We continue our team-by-team review of the Pac-12 with Stanford.
Offense: Despite losing a pair of dominant tight ends, the Stanford offense improved in just about every area compared to 2012. It scored more points (32.3 ppg vs. 27.9) and it gained more yards per game (405.4 ypg vs. 374.4). It gained significantly more yards per play (6.3 ypp vs. 5.5), ranking second in the conference in that key number. It was much more efficient passing the ball, ranking third in the conference after ranking eighth the year before. The offensive line also played better, yielding just 16 sacks, four fewer than in 2012, and leading a rushing attack that averaged 207.4 yards per game and 5.0 yards per rush compared to 174.3 yards per game and 4.4 yards per rush in 2012. The Cardinal were better up front, at receiver and at QB in 2013. RB Tyler Gaffney was even more productive than Stepfan Taylor, which few saw coming. The only step back was at tight end. Of course, the Cardinal aren't built to run up big offensive numbers, like the conference’s uptempo spread attacks. And this offense did decidedly sputter in all three losses, when the Cardinal averaged 19.3 ppg. Grade: B+
Defense: The Cardinal ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, No. 2 in total defense, No. 2 in yards per play, No. 1 in rushing defense and No. 1 in sacks. It was sixth in pass efficiency defense. Those rankings are difficult to quibble with, even though each one is worse than in 2012, though the rushing defense yielded 2.9 per rush compared to 3.0 last year. Part of that is due to the Pac-12 having better offenses across the board in 2013 compared to 2012. Further, the Cardinal defense was consistent. It never gave up more than 30 points -- Washington scored a season-high 28 points in a loss to the Cardinal. In nine of 14 games, Stanford yielded 20 or fewer points. Coordinator Derek Mason's unit was again the best in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the nation. Grade: A-.
Special teams: The Cardinal again were good on special teams. They were 20 of 26 on field goals, which ranked sixth in the conference, and ranked fourth in net punting. They were No. 1 in kickoff returns and kick coverage and sixth in punt returns. They blocked three kicks/punts. On the downside, in their two regular-season losses they did have missed field goals, including a critical blocked effort from backup kicker Conrad Ukropina in the third quarter of the 20-17 loss at USC. Grade: B.
Overall: You can't get a bad grade when you win a second consecutive Pac-12 title in a year when the conference was perhaps as good top-to-bottom as it has ever been. The Cardinal won a second consecutive game over fellow Pac-12 power Oregon, now forcing the Ducks to deal with their "Stanford Problem" as Stanford once heard about its "Oregon Problem." It owns the Bay Area with California floundering. It beat UCLA and Notre Dame and twice dominated South Division champion Arizona State. Finishing 11-3 and ranked 11th is nothing to sniff at. But, as the Stanford coaches, players and fans know, there was plenty of regret, too. Plenty of "what if?" As in: What if the Cardinal had a reliable pass-catching tight end in 2013? You could make a pretty good case that just adding that missing ingredient would erase all three defeats. The season began with hopes for a national title or, failing that, a second-consecutive Rose Bowl win. It was a good season, but it fell short of lofty goals. Stanford, as an established national power, is now graded differently. Grade: B+.