I make this prediction with a sense of urgency as well: this year Stanford must make a bowl game in order for the season to be considered a success. Although another win against Cal would be nice, and we would surely enjoy another upset like last year’s shocker against USC, ultimately this season should be viewed as a whole rather than on individual games. In order to be Bowl eligible, Stanford must win six games. Furthermore, it must either place in the top six in the Pac-10 standings or gain an at-large bid in order to actually be selected. A seven-win season would practically guarantee a bowl game, while a 6-6 record would put us on the bubble. Hence, this year, every game is basically as important to win as any other—whether we play San Jose State or USC.
Change We Can Believe In
Last year, rookie coach Jim Harbaugh showed great promise in wins against USC and Cal, but also demonstrated that he had not yet developed a well-rounded football team in embarrassing home losses to Washington and Notre Dame—two teams that combined for eighteen losses last year. This year, Stanford must be able to win against such weak opponents with losing records in order to make a push for the postseason.
So far, the 2008 Cardinal squad has shown improvements. In its season opener against Oregon State, Stanford was able to beat a team that won nine games last season through the help of running back Toby Gerhart’s 147 rushing yards. Mostly sidelined last year with a knee injury, the Junior showed what a difference a power running game can make as the offense was able to control the line of scrimmage and wear down the Oregon State defense. Quite frankly, I enjoyed watching our team pound the ball.
Furthermore, if the offense is able to continue to make first downs and hold onto the ball, it should eventually open up the passing game, led by Tavita Pritchard at quarterback. While there have been some struggles in the passing game in the first two contests against Oregon State and Arizona State, look for an improved air attack once receiver Richard Sherman’s knees are back to 100%. With Jim Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback, as coach, it is hard to imagine the passing game not improving.
Historically, the main shortcoming of Stanford football has been on the defensive side of the ball. And while there are still uncertainties in its ability to defend against the pass, the defensive line and linebackers were impressive in their ability to hold Oregon State to 86 yards rushing. In the second half especially, it seemed that the defensive line was able to control the line of scrimmage in a way that has not been seen since most of us arrived on The Farm.
Experience We Can Trust
Looking forward, it certainly appears that Stanford football is heading in the right direction. While many, including myself, have skeptically claimed that it is impossible for Stanford to recruit enough talent due to its stringent admissions requirements, Jim Harbaugh is starting to exceed expectations about his ability to recruit. While still unofficial because verbal commits have not yet signed official Letters of Intent, Stanford currently ranks 13th on the Rivals.com recruiting rankings for the 2009 incoming class. If Jim Harbaugh is able to build some consistency on the field and continues to convince young kids to come to the Farm to play, in a couple years we may be talking about winning Pac-10 championships rather than just speculating about squeezing into bowl games.
For those of us who are entering our senior year at Stanford, it seems we were born a couple years too early from a football perspective. Still, we have witnessed tremendous progress: the team now has the ability to compete against the majority of the teams on its schedule. In 2006, with Walt Harris still as coach, we were all talking and writing about how it was a shame that we had built a beautiful new football stadium occupied by an atrocious-looking team. Two years later, the days of 1-11 seasons are over. Having already played two Pac-10 teams that won a combined nineteen games last season, the schedule opens up somewhat in the upcoming games as Stanford faces some teams it can easily beat. From September 20th through November 1st, Stanford plays six teams that all had at least seven losses last season. If the running game persists as it did against Oregon State, Toby Gerhart, with the help of the offensive line, should be able to pound out victories against these beatable teams. Look for four or five wins during this stretch of games. Thus, while Stanford displayed an ability to display an occasional gem last season, this year the team must be able to grind it out against mid-level opponents in order to get where it needs to be: a bowl game.