Bad-Ugly-Good: Stanford football stands at 3-1

October 8, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 8, 2016

At some point during or after the late-September slaughter in Seattle, a particular tweet came across my Twitter feed. In it, a college football reporter and USC fan praised Stanford’s head football coach but claimed that his team turns in one horrible showing per season:

I started wondering about that — specifically, is it true? My musings prompted me to write this post about the Bad, the Ugly and the Good, a.k.a. the B-U-G, for Stanford football.

• The Bad

David Shaw is in his sixth year seventh year at the helm of the Cardinal football team. Obviously the 44-6 slaughter in Seattle was this year’s stinker. But what about previous seasons?

I consulted the Stanford football media guide. The team lost only twice in 2015 en route to a 12-2 record. One of those defeats was a hard-fought 38-36 home loss to Oregon — much too close a game to call a stinker. No, the obvious stinker from last season was the season-opening 16-6 loss at Northwestern, in which a stultified Cardinal managed to convert just three of 15 third-down tries.

What about 2014? Stanford went 8-5 that season, its poorest record since 2009, when Jim Harbaugh led the Cardinal to an identical mark in his first year at the reins. Stanford had three close losses: 13-10 vs. USC, 17-14 at Notre Dame and 20-17 in double overtime at home against Utah. The team’s anemic offense was embarrassing in all of these cases, but again, I’d say those games were too close to qualify as true stinkers.

That leaves two candidates: The 26-10 road loss at No. 17 Arizona State, which the Cardinal had soundly defeated twice in 2013, and the 45-16 loss at No. 5 Oregon. Again, both defeats were embarrassing and demoralizing, but that steamrolling by the Ducks qualifies as an absolute stinker, so there we go.

It’s harder to single out a game in 2013, when Stanford compiled an 11-3 record. The cumulative scoring margin in those three losses was 13 points, meaning, of course, that all of those games were close: 27-21 at Utah, 20-17 at USC and 24-20 in the Rose Bowl against No. 4 Michigan State. Let’s go with that last game as the stinker, since Stanford was ranked fifth in the nation at the time but found itself outmatched by a physical Spartans squad that prevented the Cardinal from converting a do-or-die fourth and 1 situation with less than two minutes remaining in the contest.

The stinker from 2012 is also hard to find, due in part to the team going 12-2 and beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl that year. Both losses — 17-13 at Washington and 20-13 in overtime at Notre Dame — were close. Let’s call the Washington game the stinker because when your defense holds the opponent to 17 points on the road, you really should come up with a win.

That brings us to 2011, Shaw’s first year (and all-world quarterback Andrew Luck’s final season), when the team racked up an 11-2 mark. The 41-38 overtime loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl can’t qualify as a stinker because, again, that was a very close contest, so the obvious and absolute stinker here is the team’s 53-30 home loss to No. 6 Oregon. (Stanford was ranked third at the time.) That’s a game most Cardinal fans would love to forget.

So is there a pattern here? I say the evidence is inconclusive, partly because the American football season has so few games and partly because it’s hard to pick out a categorically uncompetitive Cardinal game in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Still, since this exercise has involved reviewing some painful losses, this definitely qualifies as The Bad.

• The Ugly

With Washington moving to 5-0 and 2-0 in Pac-12 play, the Huskies are in the driver’s seat to win the North Division. Does Stanford has a chance of overtaking them?

Yes, but it’s very slim. If the Cardinal run the table in conference and Washington loses twice or more, Stanford would play in its third straight Pac-12 championship game.

I’m not optimistic about this happening for a few reasons. One, of course, is how frighteningly good Washington looked in that Friday-night matchup. Another, of course, is how flat Stanford seemed. I hope and expect that there will be some reversion to the mean — for both teams — but you never know what will happen.

Another problem is the schedule. Washington plays at Oregon tomorrow, but the normally potent Ducks are currently reeling from three straight losses — their worst such streak in years.

It’s hard to see the Huskies sustaining two losses after that, as Washington plays Oregon State, at Utah, at California, USC, Arizona State and at Washington State. Could either Utah or WSU or even ASU top the Huskies? Sure, but right now, it’s hard to ascribe even one more loss to the purple and gold.

This evening, Stanford will face a dangerous Washington State, which just beat Oregon and which took the Cardinal to the wire on the Palouse last year. After a visit to Notre Dame, the Cardinal hosts Colorado, which is leading the Pac-12 South at the moment, before going on to play at Arizona, vs. Oregon State, at Oregon and at Cal. (The season concludes with an out-of-league game against Rice.)

Right now, OSU is the only “gimme” remaining on the conference schedule. Cal is resurgent after beating Utah last week on (of all things!) a defensive stand. Zona and Oregon are both wounded at the moment — literally so in the case of the Wildcats — but both of those teams still pose a threat.

It’s easy to see Stanford finishing 7-2 in conference play, and if that is the case then it would take an epic collapse on Washington’s part (to be specific, three losses) for Stanford to win the division.

But I’ve branded the division race as The Ugly and not The Bad for one reason and one reason only: Because the Cardinal has been in this position before.

In 2013, Stanford, as noted above in The Bad, lost a conference game against Utah before beating No. 2 Oregon, 26-20. At that point, the Cardinal and Ducks had just one Pac-12 loss, and Stanford owned the head-to-head tie-breaker. But the following week, the Cardinal lost 20-17 at USC, leaving Oregon with a one-game advantage in the division standings. That left the Ducks poised to enter the conference title game until Arizona upended Oregon in a 42-16 shocker.

So Stanford’s found itself needing help to win the conference before… sort of. The difference then, of course, was that the Cardinal owned the head-to-head tie-breaker. So the division race definitely qualifies as The Ugly.

The Good

A lot has changed for the Cardinal football team between last year and this, but one constant remains: Christian McCaffrey is the best player on the team and might (emphasis on might) be the best player in college football.

Last year, Stanford finished September with the same 3-1 record that it has this year. (One key difference, as explored above in The Ugly, is that the Cardinal was 2-0 in league play after four games last year, whereas it’s currently 2-1 in the conference today.) But how has Stanford’s best player performed?

To find out, I threw together a spreadsheet comparing McCaffrey’s numbers through four games in 2016 to where he was through four games last season. (Click on the chart to view it in an eyeball-friendly size.)

Christian McCaffrey performance after four games in the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

The bottom line is that McCaffrey’s yards per touch and yards and touchdowns per game have been fairly consistent from one year to the next. If anything, McCaffrey’s running has improved slightly, despite his current offensive line showing less consistency than last year’s, and he has three rushing touchdowns at this point in 2016 — two against Kansas State, one against USC — while he had none a third of the way through the 2015 season.

Granted, McCaffrey has shown a drop-off in receiving and return yardage, but all of those declines are truly tiny. And he has the same number of receiving scores this year as he did through four games last year.

In other words, McCaffrey has been performing at nearly the same level as he did in 2015. It’s also worth noting that McCaffrey’s 214.5 all-purpose yards per game leads all players in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.

McCaffrey was, of course, the 2015 Heisman runner-up. Keep in mind that the junior has been outstanding this season despite (a) being more of a known quantity now than he was going into October last year and (b) not having a proven quarterback running the offense as he did last year in Kevin Hogan.

Stanford could wind up winning a bunch more games this year or it could wind up losing a bunch — we’ll see how it goes. But if the quarterback and offensive line can reach a certain level of competency and consistency, then I’m confident that McCaffrey and his supporting cast will be able to give every team left on the schedule a serious run for its money. That’s why Christian McCaffrey’s 2016 performance qualifies as The Good.

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