College Football Handicapping: Stanford a Pac-12 Dark Horse
by Trevor Whenham - 9/19/2012
Stanford’s win over USC was perhaps the most impressive thing I have seen so far this season. It wasn’t just a win. It was a total manhandling of a team that was supposed to be a serious National Championship contender.
The win left us with a huge question, though — had we overrated USC, or had we underrated Stanford? The way you answer that question will determine how you handle both teams as a bettor going forward.
Let’s take a look at five factors that can determine the future of the Cardinal:
Andrew Luck was brilliant, but a big part of what made him so successful at Stanford was the team’s ability to run the ball down the throat of opponents. Because they ran the ball so effectively they were able to have a balanced offense, and defenses weren’t able to gamble against them.
The game against USC was definitive proof that that ability didn’t depart with Luck.
The Cardinal have three big pieces that work together so well.
First, they have a world-class running back in Stepfan Taylor. He doesn’t get the attention he deserves, though that should change now. Second, they have a very good run-blocking offensive line, and they back that up with disciplined blocking from wide receivers and everyone else who needs to get their body in the game. Finally, they use the fullback more aggressively and effectively than any team in the country. It’s old school, but it works.
This team can run, and it will have success on the ground all season long.
When Luck left the team was supposed to be in trouble. Josh Nunes is definitely no Andrew Luck, but there was a lot to like in the USC effort.
His numbers weren’t great — 15-of-32 for 215 yards, and his two touchdowns were tempered by the two interceptions he threw. Still, he did two things very well. First, he was accurate downfield, and that kept USC guessing. They couldn’t afford to gamble. Second, and most importantly, when the game was on the line late in the game Nunes stepped up and took charge.
When that leadership is combined with more playing experience Nunes is only going to get better — especially with the line he plays behind and the running game he has at his disposal.
USC has two of the best receivers in the country, but you would never guess it by watching that game.
The Stanford secondary is very good. Most notable is cornerback Terrence Brown, who is a beast. He didn’t get beat, the two penalties called against him were both questionable, and he had a beauty of an interception. He’s the star of the unit, but not the only bright light.
They play as a unit, and make it very hard to beat this team through the air.
Some of USC’s problems — especially late — came from the fact that their offensive line just isn’t very good without Khaled Holmes at center. A good deal of the credit, though, belongs to the Stanford front seven.
They were absolutely relentless through the game, and later on they just couldn’t be stopped.
What’s most impressive is that Stanford does their damage with depth. Ben Gardner is particularly impressive, but they have so many players and so many ways to do damage. They are incredibly good against the run, and almost as good at pressuring quarterbacks.
When you combine the very good defensive line with the very good offensive line you have a team that is built right.
Stanford Cardinal Football Schedule
The biggest advantage the Cardinal have is that they have already won their toughest game. Unfortunately, though, USC is in a different division than Stanford, so the win doesn’t have quite the impact that it could have.
The game against Oregon on the second to last week of the season was always going to be significant, but there is a good chance that that game will be especially significant now since the winner of that game is likely to play in the Pac-12 Championship Game representing the North.
Stanford has a good share of easy games, but a trip to Notre Dame, and potentially the season-ender at UCLA, could be dangerous as well.
Given what we saw last weekend, though, there isn’t a game on the board that seems insurmountable for this team. The biggest gift the schedule-makers gave them is a week off right now, so they can let the emotion of the upset pass and still have time to refocus on their next game.
I don’t trust Oregon, so I’m going to boldly pencil Stanford into the championship game.
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