Clardy's Corner: 2009 Kickoff

It's not fall for a Stanford football fan without Troy Clardy. In his season-opening column, ESPN's Employee of the Month compares the '09 Card to Stanford squads of seasons past, predicts tough sledding ahead for USC and Oregon and has a few words for some Cal fans. Enjoy!

When the Grand Wheel of Topics comes to a stop on Stanford Football, everyone else in the country immediately starts talking about Jim Harbaugh's bathroom. We here at Clardy's Corner prefer to talk about football.

Besides, with a regime change at quarterback, new faces on the offensive line, old faces in new places on defense, and legitimate bowl expectations, there is certainly plenty of "football" to discuss in Stanford Football.

But there's one question out there that no one seems to have a handle on quite yet: how good can the 2009 Stanford Football squad be? Is all the optimism (cautious or not) surrounding this team justified? Have the Cardinal improved enough to truly make some noise in the Pac-10?

Right now, former NFL coach Jim Mora would probably have the best answer to that: "you think you know, but you really…don't…know."

The media thinks Stanford can be as good as the sixth-best team in the conference. While I'd like to give the Cardinal a little more credit than that, quite honestly it still sounds about right. As I type this at 12:07 p.m. Eastern time on September 2, 2009, I can tell you with 100% certainty that U$C and Oregon are better than Stanford. I can tell you with 75% certainty that I think Oregon State is better than Stanford. And before everyone on Telegraph Avenue gets mad at me again (more for you Weenies in Random Pac-10 Thoughts, by the way), the Bears appear to be better than the Cardinal, too.

Right there, that already puts Stanford at fifth-best in the conference. I think Stanford is better than both Arizona and Arizona State, although as things stand right now it wouldn't surprise me if the Cardinal lost to at least one of those teams this year. Jake Locker always presents a problem for Stanford. UCLA should be a beatable opponent, but I thought that last year, too.

Even this weekend's game has some question marks. I don't think that even Butch T. Cougar would try to make the claim that Washington State is a better team than Stanford is. But this is the first game of the year, when anything can happen. And this game is being played in Pullman, where anything can happen. On paper, while it probably won't be the 58-0 hot-buttered beatdown we saw last year, this shouldn't be much of a contest. But in reality, who knows?

I do know this: as it stands right now, I think this 2009 squad would beat the 2008 incarnation. The biggest problem on offense for the 2008 team was that it couldn't execute the forward pass. And the biggest problem on defense for the 2008 team was that it largely couldn't stop the forward pass.

Both of those issues, I think, are better addressed on this year's team, especially on offense. Based on what I saw for myself at the Spring Game last April, Andrew Luck gives the 2009 team a decided advantage over the 2008 team in the passing game. Luck showed good mechanics, good decision-making, touch, accuracy, and zip. His high fastball throw that avoided two defenders and found Ryan Whalen in the back of the end zone for a score was a thing of beauty. While Luck still has plenty to learn about playing quarterback in the Pac-10, there's no question that he brings a dimension to Stanford's offense that didn't quite exist last year.

The 2009 secondary still has plenty to prove, but going into the season they seem better equipped to defend the pass than last year's unit. Obviously everyone will be watching to see how CB Richard Sherman and safety Delano Howell complete their transitions to defense, but they give that unit another level of athleticism. I also think this year's linebackers will also be better in pass coverage as well, and the pass rush should help matters too.

This team still has other question marks, particularly whether the offensive line can improve on the standard set by last year's wrecking crew. But, largely because most glaring weaknesses on offense and defense appear to have been addressed, I think Stanford Football 2009 beats Stanford Football 2008.

Even though we don't officially know for sure right now, most signs are pointing towards this year's team being one of the better ones Stanford has fielded this decade. Yes, that's a bit like saying "Police Academy 6" is better than "Police Academy 3", but it's still something.

Could the 2009 team beat the 2001 Seattle Bowl team? Based on what we know right now, no. God, no. I don't even think the 1999 Rose Bowl team would beat that 2001 squad.

Stanford's offense in 1999 was more explosive, but the offense in 2001 was much more versatile, and their offensive line destroyed people. And as beloved as the Trench Dogs are, that 2001 defense was much more cohesive and consistent. Let's face it, Coy Wire was a decent running back in 1999, but two years later he was one of the most dangerous defenders in the conference.

It would be fun to watch 1999 square off against 2001, but 2001 would win. Heck, I'll go even further: if you suggested that the 2001 team was Stanford's best ever, I don't think you'd get laughed out of the room.

Here's one for you: how could this 2009 team stack up with the 1995 Liberty Bowl team? That question was brought up on the BootBoard Plus a couple of weeks ago (shout out to irishguru), and it literally kept me up that night. No, I don't have much of a life.

The answer? Right now? I think the 1995 team is better. Mark Butterfield (one of the more underappreciated QBs in recent Stanford Football history, I think) had at least taken snaps and completed passes on the collegiate level before heading into that season. Can't say the same for Andrew Luck.

This year's crew has Toby Gerhart, with some Jeremy Stewart mixed in. 1995 had Mike Mitchell, Anthony Bookman, Greg Comella, and Adam Salina. As good as Gerhart is, and as much as he means to this offense, that's no contest. 1995's offensive line and receivers (Brian Manning, Mark Harris, Andre Kirwan) were more proven heading into that season, too. On defense, the gap is closer, but I'd still have to give the overall nod to the 1995 team, only because their secondary was a bit more settled at the start of the year.

All of this isn't to say that the Cardinal team we watch take the field this fall can't stack up against what we're seeing in the Pac-10 now and what we've seen on The Farm over the past 15 years or so. Far from it. This should be one of those teams that we're proud to say we watched play.

But all of this is to say that until we see for ourselves, well, we really don't know. We think we know. But we just…don't…know.

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RANDOM PAC-10 THOUGHTS

Major radio programming alert…Inside Stanford Sports and the Stanford Daily Updates are underway on XTRA Sports 860, but while the A's put the wraps on this sad-sack season, Stanford football games will air on KNBR 1050. Hey, does this mean I can have my postgame show back?

Shameless plug alert…I had a chance to get on the phone with Cardinal offensive coordinator David Shaw and preview the season with him for the Stanford Daily Updates. The entire, unedited interview is posted at GoStanford.com. I asked him whether we might see situational substitutions between Andrew Luck and Tavita Pritchard, like we saw with Todd Husak and Joe Borchard in 1999…found his answer very intriguing…

Last year, Boise State fooled Oregon silly with play-action. Do you think the Duck defense spent a little extra time on staying disciplined this week?

I have a funny, funny feeling that the Pac-10 might struggle in its higher-profile non-conference games this year. If Oregon was hosting Boise State at Autzen, and if the Buckeyes were coming to South Central, I would feel better about their chances. I'm not saying those games aren't winnable for Oregon the U$C. But I think the odds of them losing those games are pretty good…

I also have a funny feeling that after Oregon and U$C struggle, all the usual suspects will be ready to strike and crack on the Pac-10…

Gotta admit I'm rooting for Jake Locker. Not on September 26, of course…

And once again, Oregon State is the best team in the Pac-10 that no one is talking about…

Can someone please explain to me how UCLA actually got seven votes in the preseason AP poll? If their offensive line were any younger, they'd be sued for violating child labor laws…

To all the Weenies who are reading this and are still mad and riled up over my thoughts after last year's Big Game, I'll say this: You saw what you saw, and I saw what I saw. By the way, Worrell Williams and I actually chatted briefly a few months afterwards, and we both had a good laugh. And I still don't think the gap between Stanford and cal is as large as you'd like to think it is…

Oh, and one more thing, Weenies: thanks for naming that Corner the "Dumbest Article Ever". Might be the first award these Corners have ever won!

Not a Pac-10 thought, but… not only do I guarantee you Florida will lose a regular-season game, I have a weird feeling that they get ambushed in the SEC Title game too (great, now Gator fans will call this Corner "the Dumbest Article Ever")…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but… the 2011 Cotton Bowl won't be played until January 7 of that year. That's way too late, and there can't be much real reason for it other than greed. I am not in favor of a playoff, but the longer the bowl season stretches, the less water the "but it would take away valuable time from their academics" argument holds…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but… found myself flying out of the Oakland Airport a couple months ago. Yikes. That place has seen much better days. I've never been to Beirut's airport, but I'd imagine the only difference between the two terminals is that Oakland's actually has free WiFi…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but… if I'm a Chicago Bear fan, I'm very worried about LT Orlando Pace. Denver DE Elvis Dumervil made him look old and foolish on Sunday. Meanwhile, if I'm a Denver Bronco fan (and I am), I'm very, very depressed…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but… Reason Number 83 why I will never be the commissioner of the NFL: after enduring an overly long and dull Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony (which I normally love and look forward to), I would consider turning the whole thing into a Hall of Fame Induction Roast. Jeff Ross, Greg Giraldo, roastmaster Shannon Sharpe, shockingly uncomfortable jokes about the new inductees, the whole nine. I can hear the presenting roast for Bob Hayes now: "And so, Canton welcomes an overrated, drug-addled wide receiver who used to play for the Dallas Cowboys. But enough about Michael Irvin…"

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CLARDY'S CORNER INBOX

Agree with this Corner? Disagree? Got something else on your mind? Drop me a line at my Scout.com inbox (username: troyc) or e-mail me at troyc@thebootleg.com. The best e-mails will be answered in next week's Clardy's Corner Inbox!

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PAC-10 PICKS

As usual, I'll be looking into the crystal ball every week and picking every Pac-10 conference game that doesn't involve Stanford. We'll fire these up when U$C heads to Washington in a couple of weeks.

Proud to say that I didn't embarrass myself last year! Not guaranteeing similar results this year…

Last year: 30-6 (straight-up), 24-12 (ATS).

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Troy Clardy hosts the Stanford Daily Update, airing every weekday at 7:30p on Cardinal Sports Network flagship radio station XTRA Sports 860 in San Francisco, and available in podcast form at gostanford.com and on iTunes.

Clardy's Corner appears Wednesdays on TheBootleg.com. You can also check him out online at TroyClardy.com.


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