STANFORD — You don’t need a Stanford degree to see which way the Cardinal football program is trending.
After going 82-26 in his first eight seasons, Stanford coach David Shaw is 11-19 over the last three years, including four straight losses by at least 21 points to end the 2021 season.
What seemed like a momentary blip is now cause for greater concern.
The Cardinal seems to have the right pieces in place for a turnaround, starting with quarterback Tanner McKee, who was ranked as one of the top 10 prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft by Pro Football Focus. The redshirt sophomore started nine games last season and accounted for 19 touchdowns, a program record for a freshman QB.
But the Cardinal will need a lot more to recapture some of its past success. Here are four keys for Stanford to overcome a disastrous end to last season and outperform the conference media prediction of an 8th place finish in the Pac-12.
Stanford ranked 126th out of 131 FBS teams in rushing yards last season – and then its top two rushers transferred out. Former lead back Austin Jones will return to Stanford Stadium in Week 2 wearing a USC jersey, while speedster Nathaniel Peat went to Missouri.
The new rotation will be redshirt sophomore E.J. Smith and junior Casey Filkins. Smith, the son of Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, averaged 5.1 yards a carry in limited action last season. Filkins excelled in returns last year but now has a chance to show what he can do with more time in the backfield.
They will run behind a line that returns all five starters, including highly-regarded tackles Walter Rouse and Myles Hinton, guards Barrett Miller and Jake Hornibrook and center Drake Nugent. Stanford hopes that the continuity on the line will help the run game resemble some of the dominant units that led Stanford to glory in the past.
“There’s a reason why they call it growing pains, because sometimes it hurts,” Shaw said. “We had some growing pains last year. But I think what that taught us really is what we do well, and what we don’t do well.”
As bad as Stanford was running the ball, they were even worse stopping the run.
The Cardinal allowed 235.7 rushing yards a game, which was fourth-worst in FBS. This year’s defensive line will be the least experienced unit on the team, but a switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 should help fill the run gaps.
“We’re young and inexperienced on the defensive line, but we’re also very athletic and physical on the defensive line,” Shaw said.
The team should also benefit from the arrival of edge rusher and unanimous four-star recruit David Bailey, who led powerhouse Mater Dei to an undefeated season in 2021. Bailey was an early enrollee, giving him even more time to learn the system.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as surprise that Stanford staggered to the finish line. The receiving corps was supposed to be its strong suit last year, but the top three receivers were never healthy at the same time. The Cardinal used four different quarterbacks because of injuries, and the linebackers suffered an unusual amount of broken bones.
At least at the start, everyone is healthy. For one, that means McKee will have a full set of targets at his disposal.
The receiving room includes senior Elijah Higgins (team-high 45 receptions in 2021), senior Michael Wilson (all-Pac-12 honorable mention in 2020) and senior Brycen Tremayne, who scored a TD in each of the first five games last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
After playing 12 major conference teams last year, Stanford gets a break by opening against Colgate on Saturday. But after that it’s going to be another grueling schedule.
Other than hosting No. 14 USC in Week 2, the toughest opponents will be on the road (No. 5 Notre Dame, No. 7 Utah, No. 11 Oregon) – all during a stretch of six road games in nine weeks.
The Cardinal has a bye in the third week, which means 10 straight games to close the season, finishing with No. 25 BYU on Thanksgiving Saturday.
The Cardinal also got unlucky with its crossover opponents. The two conference teams Stanford won’t face this year are Arizona and Colorado, the bottom two teams in the Pac-12 preseason media poll.
If the Cardinal wants to make a bowl game this year, it will need to pull off a few upsets.