Spring football ended with five burning questions for the Stanford Cardinal according to some internet hack, but this whole show comes down to one single question, the one that titles this article.
The chances are you’re reading this because you are partly if not wholly obsessed with Stanford Football. I mean, that’s why I’m writing this. When I look back at the five questions that culminated spring, there is validity in all of them. And though they’ve been answered theoretically for now, ultimately they are rooted in that one, singular issue.
Stanford steps into 2016 looking up at the last mountaintop they’ve failed to climb. By most measures, the Cardinal has been an elite college football program for over half a decade under Coach Shaw. They’ve played in three of the last four Rose Bowls. Look at that sentence. However, despite the fact that they are defending Pac-12 Champions, there is an echelon they have yet to join.
Stanford has never participated in the college football playoff, and they’ve never qualified for the BCS National Championship Game. Oregon has. Alabama has. Notre Dame has. These are programs Stanford can on many levels refer to as modern-day peers. Stanford has done everything but that. It’s put players in the NFL, sent them to the Downtown Athletic Club, and played in Orange, Fiesta, and Rose Bowls.
This is what’s next, and Stanford knows it.
For years, the talking point from inside the program has been the Pac-12 Championship. Win the Pac-12, and let all the other chips fall where they may. Truthfully, most fans have echoed that sentiment, because this isn’t Alabama, Oregon, or Notre Dame. It’s Stanford. No season that ends in Pasadena on January 1st could be anything but a roaring success, right?
For the first time, Coach Shaw has allowed that there is a promised land beyond the Arroyo Seco, and that this program has talked openly about striving for it. Bryce Love spoke the words when I interviewed him, and he’s not the first. This program has ascended to such spectacular heights, that it’s foolish to ignore what remains, and that brings us to the only question that matters in 2016.
The two teams that play in the National Championship game January 9 in Tampa Bay will have cleared hurdles such as injury, games where they can’t run, games where they struggle to score, brutally difficult road venues, and the mistakes that players will make because they’re players and that’s what happens. And the number one reason they’re going to navigate it all and play for the biggest prize is ultimately going to be because of their head coach.
The best part of Alabama’s program is Nick Saban. The best part of Notre Dame is Brian Kelly. The best part of Oregon needs to be Mark Helfrich, who is currently under scrutiny despite having played for the national title in January of 2015. Coach Shaw is the best part of Stanford Football, and do we get his best in 2016, and will that prove to be good enough?
The quarterback choice, while the likely product of a consensus, is ultimately Coach Shaw’s call. The choice to cut down on practices and hitting during summer camp in order to be fresher for Game One is his as well. The defensive line is of course entirely stocked with his recruits, as is the entirety of the roster. He’s overseen the overhaul of an offensive line replacing three starters and he’s trusted in a staff who wasn’t quite able to get a similarly inexperienced group ready quicky enough to be a national factor in 2014. Yes, there are factors out of his (and every coach’s) control, but know that if Stanford takes the field January 9 in Tampa, it’s going to be because it got the best from Coach Shaw above all else.
There will be plenty of time to look at the stats, the film, and the results, and to second and triple-guess Coach Shaw and his staff. There are known unknowns (the lines, Bobby Okereke), and unknown unknowns. Stanford has a tougher road than most, but ask yourself, is there anyone in college football you’d rather have leading this team down that road?
All offseason, there has been a quiet confidence permeating the words of players and coaches. I suppose we have to allow for the possibility that it’s all a bluff. When Jesse Burkett says he feels totally comfortable making the line calls, when Christian McCaffrey says he thinks the defense is going to “shock the world,” or when Coach Shaw answers all of these high stakes inquiries with a “What, me worry?” expression on his face, I guess it’s possible they are veiling panic.
I tend to doubt it, though.
Coach David Shaw has said how he and Coach Mark Helfrich think of Andrew Luck and Marcus Mariota as “the one you get,” the one transcendent talent who transforms your program and makes coaching a singular and joyful experience that transcends all the adversity and angst that stalks coaches on a daily basis. It’s a coaching a once in a generation talent, though one might argue that with Christian McCaffrey, Coach Shaw’s cup runneth over.
After a masterpiece of a 2015 season and entering his seventh year, it’s time to consider that David Shaw may be the “one we get.” Is he the coach who not only takes Stanford to the promised land, but actually stays at Stanford? Is he the one who means it when he calls it his dream job? One season can never put the latter question to rest, but make no mistake: the former is the only question worth answering in 2016.
When expectations can’t be lowered, the only choice is to meet them. Stanford can’t shy away from the fact that though my brain tells me this is most often a 9-3 season if played out 1,000 times, that same brain also sees a national championship roster. The players see it. David Shaw sees it. If your answer to this article’s title question is “Yes,” then you see it, too.
Trust the man. He’s earned it.