With the return of Stanford football, The Daily is bringing back its weekly roundtable discussions. The Cardinal will kick off the 2021 season this Saturday with a neutral site match-up versus Kansas State in the Allstate Kickoff Classic. The game will begin at 9 a.m. PT at AT&T Stadium — home of the Dallas Cowboys. Stanford closed out the 2020 season on a four-game win streak and now seeks to pick up where it left off. Meanwhile, K-State has something to prove after ending the year on a five-game losing streak. The most recent meeting between the Cardinal and Wildcats was in their 2016 season opener, which Stanford won 26-13 at home behind Christian McCaffrey’s 210 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.
The Daily’s Jibriel Taha, Daniel Wu, Jacob Neidig and Michael Espinosa discuss Stanford’s tough season ahead, quarterbacks and the Cardinal defense’s health.
Stanford is the only school to face solely Power 5 opponents this season, making the Cardinal’s schedule arguably the hardest in the nation. What do you predict the Cardinal’s overall record will be? What school will pose the greatest challenge for Stanford this season?
Jibriel Taha (JT): 7-5. The Cardinal have a brutal schedule that features six preseason AP Top 25 teams, but four of those are at home. I think that the national media is undervaluing the talent the Cardinal have with this roster slated at No. 24 on 247Sports talent composite. That being said, there are just so many tough games on Stanford’s schedule. Plus there is uncertainty at the quarterback position and now in the secondary with injuries to junior cornerback Salim Turner-Muhammad and junior safety Jonathan McGill that will force them to miss a significant portion of the season. In terms of the biggest challenge, I’m going to go with USC. Not because I’m particularly high on them, but because the Cardinal will visit the Coliseum Week 2. This Stanford team will be one that gets better as the year progresses, once the quarterback situation solidifies and they begin to get guys back from injury, including senior wide receiver Michael Wilson. If the Cardinal were to win their opener, that game in Los Angeles could be the one that leaps Stanford back into the national picture.
Daniel Wu (DW): I agree that Stanford’s pretty underrated heading into this season — it’s criminal that David Shaw’s crew doesn’t get more credit for pulling a four-game win streak out of a season that was disrupted more by the pandemic than any other team in the Pac-12 and probably the nation. There’s a blueprint for Stanford to win games this year, even with the ridiculously tough schedule and the question marks at QB and in the secondary: pound the ball with long, clock-eating, scoring drives so the defense stays fresh and whoever’s under center doesn’t have to do too much heavy lifting or play from behind. Then do it again. And again. Can they keep that up for 12 games against some very explosive offenses? Probably not. I’m terrified of Oregon in particular, because the talent in their front seven and their pass-catchers seem perfect on paper to blow up Stanford’s preferred gameplan. But the Cardinal have a few upsets in them. Let’s go with 7-5.
Jacob Neidig (JN): There’s no doubt that the Cardinal can string together some wins when dealt a bad hand (see last season’s four-game win streak without a home base). I think that resiliency and toughness will stick with this team and should serve Stanford well for this season. Unfortunately, the Cardinal will be losing a lot of valuable pieces in nearly every position group on offense (quarterback, wide receiver and offensive line) as well as some ferocious defenders (leading tackler Curtis Robinson and strong pass rusher Thomas Schaffer). With a defense that ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in rush defense and last in pass efficiency defense during the 2020-21 campaign, I agree with Daniel that the offense is going to have to step up and manufacture quality possessions that end with touchdowns. I think Stanford qualifies for a bowl game and pulls off multiple upsets. However, with so many unanswered questions, I think it’s hard to predict how the year will go until we see how the trip to Dallas plays out. Right now, I’ll take the Cardinal at 6-6 on the year, with the potential to finish with as many as eight wins.
Michael Espinosa (ME): Everyone else has done a great job of managing expectations, which means I have to be the bullish one. I’m expecting a 9-3 record with losses against USC, Oregon and Notre Dame. UCLA looked good in its season opener against Hawaii, but I’ll be damned if the Cardinal drop their first game with fans at Stanford Stadium in two years. Even though Stanford failed to crack the AP poll last year, the team looked on par with some of the teams in the 20th to 25th spots, so none of the other Pac-12 teams scare me that much.
For almost the entirety of 2021, we’ve seen a battle for QB1 between sophomore Tanner McKee and senior Jack West. West has more experience in college competition (two starts) and has been in David Shaw’s offense for longer, but McKee was the higher-ranked recruit coming out of high school and shone in the spring game. Shaw has voiced that he intends to play both quarterbacks, but who deserves to get the start this weekend? Will we see one quarterback clearly come out on top this month, or will both players get reps for the entirety of the season (with perhaps another quarterback in the mix, too)?
JT: From Shaw’s comments throughout the offseason, it seems like both guys know how to run the offense, and it will be really interesting to see how the coaching staff uses McKee and West’s different strengths to their advantage when they both get playing time on Saturday. I trust the coaching staff on this. It seems like both guys deserve to start, and they’ll both get playing time on Saturday to prove themselves. I doubt the two will split reps for more than a couple of weeks and would not be surprised at all if we have a clear starter heading into that incredibly important showdown with USC.
DW: I’m surprised that Shaw’s opting to play both West and McKee in Week 1. He’s never been shy in the past about changing the starting QB midseason (see: Nunes-Hogan in 2012, Burns-Chryst in 2016 and the Chryst-Burns-Costello carousel in 2017), and I really don’t know what it says that he’s splitting reps between West and McKee instead of rolling with one of them and correcting if he needs. It doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence, to be honest, and I think many of us expected that the physical tools McKee was recruited for should have pushed him in front of West by now. But I’ll withhold judgment, and I think by Oregon at the latest we’ll have a pecking order in place. A point of consolation: every time Shaw’s had to wrangle through a QB controversy, he settled on the right choice in the end.
JN: There’s an old saying regarding quarterback competitions: “If you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none.” I couldn’t agree more. In an ideal world, either West or McKee would have separated themselves from the pack and taken the starting job. Yet, here we are with a few days until the opening game against Kansas State and neither gunslinger won the job outright. Given where we are now, I think it’s fair to say both and neither of them deserve to get the start. I am hopeful that facing a live defense will propel McKee to play like the No. 3 rated pro-style quarterback in their class. If that doesn’t happen and the competition continues into the season, I think Shaw needs to make a decision before the UCLA game. Stanford moves into the heat of Pac-12 play with that game and will need an offense that has built a rapport with their quarterback.
ME: Every time a conversation about our QBs comes up in Slack I always have to say, “don’t forget Isaiah Sanders!” I’ll do it here, too. The sixth-year player from Air Force won’t take the starting job, but I want him to be an integral part of the offense on third-and-short situations, on the goal line and in other random situations to keep Stanford’s opponents on their toes.
On the opposite end, Kansas State is welcoming back a sixth-year quarterback, Skylar Thompson — who, with 30 career starts, ranks ninth nationally among active passers. Thompson has been starting games since he was a redshirt freshman, but he missed most of last season with an injury. Now, however, Thompson is starting and is healthy. How will Stanford’s defense, led by veteran DE Thomas Booker, size up against the experienced K-State quarterback? What impact does the return of senior ILB Jacob Mangum-Farrar and OLB Jordan Fox, among others, make?
JT: If Thompson is back to where he was before his upper-body injury last season, then the Cardinal could have their hands full. In his three games last year before he got hurt, Thompson recorded a passer rating of 165.3. The Cardinal front seven will have to be much better than they were a year ago for the Cardinal to have success this season, and they have the tools to do so with a preseason All-Pac-12 First Team player in Booker leading the way. The linebacking room is deep with the return of Mangum-Farrar, Fox and senior Ricky Miezan. All signs point to a much-improved pass rush and run defense after giving up 220 yards per game on the ground and only recording nine sacks in six games a year ago. They will need improvement to stop Thompson, but even more so to stop 2020 Freshman All-American Deuce Vaughn in the backfield.
DW: Thompson is one of the more experienced quarterbacks the Cardinal will face all season, and in his last full game, he scalped No. 3 Oklahoma. On top of that, he’s shown the speed and toughness to make plays with his legs on designed runs, scoring 11 rushing touchdowns in 2019 and three in his abbreviated 2020 season. Maybe that’ll change after Vaughn’s breakout campaign and the season-ending hit Thompson took last year. But Stanford should be on guard — they’ve struggled with mobile QBs over the last few years. Getting Mangum-Farrar and Miezan back at ILB is a game-changer (but also, what happened to highly-recruited DE Joshua Pakola?), and the front seven got plenty of penetration to stuff runs in the spring game. They’ve just got to stay sharp and disciplined on the road with their body clocks set to 9 a.m.
JN: In every game that Stanford won in regulation last season, the defense held the opposing team to less than 27 points. In the other three games, the defense gave up on average 39.9 PPG. There’s no way around it — Stanford’s defense last year did not consistently perform at a high level. For this year’s team to be successful, the front seven need to play well consistently. If the defensive line can get steady pressure on opposing quarterbacks, it will allow the secondary, which currently has lots of question marks, to be much more aggressive in how they defend the pass. I think the 1-2 punch of Thompson and Vaughn will be a tough matchup for anyone this year, but especially a defense that is losing multiple key defenders. I’ll be looking for the Stanford defense to create negative yardage plays, force turnovers and hold Kansas State on third down. If Stanford can perform each of those things, I think the Cardinal will be in a great position to make the Wildcats leave the Lone Star State with an L.
ME: You know who else is a sixth-year quarterback? Isaiah Sanders!
JT: Stanford 27, Kansas State 24 — There is so much uncertainty about how this Cardinal team will show up in Week 1. The same could be said for Kansas State, who fell to Arkansas State to open 2020, but I think that junior running back Austin Jones and an experienced offensive line will carry the Cardinal to a close victory.
DW: Stanford 23, Kansas State 21 — I think both offenses come out rusty and we see a gritty, low-scoring game. The defense does just enough to hold Kansas State at bay. With a good run game, but inconsistent quarterbacking, several Stanford drives stall out in Kansas State territory, and sophomore kicker Joshua Karty gets a busy debut.
JN: Stanford 20, Kansas State 27 — While I wholeheartedly hope the Cardinal can come out victorious, I think the Thompson-Vaughn combo will be too much for the Stanford defense to handle. I think Jones flashes a few glimpses of greatness for Stanford, but the offense as a whole is unable to finish drives in the endzone.
ME: Stanford 16, Kansas State 14 — We’ll be talking a lot more about our running backs after this game. Sure, Jones will be the lead back, but junior Nathaniel Peat was solid last season, while sophomores E.J. Smith and Casey Filkins impressed me at the spring game. This committee of three or four consistently wearing down Kansas State is what’s going to be the key to victory.