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College Football Preview 2019: 19. Stanford Cardinal

19. Stanford Cardinal

A shift away from their usual ground-and-pound offense makes Cardinal an intriguing threat in wide open Pac-12 North

Connor Wedington
Offense: Since the inception of the Jim Harbaugh era, Stanford football has been built around their physical ground game. They've consistently had star running backs and even their fair share of Heisman finalists in Toby Gerhart, Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love. However, the Cardinal showed a distinct philosophy shift in 2018, leaning more on their aerial attack. Stanford rushed for just 108 yards per game, 11th in the conference and saw Love graduate following an injury-plagued campaign.

This shift to a pass-first style fits perfectly with Stanford's personnel, as they have a veteran QB in K.J. Costello and a talented group of wide outs. Costello threw for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns on the season while leading the Pac-12 in passing efficiency. He'll enter 2019 as one of the best quarterbacks in the conference and a proven winner. However, cutting down on turnovers will be imperative after he tossed 11 INT's.

Even though Love was not able to regain his 2017 form, he is still a significant loss for the Cardinal. Expect head coach David Shaw to turn to senior Cameron Scarlett, who added 330 yards and eight scores in a complementary role. He isn't the athlete Love or McCaffrey are, but Scarlett is still a strong runner that fits this offense. Junior Trevor Speights and newcomer Austin Jones are also going to get carries and possibly help out in the passing game.

Losing three of their top receiving targets from 2018 would be a near death sentence for Stanford just years ago, but Shaw has recruited this position extremely well and there is talent ready. Gone are Trenton Irwin, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and tight end Kaden Smith but enter sophomore Connor Wedington and Osiris St. Brown. The big playmaker is certainly St. Brown, who has athleticism that Stanford simply has never had at the position. He averaged over 25 yards per reception last season but expect even bigger rewards in '19. Even with Smith leaving, junior Colby Parkinson is a favorite to take home the John Mackey Award for nation's top tight end. Parkinson recorded 485 yards and seven touchdown catches a season ago and appears to be the next in a lengthy line of star Cardinal tight ends.

In order for the rushing attack to improve the offensive line has to run block better. Junior right tackle Walker Little leads a talented group of players, but one that faded down the stretch last fall. Little is a great starting point; he is an All-American candidate who should be a high NFL selection. On the other side, sophomore Foster Sarell is untested still, but oozes with potential. The interior of this unit will have to be shored up, namely the guard spots.

If not for Costello's play down the final few games, Stanford wouldn't have come close their to nine victories. With him back at the helm, the Cardinal are automatically in a good spot no matter what the ground game or O-Line looks like. However, it would be a major plus if those groups were able to recover from rough 2018 campaigns and bring Stanford back to their old, ground-and-pound ways. They won't get down time to figure it out, opening up against a Top 25-caliber defense in Northwestern on August 31st. 

Defense: Once a consistent Top 25 defense, Stanford's struggles on this side of the ball have been a major reason for their slight slippage in the Pac-12 North pecking order. This was especially true for their pass defense, which was 115th in the entire nation a year ago, allowing 264 YPG.

The good news is that Stanford should field a strong rush defense that is led by an experienced and talented D-Line. Junior defensive end Jovan Swann has proven to be incredibly reliable as a rock-solid pass rusher (4.5 sacks in '18) and as an important piece in run support. He'll be joined by junior D-Tackle Michael Williams as well as rising sophomore Thomas Booker. Booker is a talent to get excited about; he has the speed and motor reminiscent of former Stanford star Solomon Thomas. 

Linebacker is a position group Stanford reloads as well as anybody nationally, so I'm not super worried about the heavy losses they suffered at the position. Sure, replacing Sean Barton and Bobby Okereke (188 combined tackles in '18) will be a tall task, but there is talent returning. Junior outside linebacker Jordan Fox has the chance to be one of the Cardinal's top outside pass rushers. He had 9.5 tackles for loss last season and can really impact games with his quickness off the edge. Inside linebacker is incredibly bare for the Cardinal at the moment, they'll most likely need a youngster or two to step up.

Despite the pass defense problems Stanford suffered through in 2018, things are looking up for this group entering this fall. The big returnee to the secondary is unquestionably cornerback Paulson Adebo, who earned All-Conference honors his redshirt freshman campaign. Adebo is a versatile corner that can jam at the line of scrimmage but also extend outwards and play sideline-to-sideline. He has a chance to be the best cornerback in the country entering 2019, although that is a hotly contested award. Sophomore corner Kendall Williamson and junior safety Malik Antoine are also back, giving Stanford an abundance of pieces on the back-end.

Although it will be difficult to make a major improvement in a division that seems to be getting better continuously, the Cardinal have plenty of talent on defense. Coordinator Lance Anderson will need to find a way to maximize his D-Line while also keeping the secondary in good position, which was a big problem in '18. With so much experience back, Anderson should be able to guide this unit back into "very good" territory.

Special Teams: Junior placekicker Jet Toner will almost certainly be a favorite for the Lou Groza Award given to the nation's best kicker, after he knocked 14 of 15 field goals last season. However, the punter spot is a major question after veteran Jake Bailey moved on.

Bottom Line: While the Pac-12 North seems to be getting better top to bottom, Stanford remains in a good spot to win the division in 2019. Costello gives them a proven, talented quarterback to run this offense and the defense should also be improved, if the secondary is able to live up to their talent. Peeking at the schedule, the non-conference slate is tricky, with meetings against Northwestern, UCF and Notre Dame, but the Cardinal do get most of the difficult games at home in Palo Alto. They may not have enough for New Year's Six Bowl in somewhat of a transition year, but Pac-12 Title contention into November is a realistic goal for Shaw & the Cardinal.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (7-2 Pac-12)
Offensive MVP: QB K.J. Costello
Defensive MVP: CB Paulson Adebo
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Osiris St. Brown
Impact Freshman: CB Salim Turner-Muhammed

Five-Year Trend
2014: 8-5 (5-4 Pac-12)
2015: 12-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
2016: 10-3 (6-3 Pac-12)
2017: 9-5 (7-3 Pac-12)
2018: 9-4 (6-3 Pac-12)

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