First of all, I’m an SEC worshiper. I think that basically any team from any other conference can’t compare to the talent of the teams you’ll find in the SEC. But, if there was ever a year and a team for a non-SEC team to win the National Championship, it would have to be the 2013-2014 Stanford Cardinal. This team is loaded with talent, is brilliantly coached, and has a shot at greatness.
Let’s start off with the positives. The defense is absolutely ridiculous. It is without a doubt the only defense in college football that could stop Alabama’s ridiculously good two headed monster of a running back tandem of T.J. Yeldon and (insert name of running back here, preferably a freshman). You’d be hard pressed to find a flaw with this defense. Last season, Stanford had the 11th best scoring defense in the country, pretty good for a team in a conference of such offensive firepower. Their defense held Oregon to a mere 17 points, and, excluding one rush by Marcus Mariota, 121 yards on 39 carries, for a 3.1 yards per carry. That’s pretty incredible. Their defense led the nation with an absolutely shocking 124 TFL’s (!), and they also led the nation with 57 sacks. The rushing defense was 5th in the country. Against the pass, they were a bit more mediocre, but they got their fair share of picks (26th in the NCAA) and were 25th in the NCAA in pass efficiency defense. Very convincing numbers.
But that was last year. What about this year? Well, they are returning a ton of starters, and they should be even better. The defense that had a NCAA best 124 TFL’s is returning a shocking 99.5 TFL’s next season. Only 24.5 of their TFL’s last season were made by players no longer on the team. Obviously, given that these guys will get better with a year of coaching, the numbers should be pretty ridiculous. They retain 44.5 of their 57 sacks last season. They have 5 returning starters on their front 7 (losing Chase Thomas and Terrence Stephens), and 3 defensive backs (losing Terrence Brown). To have 8 returning starters on a defense that was ridiculously good to begin with is pretty awesome.
More specifically, who are they retaining on that defense? It all starts on the line with the best 3-4 defensive end tandem I’ve ever seen, Ben Gardner and Henry Anderson. Gardner is excellent. He’s a good athlete, draws lots of double teams, is pretty effective with his hand usage, is a good tackler, plays hard, and has good instincts. He doesn’t have ideal length for a 3-4 end, but he’s a second round pick in my mind. And then there’s Henry Anderson, the best old school 3-4 defensive end prospect I’ve ever seen. First of all, the job of the 3-4 end is one of the hardest in football. It’s less common in the NFL today, but they are often asked to be a two gap defensive linemen. That means that, in Anderson’s case, he’s asked to prevent successful running plays in both the B gap and the C gap. Controlling two gaps is hard. You need incredibly long arms and strength to make arm tackles on both sides of the linemen, as well as incredible instincts to see the running back moving in front of you. Another interesting aspect is that the 2 gap linemen shouldn’t be behind the line of scrimmage against the run. If Anderson, for example, penetrates the line through the C gap, the running back will simply run through the B gap, so TFL’s usually are an indicator of a guy who is not doing his job. Other than sacks, the only reason a 3-4 end should get a TFL is on certain run blitzes. It’s not a glamorous job (and that’s why Albert Haynesworth hated it), but it’s an important one. Anderson is so good that he actually gets TFL’s since he simply can push his tackle back behind the line of scrimmage and then begin to act like a normal two gap linemen. He follows his assignment because he does not shed his block but simply pushes the block behind the line of scrimmage so no matter what gap the running back chooses he’ll run right into an arm tackle. It’s pretty incredible. He has ideal length at 6’6, phenomenal strength (anecdotal evidence: with his stomach on the ground, Anderson grabbed Kenjon Barner’s jersey and wouldn’t let go. He simply laid on the field. Barner=Boat, Anderson=Anchor, and Barner fell to the ground), great discipline, good instincts, good fundamentals, everything you could ask for in a 3-4 end.
The linebacker core is solid too. First of all, Shayne Skov is overrated. He looked pretty bad last season on film, showing a lack of discipline, mediocre instincts, an inability to shed blocks, and mediocre athleticism post knee injury. On the bright side, there’s no doubt A.J. Tarpley is as underrated as Skov is overrated, so the middle linebacker tandem is as good as advertised overall. Trent Murphy doesn’t do much against the run but it doesn’t matter since Stanford’s ends are so good against the run that they’ll make up for any mistake he makes. Murphy does show feel as a pass rusher, with good flexibility, solid fundamentals, and the ability to even collapse the pocket from the outside.
The secondary was the weakest part of the defense last year, but it’s also the part that’s going to improve the most. The athletic Jordan Richards (who can stay stride for stride with Josh Huff in man coverage) and the instinctive and strong Ed Reynolds make up the best safety tandem in the nation. Alex Carter was phenomenal by the standards of true freshmen last year but mediocre overall. He should be a well above average starter now that he’s a bit more experienced. Opposite Carter will be Wayne Lyons (taking over for Terrence Brown) who flashed above average athleticism and played hard last year but is completely unproven.
The running game should be excellent. The offensive line was phenomenal last year, the loss off Zach Ertz should make the run blocking better, and there is only one new face on the offensive line: Sam Schwartzstein out, Andrus Peat (sophomore, number 2 tackle of the 2012 class) in. That… might actually be an upgrade, and, of course, everyone else will get better with another year of experience. David Yankey is the leader of the group. It’s the most well coached offensive line and complex scheme in college football, and Yankey always looks terrific. The guy sort of does everything well. He plays guard and tackle. He’s strong enough to block Louis Nix III one on one as well as athletic enough to block Dion Jordan. He’s incredibly savvy. He had one play against Notre Dame where Nix got an incredible jump off the ball, and Yankey was out of position, but he dipped his shoulder pads into Nix’s stomach, and then shockingly did a successful hook block… from his knees! He held Nix off just long enough for Stepfan Taylor to get past the line of scrimmage. Yankey is one of the guys who’s so versatile that you don’t really ask him to play a specific position. You usually just tell him to block the opponent’s best defensive linemen, no matter who he is or what position he plays, and Yankey will get the job done. Pretty awesome. On top of that, although the loss of Stepfan Taylor will be tough, Anthony Wilkerson looked like a pretty good player when he was brought in during wildcat formations last season. He’s a tough, downhill runner that always falls forward for yards after contact, and he has above average vision and toughness. All told, Stanford should rush for 2000 yards next season.
And now, for the weakness, that could very easily prevent Stanford from making the National Championship. First of all, I’m looking very hard. I really am. But I absolutely can’t find anyone for Kevin Hogan to throw a pass to next year. A receiving core rarely makes or breaks a team, but my god, this one is pretty shaky. Stanford lost Zach Ertz, Drew Terrell, Levine Toilolo, and Jamal Rashad Patterson last season. The leading receiver still on the team is Ty Montgomery, who had (gulp) 213 yards last season. The starter opposite Montgomery will be Devon Cajuste, who had 1 catch all of last season for 7 yards. The 3rd receiver will likely be Kelsey Young, who flashed excellent athleticism and quickness last season. At tight end they will have Luke Kaumatule, a true sophomore with no catches on record. Hopefully he becomes awesome like all Stanford tight ends, but the future of Stanford’s pass catchers is bleak.
We can’t talk about any team without mentioning the quarterback, and Kevin Hogan is great. He has everything you look for: a very strong arm (could probably throw 60 yards), elite toughness, above average athleticism, outstanding football IQ for a redshirt freshman, good mechanics, a lightning quick release. So much too like. Watching him last year, there were times he looked unstoppable, like a top 5 NFL draft pick. But then there were times he would throw inaccurate passes, most of which didn’t have a tight spiral, often several consecutively. I watched his mechanics. They looked fine. He’s got some of the best mechanics in college football, no doubt. He’s got a bit of a low arm slot, and he has a tendency to hoist the ball (which takes time, but shouldn’t affect accuracy), but his feet and hips are excellent. And he does a great job of repeating his mechanics. Okay, so if his mechanics and footwork are fine, then what’s the problem? The answer to that question, no matter what quarterback, is always the same. There’s something wrong with his grip. If a quarterback is throwing wobbly, inaccurate passes, there can be one of two problems with his grip. His thumb is either too low on the football (which would result in passes that went too low), or he is gripping the football too hard (which would result in passes sailing high). In Hogan’s case, it’s the latter of the two. Kevin Hogan is gripping the ball hard enough to pop it. But let me tell you something: if I had a quarterback who’s only problem is that he is gripping the football too tight (and that really is his only problem), I’d be one giddy coach. It is so easy to fix. And if it is fixed, Kevin Hogan could win the Heisman next year. He’s that good.
The one other thing Stanford has going for them is that their team and roster resembles that of a few other recent National Championship teams. A dominant, 3-4 defense that controls the line of scrimmage and is ridiculously good against the run, an offense built by an offensive line so good that you can pretty much plug in any running back/running back tandem and expect 2,000 rushing yards on the season, and a quarterback that doesn’t make mistakes and plays hard. Sound familiar?
The last thing to address with Stanford is the schedule. The toughest game on the schedule might be the first one of the season against San Jose State, one of the most underrated teams in the nation. They return one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in David Fales, an athletic and productive receiver in Noel Grigsby, a dominant and athletic corner in Bene Benwikere, and a great front 7 led by Keith Smith and Travis Raciti. That’s a really tough team. The best part about their schedule is they face Oregon at home. Actually, it doesn’t matter that it’s at home. The point is that the game will not be played at Autzen Stadium. Play it in New Jersey for all I care. As long as it’s not played in that deafening arena, Kevin Hogan will be able to make line calls and the team should be fine. They also play Notre Dame at home, and they should be able to absolutely dominate the Notre Dame offense. I predict the score of that game will be 13-3. The game at USC may be tough, but Stanford will most likely dominate the line of scrimmage and win the game. Given the South is weaker than the North, the conference championship game shouldn’t be a problem.
Stanford is a dark horse to win the National Championship next season. Their defense is phenomenal, the running game should be good and Kevin Hogan is a great quarterback. If anyone, anyone at all, emerges as someone for Hogan to throw a pass to, this team will be extremely tough to beat.