Survive and advance.
As a preseason top-five team, the goal is that simple. Barring the nearly unprecedented scenario of three BCS conference teams all going undefeated, the Stanford Cardinal needs only to win every game to go to the BCS National Championship; style points won’t matter.
That’s a very good thing for Stanford, as the Cardinal hasn’t racked up too many style points in winning its first two games of the season. And though the two wins weren’t pretty, I’ve actually gained confidence in Stanford’s ability to go undefeated from what I’ve seen so far.
Though it may not have looked dominant at first glance, Stanford’s starting defense has been tremendously productive through two games, holding both San Jose State and Army to 13 points (Army’s final touchdown came against a group of second and third stringers).
And while Stanford was favored in both games, the opposing offenses presented interesting and, in Army’s case, unique, challenges. The Spartans had a trio of stellar receivers and a future NFL quarterback in David Fales, yet Stanford was able to make their passing attack look average.
At Army, Cardinal defenders had to defend against a well-executed triple-option attack, an offense they hadn’t seen since middle or high school football. After making a few halftime adjustments, Stanford shut the option down. Besides shoring up tackling and option responsibilities here and there, the Cardinal won’t need anything more from its defense to make a run to Pasadena.
The most exciting news, however, came on the offensive side of the ball. Junior wide receiver Ty Montgomery and senior running back Tyler Gaffney have been spectacular through two weeks. Their explosiveness, field awareness and toughness are at a level we haven’t seen from them thus far in their careers, and there is no reason to think they won’t continue to improve. Their performances have answered serious questions about offensive weapons.
Yet the one thing I still need to see before gaining confidence in a national championship run is steadier development from junior quarterback Kevin Hogan. Hogan looks to have better tools than last year and is making some strides in his accuracy, but he is not consistently playing at a level Stanford fans were hoping to see based on his strong play at the end of 2012.
The two areas Hogan needs to make the biggest improvements upon soon are his accuracy on deep passes and his decision-making. Hogan finally connected on a deep ball to Montgomery against Army, but he was nowhere close to perfect overall in the game. And his interception in the end zone was about as bad of a decision as we’ve seen from Hogan in his short time as the starting quarterback. Those mistakes, plus his fumbles, cannot happen against top competition, which Hogan will face for the first time on Saturday when Arizona State comes to the Farm.
Still, there is no reason to panic or reevaluate the Cardinal’s lofty preseason expectations. With the exception of the Nov. 7 matchup against Oregon, Stanford should be at least a comfortable favorite in every game on its schedule. The road trips seem to get easier every week, as Oregon State, Utah and USC have all suffered disappointing losses on their home turf early this season. Barring a major slip-up, no road test should be that difficult.
The home slate will be a little more interesting. Washington, UCLA, Arizona State and Notre Dame all jump out as teams with a chance of taking down the Cardinal. While it is certainly true that all four of those teams have a chance to do it, none of them have done enough to make me fear a date with them at Stanford Stadium; on the road, it would be another story.
So, though it’s still early, I find no reason to change my expectations. If the Cardinal can get past Sparky on Saturday, I think the winner of the Nov. 7 matchup between Stanford and Oregon plays in the national championship with a 13-0 record.
Sam Fisher’s decision-making, like Kevin Hogan’s, has fallen short of The Daily’s lofty expectations recently. Send him some life advice at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @SamFisher908.