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Up and Up: Stanford

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Teams on the rise sooner, not later.
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Where They've Been. Stanford was a laughingstock in 2006, a statistical disaster outscored by three touchdowns on average (the offense was held to a touchdown or less five times) and lucky to finish with the '1' in 1-11. Jim Harbaugh rode in behind disgraced Walt Harris on a solid burst of enthusiasm and alma mater-baiting and ratcheted the win total from one to four in his first year, but it was still generally a mess: the 3-6 finish in the Pac Ten only tied for eighth place, and the offense again was in the bottom 20 in the country (100th or worse) in rushing, total yards, scoring, passing efficiency and sacks allowed. The defense was somewhere between eighth and tenth in the Pac Ten in every major category. Whatever measure you want to use, the fact is that the only BCS conference team with a worse overall record over the last two years is Duke.

Yes we can!
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Catalysts. Usually, teams that fit any model of "up and coming" are stocked with young talent on the verge of breaking out, which is why this feature in the case of North Carolina and Pittsburgh included a section on those teams' "youth movements" - highly-touted freshmen and sophomores who have taken their licks and are ready to mature into winners.

That's not the case here. By comparison, this team is old: sixteen returning starters, not including special teams, all but one of them a junior or senior-to-be. The bulk of the lineup is still be drawn from the 2004 and 2005 recruiting classes under Walt Harris, which have been underwhelming to say the least.

As overmatched as the Cardinal have seemed, though, if you look closely, the cupboard is not exactly bare. Using databases from Rivals and Scout to judge players coming into school, and NFL Draft Scout to judge their potential coming out, Stanford obviously has the goods to compete:

Player Rank, By Position
Pos. Player '08 Class Rivals Scout NFL Draft Scout
FS Bo McNally rJr ? (**) NR (**) 2
ILB Clinton Snyder rJr 23 (***) 60 (***) 3
QB Andrew Luck Fr 4 (****) 4 (*****) 6
ILB Pat Maynor rSr NR (**) NR (**) 6
DE Pannell Egboh rSr NR (**) NR (**) 7
TE Konrad Reuland rSo 3 (****) 2 (*****) 8
DT Ekom Udofia rJr 7 (****) 10 (****) 9
OT Chris Marinelli rJr 46 (***) NR (***) 9
CB Wopamo Osaisai rSr NR (**) 76 (**) 14
OG Alex Fletcher rSr 3 (****) 2 (*****) 15
OT Allen Smith rSr 14 (****) 19 (****) 16
DT James McGillicuddy rJr 21 (****) 38 (***) 41
DE Levirt Griffin Jr 27 (***) 12 (****) 45
TE Matt Kopa rJr 7 (****) 50 (***) -
ILB Will Powers rJr 6 (****) 22 (****) -
DL Erik Lorig rJr 7 (****) 8 (****) -
TE James Dray rJr 13 (***) 17 (****) -

This doesn't qualify as "loaded" or anything, but it's hardly ninth place talent. There are 18 players here who either a) were ranked among the top 20 incoming players at their position out of high school (what Phil Steele would call a "VHT") or b) have played well enough so far to draw a favorable eye from pro scouts. The top dozen players on the list according to Draft Scout (Bo McNally through Allen Smith) are all currently projected as fifth-rounders at worst when their time comes. Sixteen of the above were recruited under Harris and are hitting the make-or-break portion of their careers, a category that will make up this year's entire starting front seven on defense and three-fifths of the offensive line.

The problem is that, of those sixteen, only three - Ekom Udofia (not to be confused with less-heralded, outgoing Udeme Udofia), Alex Fletcher and Allen Smith - fit into both categories. On the school's last official depth chart in November, only six were even listed as starters. Norse god Konrad Reuland is a Notre Dame transfer circa junior college and Andrew Luck will be a true freshman just hoping to compete for the quarterback job; neither has played a down for the Cardinal, and their high pro projection for now is still based solely on potential. Their predecessors in that category have not fared very well: Kopa, Powers, Lorig, Griffin and Dray are still around and all saw extensive action last year, but have not remotely lived up to their recruiting hype. Fletcher has been the most consistently drooled-over player by scouts at both levels, but he's also anchored the weakest unit on the team, a line responsible for allowing more sacks and accumulating fewer yards rushing the last two years than any other team in the country.

That's bad in the sense that upperclass talent rarely experiences some kind of epiphany in the last year or two. Significant leaps are typically made by second and third-year guys just entering the lineup. On the other hand, there must be plenty of optimism because of the number of pieces that were missing last year. The running game was a disaster at least in part because the effort to keep running backs healthy was a disaster: Toby Gerhart (a VHT out of high school according to Phil Steele, who ranked him PS#16, though only a three-star prospect by other sources) only played in one game, racking up 140 yards on 12 carries against San Jose State; Anthony Kimble had two 100-yard games in the first half of the season but only played in one of the last six games. On the line, Allen Smith was hurt against Oregon, missed the last two-and-a-half months and created a huge hole during the final nine games. You can actually see what happened after Smith left the lineup:

Stanford Offense With/Without OT Allen Smith
Yards Points Yds./Carry
Before Smith Injury 435.3 28.3 4.4
After Smith Injury 284.9 16.7 2.5

Two of the three games he played were against UCLA and Oregon (the third against San Jose State), so strength of schedule is not a factor in the drop. The vagabond status of the quarterback spot after an injury to departed starter T.C. Ostrander might be. But no doubt after the way the offense started last year it's anxious for the chance to go at full strength.

Surprising Wins, Close Losses, and Other Circumstantial Momentum. The earth-shaking USC upset is not a panacea for progress for several reasons: the Trojans still dominated the game aside from turnovers by a gimp-handed quarterback; no performance by either team the rest of the season suggested the result could be duplicated; and Stanford still has no realistic hope of competing on a level with USC. None whatsoever. The win was one of the feel-good stories of the year and was still sending aftershocks at the mythical championship process well into December, but it wasn't a sign of anything sustainable for the Cardinal in the long term - they were 1-3 going into the game, and they were 2-5 the rest of the season.

The best argument that Stanford could have been better than its record indicated isn't the shocker it could never hope to repeat, but the close losses it might have reasonably turned. See: a blown 31-17 lead against TCU, which scored three touchdowns in 15 minutes in the third and fourth quarter to win in Palo Alto in October, or a series of missed opportunities against Notre Dame in November, notably two straight dropped touchdown passes on third and fourth down plays that could have tied the game with less than a minute to go. Those two wins could have left the Cardinal at 6-6, still three games below .500 in the conference but drawing a lot more attention for one of the biggest single-season turnarounds anywhere.

Don't get too carried away, though - two of the Cardinal's wins were by one point (over USC and over Arizona two weeks later), which demonstrates how close the team was to 2-10 on the other end. No, the result that best portends some kind of turnaround was ending the season by upsetting Cal, even as wounded and as poorly as the Bears were playing at that point, to avoid another last place finish. That gave Stanford two wins over the middle-of-the-pack teams (along with Arizona) it's trying to compete with in the short term. There's no fluke in that.

Where They're Going. My guess is that nobody will pick Stanford to challenge for a bowl game this year because of its schedule: there is one "guaranteed" win (San Jose State), and ending the postseason drought would require the Cardinal to win an additional five of the following six of the "toss-up" variety: Oregon State, at TCU, at Washington, at Notre Dame, Arizona, Washington State. Because those games are seven of the first nine on this fall's schedule, there will be no quiet breakthrough - in order to have a realistic shot at a bowl, Stanford will probably have to go into the closing stretch against Oregon, USC and Cal already sitting at at least 6-3. People will probably notice that.

You'd be a fool if you predicted the Cardinal had a better than even chance of achieving that. Given its 2-7 record against those teams the last two years, the odds probably don't come close to even. But if there's a time to demonstrate the team is on course to becoming a solid, middle-of-the-pack competitor again, it must be now. The best players are closing in on graduation and the window is closing fast on Harbaugh's high-energy honeymoon.