Pac-12: Stanford Cardinal
What they're selling: Rich Rodriguez's offensive system worked wonders at West Virginia and introduced the nation to Denard Robinson at Michigan. In 2012, the explosive offense scored at least 34 points in 10 of the Wildcats' 13 games.
What they're missing: The Wildcats don't have the Territorial Cup, which went to Arizona State following a 41-34 victory last season. If Arizona is going to climb the Pac-12 ranks, it'll need to win at home and lock up local talent over the Sun Devils.
Arizona State Sun Devils
What they're selling: There's a new attitude at Arizona State, as Todd Graham took the Sun Devils from the most penalized team in the country to one of the least penalized in just one year. Installing that discipline and accountability has been a major selling point for recruits signing up to play with Graham.
What they're missing: The Sun Devils won their final three games of the season for the first time in more than three decades, but losses to UCLA and USC leave them looking up at the Pac-12 South leaders in the battle for national prominence.
California Golden Bears
What they're selling: One of the top public universities in the world, Cal will always be able to pitch its strong academics to recruiting. The new facilities and revamped California Memorial Stadium will help accentuate the package with a pretty bow.
What they're missing: Coach Sonny Dykes has recent Pac-12 experience, but his three years at Louisiana Tech took him completely out of the minds of West region recruits. In-state recruits, essential to Cal's recruiting success, are unfamiliar with what Dykes' systems look like in game action, although the Golden Bears will have a chance to make several statements this fall.
What they're selling: The Buffaloes need playmakers at a multitude of position on both sides of the ball. Playing time and the ability to make an instant impact are certainly on the table for Colorado recruits.
What they're missing: Colorado was two points away from a winless season in 2012 and has very little on-field momentum heading into 2013. The Buffs have just four wins in two years in the Pac-12, and until that changes, it'll be difficult to win significant recruiting battles.
What they're selling: The noisy uniforms and noisier Autzen Stadium provide the flash, but there is plenty of substance in the fast-paced offense the Ducks run. It's unlikely that will slow down under new coach Mark Helfrich.
What they're missing: Mostly obviously, they're missing Chip Kelly, which has left a slight cloud over how the program might change direction or continue unaltered under the new staff. But the possibility of looming NCAA sanctions means the Ducks can't sell completely smooth sailing to recruits in this class.
Oregon State Beavers
What they're selling: The Beavers can sell credibility, not just on the field, but with the coaching staff as well. Mike Riley and his staff have proven they can win in Corvallis and year after year, the Beavers' coach comes across as incredibly genuine to recruits.
What they're missing: In state, Oregon State is the decided underdog when it comes to flash and national appeal. The Beavers aren't often referred to as a "dream school" by recruits, so there is rarely a sure-fire commitment for coaches when they go out of state.
What they're selling: Arguably no school in the country has the combination of academics and athletics of Stanford. When you're recruiting student-athletes, that's a good place to start.
What they're missing: Despite the recent success, Stanford is never going to be able to put together the game-day atmosphere of some of its Pac-12 competition, including Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington.
What they're selling: Jim Mora's staff has Southern California buzzing about the new direction UCLA is headed. That's a good thing for the Bruins, who have climbed out of the shadow of USC.
What they're missing: The Bruins had a chance to completely pass USC, but dropped their final three games of the season. There is still a question about whether they've jumped the Trojans for good and until that is settled on the field this season, the Trojans will likely get the benefit of the doubt, regionally and nationally.
What they're selling: No Pac-12 program can fall back on tradition like USC. And now with the John McKay Center, old school meets new school in a much-needed facility upgrade.
What they're missing: Rumblings about Lane Kiffin's job security began after a 10-point loss to UCLA, grew louder after a loss to Notre Dame and became deafening after a Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech. Despite athletic director Pat Haden throwing his full support behind the coach, recruits and their families are having difficulty believing Kiffin and his staff are there for the long haul.
What they're selling: Offensively, there is plenty of intrigue as to how co-offensive coordinators Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson direct the attack. Overall, there is still the memory of what Utah was able to accomplish as a BCS spoiler in 2008, and Kyle Whittingham hopes to spark some of that magic in the Pac-12.
What they're missing: In two years, the Utes are below .500 in the Pac-12 and missed out on a bowl game last season. At this point, it's still an uphill climb in terms of convincing recruits they can cause an upheaval in the conference standings.
What they're selling: It's tough to find a coaching staff with more energy on the field or recruiting trail, starting with head coach Steve Sarkisian and moving to every assistant coach on the staff. It's a young group that relates incredibly well to recruits.
What they're missing: The Huskies have yet to win eight games in Sarkisian's three years in Seattle, so hitting that number would be a big step toward proving there is some growing on-field momentum.
Washington State Cougars
What they're selling: Mike Leach is still one of the most interesting personalities in college football, and despite some stumbles in his first year at Washington State, recruits are still interested to see what the Cougars can do this fall in his second year.
What they're missing: The Cougars need wins and they need them now. Washington State hasn't posted a winning record since 2003 and when it comes to on-field performance, it simply can't compete with a majority of Pac-12 teams.
First off, quarterbacks are excluded to make things more interesting. It goes without saying, for example, that Oregon's Marcus Mariota is the Ducks' most important player.
And most important doesn't necessarily have to be "best." An All-American's backup can be pretty darn good, too.
Our most important guys are players who could swing a win total one way or the other, based on their living up to expectations. Or their absence.
Stanford: LB Shayne Skov
2012 production: Led the Cardinal with 81 total tackles while recording nine tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsWhen he's healthy, Shayne Skov is one of the top linebackers in the country.
There is no debate, however, about what Skov means to this team. Before his season-ending knee injury at Arizona in 2011, he was slotted as a potential first-round draft pick. He returned in 2012 and was very good. But not quite back to where he was pre-injury.
He is now. And that bodes very well for one of the top defensive units in the country.
"Talking to him at the end of spring, he estimated that he was between 90-95 percent and you could see when he got back for our second session in April, he was passing guys again like he used to," said Stanford coach David Shaw. "He was passing up other defenders on his way to the ball.
"He was excited to feel that explosion back. To feel that speed back that he never really felt all year. He was healthy all year. He had the strength all year. He wore the knee brace. But the knee could protect itself and he was not at risk of injury. It was just that explosion is always the last thing to come back. And everybody is different when that does come back. I think it's finally back and he's going to start training camp at 100 percent and hopefully better than ever."
And offensive coordinators around the league just felt a chill down their spines.
Skov is obviously impactful for what he does on the field -- especially if he truly is 100 percent. Because an 80-percent Shayne Skov in 2012 was still pretty darn good. But what he can do off the field is just as inspiring.
Watch some of his locker room speech before the USC game and you'll get an idea of what Skov does for this team.
He is the kind of player who can motivate the entire team with his play on the field and inspire them with his fire off it. Flanked by a front seven that was No. 5 nationally against the run, No. 2 in tackles for loss and the best in the country at tallying sacks, Skov will be looked upon again to be the leader of a defense filled with leaders.
Skov's decision to come back -- made in congress with outside linebacker Trent Murphy and defensive end Ben Gardner -- gives the Cardinal three of the top players nationally at their positions in the front seven. The defense is expected to be even better than it was in 2012. And there's little doubt that a 100-percent Skov will be its leader on the field and in the locker room.
2. Oregon: While Stanford and Oregon feel like 1A and 1B, you have to account for the uncertainty of the Ducks' changing coaches, particularly when it's one with as big a presence as Chip Kelly. The returning talent, including Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota at quarterback, is strong on both sides of the ball.
3. Arizona State: The Sun Devils and UCLA feel like 3A and 3B as the South Division favorites, but the Sun Devils welcome back 16 starters compared with 13 for the Bruins. The biggest question is at receiver, where incoming players are being expected to immediately compete for starting spots.
4. UCLA: There's a lot to like on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Brett Hundley and outside linebacker Anthony Barr. There are questions at running back and in the secondary. Answer those, and get better play out of the offensive line, and the Bruins could be sniffing the top 15.
5. Washington: The Huskies welcome back 20 starters for the re-opening of a renovated Husky Stadium. It's fortuitous that this looks like coach Steve Sarkisian's best team. The biggest question was whether quarterback Keith Price would bounce back from a poor 2012 season. His strong spring, as well as improved play from the offensive line, hints that this could be a Top-25 team.
6. Oregon State: The Beavers are held back, at least in terms of perception, by two things: (1) Uncertainty at quarterback; (2) A worrisome crossing of the fingers at defensive tackle. Neither Cody Vaz nor Sean Mannion separated himself at quarterback, and the Beavers are counting on junior college transfers to fill their two voids at defensive tackle. Still, there's enough here to merit a preseason Top-25 ranking.
7. USC: This low power ranking has nothing to do with talent or potential. The Trojans have enough talent, if things come together, to play in the Rose Bowl. But coach Lane Kiffin sits on the hottest seat in the conference, the Trojans are adopting a new defense under Clancy Pendergast, and there are questions at quarterback and in the secondary. The Trojans might be the most volatile team in terms of predictions. They could win 10 games. Or six.
8. Arizona: Arizona's two main questions are about absence (replacing quarterback Matt Scott) and presence (essentially the entire two-deep returning from a bad defense). It's difficult to believe the Wildcats' quarterback play will be as good as it was last season, but it's also difficult to believe the defense won't be vastly improved. Off-field issues for running back Ka'Deem Carey seem as though they will be resolved, but there is no escaping receiver Austin Hill's knee injury.
9. Utah: The best news for the Utes this spring was improved play from the offensive line and the seeming maturation of quarterback Travis Wilson. There are, however, plenty of questions on defense at all three levels, and it will be interesting to see how Dennis Erickson operates as a co-offensive coordinator.
10. California: Cal also is a volatile stock. A gander through the depth chart has a lot of "what if." As in: What if the Bears get good quarterback play in 2012? What if running back Brendan Bigelow stays healthy? What if the offensive line improves? What if the defense is as good as the recruiting stars suggest it should be? Answer those "what ifs" positively, and this is a bowl team.
11. Washington State: There is every reason to believe the Cougars will be better in Year 2 under Mike Leach, starting with the seasoning all those young players received the hard way in 2012. But it's difficult to see the Cougs eclipsing too many other teams in the conference pecking order. The No. 11 spot here could come with five wins.
12. Colorado: Colorado will be better in coach Mike MacIntyre's first season than it was in 2012, mostly because it can't get any worse. The Buffs were one of the nation's youngest teams last season, and it showed. They figure to be bigger, stronger and smarter this fall. But probably not so much as to escape the basement here.
1. Quarterback competitions (mostly) unresolved: Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon State and USC entered spring with straight-up QB competitions, and none arrived at any clarity at the position, though some seemed to hint at a front-runner. B.J. Denker looked like the Wildcats' best healthy QB, while Cal's Zach Kline seemed to assert himself slightly for the Golden Bears. At Colorado, Connor Wood's case was helped by attrition. USC's and Oregon State's battles were too close to call.
Further, returning veteran starters with something to prove, including Washington's Keith Price, Washington State's Connor Halliday and Utah's Travis Wilson seemed to assert themselves to varying degrees, though Austin Apodaca could push Halliday in the fall.
2. New coaches, new ways: Sonny Dykes took over at California as did Mike MacIntyre at Colorado. Both, as could be expected, brought changes. Mark Helfrich replaced Chip Kelly at Oregon and, as could be expected, he changed almost nothing. The most obvious change at Cal was open practice, which former coach Jeff Tedford's abandonment of curiously coincided with the Bears gradual decline. The Bears will adopt a no-huddle, spread offense, replacing Tedford's pro-style scheme, and switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, a reverse of the overall Pac-12 trend. MacIntyre arrived preaching relentless optimism and a pistol offense, while defensive coordinator Kent Baer will retain a 4-3 scheme, but hopefully get better results with his version.
3. Defense, line play look strong: The Pac-12 heads into 2013 poised for a banner year. Oregon and Stanford look like national title contenders -- both are likely preseason top-five teams -- while as many as seven conference teams seem like top-25 candidates. Some of the reasons for the promise are typical: returning QBs and skill players. But what's potentially a bigger reason for improved national standing is the physical side of the game: Offensive line and defense. Nine teams have at least seven starters coming back on defense, while seven teams welcome back four starters on the offensive line. Only one team, Utah, doesn't have at least three starters back on the O-line. Further, there's as much, if not more, star power coming back on the lines and on defense than at the skill positions.
2012 record: 12-2
2012 conference record: 8-1
Returning starters Offense: 7; defense: 8; kicker
Top returners: QB Kevin Hogan, OT David Yankey, LB Shayne Skov, LB Trent Murphy, DE Ben Gardner, S Ed Reynolds
Key losses: RB Stepfan Taylor, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo, OLB Chase Thomas
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Stepfan Taylor (1,530 yards)
Passing: Josh Nunes (1,643 yards); Kevin Hogan* (1,096 yards)
Receiving: Zach Ertz (898 yards)
Tackles: Shayne Skov* (80)
Sacks: Trent Murphy* (10)
Interceptions: Ed Reynolds (6)
1. Better to receive: Stanford's passing offense has been notoriously tight end focused the past few years, but that was more pronounced last season. Expect that to change in the fall, and not just because of questions at the position. The Cardinal has improved depth and athleticism at receiver, starting with Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste. Heck, you might even see some four-wide formations!
2. O-line? Oh, my: To say that Stanford coaches are giddy about their offensive line's potential might undersell it. There are NFL teams that will have less talented combos on their left side than tackle Andrus Peat and All-American guard David Yankey, who are both future first-round NFL draft picks. The right side ain't bad either.
3. No secondary issues: Richard Sherman used to get peeved at the Pac-12 blog in the past for questioning the athleticism of Stanford's secondary, with the Pac-12 blog obviously just trying to help kick-start Sherman's NFL career. This Cardinal secondary, led by All-American Ed Reynolds, is experienced and talented, the best unit during the Cardinal's recent rise in the national pecking order.
1. Who's the center? The one question on the O-line is who will replace Sam Schwartzstein, and spring ended in a three-way tie between Khalil Wilkes, Conor McFadden and Kevin Danser. If Danser, a returning starter at guard, prevails, that will mean coaches believe touted, 317-pound sophomore Josh Garnett is ready to take over at right guard.
2. Step back at tight end? Davis Dudchock and Luke Kaumatule have a chance to give the Cardinal a better-than-average combo at tight end, but it remains to be seen if they can become weapons in the passing game. Kaumatule, a 6-foot-7, 260-pound sophomore, has star potential but his hands have been inconsistent.
3. Ready for pressure, schedule? This team looks like a national title contender. It will be ranked in the preseason top-five and there will be plenty of hype. But Stanford has gown accustomed to high expectations and high rankings. The real issue is the schedule from Oct. 19 until Nov. 30. No team in the country faces a tougher road to a potential title game.
This year's premier game in the Pac-12 figures to be Oregon at Stanford on Nov. 7. Both teams are predicted to be top-five, and the fact that they are in the same division makes it even more compelling. So assuming that's the most anticipated game on the 2013 docket, what's No. 2?
Glad you asked.
AP Photo/Matt YorkArizona State, after falling to UCLA on the last play in 2012, gets a shot at revenge Nov. 23.
From just an Arizona State point of view, I still think it's the Arizona game for all of the reasons explained in the post. But from a conference-wide perspective and conference-wide interest level, then I'd go with the Sun Devils' Nov. 23 showdown at UCLA.
For starters, there are so many interesting similarities between the two rising programs.
- Both schools have second-year head coaches who accepted their positions with a healthy heaping of skepticism from their respective fan bases.
- Both exceeded expectations last year.
- Both have second-year starters at quarterback who were fantastic in their first years. Even their numbers are pretty similar. Taylor Kelly: 3,039 yards, 67.1 completion percentage, 29 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 516 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown. Brett Hundley: 3,745 yards, 66.6 completion percentage, 29 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 355 rushing yards, 9 rushing touchdowns.
- Both have much tougher schedules in 2013 than they did in 2012, so with the increased level of expectation comes an increased level of national scrutiny.
- Both have premier defensive players in Will Sutton and Anthony Barr, who were atop the conference stats leaders last season in sacks and tackles for a loss.
So while this game might not only determine the Pac-12 South champ, the sidebar is it could also determine the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year.
I'm guessing since I took this game, Ted is going to go with UCLA-USC -- which would be my second choice (or third, as it were). I'm sure he'll make a very compelling argument.
But when you look at the returning starters -- for both teams on both sides of the ball -- and how last year's game played out at Arizona State, it's likely that the 2013 edition at the Rose Bowl will match the excitement level and the stakes will be equally high. And the fact that the 2012 encounter came down to a game-winning field goal as time expired makes the rematch that much more compelling.
Arizona, still looking for a quarterback and down an A-list wide receiver, has seen its stock drop over the past few weeks. USC is by no means a darkhorse in the division and could very well return to prominence in 2013.
But for now, we know that Arizona State and UCLA have the fewest question marks. Most would agree that the Sun Devils have fewer. But with the Bruins the two-time South champs, the road to the conference title game has to go through Pasadena until proven otherwise. And with a pair of teams loaded with talent, this game might actually end up being the most significant of the season.
Ted Miller: I'm with Kevin in that I think the UCLA-Arizona State game will play out in the South Division like the Stanford-Oregon game in the North.
AP PhotoUCLA goes for two in a row over rival USC on Nov. 30; how warm might Lane Kiffin's seat be then?
Before UCLA impressively triumphed 38-28 in last year's game, USC had won five in a row and 12 of the past 13 in the series. The Trojans had owned the Bruins. And then Jim Mora came to town, and the Bruins started looking like a different team, one with some swagger and one that seems to be on a strong uptick.
Meanwhile, there's USC. A year ago, folks were celebrating the Trojans as national title contenders and heavy Pac-12 favorites. Coming off a strong 10-2 finish in 2011, many were on the cusp of rethinking their reflexive aversion to coach Lane Kiffin. The feeling was that Kiffin not only had grown up but also perhaps we -- college football fans, the national media, etc. -- had been too hard on him.
Then 2012 happened. It was yucky from all angles from a USC perspective. And Kiffin took the brunt of the blame. He doesn't even seem to be getting much credit for being a stand-up guy this offseason and owning up to his own shortcomings. Heck, the guy basically pushed his own father out the door, so you know there's some soul-searching going on.
The stakes in the USC-UCLA game are always going to be high because it's a bitter rivalry. It's also likely it will have some bearing on the Pac-12 South race, the national rankings and the pecking order for bowl selection. While Arizona State and UCLA are the two South Division favorites, USC is right there. In fact, if someone could magically guarantee that the Trojans would fully and consistently play to their capabilities, the reaction would be to make them a solid South favorite.
But many now doubt the Trojans and Kiffin. That's also why this game is interesting.
Kiffin sits on the hottest seat in the conference. This matchup might rate as a must-win for his survival. Many USC fans probably just mocked that "might" qualifier.
For UCLA, Mora going 2-0 versus the hated Trojans would provide further proof that the Bruins are headed back to national relevance. Another celebration around the Victory Bell might be prelude to another shot at the Rose Bowl in the Pac-12 title game.
And with those circumstances in Westwood standing in contrast to a USC team potentially looking for a new coach, one might then wonder if the football monopoly in L.A. is truly over, with the City of Angels now cruising for a Bruin.
A big reason for that was revealed that Josh Nunes, who started the first eight games of 2012 before being beaten out by Hogan, has been forced to retire due to injuries, the school announced.
The injury that has ended Nunes' career was not announced, but it is believed to be a biceps muscle injury on his throwing arm that he suffered while lifting weights in January, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
Nunes passed for 1,643 yards with 10 TDs and seven interceptions last season. He was the starter when the Cardinal upset then-No. 2 USC 21-14 on Sept. 15, a performance that will be his career highlight. He also led the Cardinal to a comeback win over Arizona.
Dallas Lloyd is expected to be the Cardinal's No. 3 QB. Neither Crower nor Lloyd have game experience.
We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.
And then we'll let you vote from a list of potential options.
We're going in reverse alphabetical order.
Most important game: Nov. 30 vs. Notre Dame
Why it's important: Now wait a minute before your heads explode.
It very likely will determine the Pac-12 North Division crown. It also seems possible the winner will thereafter become a participant in the BCS title game.
So, yeah, Stanford-Oregon on Thursday night will be about as big as it gets among all 2013 college football games. That unassailable idea is the very reason I am typing this and not Kevin, who I could feel smirking through the phone at me while I made the case for Notre Dame.
Then why the heck am I typing this? Well, a big reason is that on Wednesday we'll do the "Most Important game: Oregon," and then we'll hyperventilate about the potential Ducks-Cardinal Game of the Century.
About 60 percent of this is an avoidance of redundancy.
But blogging expediency is not the only reason. There is concrete grounds for this. Really!
Here's the logic: 1. Stanford has played in three consecutive BCS bowl games, so getting to another will not represent a significant step forward; 2. Last year, Stanford beat Oregon, won the Pac-12 outright and won the Rose Bowl, so doing that again will not represent a significant step forward; 3. There is only one significant step forward the program can take.
Stanford, which could begin the 2013 season ranked in the top three, almost certainly will need to beat Oregon to play for the national title. The same, of course, could be said for the Ducks.
But if you compare Oregon's and Stanford's schedule, you might notice something. While the Ducks have a nice home game with Tennessee the first month of the season, they do not play a marquee nonconference game against a potential top-10 team.
And so we have Stanford.
Not only does the Cardinal have a marquee nonconference game against a potential top-10 team, it has the game ON THE LAST DAY OF THE REGULAR SEASON.
And, well, it's Notre Dame, which makes it bigger, at least in terms of aesthetics, than if it were, say, against a top-10 West Virginia squad. Yes, aesthetics matter. If Stanford ends up in a beauty contest with another FBS team with the same record for a spot in the title game, beating Notre Dame, which played for the national title last year, to end the regular season probably would hold significant sway with voters.
And what if the Fighting Irish are in the national title mix, too?
Wait... there's more!
I seem to remember Notre Dame and Stanford playing last year. How did that end? Lookie here: Revenge angle. That's fun.
Further, let's just say Stanford goes unbeaten until losing to Notre Dame the final weekend of the season. Then the Cardinal win the Pac-12 title game -- yeah, that game also would stand between Stanford and a national title game berth -- and the Rose Bowl over a Big Ten team.
What would folks across the country say and write? Notre Dame > Stanford. Stanford > Pac-12. Ergo, Notre Dame > Pac-12.
So the Pac-12's self-respect also could be on the line (unless, of course, USC beats Notre Dame).
The way to look at this is 1A (vs. Oregon) and 1B (vs Notre Dame).
For a magical season to happen, Stanford needs to win both. Losing either will feel horrible. And losing to Notre Dame after beating Oregon might actually feel worst of all.
We can consider that bridge if we get there.
As always, follow the blog on Twitter.
Kote in Palo Alto writes (and writes, and writes, and writes): Hi Kevin, First off, I'm thrilled about Stanford football over the past four years. I don't think any Stanford fan isn't, and if they are, they're wrong to be. That said, I am concerned about the coaching staff's alleged conservatism, but it's not the general concern that most people have cited. Instead, I'm specifically concerned about conservatism in situations that call for more spontaneity. The Rose Bowl was a great example of what I mean. Stanford jumped out to a 14-0 lead on some terrific play-calling: the pitch to Terrell who tossed it to JRP, Hogan airing it out to Ertz, and the sweep to Young. Those were great plays, but they were ones that Shaw and Hamilton probably drew up and planned out weeks before. After those first two series, the playcalling got much more conservative, and we never saw the end zone again. Then I thought about the rest of this past year, and particularly Stanford's losses. In both cases, we had a lead, and in both cases the other team came from behind to win it. We can blame Josh Nunes and an anemic offense all we want, but it seemed like things got pretty uncreative at the ends of those games (just think about ND's goal line "stand"). For whatever reason, once Stanford gets beyond the initial game plan, things seem to tighten up a bit, and the result is less scoring. The defense also stops worrying about the long ball or the trick play as well, and that makes the vintage pound-it-up-the-middle strategy less effective, too. This was true in some other games as well -- we didn't score in the second half at all against Cal, and only 3 points in the second half against SJSU. That might be selection bias, but it seemed like a lot of the time this year the offense built a lead at the beginning of the game, and we either clung on for dear life or kicked a last minute field goal or two to get the win or pad the margin. Is it possible that Shaw and his staff are good at drawing up creative plays before the game starts, but that they need to work on the confidence/grit/toughness/whatever to call gutsy plays off the cuff?
Kevin Gemmell: Let’s check the scoreboard:
Pac-12 coach of the year honors for David Shaw: 2
Pac-12 coach of the year honors for Kote from Palo Alto: 0
I poke fun in jest. But hopefully the sentiment is well taken. David Shaw is not an exciting play-caller, nor are the Cardinal built to be the greatest show on turf. He’s a very traditional West Coast offense-minded coach who plays to his strength: strong running backs and a strong offense line. Isn't that what good coaches do? Play to strengths?
That doesn’t mean he can’t mix it up with a fun play every so often. But he’s extremely calculating. Don’t think for a second that someone on their staff hasn’t sabremetricized Stanford’s success/failure ratio on certain plays in certain situations. You cite the Notre Dame game. With that offensive line and that running back, I’d go up the middle four times too. Because the odds of Stanford failing to go four yards on four plays have to be extremely long. (And depending who you ask, they did go 4 yards.)
Allow me to offer an example of gutsy play-calling. Down 23-21 with a little more than five minutes left in the game, Stanford was at the Oregon State 13-yard line. The play-calling brain trust dialed up a post route to Zach Ertz – knowing that he was going to draw man-to-man coverage from Jordan Poyer, arguably the best cover-corner in the league last year with a league high six interceptions. Ertz beat Poyer with a head fake to the corner and caught the 13-yard pass, leading to Stanford’s 27-23 victory. This wasn’t a trick or flashy play – but given the circumstances and the defender, it was a gutsy call. It was taking a chance. It just doesn't meet your definition of "gutsy."
And there is a purpose to those vintage “drive it up the middle” plays. It’s demoralizing to a defense when they get dragged up and down the field. Stanford’s approach last year was to get an early lead, and then grind teams down with long drives. It is a proven formula as old as football itself.
Shaw isn’t totally against trickery, either. We’ve seen a couple of flea flickers. The Wildcat reverse of Andrew Luck to Ty Montgomery against USC in 2011 comes to mind, as does Luck’s one-handed catch. But every risk Shaw takes offensively is extremely calculated and measured.
I appreciate where you are coming from. But the sooner you understand that Mike Martz isn't running the offense and start embracing the smashmouth culture your team has adopted, you'll be able to enjoy their success that much more.
The position is named for the former Stanford defensive coordinator and father of head coach David Shaw.
"Gifts like this make it possible for us to attract and retain the best coaches in America," David Shaw said in a statement from the school. "Also, it is important to recognize how vital our defensive performance has been to our recent success, helping to elevate this program to the upper echelon of college football."
This is a common practice at Stanford. David Shaw's official title is the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. Last May, another anonymous donor endowed the offensive coordinator position as the Andrew Luck Director of Offense.
All 85 of Stanford's football scholarships are endowed and there are 10 other head coaches at Stanford in different sports who have endowed positions.
Derek Mason, who is in his fourth year with Stanford and third as coordinator, is Stanford's first Willie Shaw Director of Defense.
"The honor of this endowed position is all about these kids, this staff and this program, with what we have achieved, worked toward and aspired to become: one of the best defensive units in the country," said Mason. "What our defense has been able to accomplish has been nothing short of a blessing. People are now starting to take notice that Stanford's brand means playing physical, unrelenting football on both sides of the ball."
Last season, Stanford's defense was No. 1 nationally in sacks, No. 2 in tackles for a loss and No. 5 nationally in rush defense. While going 12-2 and winning the Pac-12 championship and the Rose Bowl, Stanford ranked 11th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 17.2 points per game on average. Over its final six games last season, Stanford held opponents scoreless in the fourth quarter or overtime.
The Cardinal enter the 2013 season riding an eight-game winning streak and they are expected to be a top-five team in the preseason rankings.
Buy or sell Stanford winning the North?
Buy: Sure most of you saw this coming. My feeling as we sit today is the winner of the Oregon-Stanford game on Nov. 7 will play for the national championship. Not to get your juices flowing or anything.
And, by the way, that will only be the greatest ESPN Thursday night game in the history of ESPN Thursday night games. So you probably need to start planning where and with whom you will watch the game right now. As in stop reading and fire off some emails.
OK. So back to the buy rating on Stanford.
It's pretty simple. There is little to suggest Stanford won't be a top-5 team in 2013. The Cardinal welcomes back 16 starters from a team that finished 12-2, won at Oregon, won the Pac-12 and won the Rose Bowl. Among those starters are QB Kevin Hogan, four starters from an outstanding offensive line and eight starters from the Pac-12's best defense, including All-American candidates such as OLB Trent Murphy, ILB Shayne Skov, DE Ben Gardner and FS Ed Reynolds.
Stanford has a strong, established culture. There's no reason to anticipate complacency or some sort of massive, USC-2012-like underachievement. My strong feeling is the 2013 Cardinal will be better than the 2012 version, and that might mean getting a date to Pasadena.
Brian Murphy/Icon SMIStanford will be a force to be reckoned with in 2013 under the guidance of coach David Shaw and quarterback Kevin Hogan.
Maybe Mark Helfrich has his "hello-world" moment against the Cardinal, breaking down Stanford's fortification with schematic brilliance brick-by-seemingly-unbreakable-brick. Maybe Stanford rolls to a double-digit win? Enjoying the kind of victory at home their fans thought they would have in 2011 -- before the Cardinal forgot their football fundamentals.
Everything Ted says is true. About the wealth of returners. About the epic Thursday night showdown. And did somebody say Vegas?
I'm a slight Stanford lean right now in my personal power rankings -- because of the defense, and because of the grand return of running back Tyler Gaffney, who I characterized as a potential "game-changer." And I firmly believe he will be. He's the kind of hard-nosed back Stanford needs to grind out close games in the fourth quarter.
Speaking of close games...
One Stanford stat I continue to hammer home is their record in close games last season. The Cardinal played in 10 games that were decided by a touchdown or less and went 8-2, including 2-1 in overtime games. Some people might see that as cautionary. But with so many veteran returners (potentially 19 juniors and seniors in the starting 22), that tells me this is a team that knows how to win and doesn't panic or press when things get tight.
Unlike 2011, when it seemed like their whole season was contingent on what happened against Oregon, they are measuring their year by what happens against San Jose State. And then Army. And then ASU. And so on and so on...
Five of their last six games will be against probable top 25 teams -- and the sixth is rival Cal. It's a vicious second half, for sure. The Cardinal will probably provide investors with plenty of edge-of-their-seats moments. But there's also a good chance Stanford will be the smartest Pac-12 investment you can make in 2013.
STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, as a redshirt freshman, made his first career road start against No. 2 Oregon in Autzen Stadium, the most inhospitable venue in the Pac-12. Entering the game, the Ducks had won 13 games in a row overall, the nation's longest winning streak, and they had won 26 of their past 27 games at home.
With Andrew Luck playing quarterback the two previous years, Stanford teams that would finished ranked in the top-10 had suffered blowout defeats against the Ducks.
So when Hogan led Stanford to a 17-14 win -- of course, with a strong assist from a superlative defensive performance -- it seemed liked a time for celebration and euphoria. If there ever was a moment for a young player to whoop and holler and then wear a Cheshire cat grin in front of the media, this was it.
Yet here was Hogan sitting at the postgame interview table looking... bored? No, that implies some degree of rudeness. Sedated? No, that implies something unnatural. Poised? Yes, but that also implies something more practiced than how Hogan appeared as he provided brief and humble answers to questions in his signature monotone.
Sleepy? Hmm. That feels, perhaps unexpectedly, accurate. Let's combine poised and sleepy and say Hogan was "sloised."
Hogan would go 5-0 as the Cardinal starter after taking over the sputtering offense at midseason, with his final victory giving Stanford its first Rose Bowl win since 1972. His play was steady and efficient, but rarely flamboyant. Sort of like the young man himself.
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesQuarterback Kevin Hogan ran for 263 yards and two TDs last season, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
Said linebacker Shayne Skov, a demonstrative sort, "You don't get much out of him much of the time."
Other than winning, which is nice. Oh, and Stanford is widely viewed as a top 2013 national title contender because many expect Hogan to give the Cardinal a lot more in 2013.
The 2012 season was largely the "Year of the Young QB" in the Pac-12, with first-year starters such as Hogan, Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and UCLA's Brett Hundley turning in outstanding debut seasons. The 2013 campaign projects as something different. What will these guys do for their encore?
The most interesting one might be Hogan, 2.0. While Mariota, Kelly and Hundley put up big numbers in high-powered, up-tempo offenses last fall, Hogan was mostly a game-manager for the Cardinal's physical, run-first attack.
Yet with a year of seasoning, you'd expect Hogan would be champing at the bit to showcase his passing skills.
Hogan doesn't do champing at the bit.
"I'd love to hand it off every time again if that's what gets us first downs and touchdowns," he said. "Whatever they need. I like winning. Whatever it takes to get that."
Good answer. But Stanford is no longer trying to win 10 games or end up in the top-10. Coach David Shaw admits he's thought about the program making the proverbial next step from conference champion to national champion. That requires eliminating the one or two losses that speckled the Cardinal's previous three seasons, which it's worth noting is the best run in school history.
That means Hogan becomes capable of taking a game into his own hands when things are slightly off on either side of the ball. That means in those close games where two or three critical plays go horribly wrong, Hogan steps up and takes corrective action with two or three plays he creates from the ether.
"The big thing for Kevin is taking the next step as far as knowledge and understanding," Shaw said. "He's going to work hard. He's very selfless. He's very team-oriented. We're to the point now where we can give him more to do, more things in the passing game, more things to handle at the line of scrimmage."
Stanford likely will remain a run-first team in 2013, in large part because it might have the nation's best offensive line. But with questions at tight end and improvement at receiver, there's a good reason Hogan said his primary focus this spring is getting better at throwing the deep ball. The Cardinal running game will be that much better if opposing secondaries are fretting about getting beat over the top, thereby limiting their leaning into run support.
Another aspect of Hogan's game worth watching: His running. He rushed for 263 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry, and not exclusively on scrambles. The 6-foot-4, 225 pounder is agile and not easy to bring down, and the Cardinal isn't afraid of throwing a few designed quarterback runs at a defense.
"His athleticism is our bailout," Shaw said. "His ability to run changes defenses."
The 2013 season will feel different for Hogan and Stanford. For the team, it will face a season rated as a top title contender by just about every pundit with few legitimate doubters. Each of the previous three seasons, that was not entirely the case. As in: How can they possibly replace Toby Gerhart!? Jim Harbaugh!? Luck!?
And the spotlight will burn much brighter on the understated Hogan.
That might not test his innate poise, but it could prove grating and distracting.
"There's going to be a higher amount of pressure on him, but he needs to just embrace it," Skov said. "Expectations are going to rise. But he's more than capable. So embrace the higher demands and pressure. I'm sure he's going to deliver. He did it time and time again last year, and he's only going to get better."
One thing working in Hogan's favor is the type of school Stanford is. As Luck often noted, Stanford's student body isn't the sort to go gaga over a quarterback. Luck, in fact, barely created a stir when he hung around this spring. Johnny Manziel might be forced to take on-line classes at Texas A&M to avoid to paparazzi, but that won't be the case for Hogan. He said his budding star turn in 2012 didn't earn him a fan club on campus that he's noticed.
"I wouldn't say it's changed too much," he said. "That's one of the things about this school. There's so much going on and there are so many people doing great things that people congratulate you after winning games, but they treat you like any other student. That's one of the nice things about being here. Being able to stay myself."
Hogan, Shaw and the Stanford players talk mostly about winning the Pac-12 and getting back to the Rose Bowl. They say that's something they can control with their play on the field. The national title game is something that includes outside forces, such as the final year of the BCS computations.
So Hogan said repeatedly it's all about getting back to Pasadena. Next question: "You do know the national title game is in Pasadena, too, right?
Sloised Hogan, "Yes."