The Daily’s 2016 Stanford football preview series continues with Alexa Philippou, Vihan Lakshman and Tristan Vanech discussing the Cardinal’s schedule, touching on conference parity, potential trap games and their favorite matchups on the road ahead.
This is the final installment of a 12-part preview of the 2016 football season. Part 1 focused on the running backs and fullbacks. Part 2 featured a roundtable on the offense. Part 3 focused on the tight ends and receivers. Part 4 focused on the offensive line. Part 5 focused on the quarterback. Part 6 featured a roundtable on the defense. Part 7 discussed the defensive line. Part 8 focused on the linebackers. Part 9 featured a roundtable on potential breakout players. Part 10 focused on the secondary. Part 11 discussed special teams.
The Cardinal face a stiff test out of the gate, confronting the four highest ranked opponents on their schedule (USC, at UCLA, at Washington and at Notre Dame) in their first six games along with a tricky nonconference opponent in Kansas State and a matchup with potential Pac-12 darkhorse Washington State. How does Stanford’s difficult first half shape the overall outlook on the season and, ultimately, is it a net positive or negative to play such a front-loaded schedule?
Alexa Philippou (AP): The first half of the Cardinal’s schedule absolutely terrifies me. If this year’s team ends up being as good as I believe it can (and should) be, then having a front-loaded schedule could work in the team’s favor, giving it momentum to boost its rankings in a final push for a Playoff spot.
Yet that may not be a truly realistic outlook. With meetings against four preseason AP top 25 teams in Stanford’s first six games, I would alternatively not be surprised if the team dropped three or four games in the first half of its season.
And here’s the problem with a bumpy start to the season as opposed to a rough end to one: A few weeks in, panic would run amok among the Stanford community, Do-Hyoung Park would write another column questioning David Shaw’s coaching ability and the college football world would not take Stanford seriously for the rest of the season. And that doesn’t even cover how the team itself would rebound to, at the very least, finish the year strong and manage to earn a solid bowl game, not the goal for a team that, after being one pass away from the College Football Playoff in 2015, has much high aspirations.
Then again, if the team makes it through the first half of the season with only a loss or two, they’re golden.
Vihan Lakshman (VL): I agree with Alexa—the early part of the schedule looks absolutely terrifying—but I also think there’s reason for optimism. It’s hard to go undefeated in the Pac-12. In fact, with only two teams having run the table in the last ten years, it’s next to impossible. Since Stanford almost certainly will incur some losses this season, isn’t it better to hit those bumps early on? History has shown us that teams can rebound from early season losses to contend for conference titles, major bowl games and even College Football Playoff slots. The Cardinal were in this very position last year, bouncing back from a Week 1 loss to Northwestern to enter the playoff discussion before Oregon came in and shut down that party like that RA with no chill.
In short, the front-loaded nature of the schedule could work in Stanford’s favor if the Cardinal do indeed emerge as playoff contenders. On the other hand, as Alexa mentioned, there is a chance that this young Cardinal squad stumbles as they try navigating this minefield of a schedule and enters the second half with a losing record. That’s definitely a possibility with the distinct lack of cupcake games in the early going and a very early bye in Week 2 that will force this team to grind for 11 straight weeks to close out the season. There’s very little room for error, but if this Stanford team is as good as the preseason polls project it to be, then starting off with one of the toughest six-game stretches in the nation might work out in its favor in the long run.
Tristan Vanech (TV): Vihan’s right on the money about early losses not necessarily being weighed as much in the final analysis of a team’s playoff or bowl contention, but I fear it may not take just one or two early losses to get the kinks out—meaning we wind up not even being in that discussion. I think that Alexa’s point about a new Tunnel Workers Union cannot be stressed enough, especially when we’re talking about putting Stanford’s younger players up against the tough defensive lines they’ll face in the first few games. I could easily see us falling to a hungry UCLA that has not beaten the Cardinal in nine years or a Washington whose defense returns most of its starters in a unit ranked ninth-best in the FBS last season (the only other of Stanford’s opponents ranked higher was Northwestern). With that said, if Stanford can figure out the quarterback situation with haste and if those fresh faces on the offensive line and defensive squad can make their mark against Kansas State and USC, I have faith that Christian McCaffrey will lead the team to a not-too-terrible opening to the season.
Because I don’t see a viable path to emerging unscathed from the front-loaded schedule—not to mention, one in which the Card faces its three highest-ranked opponents on the road—I think it’s a net negative. Swap the first six games with the last six games and you have a schedule that’s not only more manageable, but punctuates the season with a possible play-in to the CFP. That would have been the ideal schedule. It just seems hard to keep Stanford in the conversation if it drops more than two early games plus the usual inexplicable upset, but we’ll get into that below.
In each of the last four seasons, Stanford has suffered at least one inexplicable road loss (a 2012 defeat at Washington, a crushing loss to USC in 2013, a beatdown at the hands of Arizona State in 2014 and, of course, a season-opening stumble against Northwestern last year). Which game on the 2016 schedule, if any, do you have circled as the prime spot for this year’s inexplicable road loss?
AP: The arguably good thing about this whole “inexplicable road loss” phenomenon is that, luckily, most of the road losses Stanford could have this season would perfectly explicable. We’re talking UCLA, Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon…and then there are two that would indeed be absolutely mind-boggling: Arizona and Cal. I think the chances of Stanford losing to Cal are slim to none, so I guess my answer to this question would be Arizona. Also because I could never pick us to lose to Cal.
VL: Unlike Alexa, I have no qualms about picking Stanford to lose to Cal, and I have a feeling this year’s Big Game in Berkeley will be very tight. However, I’m also going to take Arizona. In our preview series, we’ve talked a lot about the Cardinal’s imposing road matchups against the likes of UCLA, Washington, Notre Dame and Oregon while Stanford’s Week 9 trip to Tucson has been treated as an afterthought. It’s easy to think back to Stanford’s 55-17 shellacking of an injury-riddled Arizona squad last season and mark this year’s game as a foregone conclusion, but the Wildcats are a different animal when they have all of their claws. Anu Solomon, who missed the 2015 matchup with Stanford, returns as a dynamic playmaker prone to moments of fourth quarter magic at quarterback. Meanwhile, running backs Nick Wilson and Orlando Bradford look to have the makings of a top-tier Pac-12 backfield tandem. And, above all, Stanford fans should never forget what Rich Rodriguez’s offense did to arguably the best Cardinal defense in school history in 2012 by amassing 48 points and 617 yards. The Wildcats, when healthy, will put points on the board and challenge any team. Zona also has a history of pulling off major Pac-12 upsets after upending Oregon in both 2013 and 2014. If the defense under new coordinator Marcel Yates can maintain some consistency, then we might be headed for a duel in the desert come Oct. 29.
TV: I don’t like picking Cal to beat Stanford, but that is exactly who I am picking for what would be a truly inexplicable loss. Though the Bears showed off a solid offensive performance in college football’s season opener Down Under and have an experienced quarterback in David Webb to fill the void left by No. 1 overall draft pick Jared Goff, I doubt they go and have a better season than last year. With the Cardinal being ranked in the top 10 for only the fifth time in its entire history, I would be quite sad if we let Cal beat us, even if we don’t live up to the hype in the first half of the season. However, if I had to circle one team, it would be Cal. Vihan’s argument for Arizona’s underestimated talent is why I think a loss to the Wildcats would not shock me. I guess we might be interpreting the question differently, but I am by no means expecting a loss in the Big Game—I merely believe that such a road loss would be the only one that I could not explain given the schedule this year.
How do you shape up the Pac-12, particularly as schools like Washington and Washington State have begun to emerge as possible title contenders? How likely is it that Stanford pull off back-to-back Pac-12 titles as the parity within the conference increases?
AP: I think the Pac-12 is going to be pretty interesting this year, and I’m genuinely looking forward to having teams like Washington and Washington State shake things up in the conference. While the Pac-12’s increased parity certainly gives Stanford more opportunity to slip up and drop some games, there is still hope for Stanford to make it into the conference title game. I think a majority of the team’s success will boil down to how well the offensive line, with its three new additions, performs, and going by that logic, Stanford may be in some luck. USC and Oregon are rebuilding their defensive lines (in fact, it is unclear whether Oregon even has a defense going into the season), all of which may lessen the pressure on Stanford’s offensive linemen. Then again, Washington’s and UCLA’s defenses could still spell trouble. Regardless, even if Stanford drops two or three games in the Pac-12, the conference’s parity means that a team with that many losses has a greater chance than in years before to win the North. So even if the Cardinal’s season isn’t as dominant as those of years’ past, fans needn’t necessarily threat.
VL: Once again the Pac-12 will contend for the title of deepest conference in America. With Oregon’s regression in the post-Mariota years, there doesn’t seem to be a single, clear-cut threat to Stanford’s conference title aspirations. Instead, it looks like a challenger could emerge from any direction. Washington, for the unhealthy amount of hype they’ve received this offseason, looks very strong as Tristan pointed out earlier; UCLA and Wazzu possess the two best quarterbacks in the conference; USC and Oregon still have more than enough talent to make noise. Utah is still Utah: well-coached and under-the-radar. With so many potential pits to fall into, I would have to say that the chances of the Cardinal repeating as Pac-12 champions are unlikely—higher than every other team in the conference, but still improbable.
TV: The one thing that the conference’s parity helps Stanford in is its hopes to repeat a Pac-12 championship. The Cardinal could make it to Levi’s Stadium with a worse conference record than last year; the key matchup will be against Washington. If the Pac-12 cannibalizes itself like it has been known to do even without as much preseason attention, Stanford could sneak in with up to three conference losses (granted, we would probably have to beat at least Washington or Oregon). I have a feeling the Cardinal reaches the championship, even if it is shaken up early.
Which game on the 2016 schedule are you most looking forward to?
AP: Last year’s Stanford-UCLA matchup was one of the highlights of last season for me, and I expect this fall’s meeting between the two teams—scheduled for Sept. 24, the Cardinal’s third game of the season—to be no different. With Washington, Washington State and Notre Dame coming up for Stanford in the three weeks following the UCLA game, a loss against the Bruins would not be ideal, to say the least—especially if Stanford has its sights set on a Pac-12 championship or a berth to the CFP.
UCLA, on the other hand, has got to be sick of losing to Stanford. The Bruins have lost EIGHT STRAIGHT against Stanford. Jim Mora has lost to Stanford ALL FIVE TIMES he’s faced the Cardinal. Josh Rosen, who once dreamed of playing on the Farm before not receiving a scholarship offer there, must really hate Stanford’s guts. Not to mention he had a pretty mediocre performance in the Cardinal’s 56-35 beatdown over the Bruins last year. Between the budding rivalry between these Californian football programs, a showdown between two of college football’s rising/biggest stars in Josh Rosen and Christian McCaffrey and potential implications for the Pac-12 crown, what more could you want from a game?
VL: The first Stanford football road game I ever covered was the Cardinal’s 2014 tilt with Washington in the brand new Husky Stadium. With a design borrowed heavily from the Seattle Seahawks’ CenturyLink Field, Washington’s new abode redefined my conception of a home field advantage. When the Cardinal offense faced a number of critical third downs, the floor of the press box literally shook underneath us as the stadium reached decibel levels that I thought were only reserved for jet planes and rocket ships. As Stanford squeaked by with a 20-13 victory, I remember telling my colleagues Do and Michael that if Chris Petersen and Washington ever put together an elite team, this stadium could become the scariest college football atmosphere in the country, especially if another top team came to visit. Now, two years later, the Huskies are knocking on the door of elite status with a No. 14 preseason ranking and their first real test will be that Week 5 matchup when Stanford returns to Seattle. It will be loud. Earth-shakingly loud. And with two very talented teams coached by two of the best in the game in Shaw and Petersen squaring off for the inside track in the Pac-12 North race on a Friday night, it will be almost too much fun.
TV: USC may be three short weeks away, but I have been waiting for this game since the Pac-12 championship last year. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve lost two bets on the Stanford-USC game to a friend at USC. Maybe it’s that I’m from LA and know I’ll have my phone blowing up with texts and Snapchats if we lose. Maybe it’s the history behind the rivalry that seemed so lopsided until recently. Whatever the reason, the SC game always gets me pumped. The matchup will set the tone for the season as it did in our 41-31 rout at the Coliseum last September, and I hope it won’t be to the tune of the Spirit of Troy (one of two songs the USC band knows, according to some). Sept. 17 will be the first real test of the new Stanford line, the new Stanford quarterbacks and possibly the new era of Cardinal dominance in the Pac-12.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu, Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Tristan Vanech at tvanech ‘at’ stanford.edu.