It's almost that time. At 9 AM Pacific this Saturday, all in the universe will be right as Stanford takes the field and the 2015 season gets underway. We've all been inundated with predictions aplenty with what the Cardinal's going to do in 2015. Not too many have talked about how they're going to arrive at their final record this season. It wasn't hard to quantify Stanford's success (or lack thereof) last year, nor was it a challenge to pinpoint the areas that undid Stanford's season. College rosters change far more drastically than NFL rosters from year to year, and because of that, looking at the previous year's results don't offer quite the same insight into the subsequent year in college as it does with NFL teams. Nevertheless, here are some key numbers from Stanford's 2014 and categories that are going to have the biggest impact on the Cardinal's 2015 success.
The Number: 33.9%
The Stat: F/+
The Ranking: 18th Nationally
It's important to remember that Stanford was considered by this metric as top 20 team last year. Given the frustration felt by all Cardinal fans last year, one might expect that many were describing a losing season. While Stanford's defeats last year were certainly more plentiful and excruciating than many Cardinal fans could stomach, it's important to remember that Stanford's "slide" last year wasn't that far down. The stat above is an excellent composite that focuses on drive efficiency (both sides of the ball), explosiveness (points per play), and a team's overall effectiveness. It's from Football Outsiders and you should definitely read more about where and how they get their numbers. For our purposes here, what matters is that Auburn was the only five-loss team that this metric liked better than Stanford, and Arkansas was the only six-loss team rated above the Cardinal.
The overall point here is that Stanford doesn't need to do that much more to be a top ten team, and it's not unrealistic to think that a best-case scenario leaves the Cardinal in contention for a college football playoff berth. 2015 Prediction: Up.
The Number: .150
The Stat: FEI/Offense
The Ranking: 44th Nationally
You don't need to understand advanced metrics to know Stanford's offense was the weaker side of the ball last year, but it's worth it to understand what goes into the efficiency rating above because it's how you should evaluate the Cardinal's offense moving forward. Factors included in the Fremeau Efficiency Index include First Down Rate, which calculates the percentage of a team's non-garbage time, non-end of half drives that end in at least one first down. Stanford's number was 70% last year, which put the Cardinal at 39th in the country. Pac-12 schools of interest: Oregon (1st Nationally), UCLA (11th), USC (40th). I've always maintained that while points are obviously the goal of any offense, teams that routinely avoid threes and out have significant value as well, in terms of field position and not gassing your defense. Oregon's top ranked FD Rate was 83%. In other words, Stanford could go from middling to elite in this category if it could eliminate one three and out per game. Seems doable, no?
The next factor is Available Yards, which simply takes the percentage of yards the offense gained and divides it by the total number of yards it could have gained based on starting field position. Oregon once again led the nation in this category by securing 66% of the available yards. Look at Stanford's number of 49% and keep it in mind for just a moment. Explosive Drives are the number of drives that had at least one play of 10+ yards or more. Stanford's number was 13%, which ranked it 65th. Considering this was far below the Cardinal's overall offensive rank, this number deserves some attention. Big plays were a crucial part of Stanford's previous offensive success. In 2013, Stanford's Ex Rate was 21%, good for 12th in the country. In 2011, the number was 19%, good for 15th. The 2012 team, curiously, also struggled to generate big plays. Its number was 11%, which ranked 79th in offense that year. Accordingly, Stanford's offense was rated 34th overall that season.
So what really matters here is whether or not Stanford's going to increase its explosiveness this year. Now, how does Stanford like to get its big plays? We all know from watching the Cardinal over the years that both Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw like to go play action to the tight ends. The Cardinal's reinforcements at this position have helped put it into position to get back to the explosiveness that helped power the effective offenses of recent seasons. That's only one crucial component, however. For Stanford to fully re-assume its identity as an elite offense, it's going to have to turn around a downward and disturbing trend from last year. 2015 Prediction: Up*
*The Number: 4.35
The Stat: Yards/Carry in Conference Play
The Ranking: 5th in the Pac-12
The weakness that most firmly shackled Stanford's offense was the decline of the vaunted Cardinal running game. Both that number and that ranking represent lows for the over the past three seasons. Buried under the euphoria of Stanford's offensive eruption to close out the 2014 season was the fact that the improvement was largely due to Kevin Hogan's passing, and not the running game. Stanford made no marked improvement on the ground during its season-closing turnaround. It's not hard to connect the dots here. In order to be better in 2015, Stanford needs to be more explosive. Given that this team is being coached by David Shaw, that means play action, specifically (but not exclusively with Cajuste and Rector around) to the tight ends. The only way play action works is if the defense has reason to fear and commit to stopping the Cardinal run game.
This train of thought is what concerns me so much as the Cardinal prepares to start the season. There is talent at running back to be sure, but the fact that it took all of camp to establish Stanford's starting O Line gives me pause. The group is now set left to right at Murphy, Garnett, Shuler, Caspers, and Tucker. The Question Marks are clearly the right side of that line. Don't be distracted by the dizzying talk of Hogan, the receivers, the tight ends, Christian the Lion, et al. All those guys will undoubtedly make Stanford's offense better in 2015, but in order to make it elite Stanford's got to get back to Stanford-ing. If Stanford is going to resume its status among the college football elite, it's going to have to have the running game that defined its elite teams. This group needs to be nasty, physical, and good at running the ball. Without that, Stanford is most likely to reach the same disappointing destination as last year just via a different route.
The most dispiriting part of Oregon's thrashing of the Cardinal last year in Eugene was the game-ending goal line stand well after the game had been decided. Stanford couldn't break through against even Oregon's second string defense. Oregon was better than Stanford last year because they were better at being Oregon than Stanford was at being Stanford. If the needle is going to truly move on this season, if Stanford's truly going to blow-up all the pre-destined narratives about its Pac-12 fate this year, it has to start here, and the goal line, where we just left the Stanford offense, is as good a place as any to finish this piece. 2015 Prediction: ????
The Number: 46%
The Stat: 2014 Value Drives
The Ranking: 27th Nationally
As one of the factors of FEI Offense, this number stands as an outlier for the Cardinal in that Stanford outperformed its overall national ranking of 44 in this category. It should come as no surprise to those who don't know it that this percentage tracks the number of drives where a team starts in its own territory and ends up at least as far as the opponent's 30-yard line. Anyone who suffered through last year's USC game knows Stanford did a good enough job of matriculating the ball down the field. However, coffee is for closers and in 2014 Stanford was far closer to George Aaronow than Ricky Roma. Given Stanford's influx of offensive talent and a quarterback in position to have a great year, the Cardinal should end up with plenty of red zone opportunities this year. The issue is going to be converting them. Coach Shaw said that Red Zone success is about running the ball, having a quarterback who can run, and finding individual match-ups that work in your favor. Stanford had the fifth most Red Zone attempts in 2014, but was only 10th in touchdown percentage. As Coach Shaw says, that all comes back to running the ball. Stanford's got the other two factors on the checklist, but it's the last one that's going to make all the difference. Prediction: Up.
Last year, I thought that the offense was poised to break out and that it would have to because the defense was headed for a decline. I was wrong. Coach Lance Anderson once more led a group that defied expectation. The offense did as well, but in a bad way. This year, I'm doubling down on my bet that the offense will necessarily be better and that the defense at least at the outset, is not going to win games for Stanford outright. And despite all the talent at the skill positions, my sense is that the more things change, the more Coach Shaw wants them to stay the same. There will be some new wrinkles I'm sure, but in his heart I think Coach Shaw believes that Stanford doesn't need to reinvent itself to be successful. They need to recapture the dominance at the line of scrimmage that got them to four straight BCS Bowls. That means running the ball. Note that Kevin Hogan's success in the final three games was not about more passes, just more completed passes. And no matter how good the talent is this year, don't expect to see Hogan surpassing 30 attempts per game on the reg. Or at least, don't expect that to be a catalyst for victories over tough teams. The road out of the offensive darkness of 2014 to Stanford's final destination in 2015 will be dug, blasted through, and paved by the Tunnel Workers Union. Ultimately, it's all on them.
Time to see what they've got.
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