and
Heisman Trophy winner some guy named Christan McCaffrey -- are still fresh in your mind. Wait, who was that McCaffrey guy again?
That's right, the guy who broke Barry Sanders' all-purpose yards record. And led the team in rushing and receiving. And who is officially a better player than Derrick Henry, according to voters who watched football games. I guess we'll have to take it.
All Heisman talk aside, this year's version of the Cardinal had the best offense under Hogan. Hogan's 2015 team was the only one that could take over games offensively, which made them the most fun squad to watch if offense is your thing. And it wasn't just the ground and pound offense that Stanford is known for -- Stanford had speed runners, and could beat you through the air too. Hogan had the fifth-highest QBR in the nation (85.4), while rushing for 312 yards and five touchdowns, to boot.
However, what this team wasn't was well-rounded, like 2013's version. For the first time in eons, the defense wasn't the team's calling card. Granted, the Cardinal was still third in the conference in total defense, but they weren't dominant, or anything close to it, by any stretch of the imagination. The defensive line was brutally thin, the secondary was inexperienced (but talented!), and other than Blake Martinez, the linebacking corps was so-so.
As a unit, the defense paled in comparison to that of the 2013 and 2012 squads, without the big names and hype to which Stanford fans have become accustomed. They were a serviceable 53rd in the nation in defensive efficiency, but even the eighth-most efficient offense in the nation couldn't keep pace with the balance of the 2013 unit. Sorry, guys.
3. 2012 (12-2, 8-1 Pac-12)
Give this group credit -- they were the first to make it back to the promised land, but their games were a little too close for comfort, in my opinion. Maybe they were just doing their best San Francisco Giants' "torture" impression, but all but four of their games were decided by a score or less. Hogan was younger and had just taken over the reigns on offense from Josh Nunes at midseason. Hogan did lead a huge late-season surge (five straight wins over ranked teams), but since I did with all of the other teams, I will evaluate the team for its entire season, not just when Hogan was at the helm.
The offense was decidedly weaker than the other two squads, a pedestrian 45th in offensive efficiency. But this felt most like your typical "Stanford" team -- power running, an occasional play-action pass to a tight end, and stingy defense.
Stepfan Taylor carried the brunt of the load for the Cardinal, rushing for 1530 yards and 13 touchdowns, while setting up the efficient Hogan to do his work, completing 71.9% of his pass attempts, although at his career-low yards per attempt figure (7.21). Hogan had the best bunch of tight ends to work with in 2012, a dynamic duo of Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, but it wasn't enough to give the team anything close to an elite offense.
With a pedestrian offense, the defense almost single-handedly carried the team to the Rose Bowl, allowing over 20 points just three times. Led by the same core as the 2013 team (with Chase Thomas), it kept the team from sinking out of a BCS berth, ranked fifth in the nation in defensive efficiency.
Again, I don't think this squad was balanced enough to match the 2013 team's combination of Gaffney and partying in the backfield.