The Bootleg: Is Alabama Stanford’s biggest nemesis? We know it isn’t USC. Or Notre Dame. Or Dennis Erickson (with three wins over the Cardinal as head coach of three different teams, plus two more as a Utah assistant). The Tide has won the only two meetings with Stanford (in the Rose Bowl, no less). Both Toby Gerhart and Christian McCaffrey finished Heisman runner-up to the only two Tide players to ever win the honor. Let’s not forget about 2010, when Andrew Luck would have won the Heisman if Alabama hadn’t blown a 24-7 lead over Cam Newton and Auburn. And don’t ask about 2004, when Stanford hoops’ decline began when it coughed up a late double-digit lead in the Round of 32 against… Alabama.
R.J. Abeytia: Thank you for bringing up the most painful sporting loss in my life (2004, second round, to Alabama), but no, USC is still Stanford's biggest nemesis. Keep in mind Stanford could beat USC twice a year for the next decade and still be behind in the head-to-head, to say nothing of their national titles and Heisman trophy winners. Alabama has dealt some tough blows to be sure, but the Heisman "losses" were the result of bad voters, not the Tide, in my opinion. And NOTHING feels as good as beating USC.
Andy Drukarev: It's an interesting observation. To complete the the thought, Alabama's offensive line was awarded the inaugural Joe Moore Award, which is given the the nation's top offensive line. Stanford, of course, had a very strong case for that honor as well this year, and they were one of the finalists. So the evidence is compelling. I'd argue, however, that Oregon should also be strongly considered. I honestly believe Stanford's 2010 team wins a national title if the Ducks don't blitz the Cardinal at Autzen in the second half. The 2011 team had one regular season loss - to the Ducks. This year's Cardinal team is playoff bound if not for Oregon. So while Alabama has clearly been Stanford's biggest Heisman nemesis, Oregon has been the biggest hurdle to a berth in the BCS title game/College Football Playoff.
Hank Waddles: Interesting ideas here, but I completely disagree. If anything, Alabama is our sister school. Both schools have singular nicknames based on a color — the Cardinal and the Crimson Tide. And aren’t those really the same colors? Next, because colors don’t strike fear into anyone’s heart, both schools have adopted mascots which seem to make no sense at all — Stanford’s Tree and Alabama’s elephant. Also, both schools have academic reputations that outshine even the success of their football teams. Finally, even though both teams are currently enjoying incredible success under two phenomenal head coaches, both of those men labor in the shadows of legendary giants who came before them, Bear Bryant at Alabama and Walt Harris at Stanford. So you see, there’s really no difference between Stanford and Alabama.
TB: We saw a lot of revelations in 2015: Kevin Hogan emerged as one of the conference’s most efficient quarterbacks. The defensive line somehow stayed healthy enough, as Solomon Thomas showed he will be a force for years to come. David Shaw’s offense had range, proving it could utilize a wide array of weapons and not just a simple power-run formula. Which of these surprised you the most?
RA: The D-line holding up. When you talk about three guys playing over 600 snaps each, with nobody at all really capable of replacing them after Horrible Harry went down, that was the tightrope Stanford walked every week, and for those guys to make it through was truly special.
AD: In general, I guess I'd say just the extent of the offensive turnaround. I thought the Cardinal would be vastly improved on that side of the ball. I didn't know they'd field perhaps the conference's No. 1 offense. (Stanford is tied with Oregon in Pac-12 conference scoring. The Ducks have an edge in season scoring average -- the Northwestern game hurts the Cardinal in that area, of course -- but given the pace at which Oregon plays and the resulting number of possessions, Stanford's offense was more efficient on a per-possession basis. In fact, the Cardinal had a top-10 offense nationally by several efficiency gauges, and a top-five unit by others.
Specifically, I think we all knew Christian McCaffrey was going to be a dynamic player for Stanford, but I'd be lying if I said I'd thought he'd have a Heisman Trophy-caliber season. And I, like many who follow Stanford, expected Kevin Hogan to have a bounce-back season, but I can't say I thought he'd be arguably the conference's top quarterback. You could kind of run down the list of various position groups with similar conclusions, but I'd also say that Daniel Marx and Bryce Love are two more that exceeded my expectations.
HW: The courageous performance by the defensive line has to be the biggest revelation for me. This group was already thin heading into the season, so when Harrison Phillips was lost early, I was worried. When Aziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett both went down in the Oregon State game and rumors started swirling that one or both might be out for the season, it looked like disaster. Can you imagine how the year would’ve played out without them? Somehow they both returned the following week, and along with Solomon Thomas (can’t wait to watch his development over the next three years) they were the single biggest factor in Stanford’s defensive success. Sure, there weren’t as many parties in the backfield as in previous years, but what those three men did, essentially all on their own, was flat out amazing.
TB: How historic and significant of a season was this, considering all the struggles that occurred in 2014, the first without Gaffney, Skov, Trent Murphy, etc.? A lot of people doubted David Shaw, saying he had only achieved high-level success with Harbaugh’s recruits. Have the doubters been silenced for good?
RA: The Rose Bowl result determines how historic this season is, in my mind, since only three Stanford teams have ever won the Rose Bowl. If they can beat Iowa, then this becomes an all-time season. Within the Harb-Shaw Era, it's my second favorite season behind the Orange Bowl year, which had such a spectacular and dominating close capped by a spectacular trip to Miami. I think the Shaw doubters are pretty much done, but the Stanford doubters will probably always be around.
AD: It's college football - doubters are never permanently silenced. Just ask Nick Saban at Alabama, Urban Meyer at Ohio State or any successful coach who still receives criticism from the fan base from time to time. That said, I do think this year went a long way toward at least quieting some of the criticism Shaw faced on two fronts.
Like you note, even when Shaw and Stanford were winning big from 2011-2013, some fans/pundits were quick to point out that they were doing so with Jim Harbaugh's players. This argument seemed a bit silly to me, at least to a certain degree. Sure, Harbaugh was the head coach through 2010, but Shaw and the other assistants were prominently involved in the evaluation and offer process. Harbaugh might have had the final say, but Lance Anderson, Randy Hart, Shaw and other assistants were on the front lines of the evaluation and recruiting process. And the likes of David Parry, Henry Anderson, Ty Montgomery and Co. spent more time with Shaw's staff than Harbaugh's. Regardless, given that the last of the Harbaugh recruits exited last season, I think the success of the Cardinal did probably silence some of the doubters in that regard.
Additionally, Stanford's offensive success in 2015 went a long way toward addressing some of the concerns about the Cardinal offense in the post-Andrew Luck era - specifically, the criticism that the offense was too complex or not sufficiently dynamic to succeed without a generational talent (and one of a kind football mind) like Luck. This year, with a group of players who had been recruited and developed by Shaw and Mike Bloomgren, Stanford's offense was perhaps the best in the Pac-12 and, by at least one measure, the best in the entire country. And while Stanford's offense wasn't quite as prolific in 2015 over the entire season as it was in 2010 or 2011, the 2015 Cardinal offense averaged 40.9 points in Pac-12 play in 2015. Their previous best was 36.3 in conference play in 2010, Jim Harbaugh's last year. Once Stanford got rolling after Northwestern and the first half of UCF, this offense was right up there with some of the Cardinal's better units in recent memory. So the Cardinal will face a stiff challenge in replacing Hogan, Murphy, Garnett, Wright, Cajuste and Co. in 2016, but the offensive turnaround this year certainly quieted the criticism.
HW: I don’t think the doubters will ever be silenced. There are still those who blame him for the Northwestern and Oregon losses. I think this is true sign that Stanford football has achieved elite status: there will always be people out there who are questioning the coach. But you’re right: this was a landmark season. We saw the 2012 offensive line recruiting class come to fruition and what some have said is the best offense in college football, probably the best offense in Stanford history. Yes, Christian McCaffrey was fun to watch, but what I’ll remember about this year aside from him is the dynamic playcalling. David Shaw and Mike Bloomgren, both of whom were much maligned throughout 2014, were brilliant, not just with the plays they called but also with the plays they designed. We saw new plays late into the season, we saw creative ways to get the ball to McCaffrey, and we saw a smooth integration of the team’s newest weapon, Bryce Love. The best part? I see no reason why we won’t see more of the same for years to come.
TB: R.J. had a very astute observation in his piece about McCaffrey placing second in the Heisman (“Pac-12 yards are not deemed as valuable as SEC yards”). What will it take to change this perception?
RA: It really hit me right after the award was announced to Henry. The TV thing just didn't sit right with me, and that was the reason why. The only way you can sidestep 3,496 is to say that those aren't worth Henry's far lesser total. To change the perception, Stanford/McCaffrey would need to tear up a team from the Midwest or the South in the regular season. If he blows up against Notre Dame next year (or if he had this year), that makes the bias very difficult to maintain (e.g. Mariota tearing up a very good Michigan State team last year).
AD: I do think there's something to the frequent complaints about lack of exposure. It's one thing for Heisman voters to read about McCaffrey's accomplishments on the Internet. It's another to see him in action. The SEC does have good defensive players, there's no doubt about that. But it's not like they produce far and away more defensive talent than other conferences. In fact, the Pac-12 is right up there with the SEC in the number of Pro Bowl appearances by defensive players in the past eight years. And that's the case even though the SEC has, and has had, more teams in its league. Plus, SEC defenses boost their statistics through only eight conference games and feasting on cupcake FCS opponents. So, I guess my feeling is that changing the perception will be difficult, but continuing to point out some of the ways that the Pac-12 is on par with the SEC - and getting players like McCaffrey in front of more eyeballs - might help.
HW: R.J.’s pretty smart. The Pac-12 has to win some head-to-head matchups with the SEC [Ed: It’s been 29 years and counting since sides from the two conferences met in a bowl game.] It would help a lot if USC could somehow beat Alabama in next year’s season opener, but since that won’t happen, I think we have to do well in other games versus Power 5 competition. A big performance from McCaffrey in the Rose Bowl against Iowa would help, and it would be nice for the conference as a whole to do well this bowl season. But it’s difficult to change a perception like this. The SEC won several national championships in a row, so they must be the best conference, right? Even though the overall quality of that conference has dipped, people still put too much value on the past. Only time, a lot of time, can change that.
TB: I’m going through Stanford football withdrawal. There’s only one game left, followed by one very long offseason. Any advice?
RA: I have most of the games on DVR, so I'd just go watch some highlights if I were you.
AD: Become a recruiting fanatic? I'm biased, of course, because I devote a good chunk of my workday to covering and tracking the Cardinal's recruiting efforts, and I've long been interested in recruiting. But in all seriousness, Stanford is compiling a very good class and there are sure to be a few more twists and turns before National Signing Day. Other than that, there are numerous Cardinal football highlights (and some full games) available for viewing on YouTube, so that might take some of the edge off. And hey, spring practice will be here before you know it.
HW: Well, National Signing Day is just five weeks after the Rose Bowl, and Spring Football is only two months after that, so there will be some Stanford-related stuff to get you through, but I’d have to recommend some serious binge watching. I watched the Sopranos last summer, and this summer I’m looking forward to The Wire and Mad Men. (I know, I’m a bit late on those.) Here are some current shows that I highly recommend if you aren’t already watching: The Walking Dead, Orphan Black, and Jessica Jones. If you haven’t watched Breaking Bad, disregard all those other suggestions and watch that NOW. Finally, if you want to go old school, check out Lost. That oughta do it.
TB: How do you like the team's chances against Iowa? Does the Hawkeyes' strong running game bode well for their upset hopes?
AD: I honestly haven't seen enough of Iowa or talked to enough people about the Hawkeyes to have an informed response to this.
HW: Iowa didn't get much respect all season, and I think there's a reason for that. Sure, they like to run the ball, but I think Stanford's offense is one of the two or three best in the nation, maybe the absolute best. They should be able to score ten points a quarter against Iowa, and that in itself will mitigate the Iowa running game. I just don't think the Hawkeyes have the firepower to keep up.
TB: Rank these Stanford fan accomplishments in order of least to most impressive: Attend a road game in Pullman. Sit through an entire home game during the 2006 season. Watch a replay of the 2014 Rose Bowl.
AD: Watch a replay of the Rose Bowl - Sure, the loss stings for Cardinal fans. And reliving it is nobody's idea of a good time. But it was a very competitive game against a heck of a Michigan State team. And it was the Rose Bowl. The disappointment and second-guessing that might accompany viewing the replay could be partially mitigated by the knowledge that Stanford did win the Pac-12 and had accomplished something in consecutive trips to Pasadena that few teams have.
Survive a home game in 2006. Bad football + no hope for the future = a miserable three-and-a-half hours.
Roadie in Pullman - this is probably the most gratifying of the three options - the Cardinal hasn't lost to the Cougars since the 2007 trip to the Palouse - but it's costly and apparently time-consuming. (I have actually not made the trip myself.) Given all that it takes to actually make the trip, this tops my list as the most impressive.
HW: When I walked out of the stadium after the Michigan State Rose Bowl, I tried to be disappointed, but I just couldn't. It was the Rose Bowl. So let's throw that one out. The 2006 season was dark, pitch-black dark, but at least you'd be in Stanford Stadium. Let's throw that out, too. So that leaves Pullman, which might as well be the dark side of the moon. But if you were going to the moon, at least that would mean you're an astronaut. If you're going to Pullman, you're probably the most dedicated Stanford fan there is.
TB: What's the best Christmas present you got as a kid?
AD: We celebrated Hanukkah in the Drukarev household, but sticking with the theme of your previous questions, hypothetically, a copy of the best seller "Quick Kicks and a Centered Life: The Walt Harris Story."
HW: In 1978 when I was nine, I wanted an Atari like every other kid on the planet. My parents, of course, got me a Magnavox Odyssey 2 Magnavox Odyssey 2. It was better than an Atari in the same way that Apple computers were better than PCs in the 1990s, which is to say that it didn't matter. But I loved that Odyssey 2 and all its indie, nerdy glory. Best Christmas gift ever.
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