After Kevin Hogan hit Michael Rector for the touchdown down the sideline to officially finish both his career and the Stanford season with a storybook ending, I was overwhelmed by the pure, utter domination we had just seen from the Cardinal.
Stanford played its most complete game in the biggest game of the season against arguably the best opponent – or at least one of the top three – on its schedule. Christian McCaffrey made the Hawkeyes’ top-20 defense look like a Pop Warner team with a bevy of dazzling moves. All who watched understood that Stanford was the best team not in the College Football Playoff and possibly the best team not playing in the national championship on Jan. 11, in addition to the fact that McCaffrey undoubtedly is the best player in the nation.
When the final Associated Press rankings for the season are released, Stanford might very well be ranked No. 3, tying the highest ranking in program history since 1940.
Despite everything David Shaw had already accomplished, this 2015 season might rank as his best work. It was a job well done by Shaw, by the coaching staff and by the players, overcoming early adversity and the loss of most of the 2014 defense to win the Pac-12 in dominant fashion.
Winning the Rose Bowl will never get old to me and to the rest of the Stanford fanbase. How could you ever not relish the sight of Cardinal red clashing with an elite opponent as the sun sets over the San Gabriel Mountains in The Granddaddy of Them All? The 2016 Rose Bowl victory confirmed that.
However, if Stanford wants to gain the national respect that its recent run of success truly warrants, it needs to make the College Football Playoff and play for the national championship – and soon.
You would think that after 66 wins in six years, Stanford would have the respect of the nation. But after Toby Gerhart, Andrew Luck and Christian McCaffrey all finished second in Heisman voting, it’s clear that something is still lacking, as three completely deserving should-be Heisman winners – Gerhart in 2009, Luck in 2011 and McCaffrey in 2015 – fell short.
On a College Football Live show prior to the Heisman ceremony, Desmond Howard said that if McCaffrey had posted the same numbers playing for Alabama, there would be no conversation – the trophy would have been his. Kirk Herbstreit subsequently followed by saying that the same would be true if McCaffrey had been playing for even USC.
Stanford is one of just five schools to play in four or more New Year’s Six or BCS games in the last six years. Yet, it is the only one not to make one of the two first College Football Playoffs.
Fairly or unfairly, true respect in college football is only given to teams that play in national championship games – or in the new playoff age, the College Football Playoff games.
But good news, Stanford fans: the Cardinal might be poised for their best chances at doing just that in 2016 and 2017.
USC, the longtime juggernaut of the Pac-12, has finished in the top 15 just once since 2009. In the absence of Marcus Mariota and Vernon Adams Jr. this season, Oregon mightily struggled on offense and showed a subpar defense, losing four games and collapsing in the Alamo Bowl after losing Adams to a concussion. UCLA hasn’t beaten Stanford since 2008.
For the very first time, Stanford might be considered the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2016. And rightly so.
For at least one more year, and potentially two, Stanford will have the nation’s best player on its sideline in McCaffrey. That’s more than enough for Stanford to be a contender in the conference on its own.
Bryce Love might not even be too far behind McCaffrey after an outstanding freshman year and Cameron Scarlett should give Stanford a bruiser at the running back position for years to come.
With Graham Shuler, Johnny Caspers and Casey Tucker returning and several talented recruiting classes waiting in the wings, the offensive line should continue to function at a level representative of the Tunnel Workers’ Union.
With Dalton Schultz, Trenton Irwin, Francis Owusu and Greg Taboada slated to form the core of the receiving weapons – maybe even Michael Rector too – Stanford should provide more than enough weapons for its new quarterback.
And speaking of that new quarterback, Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns – two former top-100 recruits according to ESPN – have had a couple years to develop behind Hogan. Chryst, one of McCaffrey’s roommates, appears to be the front-runner and can be seen staying an extra 15 or more minutes after every practice throwing passes to Irwin.
Though it loses leaders and playmakers in Blake Martinez, Ronnie Harris, Kevin Anderson, Aziz Shittu and Kodi Whitfield, the defense has talent all across the board returning to play in 2016.
Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder looked like lock-down corners at the end of 2015, and we didn’t yet get to see how Frank Buncom, Stanford top defensive back recruit in the 2015 class, fits into the scheme.
Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips will anchor the defensive line and continue the party in the backfield, along with proven edge rushers in Peter Kalambayi and Joey Alfieri.
Dallas Lloyd could return at safety amidst one of the deepest groups Stanford has ever had at the position with Justin Reid, Ben Edwards, Brandon Simmons and Denzel Franklin all ready to step into more playing time next season after shining on special teams and defense, when given the chance.
With Noor Davis, Kevin Palma, Jordan Perez, Bobby Okereke and Mustafa Branch all earning playing time in 2015, the middle of the defense should be stocked for the future as well.
The scary part? Twenty-five of the 31 returning players I mentioned above are eligible to return in 2017, when the home schedule again flips in Stanford’s favor.
The path to greater national respect is clear and the best window of opportunity for that might be right now, with possibly one of the greatest players in college football history on the Stanford sideline. If Stanford is going to take the next step and play for the championship, it may not ever find a better chance than in the next two years.
I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s in store for Stanford football in 2016.
Even though Michael Peterson will earn his bachelor’s degree this year, he earned a fifth year of eligibility himself to see his hopes for next year play out. Ask him how he plans to earn that elusive sixth year of eligibility for 2017 to maybe see Stanford make a title push at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.