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Football faces one of the toughest schedules in the country

Stanford football players celebrate after defeating Cal 23-13 in the 2018 Big Game at Memorial Stadium. (BOB DREBIN/isiphotos.com)

Stanford football is a model of consistency. The Cardinal have won at least eight games every season since 2009. In that stretch, Stanford collected three Pac-12 Championships and six bowl game victories, including two at the prestigious Rose Bowl.

At 94 victories, Stanford has won more games in the 2010s than any other Pac-12 program. But this year, the No. 25 Cardinal face more uncertainty than they have in this entire decade of unprecedented success. After a mildly disappointing 9-4 season in 2018, the Cardinal could have a big rebound back to the top of the Pac-12 standings. Or they could have their first season of the David Shaw era with fewer than eight wins (6-6 is a real possibility or worse). Or they could have another eight or nine win season, capped by a mid-tier bowl game victory, and Stanford will just keep chugging along at the periphery of the big-time college football landscape. 

If the Cardinal are to have a huge season, senior quarterback KJ Costello will have a lot to do with it. He is coming off a year where he quietly threw for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns at the highest passing efficiency rating in the Pac-12. Costello could very well be a first-round draft pick next April, but if he is to build on his breakout junior campaign, he will have to get comfortable with new receivers. Costello’s three favorite targets from 2018 are off to the NFL, as wide receivers JJ Arcega-Whiteside ’19 and Trenton Irwin ’19 are now on the Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins, respectively, while tight end Kaden Smith is sticking around in the Bay Area and playing for the San Francisco 49ers. Star running back Bryce Love ’19, a former All-American, will also be playing on Sundays for the Washington Redskins. 

But even with all those departures, the offensive cupboard is by no means bare. Costello still has 6’7” junior tight end Colby Parkinson, the sure-handed giant who caught seven touchdowns last season. Junior wide receivers Connor Weddington and Osiris St. Brown both look to be stars in the making. St. Brown is a major big-play threat, as he averaged over 25 yards per catch last season. Sophomore wideouts Semi Fehoko and Michael Wilson could also become major playmakers this year.

At running back, Stanford no longer has a gamebreaker like Love or Christian McCaffrey, but fifth-year bruiser Cam Scarlett and shifty seniors Trevor Speights and Dorian Maddox could all become productive starters. Highly coveted freshman running back Austin Jones may also compete for the starting job. 

Of course, for the offense to succeed, the offensive line will have to do its part after a rough 2018 season. With former Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Walker Little, now a junior, anchoring the line from his left tackle spot, the Cardinal could see considerable improvement in the trenches this year. Fellow juniors Foster Sarrell and Drew Dalman should play major roles as well, while senior tackles Devery Hamilton and Henry Hattis will be the elder statesmen on the line. If the offensive line gets back to the high standards set by previous Stanford lines, the Cardinal offense should be deadly. 

The defense is a bit more concerning. Linebacker Bobby Okereke ’19 captained that side of the ball last year, but he now plays for the Indianapolis Colts (despite sexual assault allegations from his time at Stanford). Without Okereke, fifth-year outside linebacker Casey Toohill will be responsible for the middle of the defense. Sophomore Ricky Miezan looks ready to vault to stardom this season from his inside linebacker spot. Junior outside linebacker Gabe Reid and senior Jordan Fox are probably Stanford’s best pass-rushers, but highly touted sophomore Andres Fox may challenge them for that honor.

The Cardinal look more solid along the defensive line. Sophomore Thomas Booker should build off a promising freshman year to become a dominant defensive end. Senior Jovan Swann will lock down the other end of the line, while fellow senior Michael Williams and junior Dalyn Wade-Perry will anchor the middle of the defensive front from their tackle position.

In the back end, Stanford will rely heavily on superstar junior cornerback Paulson Adebo. An All-American last year, Adebo earned the nickname “Adebo Island” as he led the country in passes defended. Senior Obi Eboh and sophomore Kendall Williamson should also see plenty of snaps at cornerback. Malik Antoine, a senior free safety, is the only safety on Stanford’s roster with any notable experience. His ability (or inability) to lock down the rear of the Cardinal defense will go a long way towards the overall success of the unit. 

Stanford has plenty of question marks on the field, and their schedule does them no favors. The Cardinal will face by far the hardest non-conference schedule in the country this season, with home matchups against Northwestern (Aug. 31) and No. 9 Notre Dame (Nov. 30) to bookend the season and a road tilt vs. No. 17 UCF in week three.

In Pac-12 play, Stanford has home games against No. 11 Oregon (Sept. 21), No. 13 Washington (Oct. 5), UCLA (Oct. 17), Arizona (Oct. 26) and Cal in the Big Game on Nov. 23. They also face road games against USC, Oregon State, Colorado and No. 23 Washington State.

Regardless of how well Stanford plays this season, the Cardinal undoubtedly have some incredibly exciting home matchups. Out of their seven home games in 2019, three of their opponents are nationally ranked. The Pac-12 North division title race will run through Stanford Stadium this season, as the Cardinal will face fellow division favorites Oregon and Washington on friendly turf. 

Stanford’s loaded schedule makes it even more difficult to predict what the Cardinal will look like in 2019. But with Costello running the offense and with so many of their important matchups at home, Stanford has a chance to make some noise in the Pac-12 race. Head coach David Shaw does not often deal with uncertainty. Maybe some uncertainty could be good for the Cardinal, though. Stanford has been boringly successful over the past three seasons, racking up nine wins and Sun Bowl victories. This year, they might not hit that eight-win mark. Or they might blow right past it and head back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2015.

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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