On paper, this Saturday’s Stanford-UCF matchup offers little excitement: two 0-1 teams with sporadic offenses coming off of stunning upset losses.
And yet, despite the lack of apparent intrigue, this Saturday’s clash is arguably the most important game that David Shaw has ever coached.
Over the past four years, Stanford football has faced several must-win games. However, for the first time in his now five-season tenure, Shaw faces his very own must-win game – and it’s not even a Pac-12 Championship game or a Rose Bowl.
The aura of invincibility that surrounded the two-time conference coach of the year took a minor hit last season but mostly stayed intact after a successful three-game finish in which Shaw’s team looked every bit of the contender most thought it would be.
The loss at Northwestern to start the 2015 season, however, severely damaged that aura and restored doubts about the state of the team. A second straight loss to a double-digit underdog and Stanford’s first 0-2 start to a season since 2006 would completely shatter the invincibility.
Shaw doesn’t have the benefit that head coaches like Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern have: He wasn’t at the helm to create the success that he is now tasked to maintain. That success was started, of course, by Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh set the bar high for future head coaches at Stanford, and while Harbaugh’s recruits roamed the field, Shaw kept the high standards and even pushed them to new limits. Yet, as Harbaugh’s remaining effects on the program diminished, the Stanford program has perhaps descended from its peak – though that’s still to be determined.
In terms of recruiting star rankings, which admittedly are somewhat flawed, last year’s offense was the most talented Shaw ever had at his disposal to that point and was the first unit without anyone who played a snap under Harbaugh. Seven of the 2014 offense’s featured players – Andrus Peat, Ty Montgomery, Kyle Murphy, Josh Garnett, Devon Cajuste, Christian McCaffrey and Austin Hooper – were NFL draft picks or will be NFL draft picks in the future, while several more have the potential to be. Despite the talent, that group ranked as the second-worst offense in the Pac-12 and largely contributed to the team’s 8-5 record.
Now, an offense that has only ever seen Shaw as head coach features five of those seven players and adds at least two more future NFL draft picks – Dalton Schultz and Casey Tucker – to its core. There’s no question about the talent on offense, especially given that it is largely composed of Shaw’s famed 2012 recruiting class, possibly the best in school history. Still, it couldn’t even muster a touchdown against a team that finished 5-7 last season.
Don’t get me wrong, every coach deserves a school that is willing to weather the storm for a down season or two, especially David Shaw. Shaw might be the most successful coach in Stanford history – he’s won two Pac-12 championships, reached three BCS bowls and sent more players to the NFL in his four-year tenure than any other Pac-12 coach. Stanford and athletic director Bernard Muir would be ridiculous not to give Shaw the benefit of the doubt.
Yet, there’s no denying the talent Shaw has on offense, and its severe underachievement over the last season and a week point to Shaw’s inability to create a winning scheme for this unit.
With a loss at home to Group of Five foe UCF, what once started as a critique of Shaw’s ability as a playcaller after the 2014 Rose Bowl and grew to whispers about Shaw’s ability to develop players with an 8-5 season in 2014 and a loss to Northwestern to open 2015 would reach a full outcry among boosters and fans about his ability to be a head coach.
If Stanford fails to beat its first two opponents, arguably two of the five easiest matchups on its schedule, it’s difficult to imagine the Card turning around to win more than four or five games this season. A bowl-less season at Stanford, with the prodigious talent on the roster, is enough to cause any coach in the country to worry about job security.
On the other hand, a win over UCF and a subsequent win over USC – with an already-injured defensive line, no less – would dispel any rumblings against Shaw and restore his status as one of the top coaches of the Pac-12.
No coach’s status stands more to gain or lose over the next two games than David Shaw’s.
Buckle up Stanford fans, because this Saturday might be a defining game for the David Shaw era at Stanford, one way or the other. I, for one, am excited to see what Shaw and Stanford have in store.
Michael Peterson has a lot to gain over the next couple games as well, as he further eases into his role as play-by-play announcer for Stanford football on KZSU. His hope for more inspired offensive playcalling from Stanford is fueled by a desire to say things outside of the typical “McCaffrey will take it up the middle,” or “Alex Robinson lines up to punt.” Give him some suggestions for a signature radio catchphrase at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu and Tweet him @m__petes.