The Stanford Cardinal football team finished with a narrow win over Pitt at the Sun Bowl and ends their season with a 9-4 record. Now that the season is complete, we’ve had less than a few hours to reflect. On what note did the Stanford Cardinal finish the season? Looking back on the course of the year, how do we digest what all happened in determining the ultimate question everyone involved with a program has: was this a successful year?
For some, a winning record and bowl win means, of course it was. To others, maybe this is a rebuilding year the Cardinal can improve from and “next year, we’ll be better”. “Next year, we’ll make the playoff”. And that’s what fans should want. No fan wants to settle, we want it all. We want the ‘ship. But if that goal is out of reach, when it’s no longer in our control, how are we measuring our teams “success”?
Now, in the old days (and by “old” I mean about 10 years ago or so) a 9-4 record, that is a good season. That’s a great season. That’s a record to hold your head up high and to brag to your friends about when you get back to the office on January 2nd .
But times have changed and in the era of the Playoff and social media instant satisfaction, that record won’t cut it, sadly, for a lot of fans. Not all fans – but many fans. It’s “playoff or bust” for many and teams are scrambling to try and convince their casual fans that even if your team isn’t in the playoff, there’s still reason to have a great year and root for them. This of course, plays into the bigger conversation about expansion for the CFP. Coach Shaw has been vocal in supporting this idea and for good reason. When teams have a winning season, a good season, but don’t make the playoff, it causes fans to say, “whelp, not good enough”.
Coming into the year, Stanford seemed to have found their quarterback in K.J. Costello and Bryce Love had just come off a season arguably better than any player at Stanford ever. The secondary were sharp and turned out to be better than most expected. And the receiving game? Wow. K.J. to J.J. was basically trademarked and hash-tagged all season. The offensive line as many knew, would be rebuilding, but they were nothing to shame at, by any stretch.
But fast forward to the game on a beautiful Texas day and as you scrolled through Twitter or any blog, you saw comments on how this Stanford game versus Pitt, might be one of the most forgettable. And they were not necessarily wrong; the game was not breathtaking offensively by any means. But on the other hand, it was much like we’ve seen all year, in many respects.
Coach Shaw said it best in his post-game interview: “This game was very indicative of our entire season”. He went on to make references to how this team overcame injuries, wins were not always pretty, but Stanford found ways to get the job done and get the win. The Cardinal pulled off the Sun Bowl victory without key players including Trent Irwin at wideout, left tackle Walker Little and tight end Kaden Smith.
But why has it been “forgettable”? To some, it clearly feels that way. There’s no right or wrong answer here.
Is it because Stanford has went to the state of Texas three years in a row for their bowl games and maybe fans are tired of looking at the same “type” of bowl games the last few years? Was the absence of Bryce Love from the last game of the year enough to push the casual Stanford fan away to what many would describe as an “off” year for the Cardinal? There’s been an injured Bryce Love, injured offensive line and not to mention the “off” year on the home schedule. The Cardinal fell to four teams this year who were all ranked within the top 17 at the time of their respective meeting. Maybe this season didn’t have that “sex appeal” that seasons have had in recent years.
Stanford beat the teams they were statistically suppose to, for the most part, but didn’t necessarily have any “signature” wins. Add all these things up, and maybe, it has been perceived as a gritty year. And gritty, is in most forms, a compliment.
In games, for example versus Oregon, you saw moments of when a team and its players fought tooth and nail for the win, and with a little bit of luck (which never hurts anyone) pull off great moments of maturity and smart football. Gritty, ugly wins and come back-from-behind, the momentum not in their favor, one percent chance of winning, kinda wins.
But then, back to back losses to the Washington schools, starting the very next week. The health of a team can have a negative impact on everyone from players, to the team staff. It has the aura to dampen the mood of a locker room. Injuries and uncertainty in your best players can leave a film of doubt from the start of practice, until the last second of season, if you let it. But Stanford was able to find ways to win even with some of those uncertainties.
Cameron Scarlett stepping up when needed and instead of grumbling about being Love’s backup the past two seasons, steps in and grits forward. The young o-line finding their chemistry together and taking on the Stanford tradition of the “Tunnel Workers Union” to finding ways to give the offense just enough space and time. Paulson Adebo showing the country night in and night out that he is a force and became the leader of the secondary.
Maybe it was the Pac-12 as a whole, who beat up on each other again this year. Washington took on Ohio State in the Rose Bowl when it’ was all said and done but their first real test of the year versus the closest thing that the Pac-12 will get to “we want Bama” chants, started with a loss to an unranked Auburn. Not exactly the way a conference wants to start off their primetime broadcast to the East Coast audience.
For as many doubts and stumbles the Cardinal had, remember: David Shaw was able to compile a 9-4 final record being, at best, 80 percent healthy on and off all season long. But even if you think this year was “uneventful” or “boring” or a “disappointment” remember that Stanford went on to win their last four games and reach at least nine victories for the fourth straight year.
No matter what era of football you’re in, that’s a great feat. Shaw takes these Stanford teams, year in and year out, to winning seasons and bowl appearances unlike many. He’s able to compete with the likes of traditional power programs, year after year, and find the kids who can not only succeed at Stanford athletically, but more importantly, academically, and win games. His teams win and go on to either play in the NFL or, most likely, be and do other things outside of football. Beyond any record. Using their experiences as student athletes, to contribute to society.
In a day and age when we take winning for granted, spoiled by past Stanford greats and in the eye of the uprising storm of this program, this year didn’t end that bad at all. In fact it’s exactly what players and fans strive for.
You know what’s “forgettable”? An 1-11 record in 2006. A little over a decade later and Stanford has made what was almost nothing into something, great.