Last week, my column caused the unthinkable: it made people call me optimistic. And not just optimistic; too optimistic. Multiple people actually wanted me to be more pessimistic and have lower expectations. If only they saw how I live the rest of my life…
Still, I didn’t think I was stretching for anything I said in that column. Sure, I oversimplified some of my views, but such is the nature of writing a column. As it was, I simply surveyed Stanford’s road ahead without providing too much of my own thoughts on what would actually happen.
You want optimism? You want to scream “homer” and tell me I know nothing about college football? You want something written down that you can point to in January and mock relentlessly?
Well, today’s your lucky day. Here is my 2011 college football prediction column. As with every other prediction column in sports history, I’m going to claim these are bold predictions. I leave it to you to decide if that applies to anything more than the font. (As a word of warning, you should read this column quickly, because the season might be over by the time you get to the end.)
Prediction #1: Stanford has the best chance of any AQ team to finish undefeated
I’m not starting off with “Stanford will beat San Jose State” or some other wimpy prediction. This is a real prediction.
The preseason AP poll does not get released until Saturday, so I’ll be using the coaches’ poll for this column. Of the top nine teams in that poll, only Boise State does not have a game against a top-five team in 2011, so every supposed title contender will be tested. Stanford’s top-five showdown is a matchup with Oregon (a team Stanford upset two years ago and led by 18 points last year), and most importantly, Stanford plays the Ducks at home. The Cardinal has no road games against ranked teams, with the toughest test away from the Farm expected to be USC (a team that cannot be ranked in the coaches’ poll due to sanctions, but could be ranked near the bottom of the AP poll).
Meanwhile, preseason No. 1 Oklahoma has to play at No. 5 Florida State and at No. 8 Oklahoma State. No. 2 Alabama travels to defending champion Auburn, Penn State and No. 20 Mississippi State in addition to hosting No. 4 LSU, who also has a “neutral” matchup with No. 3 Oregon at Cowboys Stadium. The Seminoles have to face rival Florida on the road and could also face a rematch with Virginia Tech at a neutral site in the ACC Championship Game. The list goes on and on. Compared with these schedules, Stanford’s appears tame.
Also, don’t get lured into the hype over Oklahoma and Alabama, the two teams predicted to hold the top two spots in the upcoming AP poll. Over the past five years, no team picked in the top two in the preseason has gone undefeated. Only three of those 10 teams made the BCS National Championship game and only one won the title (two-loss LSU in 2007). On the other hand, four of those teams lost three games apiece. So it doesn’t appear that these teams hold any real preseason edge over the Cardinal.
Prediction #2: Stanford will miss its assistant coaches more than Jim Harbaugh
The biggest question surrounding Stanford football this offseason has been how the Cardinal will do without its fiery leader from the past few years. New head coach David Shaw provides no maniacal grins or bulletin-board quotes, so the media has decided he doesn’t have what it takes to follow Harbaugh’s lead. However, Stanford doesn’t need that Harbaugh-ness, for lack of a better word. Don’t get me wrong, Harbaugh’s spirit rejuvenated the Stanford football program and did incredible things for this team. But Stanford is now at a point where its players already believe in themselves, and now it’s more about schemes and play-calling than bold media appearances.
And as far as schemes and play-calling, Stanford lost some big-time coaches from last year. Chief among these were Greg Roman (associate head coach and offensive play-caller) and Vic Fangio (defensive coordinator). Roman was a key architect in building Stanford’s complex offensive line play, which has been the cornerstone of the Cardinal offense for his whole tenure. Under Roman’s watch, Stanford has become one of the top offensive units in the country. Fangio’s impact was felt immediately, as his one year at the helm of the Stanford defense led to dramatic improvement across the board. With his new schemes, the Stanford defense improved from 69th nationally in points allowed to 10th and from 90th in yards allowed to 21st despite having basically the same personnel. Roman and Fangio are now Harbaugh’s coordinators with the 49ers, leaving gaping holes that some up-and-coming Stanford coaches must attempt to fill. Their success in doing so will help determine if 2011 is a step forward or a step back from 2010.
Prediction #3: Stanford will miss Sione Fua more than Owen Marecic
Marecic became a media darling in 2010, and deservedly so. He did everything for Stanford, becoming the first full-time two-way player in decades and playing about as hard as any player in the country on every snap. He had a big impact on both sides of the ball, and Stanford might not have gone 12-1 without him.
That being said, he can still be replaced more easily than Fua. Marecic was statistically Stanford’s weakest starting linebacker, and this year’s linebacking crew is stacked. The Cardinal’s young fullbacks aren’t at Marecic’s level, but they have lots of promise and should fill in adequately. On the other hand, Fua was the unsung hero of Stanford’s defense. His development last year into a top-tier nose tackle was a major reason why the defense improved so much. He plugged up the middle and routinely engaged multiple blockers, allowing Stanford’s linebackers to make play after play. The replacements at nose tackle show talent, but they are inexperienced and no one player has truly separated himself. Without a strong nose tackle, the defensive scheme has a glaring weakness, and it makes everyone else’s job harder with a soft spot up the middle. This isn’t to say that the new nose tackles will play poorly, but they are certainly a big question mark at this point.
Prediction #4: Stanford’s biggest problem area is the defense, not the offensive line or receivers
If you look merely at positions where Stanford lost the most, the three holes on the offensive line and the vacant top two wide receiver spots stick out as the major weaknesses. For this simple reason, just about every pundit is predicting a big dropoff in Stanford’s running production (because of the line) and passing production (because of the receivers).
If you’ve been watching Stanford football for the past couple years, though, you know that the Stanford offense is not going to be the issue. The two returning O-linemen — tackle Jonathan Martin and guard David DeCastro — are arguably the top players at their respective positions in the country, and both will likely be first-round draft picks when they leave the Farm. Surrounding these anchors, Stanford has a strong crop of young linemen ready to get their big break. With all the “Jumbo” sets Stanford has used over the years (not to mention all the blowouts the Cardinal has enjoyed), these young linemen have gotten some playing time already, and Shaw is not worried about them in 2011.
On the receiving end, Ryan Whalen was a great player for Stanford and Doug Baldwin resurrected his career last year. But they were by no means once-in-a-generation talents. In fact, the most gifted wideout on the team was probably Chris Owusu, who will be back in 2011 after an injury-plagued 2010. If Owusu is healthy this year, this won’t even be a discussion. As it is, the group of underwhelming or unknown receivers looking to break through in 2011 does have the talent to perform well enough to keep the Cardinal offense going. The best option, though, is just a few feet away: the tight ends. Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo comprise the best tight end trio in the nation, and you can bet than the Stanford coaching staff is working out ways to get them all in the game. Look for all three to see significant action, whether in multiple-tight-end sets or split out, a la Dallas Clark.
Meanwhile, the defense has holes. Fangio and some standout performers helped to hide this fact for most of 2010, but the holes remain nonetheless. The Cardinal has a dynamic pair of experienced safeties in Delano Howell and Michael Thomas as well as a deep linebacking corps. However, the defensive line and cornerback spots remain major question marks.
Stanford’s defense succeeded in 2010 by getting into the backfield, stuffing the running game and pressuring the quarterback. Not surprisingly, that helped to cover up some weaknesses in pass coverage. Without Fua, Marecic and 2010 starters Thomas Keiser and Brian Bulcke, getting a consistent rush will be a challenge. This could expose Stanford’s cornerbacks, which have been anything but consistent. This formula turned Stanford’s defense into a very mediocre unit during the middle of 2010. In a three-game stretch against Oregon, USC and Washington State (three teams with great quarterbacks), the Cardinal allowed 115 points. In the other 10 games of the season, Stanford allowed only 111. Another three-game stretch like this in 2011 could spell the end of Stanford’s BCS aspirations.
Prediction #5: Stanford’s success will depend on a game against a weaker team
The Cardinal will trip up against an inferior team. It’s going to happen. The question is whether or not that stumble will be an actual loss (like Wake Forest in 2009) or a narrow victory (like Arizona State in 2010).
Every top team has at least one game like this against a non-elite team. In 2010, Auburn needed a last-second field goal to beat Kentucky, who finished 6-7. In 2009, Alabama blocked a potential game-winning field goal as time expired to beat Tennessee, who finished 7-6. In 2008, Florida lost by a point to Ole Miss, who finished 9-4. In 2007, LSU lost to an 8-5 Kentucky team. In 2006, Florida won by a single point against both 9-4 Tennessee and 8-5 South Carolina.
As you might have noticed, all five of these teams went on to win the national title despite these subpar performances. Stanford will undoubtedly face a time when its offense is stalling or its defense is outmatched, and the Cardinal’s performance in this scenario will decide the team’s fate. It’s easy to circle Oregon and USC as the toughest matchups of the year, but trap games like a trip to Corvallis and a rivalry duel with Cal could provide the real tests for Stanford. Surviving these games distinguishes the elite teams from the very good teams.
Prediction #6: Andrew Luck’s numbers will not scream Heisman
I think I just set a Daily record by writing almost 2,000 words about Stanford football without mentioning Luck. That speaks to the depth of the team, and this depth is going to be the biggest obstacle to Luck’s statistics.
Andrew Luck is an incredible talent. He is the best player in college football and will be the first player taken in the 2012 NFL Draft, just as he would have been in the 2011 draft. Yet he’s not even the first option on his own team. What outsiders forget while they’re (understandably) fawning over Luck is that Stanford has been, is and will be a run-first team. (The Cardinal ran the ball in over 58 percent of its offensive plays in 2010, a higher percentage than Oklahoma and even Alabama.)
People also forget that this running game is really good. Stanford’s running back rotation is probably the most underrated part of the team. Stepfan Taylor might be the least talked-about player ever to rush for 1,100 yards for a 12-win team. Anthony Wilkerson was an enormously pleasant surprise as a true freshman, and he should team up with Taylor to produce one of the best running back tandems in the country. Tyler Gaffney and Jeremy Stewart are also back to provide depth to the rotation, and they’ll all be running behind the aforementioned stout offensive line.
With this power running game, Luck’s primary role is as a leader and on play-action passes rather than a Peyton Manning-esque pass-every-down mentality. Of course, he’s good enough to be the first option on every play, but that’s not how Stanford works. The Cardinal will still run first and look to Luck second, and for this reason, Luck’s numbers will not be as staggering as those of past Heisman winners.
Take the last three Heisman-winning quarterbacks: Cam Newton, Sam Bradford and Tim Tebow. Each of the three scored at least 50 total touchdowns, had over 4,000 total yards and had a quarterback rating above 172. Luck’s 2010 campaign fell short of all three of these marks. With the running game Stanford has, Luck will almost certainly not put up the touchdown totals of these past quarterbacks, but efficiency has been his calling card. Even still, he trailed Newton and Boise State’s Kellen Moore in that category in 2010, and Moore will be one of his biggest competitors in 2011.
None of this is to say that Luck won’t become Stanford’s second-ever Heisman winner. He has something that is arguably as important as statistics: media hype. Barring a Newton-esque performance by another BCS contender, Luck could put up the same numbers he had last year and win the award easily. To do this, though, he needs to lead his team to another top-10 finish. If Stanford is — dare I say — in the national title hunt, Luck has a very strong chance of winning the Heisman, even if his numbers dip a little in 2011.
Prediction #7: If Stanford’s defense plays well, Stanford will not lose
The mark of a great team is the ability to beat any team in the country if it is playing well. The mark of an elite team is actually beating any team in the country. Stanford is making that leap this year. In 2010, Stanford’s perfect game likely would not have been enough to beat Oregon’s perfect game, at least until the very end of the year when the Cardinal really rounded into form. This year, if Stanford plays well, it will beat anyone in its way. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say if the defense plays a good game, the Cardinal will be victorious. There is too much offensive talent, too much balance and too many weapons surrounding the best player in the nation for Stanford to lose a low-scoring game, no matter who is on the other side of the field.
If you’ve made this far in the column, you probably have one of two reactions: 1) as a Stanford fan, you’re angry at me for jinxing the team or 2) you’re a non-Stanford fan and you think my predictions are laughably wrong. It could even be a combination of both. Either way, you’ll probably note that I haven’t given the ultimate prediction for this season. So here you go. At this point, I’m not going to change your mind with any more arguments, so I’ll just leave you with one last prediction. Feel free to disagree.
Prediction #8: Stanford will go undefeated this year
Jacob Jaffe is too optimistic that nobody’s going to send him criticism of his predictions. Quash his expectations at jwjaffe ‘at’ stanford.edu.