August 05, 2011
Part of Pac-12 Week.
It's a fact: The words "Stanford football" and "national championship" do not go together. It's just not something that comes up. The only national title Stanford claims in its history is a retroactively awarded crown from 1926, under coach Glenn "Pop" Warner. The last time they opened a season in the top 10 was 1970, back it was still the Pac-8 Conference. Before last year's breakthrough, they hadn't lost fewer than three games in a season since 1969, or fewer than two games in a season since 1940. They hadn't been ranked in the top ten on Thanksgiving since 1951. Prior to roughly noon Pacific time on Jan. 6, national championships were never part of the thought process.
That was the day quarterback Andrew Luck rejected the NFL for another year on the Farm, and the day Stanford's 2011 season took on an entirely new complexion. With the best college quarterback in America back in the fold on the heels of the best season at Stanford in 70 years, the Cardinal actually look like legitimate contenders: Besides Luck, they have a 1,000-yard rusher (Stepfan Taylor) back behind a pair of potential All-Americans (David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin) from a line that kept Luck absolutely spotless all season. They have a majority of starters back from a vastly improved defense, including the top four tacklers and the top two pass rushers. They have a schedule that brings both the toughest tests of the season, Oregon and Notre Dame, to Stanford Stadium.
Even the new head coach, David Shaw, was promoted from offensive coordinator with an eye toward keeping the ship on the course set by NFL-bound captain Jim Harbaugh. If he maintains the status quo, the Cardinal can check off every box on the "BCS Championship Contender" checkbox for the first time (and probably the last time) in ages —every box, that is, except for arguably the most important one: Championship talent across the entire depth chart.
That's not a knock on the obvious talent they do possess — there's Luck, obviously, the most unanimously coveted college quarterback since Peyton Manning, and Jonathan Martin is likely to follow him in the first round in 2012 or 2013. David DeCastro might, too, with tight end Coby Fleener not far behind. Wide receiver/return man Chris Owusu will fall somewhere in that mix. The offense, especially (with the exception of Luck, for whom there has never been any shortage of hype) has vastly outperformed its mediocre recruiting rankings. But the picture remains the same: By any measure of teams that have survived to play for a BCS championship, Stanford just doesn't look like that kind of outfit.
Of the dozen teams that have played in the BCS Championship Game since 2005, only one — Oregon last year — has come from outside the ranks of traditional recruiting heavyweights. The "average" team in that group has been stocked via a steady pipeline of top-10 recruiting classes, five-star headliners and at least a starting lineup's worth of blue chip types recruited by just about everyone in the country. All twelve had at least one top-10 class (according to Rivals) in the four years prior to playing in the title game; since 2007, Stanford hasn't had a class ranked higher than No. 20. Ten of the twelve signed at least a dozen players ranked in the "Rivals 100" over the course of that four-year window; since 2007, Stanford has signed all of three top-100 guys. Based on the "point" system designed to assess the strength of each class, the Cardinal remain well behind the curve of any team that has ever played for the crystal football.
Even within the Pac-10/12, their signing day haul always comes in well behind USC's every year, and has trailed both Oregon and UCLA in three of the last four. (If you're a philistine when it comes to the relevance of recruiting rankings on actual performance in the big picture, well, see the chart to the right, or see here, here and here.)
At root, the biggest question mark about the Cardinal's credentials as serious national contenders is still their depth and their ability to simply outman the other side when the breaks aren't going their way, or just when they hit the inevitable "off" day. Does the current talent level give them enough margin for error to run the table?
The optimists certainly have a better case now than they would have at this time last summer thanks to Oregon, which had no trouble whatsoever taking a not-so-hyped lineup to a perfect regular season and within one play of a national championship. Auburn, despite the presence of a dominant, top-five draft pick on both sides of the ball, wasn't bursting at the seams with the kind of talent of most of the teams that made it that far before them, either. Cam Newton's triumph opposite a relatively mediocre defense is encouraging for Luck's chances of willing Stanford to a title on little more than the strength of his right arm (and oversized brain) alone.
It can be done, and if it's going to be done, this is the year. But there is no way to get there without rewriting the odds of what a championship team looks like in assembly.
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.