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Stanford football 2016: What should we expect from the Cardinal?

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The schedule is tough, there are plenty of new faces, only time will tell.

NCAA Football: Washington at Stanford Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There are many things that define a team for better or worse and with only two weeks until Stanford plays its opening game against Kansas State at home, there is really not much more to say that hasn’t already been said. Unless you have been living under a rock, you know Stanford returns the nation’s premier player in running back, kick returner, punt returner, wide receiver, quarterback, and maybe more in Christian McCaffrey. You also know that Stanford needs to replace Kevin Hogan, a man who played in almost as many games in Pasadena between 2012-2016 as most UCLA players did during that time and also happens to be Stanford’s all-time winningest quarterback. And…. You know Stanford is a good team but their schedule is as brutal as it gets in college football in 2016 and are looking at 5 ranked teams in the preseason polls.

With only two weeks to go, the only thing really left to say is “let’s get it on” but before Stanford is dismissed as a potential national title contender, let’s really dig deep into this season and see if I am being too optimistic about Stanford or is Stanford still that team playing with a chip on its shoulder. We will dig into the “battery” of the team in quarterback(s) and running back(s), the overall schedule for the 2016 season, and pretty much any other questions or possible unknowns that are hovering around the team heading into the season.

Let’s start out with the quarterback and throw in David Shaw since he will ultimately make the final decision. David Shaw knows whichever quarterback takes the first snap against Kansas State will have officially had their very first start. Shaw is also hoping 2012, the last time and only time he’s actually had to debate a starting quarterback will help him in picking the right guy. The funny thing about that quarterback debate in 2012 was Kevin Hogan wasn’t on anyone’s radar. It was Josh Nunes versus Brett Nottingham and Nunes won and actually went 7-2 and those two losses were by a combined 11 points. So while Shaw would eventually change quarterbacks, it wasn’t like he chose a guy who was completely useless.

Fast forward to 2016 and there are many positive things about this quarterback battle that Shaw didn’t have the luxury in having in 2012. The first thing is David Shaw is no longer a coach who was told he only won 11 games in his first year because he was giftwrapped a quarterback in Andrew Luck. Not counting 2011 with luck, Shaw is still 43-12. Shaw also gets to choose between Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst. Both quarterbacks are now upperclassmen, have game experience, and were both 4-star recruits and top-10 at the quarterback position in their respective recruiting classes. Burns was ranked higher than Jared Goff who went #1 overall in last years draft and Chryst was ranked higher than Brad Kaaya, quarterback for the University of Miami who is arguably the best quarterback prospect in the 2017 NFL draft.

Now I am not saying that either quarterback will be better than Goff and/or Kaaya but I am saying these two guys were both highly-ranked coming out of high school and have a good chance to be better mechanically and physically than Kevin Hogan was. Now Kevin Hogan was thrown into the fire in 2012 and his first road game was in Eugene which is about as bad as you can have it and won as a redshirt freshman. The quarterback of 2016 will get to start at UCLA or as Stanford likes to call it, “Second Home.” Not only is that first road game extremely easier than playing at Oregon, recent history shows it doesn’t take a returning starter at quarterback to win it all. AJ McCarron was the last starting quarterback and only quarterback this decade to win a national title and start for his team the year before (2011-2012). Whoever wins the job also has the luxury of giving the ball to McCaffrey; it’s worked for Alabama.

Now whoever wins the job or possibly both will play as Shaw has said as recently as last week, they will need to be efficient more than anything. One of the ways that makes this job easy is having Christian McCaffrey on your team. McCaffrey with a football in his hands is almost like watching Michael Jordan with a basketball in his hands; you know he’s going to score but you want to see what highlight he is going to make along the way. Now that is an exaggeration that McCaffrey scores EVERY TIME but he has that playmaking ability to score at will.

Let’s start off with the 2015 version of 19-year old Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders all-purpose record, yes THAT record that was considered untouchable and unfathomable. While many have critiqued that McCaffrey played more games than Sanders, just remember that his first two games of 2015 were not great and had only 337 all-purpose yards combined in those two games and was still over 2900 yards away from Sanders record so it wasn’t as if he was “given” the record.

So, as the newly appointed all-purpose King returns to the Farm this season, you also have a player who is still maturing physically and mentally. Like I said before, McCaffrey was only 19 years old last season. His body is growing, his knowledge of the playbook is growing, and he is now an elder statesman who can not only lead by his play but can use his voice as well.

Now here comes one opinion and one fact that eliminates all worries about McCaffrey playing well this season. The opinion is freaks of nature in the sports world don’t usually flame out, especially at the college level. Reggie Bush didn’t get worse in 2005, Andrew Luck didn’t get worse in 2011, and for someone who was shafted out of the Heisman for whatever reason you want to use, he is a gamer and he is playing with a chip on his shoulder and will let out his frustrations each and every week to prove he was the best last season and is still the best player in the country.

One fact that proves my point of McCaffrey building on last season is in 1997, Texas running back Ricky Williams led the country in scrimmage yards, something McCaffrey did last season. Williams was also the last player to do that in consecutive years as he followed up his 1997 season with a better 1998 season, won the Heisman trophy, and did it with a new quarterback.

Did I forget to mention Bryce Love plays for Stanford? If you don’t know him, you will. He might be FASTER than “The WildCaff”. The chills you just felt on the back on your neck just proved my point.

Now those chills might stay up for a little while but now it’s time to really dig into the schedule. It’s not easy to say the least and saying it’s hard is an understatement. However, the schedule doesn’t scare me and it definitely won’t scare Stanford. The only person(s) it might scare are the east coast voters who will have to show Stanford some major love if they run this gauntlet.

First off, Stanford is 37-4 at home since 2010. While USC is a rivalry game and Washington State is a good team, I really don’t see a team good enough to beat Stanford at home this season and barring injury or terrible weather conditions, Stanford is going to win all 6 home games.

Now the road schedule is why media pundits have Stanford drifting off this season but it might not be as bad as it looks. As the great Lee Corso would say though, “not so fast my friend!” Stanford plays its first road game on September 24th at UCLA. UCLA right now hates Stanford and in some circles, might want to beat Stanford more than USC. UCLA hasn’t beat Stanford since the Bush Era and no, that is not a joke. While UCLA has a great quarterback in Josh Rosen, they will play this game very tight and Stanford will play loose and win this game.

The following Friday, Stanford travels to Washington and Washington last beat Stanford in 2012, the last time Stanford had a new quarterback. Washington will also come into this game 4-0 and ready for the challenge at beating the reigning conference champions. The offense will be better, the defense is really good and Chris Peterson is a fabulous coach so why the optimism? While Washington wants to assert themselves as a championship caliber team, they will be looking ahead to Oregon. Washington hasn’t beat Oregon since 2003 and has been outscored in Eugene 259-87 for an average of 43-14 during that span. Washington wants Oregon way more than Stanford and frankly, they don’t have a Christian McCaffrey who can win this game by himself.

October 15th will be THE game for Stanford. Stanford-Notre Dame has been the most underrated rivalry game in college football and in the last 10 years, only 3 games have been by more than one score and the last 4 have been torture for both sides. Last season, Stanford won 38-36 on a time-expiring field goal that not only kept Stanford alive in the College Football Playoff but eliminated Notre Dame’s hopes as well. The last two games in South Bend have gone Notre Dame’s way and have been heartbreakers for Stanford. Stanford lost in 2014 on a 4th and long touchdown with just over a minute remaining and 2012 was the infamous goal-line “stand” by Notre Dame that still rings controversy in Stanford eyes. While this series has fared the home team of late, Notre Dame might be one of the more overrated teams heading into 2016 and this game might be easier than expected come October.

Halloween weekend in Arizona will be tough but Arizona doesn’t have the defense needed to stop Stanford and the Stanford defense will pick whomever is quarterbacking for Arizona and barring the Arizona sorority girls don’t get to the Stanford players, Stanford wins by double digits.

Stanford getting to Oregon hasn’t been the problem. It’s getting out of that game unscathed that has hurt Stanford in the past. In 2010, Stanford lost one game and that loss to Oregon cost Stanford a shot at a national title. In 2011, Stanford hosted the game, hosted College Gameday, had Andrew Luck, and an undefeated record and lost. In 2015, Stanford had lost its opening game to Northwestern but hadn’t lost since and would have made the CFP had they pulled one out against Oregon. Now Stanford has done the same to Oregon but this team has been the thorn in Stanford’s side. Stanford has historically been a low-scoring team in Eugene as well but Oregon is not as good as they have been in the past. The defense which is normally average at best is mediocre going into the season and they have a great running back but that’s about it on offense. If this game matters and it definitely has since the conference expansion, look for the team who needs this win to win this game and if Stanford has one loss at most, they will need this win more.

Stanford plays Cal as their last road game. You’ll hear “take off that red shirt” and “hey remember the play” but Cal is awful. Anything can happen in The Big Game and that anything might be Stanford putting up another 50 burger on Cal. So when you take a step back, Stanford has a tough schedule but it can be handled.

So while only football version of the team battery was named and the schedule, you might ask yourself well what about the other players and positions? Without adding boredom to the conversation, Stanford is loaded at fullback and their defensive backfield might be the best Stanford has ever fielded. In a conference where throwing the ball 40-60 times a game is normal, Stanford might lead the conference in interceptions.

Many pundits will bring up the lines and there are fewer question marks than you might think. Offensively, Stanford has been reloading each and every year and while you might think replacing an Outland Trophy winner and an all-conference player is hard, Stanford has been recruiting hard at the offensive line position and Stanford has been doing a great job at plugging and playing different players and they have all have game experience. Regarding the defensive line, Stanford might have one of the best defensive ends in the Pac-12 and possibly the country in Solomon Thomas. Thomas is bigger and stronger and last season, he was double-teamed for pretty much the whole season. With Harrison Phillips back and some incoming freshman, Stanford will have the depth to rotate and keep guys fresh, something they literally could not do last season. As far as Luke Kaumatule goes, if he is even a decent player, I will personally admit I was wrong but he is not very good and will most likely only see the field in blowouts and Senior Day so when you see his name popping up, don’t buy in to it.

Stanford is set at WR and TE so the offense is ready to keep scoring 30 points per game, something they’ve done for 13 consecutive games.

Stanford lost Blake Martinez at linebacker and will have to fill his role both on the field and off. Martinez was a team captain and it can be hard to find a vocal leader but I was more worried losing Skov a few years back than Martinez this season and Stanford has recruited great guys in the last few years who can take over that lead role at linebacker such as Peter Kalambayi, Joey Alfieri, and incoming freshman Curtis Robinson who might redshirt this season but might be too good to actually keep off the field.

Special Teams is absolute gold right now and although he will probably not play, who has a better name than Kicker/Punter Jet Toner. ..Well possibly Wide Receiver Harry Schwartz.

The last month of the off season can be tough for writers, pundits, and fans because there really isn’t much news that will pop up and it’s too close to the season where anything that could be news isn’t released because it could either help or hurt that team. Stanford opens up against Kansas State on Friday, September 2nd. We have no clue who will start at quarterback although I actually have Burns beating out Chryst and we don’t know how many fans will be there as it’s a Friday night in the Bay Area and Stanford students aren’t even in session yet. I do know that if everything stays where it is at today from a player standpoint, Stanford will be just fine and the 2016 season will continue to keep Stanford in the upper echelon in college football.

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