Posted on July 27, 2021
Each preview is comprised of nine sections: Overview, Best-Case Scenario, Worst-Case Scenario, What Should Happen, What Must Happen, Greatest Strength, Biggest Concern, Deciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.
Nothing is set in stone as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer. In the end, preseason prognostications often prove to be no better than good guesses at best.
After a 4-2 campaign in 2020, the Cardinal enter the season on a four-game winning streak. Davis Mills and Simi Fehoko are gone, but Stanford’s rising sophomores are set to take over the reins.
Along the line, former four-star tackle Myles Hinton is ready to make waves after the departure of Foster Sarrell. And on the edge, wideout John Humphreys is primed for a strong year.
But all eyes are on running back Austin Jones.
The junior enters his third season on the farm expecting to do even more damage than his nine-touchdown season, as the Cardinal project to rely more on the run in 2021.
The open question at quarterback remains, but senior Jack West has the trust of head coach David Shaw.
West’s ability to run the offense makes him the projected starter, and Stanford’s efficiency running the football figures to be the difference between a winning season and a losing one.
The Cardinal demonstrate their improved run game against Kansas State in Week One, taking down the Wildcats at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The momentum continues two weeks later with a true road victory over Vanderbilt, as West proves capable of leading the Tree to wins.
The strong nonconference season leads to conference victories over UCLA, Washington State, Oregon State, California, and an upset over Washington on the Farm.
With defeats coming only to ranked opponents, Stanford’s seven wins earns it an invitation to the Holiday Bowl, where it secures an eight-win season.
Worst Case Scenario
The Tree falter against KSU in the opener as West is unable to effectively run the offense. With an over-reliance on the run, opponents stack the box and aren’t punished for it. The end result is a predictable offense that struggles to score points.
The Stanford defense doesn’t pick up the slack either, routinely giving up 30 points or more per night.
The snowball effect of a bad offense and weak defense leads to a three-win season, including a loss in the Big Game.
Projected second-string quarterback Tanner McKee isn’t consistent enough to win the starting role, and true freshman Ari Patu isn’t ready to see the field. Forced to stick with West, the offensive production slowly improves as the year rolls on, but it’s not enough.
The losing season ends with a blowout loss to Norte Dame on the Farm.
What Should Happen
The Cardinal offensive line should hit the ground running after losing Sarrell and Drew Dalman.
With Hinton poised to breakout, proven starters Walter Rouse and Branson Bragg combine to lead Stanford’s strongest rushing attack in several seasons.
The strength moving the ball on the ground opens the pro-style passing attack, allowing West to operate smoothly and find receivers over the top.
Michael Wilson, Elijah Higgins, and Brycen Tremayne were the Tree’s second, third, and fifth leading wideouts from last year, each returning with golden opportunities at their fingertips.
Mix in Humphreyes, and the Cardinal arguably have the most underrated receiving corps in the Pac-12. The challenge will be on the quarterback to get them the ball, but the task should be made easier with a powerful offensive line and potent run game.
What Must Happen
Shaw’s 2020 recruiting class must shine. The Tree lost production at nearly every position on both sides of the ball, and the rising sophomore class needs to step up to the plate.
The group was rated 21st in the country, and had a full year to develop without losing any eligibility. Particularly along the offensive line, former four-stars Hinton, Levi Rogers, and Connor McLaughlin must be physically prepared to play.
Rogers and McLaughlin didn’t see the field in 2020, and their contribution – even as rotational players – could be vital to Stanford’s season.
In an offensive system dependent on effectively moving the ball on the ground, the Tree’s hogmollies are its kryptonite: The young guns must be ready.
After posting nine touchdowns in just six games, Jones is poised for an All-Conference year. Supported with a one-two punch from Nathaniel Peat, the Stanford backfield is the backbone of the offense.
And with capable receivers on the edges, the two back’s effectiveness running the ball has the potential to ignite a winning season. West is capable of making the throws required of him in the system, but a stymied run game makes his job exponentially more difficult.
If Jones and Peat ease the burden on the senior, the Cardinal offense could be even stronger in 2021, despite the loss of Davis Mills.
The X-Factor, though, could be the development of E.J. Smith.
The son of NFL legend Emmitt Smith, E.J. struggled to see the field in his freshman season. Yet, a year in a college-level strength and development program tends to transform freshmen into players physically ready to see meaningful snaps.
If Smith can crack the rotation and become a third option in the backfield, particularly in passing plays, the Cardinal should be able to turn heads by the end of the year.
There’s no sugar coating it, Shaw’s defense hasn’t been strong in years.
Through his first eight seasons, Shaw’s units held opponents to less than 23 points per game. But in the last two years, the Cardinal have given up 29.8 and 31.7 points per game, respectively.
In a program that made its mark by shutting down opposing offenses, the sea change has been stark. And without a clear All-Conference talent at the linebacker position, that doesn’t figure to change in 2021.
Although Levani Damuni returns as the Tree’s second-leading tackler, there are more questions than answers on the Stanford defense.
Defensive lineman Thomas Booker anchors the front three, while Kyu Blu Kelly and Kendall Williamson are talented corners. But the weakness in the linebacker unit is a problem that can’t be fixed overnight.
And the Class of 2021 doesn’t have any showstoppers to bridge the gap. Four-star defensive lineman Aaron Armitrage should become a rotational player, though, and might end up starting by the end of the season.
Assuming Stanford’s offensive line performs as expected, the play of West figures to define the season. As the front runner to win the starting role, West’s senior leadership gives him an edge. He understands how to run the system and has the backing of Shaw.
But, having yet to throw a touchdown, West doesn’t have the experience to inspire confidence in Stanford’s season outside of its own locker room.
Predicted by some to have as few as four wins, the absence of a proven quarterback is arguably Exhibit A to the reasoning.
Coming out of the gate strong against Kansas State in Week One should inject confidence into the first-year starter, and relying on a strong ground game could be the ticket to success.
If West exceeds expectations, the Cardinal could surprise more than a few teams.
The year begins with a neutral site matchup against Kansas State at the Cowboys’ stadium in Arlington, Texas. Historically, this is not the type of game Stanford drops, and a Cardinal victory is arguably expected.
The conference season begins in Week Two against USC at the Coliseum, a game that almost surely ends in defeat. The following Saturday, the Tree head to Nashville for a road game against Vanderbilt.
A 2-1 start to the season is a fair expectation.
A winnable game against UCLA at the Farm follows – a series the Cardinal are 12-1 in since the 2009 season. The battle could come down to the final possession, but Stanford should come out on top.
A tough stretch follows against Oregon and Arizona State, two opponents that should be too much to handle.
A mid-October showdown with Washington State in Pullman follows, another toss-up matchup that could go either way.
Home games against Washington and Utah are next. Defeats in both wouldn’t be a surprise, although the Cardinal are 12-4 against the Huskies since 2004.
Winnable games against Oregon State and Cal end the Pac-12 season, while Notre Dame comes to town to end the year.
The tough draw of South Division opponents in USC, Arizona State, and Utah makes the path to a bowl game difficult. But the Tree can get it done with victories over KSU, Vanderbilt, UCLA, WSU, OSU, and Cal.
And with Washington on upset alert on the Farm, seven wins is possible.
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