The Sweep: Top-25 Stanford?

Being in the Top 25 gives you extra attention every week, extra newspaper inches, extra highlights on TV, extra respect from opponents. In short, it means you're nationally relevant -- precisely where Stanford wants to be long-term. How far are the 2008 Card from the Top 25 and what will 2009 Stanford need to do to close the gap? Plus, we open with our poll and close with our hot-as-ever picks.

Week 12 Poll

1. Florida (Change: +1)
2. USC (-1)
3. Texas Tech (0)
4. Texas (0)
5. Oklahoma (0)
6. Alabama (0)
7. Utah (+1)
8. Penn State (-1)
9. Ohio State (0)
10. TCU
11. Boise State (-1)
12. Oklahoma State (0)
13. Missouri (+2)
14. Georgia (-1)
15. Ball State (+2)
16. BYU (0)
17. Oregon State (+7)
18. LSU (-4)
19. Michigan State (+2)
20. Pittsburgh (+2)
21. Boston College (+5)
22. Cincinnati (+1)
23. Oregon (+3)
24. Maryland (+2)
25. Miami (+1)

IN: Maryland, Boston College, Oregon, Miami
OUT:   Florida State, North Carolina, South Carolina, Cal
ON DECK: Nebraska, Florida State, North Carolina, Georgia Tech

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How Stanford compares

If this year's best-case scenario goal was for Stanford to make a bowl, next year's preseason goal should probably be for Stanford to finish in the Top 25.

The Card will lose the following starters (as deemed by the most recent depth chart): C Alex Fletcher, LT Ben Muth, DE Pannel Egboh, LB Pat Maynor, CB Wopamo Osaisai and K Aaron Zagory. Stanford will return the other 17 of its 22 starters, which will put it near the top of the conference (where about 13 returning starters is average).  On that stat alone, you'd project a one- or two-win improvement.

It gets better though. Most of those departing seniors weren't stars. To be sure, Fletcher's a first-day NFL draft pick, and Egboh and Udofia were above-average Pac-10 defensive linemen, and their absences will hurt next year. The rest had more up-and-down careers, and it's entirely possible that whoever starts in their positions next year might actually put together better seasons. Plus, Stanford can count on two additional sources of personnel upgrade: would-be starters returning from injury, and the fact that the incoming recuiting class will represent one of the biggest talent upgrades for any school in the country. Looking only at Stanford's roster, one would project a one- or two-win improvement.

The schedule, of course, also matters. Eleven of 12 opponents are the same, but Stanford replaces TCU, a probable loss, with Wake Forest, more of a toss-up. The Card also will enjoy seven home games in 2009, up from their five this season. They could easily start 5-0 (Washington State, at Wake Forest, San Jose State, Washington, UCLA), which will put them in the Top 25, excite recruits, and give the Card more confidence for its final four of Oregon, at USC, Cal and Notre Dame. Looking at the schedule alone, one would expect a one- or two-win improvement.

Conservatively say the Card are 2-1 out-of-conference, splitting Notre Dame and Wake Forest, and either 5-4 or 4-5 in the Pac-10, beating the Washingtons and UCLA, losing to USC, Oregon and Cal, and splitting the rest. That's a six- or seven-win season, which should be the baseline expectation among fans. Stanford itself will want to set its internal goal one or two wins higher, which would translate into a eight or nine-win season, placing the Card squarely on the fringe of the Top 25...

... All of which got me thinking: how do Stanford's 2008 stats compare to a Top 25 team's stats? Where is Stanford already playing at the level they'll want to for next year, where is Stanford close, and where does the Card have some serious work (and/or prayer) to do?

So, through Saturday, here's Stanford's stats and here's the No. 25 team in the country's stats in a ton of key categories.


Stat                     Stanford     No. 25     Diff     Pct. Diff
Scoring margin        +0.6         +7.5        -6.9         N/A
Points                      27.2         31.5        -3.3       -10.5%
Points allowed         26.5         20.4        -6.1        -30%

Total yards              344.2       412.9       -68.7     -16.6%
Rush yards              206.5       187.8        18.7       10%
Pass yards               137.6       250.4      -112.8    -45%

Yards allowed         378.8      312.1       -66.7      -21.4%
Rush yds. allowed    140.7     117.5       -23.2      -19.7%
Pass yds. allowed    238.1      184.4      -53.7      -29.1%

Time of possession  49.3%      52.8%     -3.5%     -6.6%
Penalty yards          62.6          43.0        -19.6      -45.6%
Turnovers                1.9            1.4          -0.5       -26.3%


Some caveats: First, Stanford's schedule is tougher than most, so the Card's numbers probably don't need to be that good. Second, the No. 25 team in the country isn't uniformly good in every stat, so Stanford can be better in some stats and worse in others; this is just a rough guide. Finally, if a team were No. 25, above average, in every stat, they'd be a darn good team, probably No. 10 in the country or so. A No. 25 team probably could afford to be No. 35 or No. 40 in its average statistical category.

What we see though, is that Stanford has some serious work to do. The final two columns are particularly instructive; the difference is positive if Stanford is better and negative if the No. 25 team is better in that category. Discrepancies of over 20 percent are bolded -- and there's a lot of them.

The chart's pretty sobering. The Cardinal rush attack is one of the best in school history, yet it's only 10% better than team No. 25's, and Stanford's only stat to rank in the top 25. The pass offense, the pass defense, and sloppy play (penalties and turnovers) need to improve drastically next year, or this year's .500ish season is an absolute ceiling for the 2009 Card. Conversely, if Stanford can improve in these areas, there's plenty of reason to think that a top-25 finish isn't a total fantasy.

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We close with our picks section, also known as Don't Quit Your Day Job:

Last week:   Florida and Texas covered their double-digit spreads by double-digit margins. Miami beating Virginia Tech by two, not at least four, is our only loss this week. It's been a heck of a season, so let's see if we can't finish strong.
3-0 straight-up, 2-1 against the spread.

22-11 against the spread, 26-7 straight-up .

Texas Tech (+6.5) at Oklahoma
Cinderella, meet midnight. For all the talk about Texas Tech's improved defense, every single Big 12 opponent has scored at least 20 on the Red Raiders. The same is true for Oklahoma, save for Baylor, but the Sooners have also won each game by at least 14 points, except for their Texas loss. Who wins the Big 12 South with an Oklahoma win (and, with a win over Missouri, likely plays in the national title)? The highest ranked of Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech in the BCS standings. That's enough motivation for the Sooners to roll Saturday, and look for some intense lobbying starting as soon as the final horn sounds.
Oklahoma 38, Texas Tech 28 

Michigan State (+14.5) at Penn State
Penn State has its iconic "We are.. Penn State" cheer. "The Sweep" recommends MSU fans try either "We are... State Penn!" or "We own... Penn State!"

On the field, Penn State was playing like one of the best teams in the country, but has lost its mojo as of late, losing to Iowa and then earning no style points in last week's ugly win over Indiana. Maybe Iowa was a fluke and Indiana was the hangover game? We'll hope so, because Penn State would have been 18-point favorites over the Spartans earlier this season, and picking against Michigan State football in a clutch situation is one of the most automatic moneymakers in the game.
Penn State 38, Michigan State 14

BYU (+6) at Utah
This is tough to call because both teams have essentially played one-game seasons: BYU lost to TCU by 25, while Utah beat them. So we have to split some hairs here: BYU's defense is questionable, allowing totals of 42, 35, 32, 24 and 12 in its last five contests. The Cougars also beat UNLV, Colorado State and winless Washington by a score or less. Utah's had its share of close games -- but against Michigan, Air Force, Oregon State, New Mexico and TCU, a better slate of opponents. Utah has the better defense, is at home, has a BCS berth to play for, and its kicker is one of the best in the country.
Utah 28, BYU 17

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