By Dave Levine
After the slight they took this year by the Rose Committee (who selected a team with an identical record (9-3) that Stanford beat on the road (USC) going to The Rose Bowl instead of them), it is crystal clear that Stanford will never return to that bowl game until they are at least 10-2 with wins over USC (which they did this year) and either Colorado (which they didn’t) or Washington State (which they didn’t) (As an aside, I believe that had Stanford had been picked to return to The Rose Bowl, McCaffrey would have almost certainly have played in that bowl game on January 2nd).
The powerhouse teams–USC and Washington–will always be favored because the political power of their alumni and the number of great running backs that have come out of those schools, so Stanford will have to have better records than both–either 11-1 or 10-2 with wins over USC and either Colorado (which is becoming a powerhouse) or Washington State (same) to return to Pasadena on New Year’s Day in 2018.
Beating USC doesn’t seem to be a problem lately either at home on the Farm or at the Colosseum but staying healthy in doing so is a problem. Beating a pro-designed offense like Washington’s, Washington State’s and Colorado’s is another matter and therein lies half the problem for Stanford in coming years. Beefing up Stanford’s defense without the likes of DT Solomon Thomas–assuming he leaves for the NFL–and the oft-injured CB Alijah Holder will be daunting. If Holder can play without being injured again, Stanford will be strong at CB. CB Quentin Meeks has two years left. Stanford got clobbered by all three pro-style offenses this year, two of those games at home. The main reason was Holder and Meeks being out with injuries. Stanford will have to recruit a tall, fast CB as Holder cannot be expected to stay healthy after reinjuring his shoulder this year. Replacing Thomas if he goes pro will be problematic. There IS no one like him on their defense. NT Phillips will be back next year but he isn’t the impact player Thomas is.
Another reason Stanford lost to the three pro-style offenses above was the play by their safeties Dallas Lloyd and Alameen Murphy. Lloyd graduates and Murphy is a junior. The other safety they used is Zach Hoffpauer who was injured part of this season. Hoffpauer doesn’t have the speed to keep up with speedy receivers and is short at 6 feet. An impact player at safety is definitely needed.
Stanford’s special teams were good again this year but they’ll lose their outstanding place-kicker Ukropena. Will punter-kickoff man Jake Bailey be able to handle all three roles (punts, kickoffs and field goals)? That’s asking a lot of his legs.
The infamous offensive line will again be a problem for Stanford in 2017 with the graduation of Johnny Caspers. Tackle A.T. Hall was a disaster this year. Stanford’s offensive line gave up far too many sacks and committed many drive-killing holding penalties. The big question is: Will some freshmen linemen who didn’t get the chance to play this season evolve into sophomore stand-outs next year? With all the other needs of this team (on defense, especially), rebuilding the awful offensive line may be problematic which is part of the reason why, I believe, McCaffrey decided to leave.
So, what “bright spots” do Stanford fans have to look forward to next season?
-The evolving of Keller Chryst as a pro-type QB who showed in the final 5 games why he should have been the starter at the beginning of the year. However, Chryst will be a senior. A quality, young back-up QB is needed but none of the freshmen QBs were played this season by Coach Shaw, so there’s no way to know which if any of them are bonafide Stanford-quality starting QBs;
-The likewise evolving of RB Bryce Love who will take over for McCaffrey. The problem with this is Love isn’t McCaffrey. He’s faster but doesn’t hit the holes faster and thus isn’t what’s called “a power runner”. He’s easily tripped up by defensive linemen. Another RB will need to be recruited unless some freshman from this year’s team takes the reins as a power runner.
-Along with Chryst, the most exciting part of Stanford’s offense next year will be future star freshman wide receiver Donald Stewart. Coach Shaw hardly played him this year using him exclusively on kickoff coverage. Will Shaw convert the 6-foot 4-inch Stewart to kickoff and punt returns to take the pressure off Love? We’ll see. Stewart will have to bulk up but I see him as the next Gene Washington-Jerry Rice-style receiver, a guy with amazing speed, hands and diving/leaping ability–a true impact player. With Trenton Irwin and another speedy WR added to the mix, Stanford will be a deep threat providing the offensive line can keep Chryst healthy.
When Love isn’t darting thru opposing defensive lines, the emphasis on getting the ball to Stewart and Irwin will be key to Stanford’s offensive success next year and that means the offensive line has to pass block without committing the monstrous, drive-killing penalties it did this year. A big, tall and speedy tight end will also be needed.
Part of the problem this year was senior QB Ryan Burns. Chryst has stepped up and shown he can be a great QB if he can be more attentive to the play clock and blind-side rushers. But a good offensive line makes the QB’s and RB’s jobs easy.
Stanford will open 2017 against Rice in Houston, the team they took apart in the final game this year. Their third game will be against the 11-3 (in 2016) San Diego State Aztecs who cleaned Houston’s clocks in the Las Vegas Bowl last week, 34-10. Like Stanford, the Aztecs will lose three of their best offensive players–star RB Pumphrey and OL Saragusa (both voted to the All-America team) and Curtis Anderson to graduation. San Diego State’s QB will be junior Christian Chapman. Even without those three players, San Diego State could be a problem for Stanford’s defense which didn’t adjust well to opposing defenses this year. Stanford will still have to play Washington at home and Washington State in Washington as well as USC at home, UCLA at The Rose Bowl and Notre Dame at home. USC, Washington and Washington State’s QBs will be back next year but at question is whether USC star WRs Juju Smith-Shuster and Darreus Rogers will go pro after the upcoming Rose Bowl. The only difference in next year’s schedule has Stanford playing a weak team in their opener. After The Big Game at home on November 18th, they’ll play Notre Dame for their final game.
Can Stanford go 10-2 and make The Rose Bowl next season? It’s a tall order without McCaffrey. To do that, they’ll have to:
-Recruit offensive linemen including a tall tight end,
-Recruit defensive linemen, a cornerback and safeties who can make an impact as freshmen,
-Keep Chryst healthy and go deep and often to Stewart to where opponents are hesitant to blitz,
-Find a power RB (TBA) to compliment Love,
-Come out of their game against USC with a win and healthy, something they only did half right last year,
-Win their first three games. The second game opponent has yet to be named,
-Beat either Washington or Washington State or both (a tall order),
-Beat Cal and Notre Dame (both at home) to end the season–whether they go to the Pac-12 Championship Game or not.
I personally am looking forward to “Air Shaw” next year with Chryst going deep to Stewart but the offensive line will have to be revamped. We don’t yet know if Thomas will return.