We’re in the final stretch! Time to assess the Cardinal’s schedule, make some projections and give our final thoughts.
Stanford Schedule Breakdown
We’ll switch to the preseason AP Poll rankings for this section.
Weeks 1-3: vs. Kansas State (Arlington, TX), at No. 15 USC, at Vanderbilt
Kicking off the season away from home at 9 a.m. PT against a purple wildcats team — sound familiar? Jokes aside: hopefully the coaching staff learned from that experience, and the offense will produce more than six points this time out — we think they certainly will. If Stanford plays up to their ability, they win this game, so the question is only if they will do so in Week 1. This one’s a toss-up, but the talent advantage rests with Stanford. Kansas State’s sophomore running back Deuce Vaughn will tell us if the Cardinal-run defense has improved.
Beating a talented USC team in the Coliseum is a tough ask for any team, but it will be especially difficult for a team that will still be breaking in a new quarterback and is bound to improve as the season progresses.
Vanderbilt (111 in the ESPN FPI) is in the beginning of a complete rebuild of the program, and while this process has signs of being a trap game, something tells us this Stanford roster can handle three-straight road bouts.
We have the Cardinal taking two of these three games, with the loss coming to USC.
Projected record after three games: 2-1 (0-1 Pac-12)
Weeks 4-5: vs. UCLA, vs. No. 11 Oregon
Stanford will enjoy its first home game with fans in almost two years hosting the Bruins. These two teams played a dramatic, double-overtime thriller last year in Pasadena, with the Cardinal claiming a 48-47 victory. UCLA looks to be a bowl-eligible team this year and shouldn’t be ruled out of winning the South division.
The second leg of the opening homestand sees the Ducks come to the Farm. Oregon is the most talented and complete team in the conference if they get strong play from the quarterback position, as the Cardinal will look to pull off the upset.
Oregon will be a massive challenge, but the Cardinal should get one victory (UCLA) from this homestand.
Projected record after five games: 3-2 (1-2 Pac-12)
Weeks 6-7 and BYE: at No. 25 Arizona State, at Washington State
Stanford heads down to Tempe for a Friday-night clash against the Sun Devils. Arizona State is one of the more talented teams in the conference, and the short-week travel for the Cardinal will make this matchup even more challenging.
The second leg of the road trip is up in Pullman, but the Cardinal have the clear talent advantage in what is one of their more winnable conference games.
The travel in this trip is not ideal, but this roster has been through that and then some. Stanford takes one — a victory over the Cougars — on this road trip and then gets a well-deserved bye week.
Projected record after seven games: 4-3 (2-3 Pac-12)
Weeks 9-10: vs. No. 20 Washington, vs. No. 24 Utah
Stanford has won three of the last four against the Huskies and hasn’t lost to them at Stanford Stadium since 2007. It’s the opposite with Utah, against whom the Cardinal have dropped four of the last five games.
We see Washington and Utah at about the same level, and with both games on the Farm, these two are shaping up to be toss-ups. The Cardinal should take one of them.
Projected record after nine games: 5-4 (3-4 Pac-12)
Weeks 11-13: at Oregon State, vs. Cal, vs. No. 9 Notre Dame
The Cardinal’s last road trip of the regular season is up to Corvallis, where the Cardinal will look to extend their 11-game winning streak against the Beavers. The team then flies home for the Big Game, where they look to avenge a 2019 loss on home soil. The regular season concludes with the Fighting Irish. Until last season, these two programs had met every year since 1997. Notre Dame is in a rebuilding year, but still is very much a top-notch program and will be a massive challenge for the Cardinal.
Oregon State and Cal are both winnable conference games against weaker opposition, and the Cardinal should not overlook them given the tight nature of recent games against the two programs — especially given the latter is also being a rivalry game. But Notre Dame will be a different beast.
The Cardinal should grab two victories down the stretch against Oregon State and Cal.
Final projected record: 7-5 (5-4 Pac-12)
We have the Cardinal going 7-5 overall and 5-4 in the conference, which should be good for a third-place finish in the North division, behind Oregon and Washington. This standing would get the Cardinal back to bowl eligibility after a 10-year streak was broken by a 4-8 season in 2019.
There are two ways to look at this brutal, all Power-5 schedule featuring six teams in the preseason top 25. One viewpoint: the Cardinal are hurting themselves — as a program that has precipitously fallen from national relevance over the last few years, one could argue that the Cardinal should have padded their record and made bowl-eligibility much easier. The other viewpoint: one could say this lineup gives the Cardinal a chance to prove they are back, if they go, say, 9-3 against such a grueling slate. It’s important to remember that these games are scheduled years in advance, so it can be difficult to predict just how difficult one’s schedule will be in a given year. That said, we would have preferred to see a brand-new starter face FCS opposition in Week 1, not Kansas State.
Many would find our 7-5 prediction a bit generous. After all, Vegas has the Cardinal sitting at four wins. Stanford was picked fourth in the preseason Pac-12 media poll and is absent from many bowl projections.
But it’s not a generous projection. Look at Stanford’s last four recruiting classes: No. 40 in 2018, No. 19 in 2019, No. 21 in 2020 and No. 41 in 2021. The Cardinal are ranked No. 27 in 247Sports’s Team Talent Composite. Even with such a tough schedule, that’s not a four-win team on paper. People have raised endless questions about the defense, but eight starters are back, not counting the return of a healthy Miezan and Mangum-Farrar. Add that everyone is a year older, if Booker stays healthy this group is, at worst, average in the Pac-12.
On the offensive side of the ball, all the talk has been about how the Cardinal will have a tough time replacing Mills, Fehoko, Dalman and Sarell. But there are answers to all those questions: Stanford has a deep wide receiver, running back and offensive line group; and while McKee in Year 1 might not be as good as Mills, there’s no reason why McKee can’t be an above-average quarterback in the conference.
There are obvious positions that must be replaced and areas for improvement, but all of these potential issues have clear solutions that will more likely than not be successful. And while it’s unlikely that every single one of these solutions will pan out, the majority will and it should get the Cardinal back to bowl eligibility. That said, Stanford’s missing out on facing Colorado and Arizona substantially hurts their chances to compete for the division title, and it’s hard to argue that Stanford is better on paper than Oregon or Washington this season.
In addition to the play on the field, much has been made of Coach Shaw’s recent recruiting efforts. The 2021 class of current freshmen came in at No. 41 in the country and No. 7 in the Pac-12, according to 247Sports. This mark is Stanford’s lowest since 2013, and would have been even lower if it were not for the late-June commitment and reclassification of highly rated outside linebacker Wilfredo Aybar.
Nevertheless, it does not seem like a trend that will continue, as the 2022 class currently sits at No. 14 in the country and No. 2 in the conference, with 18 verbal commitments and still four months to go until the Early National Signing Period. The return of on-campus visits has played a pivotal role for the coaching staff — the NCAA did not allow them from March 2020 through May 2021 due to COVID-19. Staying in that top-25 range is key for Stanford football to stay relevant both in the Pac-12 and on the national stage. To reel in those top prospects, though, the Cardinal need to get back to their pre-2019 standard. Today’s recruits were too young to have grown up watching Andrew Luck ’12, Toby Gerhart ’10 and Kevin Hogan ’16 lead Stanford to big wins in the Orange Bowl and Rose Bowl, and need some newer faces to lead the squad to more signature wins.
This 2021 squad is good enough to get the program back on the right track with expansion of the College Football Playoff on the horizon. Playoff expansion gives Stanford the ability to get back to that elite level: expansion can put the team in a position in which they can tell recruits they are a conference championship away from competing on the biggest stage in college football, and they can get the best education of any FBS school, and they have every opportunity to play professionally and that they can do all that while living in beautiful Palo Alto. But they have to demonstrate that a Pac-12 championship is attainable. They have to get back to an eight- or nine-win base to show that Oregon and USC are not leaving them in the dust. With a brutal schedule this year and a team that should see a lot of returning production in 2022, a winning season in 2021 would be a step in the right direction.