Football Roundtable: Season predictions

Aug. 31, 2022, 12:43 a.m.

Stanford football returns to the gridiron on Saturday with a large chip on its shoulder. Following a 3-9 season, which concluded with a seven-game losing streak, the Cardinal have a lot to prove to not only the college football world, but themselves as well. Without COVID-19 restrictions, the team will enter the season following a complete offseason, something they were not afforded in the previous year. After suffering only a few departures from the roster, Stanford will have a chance to return to their winning ways beginning this weekend. The Cardinal kick off their 2022 season at home against Colgate this Saturday, with kickoff set for 5 p.m. at Stanford Stadium. 

The Daily’s Zach Zafran, Jibriel Taha, Kaushik Sampath, Drew Silva and Noah Maltzman share their thoughts on Stanford’s season as a whole and what it will take to have a successful campaign.

Stanford hopes to get back on track after a 3-9 season, which was David Shaw’s lowest win total since taking over the program in 2011. What do you predict Stanford’s record will be at the end of the season?

Kaushik Sampath (KS): It’s hard to pin down a precise record, but I think it will be somewhere between 5-7 and 7-5. Stanford has one of the toughest schedules in the country as they have to play five opponents currently ranked in the AP Top 25. Not only that, but they also have tough games against UCLA and Oregon State, both of whom were bowl eligible in 2021. This schedule does not set up nicely for the Cardinal, who hope to achieve a bounce back year, but I believe they will have enough improvement to make a potential run towards a bowl.

Jibriel Taha (JT): 5-7. The schedule is brutal, especially with those road games and a Week 3 bye. There’s quite a bit of talent on the Stanford roster, but the improvement needed in the trenches to make a bowl game against this schedule is just too massive. That being said, the home opponents set the team up nicely to grab some solid victories.

Noah Maltzman (NM): I am a bit more optimistic than my colleagues and will predict a 6-6 record plus a win in a small bowl game. The schedule is down-right horrendous with a bye week even before students arrive on campus, but I am excited to see the new talent and, more so, the players that return from injuries suffered last season. However, this will be an uphill battle from the moment that the season starts.

Zach Zafran (ZZ): Foolish optimism has gotten the best of me in the past, but even with a level-headed outlook I don’t think it’s far-fetched at all to expect this team to go 6-6. It’s certainly worth mentioning that the schedule the team has been dealt is nothing short of complete bulls–t. Two home games AND a bye week BEFORE classes even start is ridiculous. Nonetheless, without COVID restrictions and injuries plaguing the team, I think they’ll remain competitive in most games and, in David Shaw-fashion, pull off an upset against somebody (I’m looking at you, UCLA).

Drew Silva (DS): While I do expect to see some improvement from last season, I think the Cardinal will still linger around .500 for the majority of the season. I would feel more confident in predicting 6-7 wins for this Stanford team if they were not dealt two home games and a bye week before students arrive on campus. However, reaching this benchmark or even making a bowl appearance is certainly not out of the picture, especially with several winnable home games.

It’s been five straight seasons without double-digit wins. Although reaching that mark would require the team to far exceed expectations, what areas need improvement to at least finish the year with a winning record?

KS:  The areas most in need of improvement are run blocking, pass blocking and run defense. Last year, Stanford ranked dead last in the conference in rushing yards per game, sacks allowed and rushing yards allowed. When the Cardinal were at their best in the early-mid 2010s, they performed all of these functions at an elite level. If the program wants to get back to its previous heights once held under David Shaw, it must relentlessly get better in those three areas.

JT: Kaushik said it — it’s the offensive and defensive lines. Stanford was bullied in the trenches last year and must see improvement to get anywhere close to a winning record this season. If we see a repeat of last year from those position groups, it doesn’t matter how talented the rest of the team is.

NM: The most important improvement that needs to be made is in the trenches. Stanford prided itself on a strong run game during the 2010s with two Heisman candidate running backs in Christian McCaffrey ‘17 and Bryce Love ‘19, and we have heard about similar amazing feats from junior running back EJ Smith, according to both head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard. In addition, the defensive line needs to improve. Losing defensive end Thomas Booker ‘22 and defensive lineman Dalyn Wade-Perry ‘22 is a huge blow to an already weak defensive front, and it will take a lot of effort to come back to form.

ZZ: Not to sound like a broken record, but Kaushik and Jibriel said it because it’s true. Football all starts with the linemen and in order for this program to turn things around, things need to shape up in the trenches. Offensively, David Shaw should return to his roots and reinstate the ground and pound — a scheme that EJ Smith has the talent to make successful. On the other side of the ball, the shift to a 4-3 scheme is something that has potential to cater to this team’s personnel. It’s just a matter of execution.

DS: The Cardinal cannot expect to finish with a winning record without significant improvement from both the offensive and defensive lines. There is a reason that every writer before me has also discussed the importance of seeing improvement in the trenches. Last season, the Cardinal offense averaged a measly 87.6 rushing yards per game, while the defense conceded 235.6 yards per game, both of which were dead last in the Pac-12. If the defensive line can rise to the Pac-12 average and EJ Smith has the breakout year that the coaching staff believes he is capable of, then a winning record is definitely achievable.

Despite a rough stretch to conclude last season, a number of players stepped up and had a breakout campaign. Who do you have your eyes on as a breakout candidate this season?

KS: I have E.J Smith as my breakout candidate for this season. He hasn’t played too much the past two seasons, as he sat behind Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat who both transferred out this past offseason. We’ve seen flashes of his versatility in the run and pass game, but now this year he’ll be counted on even more. Smith may not be a burner, but he has great short-area quickness and cutting ability. If Smith can put it all together, he could have an outstanding year. 

JT: I’ll go with freshman David Bailey. The coaching staff has sung his praises since he arrived on campus as an early enrollee this spring, and the 6-foot-3, 238-pound EDGE has every bit of talent to be a Freshman All-American this season. He’s strong, explosive and expected to be a starter; I can’t wait to see what the top-100 recruit brings to the Farm.

NM: I think whichever cornerback starts opposite of senior Kyu Blu Kelly will have a good shot at breaking out. Whether that be fifth-year Ethan Bonner or seniors Nicolas Toomer or Salim Turner-Muhammad, I think whoever starts consistently will be due for a breakout year. The Pac-12 offensive coordinators will fear Kelly, a former All-Pac-12 Second Team member, and thus will have more incentive to throw to the other side of the field against less-proven corners. They will all be heavily tested this year, and it will be exciting to watch their progression.

ZZ: It’s not like fifth year wide receiver Michael Wilson hasn’t broken out yet. Does he only have one career game over 100 receiving yards? Yes. But has he shown he possesses the talent to be an every-down threat? Also yes. However, I think the time has come where we see Wilson’s play reach an entire new level. The 6-foot-2 wideout has been derailed by injuries recently, but with a talent like junior quarterback Tanner McKee under center, I see Wilson reaching his stride and becoming Stanford’s go-to guy outside the hashes.

Stanford will face off against plenty of familiar faces, but is scheduled to play some new programs as well. Which game do you view as the game of the season and why?

KS: While some people may argue the Big Game, I believe that the USC game on Sept. 10 is the game of the season. It’s Lincoln Riley’s first season at the helm for USC, and while the Trojans have re-tooled their roster, the new players have yet to play together in a meaningful game. Moreover, this will only be the second game of the year, and USC still may have some kinks to work out. This is a prime opportunity for the Cardinal to capture a game against a more talented team, something they must do if they want to be bowl-eligible at the end of the season.

JT: It’s USC for me as well. As Kaushik touched on, there’s no better time to be facing this transfer-heavy, star-studded USC squad than Week 2. If a more experienced Stanford squad can come away with the victory, they’ll start to rewrite the preseason narrative surrounding their team and would put themselves on a path to bowl eligibility. 

NM: “Anotha one,” as DJ Khaled says. I also agree with Kaushik and Jibriel and think that USC will be the game of the season. This will be Lincoln Riley’s first conference game in the Pac-12 against Stanford, who last year beat USC in such a fashion that they fired their former head coach, Clay Helton, before their next game. Will this happen again? Definitely not. But with the new offensive and defensive schemes that Riley brings, plus all those gosh darn five-star transfers, it will be a season-determining game for Stanford.

ZZ: No matter the circumstances, there’s one game in the schedule each year that always matters: The Big Game. Because there’s so much uncertainty in that this program could go either direction, I’ll go ahead and say that the game of the season is taking place in Berkeley against Stanford’s long-time rival, Cal. If the season is going well at that point, it’ll be a chance to put an exclamation point on things and reclaim The Axe. If the season has already taken a turn for the worse, you can bet that these two programs will still be fighting hard until the final whistle.

A number of factors went into the team’s seven-game losing streak last year. The program hopes to avoid that, but adversity seems inevitable in the chaos of college football. What are your biggest concerns for the team this season?

KS: I think it has to be the defense. The team ranked last in the Pac-12 in points allowed per game and also allowed nearly 240 rushing yards per game. There were times last season when RBs were left untouched for 8+ yards — just watch the Utah game last year for reference. If Stanford can’t stop the run, it will be a very long season once again.

JT: I sound like a broken record, but it’s the trenches. For the offensive line, you can argue there is a clear path to improvement with all of the main contributors returning and coming off of their first normal offseason with offensive line coach Terry Heffernan. You can’t say the same about the defensive line. All four main contributors on last year’s line that struggled mightily are gone, so the Cardinal are essentially starting over. Senior Stephen Herron and freshman David Bailey have the potential to be a solid pass rush duo, but whether they will live up to expectations is very much unknown. Even more uncertain is the performance of defensive tackles like junior Tobin Phillips and sophomore Anthony Franklin. It’s a major concern that will make or break the defense.

NM: After talking with coaches and players during training camp, my biggest concern is the potential for players reaggravating injuries. Last year, the Cardinal were engulfed in a deluge of injuries to key players. Some of these injuries can never fully heal, and the players who suffered them will continue to suffer from them this season. It is always a possibility to reaggravate serious injuries, and judging from how they decimated the roster last season, there is extreme concern about this occurring again.

DS: Establishing the run game. The lack of success from last season’s run game made it extremely hard to get into a flow on offense, and the departures of running backs Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat certainly do not make improvement easier. This team has a lot riding on EJ Smith’s potential breakout, but he cannot do so without a better offensive line. Senior tackle Walter Rouse has impressed in the past and will be crucial to revitalizing this offensive line. 

Who will finish the season atop the Pac-12? Where does Stanford fall into the mix?

KS: I believe Utah will win the Pac-12 this season. They had an impressive showing in the 2022 Rose Bowl, and many of the players who played in that game are coming back. This includes QB Cam Rising, running back Tavion Thomas, and tight ends Dalton Kincaid and Brant Kuithe. While the Utes lost some pieces at offensive line and linebacker, I think they should still fair well at those positions. For Stanford,I believe that the Cardinal can figure into the Pac-12 as a wildcard team that can disrupt the top of the standings. But I don’t think we’ll be seeing them at the top of the Pac-12 come November.

JT: I’ll go with Utah. As Kaushik said, they have a lot of talent coming back from that slim Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State. Kyle Wittingham is a fantastic coach, and while USC has the flashier and higher-rated recruits, Utah is the team to beat entering the season. I think Stanford is a middle of the pack team, but their schedule (they don’t get to play Colorado or Arizona) could see them finish a bit below that.

NM: While I like Utah, I also like to be contrarian, so I will go with Oregon. Under former head coach Mario Cristobal, they only made it so far with exceptional talent. As a Michigan fan, watching now-Oregon head coach and former Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning torch the Wolverines in the CFP was a nightmare, and it should be a warning to the Pac-12. With the new coaching change and an increase in production from players like linebacker Noah Sewell or quarterbacks Ty Thompson and Bo Nix, I can see Oregon reigning atop the Pac-12 when the season closes. Stanford can make a dent, however, by snagging away a win to shake up the scene. But overall, the Cardinal’s impact will not affect the outcome of the season: Oregon wins it all.  

ZZ: As much as it pains me to say, give me USC as the Pac-12 victors. Lincoln Riley knows what it takes to win in the Big 12 and, although some bumps are inevitable at the beginning of the season, I think the talent his program has will make things happen when it matters most at the end of the year. As for Stanford, it really can go either way. I see them finishing as high as fifth in the conference or as low as ninth, but the former sounds much more likely to me. 

Beyond conference play, who do you have winning the national championship? Does a Pac-12 team make it to the CFP?

KS: The easy answer to this is Alabama. They have the reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback and elite playmakers all over the defense, including Will Anderson Jr., Dallas Turner, Eli Ricks and Jordan Battle. They also brought in stud running back Jahmyr Gibbs who should help the running game. I think Utah will make the college football playoff, which will be the first time a Pac-12 team has made it since 2016. Like I said previously, the Utes bring back a lot of parts and unlike last year, they know who their starting quarterback is coming into the season. Their toughest game will probably be against USC, but that will be a home game. All the stars are aligned for the Utes to make a playoff run, but they have to make sure no hiccups occur along the way.

JT: Yeah, I’ll go with ‘Bama as well. Young, Anderson Jr., Saban and co. have everything they need to win another title. Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia seem to be a tier above the rest this season, and I’d be very surprised to see a Pac-12 team make the playoff. While the Pac-12 is stronger this year and I approve of the elimination of divisions for standings purposes to maximize playoff chances, I don’t think any of the teams are on a level where they will find themselves 13-0 or 12-1 heading into the selection show.

NM: I hate saying this, I really do, but I think THE school from Columbus will win it all. They return three key offensive pieces in CJ Stroud, Treyvion Henderson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, as well as some stellar offensive linemen. In addition, after that embarrassing 42-27 defeat against the far superior Michigan Wolverines (Hail to the Victors!), head coach Ryan Day made the admittedly good call and hired defensive coordinator Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State, the better OSU. With many defensive starters returning and the rise of defensive linemen like Jack Sawyer swirling around Big 10 circles, it is hard for me to not say that they could win it all. I would really hate for this to happen, but I definitely see it happening. Oh yeah, and the Pac-12 is not sending anyone. Utah, USC and Oregon have a shot, but realistically they will not make it. 

ZZ: I’m always tempted to throw a random school out there to give me a slight chance of looking like a genius at the end of the season. However, and per usual, Alabama is too good to ignore. At the very minimum, I expect them to make the CFP. And barring any sort of unusual storyline, it won’t be a surprise to see them in the national championship. 

DS: Doubting Nick Saban has never gone well for me in the past. While I hate to admit it, Alabama’s talent both on the field and on the sidelines is impressive as always. I expect Ohio State to give the Crimson Tide a run for their money in the championship game, but I think Alabama comes out on top. It’s certainly possible that a Pac-12 team sneaks in as the four-seed and has the chance to lose to Alabama by multiple scores, but I wouldn’t say this is likely. With the way the conference works, the eventual Pac-12 champion will be kept out of the CFP because of an inexplicable double-digit loss to a 5-7 Stanford Cardinal earlier in the season.

Before we find out how Stanford’s season shapes up, they’ll kick things off, at home against Colgate (0-0, 0-0 Patriot League). What are your score predictions for Saturday evening?

ZZ: Stanford 48, Colgate 10. An opponent like Colgate provides David Shaw the opportunity to experiment and get a feel for what very well may be a new-look offense. Even if the opportunity to scout Colgate is limited, the sheer talent of this Cardinal team — particularly in comparison to a Patriot League opponent like this — should be enough to lay on a barrage of scores early and often. As for the defense, a few blips here and there might occur as they work out the kinks of their new system. But this game should be nothing more than a blowout victory for Stanford.

NM: Stanford 45, Colgate 17. It is easy to underestimate Colgate, but Stanford should have no trouble in winning their opening game. After going 5-6 last season, the Raiders could shock the Cardinal and score more points than expected. But in general, this game is preparation for what we previously called the biggest Stanford game of the year against USC. This is a game to work out kinks before conference play against a ranked team. As my former colleague Dan Wu ‘22 said, nine out of 10 dentists agree, Stanford will win their opening game. 

JT: Stanford 42, Colgate 10. The Cardinal, with their superior talent, will blow away the FCS side. We won’t know much about Stanford after this game; the key is to get some game reps in and stay healthy for USC the following week.

DS: Stanford 45, Colgate 10. The Cardinal should have no problem defeating a Colgate side that lost to Brown and Cornell last season, the Ivy League’s two worst teams. Hopefully, the Cardinal blowing out an FCS team with a losing record will not inflate my hopes for the following week’s USC game, or my hopes for the season as a whole, but only time will tell.

Zach Zafran was the Vol. 262 managing editor for the sports section. Now a senior staff writer, he has previous experience reporting and writing with SFGATE. You can find Zach around campus wearing swim trunks no matter the weather. Follow him on Twitter at @ZachZafran and contact him at sports 'at' Maltzman is a staff writer for the sports section. He is originally from Philadelphia but has lived in the Bay Area since 2015. Noah is a sophomore who plans on majoring within the STEM field. He is a Michigan and Detroit sports fan, despite never living in the state of Michigan. In fact, he initially brought more Michigan paraphernalia to college than Stanford apparel. Contact him at sports 'at' Silva is a writer for the sports section. He is a junior from Pawtucket, Rhode Island studying computer science and symbolic systems. In his free time, he enjoys watching Executive Editor Tammer Bagdasarian play blackjack. You can find him watching NFL Redzone on Sundays.Jibriel Taha is a senior staff writer for the sports section. He is from Los Angeles and studies economics. Contact him at jtaha ‘at’ Sampath is the sports managing editor. He is a junior from Fayetteville, Arkansas and a history major. You can catch him watching and ranting about his beloved Arkansas Razorbacks or hanging out with friends on campus. Contact him at sports 'at'

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