No one can ever accuse the Stanford Cardinal football program of ducking anyone. They went and opened the season with San Diego State, one of the best mid-major programs in the country. They go to Notre Dame next week. That’s in addition to the nine-game Pac-12 schedule that’s already had a game with USC and has a road trip to Oregon on the docket for this Saturday night. And if we look out into October and beyond? Merely road trips to resurgent Arizona State and conference favorite Washington. It’s worth wondering if Stanford can even survive, much less thrive.
So far, so good. The Cardinal are 3-0. They’re 17-10 win over San Diego State was obscured by a national media’s hyperfocus on the fact that Heisman hopeful Bryce Love only rushed for 29 yards. That’s a case of the media not realizing how good the Aztecs are and how much credit Stanford deserved for taking them on right out of the gate. Love was back to being himself in a 136-yard outing against USC, an impressive 17-3 win.
That win got the Cards into the national Top 10 and gave them a more impressive early-season resume than anyone this side of LSU. But now the real work begins.
Stanford, under head coach David Shaw, has become a team that I pull for every year because I like their physical style of play, along with the kind of smart football you would expect from this university. But it seems to me, almost unthinkable, that they could post the 11-1 record it will take to be a Playoff hopeful against this type of schedule. Even the 10-2 or 9-3 it will take to get into one of the big New Year’s Six bowls is going to take a herculean effort.
The biggest reason for concern is on defense. The Cardinal is in the midst of rebuilding both their defensive front and their secondary. And this is not a “reload” program. Stanford recruits well enough, given that they actually take academics seriously. They recruit on a par with Pac-12 North rivals Washington and Oregon. But is it so good that Stanford can just replenish and rip off a big year against a brutal schedule? That’s what I’m not seeing.
And if the media is going to pick apart all of Love’s games the way they did the San Diego State one, they are likely to find ammunition. A good college defense can usually at least contain a running back if they’re allowed to focus all their energies on him. Can quarterback K.J. Costello open up the field enough to give Love room to maneuver? Hopes for this rest on his rapport with big-play receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside. It’s possible, but we haven’t seen it yet.
I hope I’m wrong and take heart in the fact that I often am. But when I look at Stanford, I’m seeing an easy-to-admire team that loses three or four games against this type of schedule rather than a bona fide contender for the College Football Playoff.