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Chen: Let’s accept that Stanford isn’t elite anymore

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Stanford football just isn’t elite this year, and it’s time for Cardinal fans to admit it.

I withheld judgment after USC, Army and even Washington, but after seeing the Cardinal offense go three-and-out eight times on Saturday and look even more incompetent than it did during the Josh Nunes era (seriously, Stanford had a better third-down conversion percentage two years ago in South Bend), it’s hard to argue that Stanford still belongs in college football’s upper echelon. Cardinal football just isn’t that…great.

A team that is elite should only be beaten by another elite team that plays at a high level. Stanford comes nowhere close to fitting that definition, because right now, an unranked team could probably beat Stanford without even playing well. Let’s be honest with ourselves, Cardinal fans. Notre Dame played nowhere near its best game this weekend yet still thoroughly outplayed Stanford. I’ve heard all of the postgame arguments for why Stanford should have won — the special teams botched a field goal, Ty Montgomery had more drops than receptions and the referees were being Notre Dame referees. Sure, but let’s not forget how sloppily the Irish also played with their two bungled field goal attempts and some boneheaded mistakes by quarterback Everett Golson.

The Irish should have won by double digits. That’s how badly Stanford’s offense played. I know the transitive property usually doesn’t work in college football, but even Rice and Syracuse scored more points against the Irish than Stanford did. Rice and Syracuse!

During the offseason, I always expressed my skepticism whenever a Cardinal fan said, “We’ve got a lot of talent this year.” Does Stanford really have that much talent? The defense features solid players that play lights-out as a collective unit, but on offense, Stanford has Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste and Andrus Peat as truly talented playmakers. That’s it. I mean, who else would you add to that list?

If you want to talk about talent, let’s take a look at the 2010 Stanford team: Andrew Luck, David DeCastro, Jonathan Martin, Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, Doug Baldwin and Chris Owusu, players who are all making contributions to their current NFL teams. And that’s not even mentioning Richard Sherman, Thomas Keiser or Michael Thomas on defense. The Orange Bowl team was real talent. The fact is, the Cardinal teams of the past three seasons — especially this year’s team — have been far inferior to the 2010 team in terms of talent level.

Montgomery, Cajuste and Peat are great players, but they aren’t — and were never — enough to carry Stanford to the inaugural College Football Playoff, even with the help of a championship-caliber defense. That assessment doesn’t even take the offense’s horrific execution into account. Some Cardinal fans believed that by the end of the 2010 season, Stanford had the best team in college football both in terms of talent and execution. I believe it, too. So considering that even that Luck-led team tripped up once on the road against Oregon and couldn’t get into the national championship, I don’t quite understand why some fans thought that Stanford had a good chance of making it to the playoff this year, especially with the Pac-12 parity that was made more apparent than ever on Saturday.

The most frequent comments that I heard from Cardinal fans after the loss to USC or the closer-than-should’ve-been win against Washington were a series of indirect self-denial. They went something like this: What if the offensive line stops making mental errors? What if Hogan stops making five mistakes every game? What if the Cardinal take advantage of the outside running lanes to make up for their lack of inside running game? If Stanford’s offense could fix all of those things, then there’s no reason that Stanford isn’t a top-five team in the country.

I’ve heard that rationale countless times, both from my fellow Daily staffers and Cardinal fans, and I’ve used it myself to justify any optimism that I had for the rest of the 2014 season. But it’s not valid. There is no such thing as “what-ifs” in college football. All of the variables that are involved in Stanford’s offense are precisely the reason why the team has struggled. I have yet to see one drive — much less one quarter — against a quality opponent in which the Cardinal offense has played to its supposed potential. Just look at this past Saturday. The offensive line was the first unit to blame by committing three inexcusable penalties on the first few drives. Later in the game, when the offensive line was excellent in pass protection, it was the wideouts who wasted the opportunities by dropping well-thrown balls from Hogan. And, of course, when the O-line protection was great and a receiver got open, it was Hogan who would overthrow him. The probability of Hogan, the offensive line, the receivers and the running backs all playing well or, at the very least, not messing up on one play have been low this season.

And that, I think, is the biggest difference between this year and the last two seasons. In 2012 and 2013, there were things that Stanford fans could take for granted. You could have assumed, in the last two years, that the offensive line was going to play well on any given day. You could have assumed that Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney were going to grind 2-yard gains into 4-yard pickups. You could have assumed that whenever Hogan found himself in trouble in 2012, Ertz would somehow find a way to get open. Those assumptions were automatic.

This season, though, nothing can be taken for granted. There are more variables on offense than ever, and while the ceiling may be higher, the odds of it crashing are also magnified. Montgomery is an electric player, yes, but he can’t be electric if teams make sure the ball goes out of the end zone on kickoffs or if teams have a shut-down corner like Washington’s Marcus Peters. Cajuste is the very definition of a mismatch, but he’s irrelevant if Hogan doesn’t go through his reads. Peat is unbelievably good at pass protection, but he can’t stop the other four offensive linemen from committing a penalty or missing a block.

After the Stanford-Notre Dame game on Saturday, I watched Auburn destroy LSU for a bit. It was beautiful, the way Auburn played. The combination of Gus Malzahn’s simple yet brilliant play-calls and the offense’s high level of play made it seem as if Auburn was barely even trying. Both the talent and execution gaps are clearly visible between a top team like Auburn and a good-but-not-elite team like Stanford.

I’m not saying that Stanford’s time as one of the best programs in the nation is over — that couldn’t be any further from the truth. But I do think this is Stanford’s version of a rebuilding year: The Cardinal are still a team to be feared in the Pac-12, but they’re no longer among the nation’s best. In reality, Stanford was due for a rebuilding period in 2012, but great defenses in back-to-back seasons staved off the inevitable for a few years.

The Cardinal can still somehow win the Pac-12, but this year, they don’t deserve to be in the College Football Playoff. There’s no shame in that.

George Chen’s saltiness gave his editor high blood pressure just from giving this column one read-through. Water down his salinity by sending him some counter arguments at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

George Chen is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily who writes football, football and more football. Previously he worked at The Daily as the President and Editor in Chief, Executive Editor, Managing Editor of Sports, the football beat reporter and a sports desk editor. George also co-authored The Daily's recent book documenting the rise of Stanford football, "Rags to Roses." He is a senior from Painted Post, NY majoring in Biology. To contact him, please email at [email protected]