For the first time under coach David Shaw, Stanford completed a season with fewer than 11 victories.
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The Cardinal finished 8-5 and second in the Pac-12 North last season but lost three games by three points. While the defense must be revamped, Stanford appears to be the biggest challenger to Oregon in the North.
And the Cardinal could push for double-digit victories once again if the offense takes a step forward in quarterback Kevin Hogan’s final year.
How good will Hogan be?
Stanford’s success offensively will likely hinge on the progression of quarterback Kevin Hogan — a veteran in his third year as a starter who had an up-and-down 2014. The Cardinal failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2007, and that put a great deal of strain on Hogan. But as the coaching staff tweaked the offense down the stretch, he closed out the year completing 76 percent of his throws in the final three games — wins over Cal, UCLA and Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl.
Look for sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey to make a major impact this season. He came on strong at the end of last year and provided a big lift on the ground and in the return game. Remound Wright and Barry Sanders will also see plenty of time in the rotation, but McCaffrey should get the bulk of the carries in 2015. That’ll open up all sorts of possibilities in the passing game, where Devon Cajuste returns as the primary pass catcher. Look for the Cardinal, who are known to get creative with offensive formations, to run multiple tight end sets with a trio of big-bodies –Austin Hooper, Eric Cotton and Greg Taboada.
And while Stanford does have to replace All-America tackle Andrus Peat, four of five starters from the offensive line are back.
Stanford had its issues on offense last season — which contributed to the disappointing 8-5 record — but the defense was dominant as usual. The Cardinal not only led the Pac-12 in total defense (282.4 ypg), they also allowed more than 100 fewer yards per game than the league’s No. 2 defense (Utah, 393.5 ypg).
The linebacking corps should be the strength of the unit, led by explosive pass-rushing outside backers Kevin Anderson and Peter Kalambayi. Last year the two combined for 12 sacks and 21 tackles for a loss. The Cardinal are solid up the middle with Blake Martinez (team-leading 102 tackles last year) and Kevin Palma rounding out the corps.
Up front, the Cardinal have limited experience and depth issues. Aziz Shittu and Harrison Phillips should make up two-thirds of the line, with Cal transfer — yes, a transfer from Stanford’s Bay Area rival — Brennan Scarlett expected to offer some relief at the other defensive end spot.
There are some veterans in the defensive backfield, but not a ton of overall experience with the graduation of safety Jordan Richards, cornerback Alex Carter declaring for the draft and the transfer of Wayne Lyons to Michigan. Safety Zach Hoffpauir is a hard hitter, but his future with the team might be determined by the MLB Draft. Former quarterback Dallas Lloyd and former receiver Kodi Whitfield — who switched positions prior to 2014 — have another year of experience in the secondary.
The Cardinal have to replace their kicker and punter. Conrad Ukropina looks like the choice at kicker, and the hope is that incoming freshman Jake Bailey can take over the punting responsibilities. If he doesn’t win the job, it will likely fall to either Alex Robinson or Ukropina. Look for Sanders and McCaffrey to contribute in the return game.
Stanford’s 2015 outlook
Stanford closed last season as one of the hottest teams in the country. The offense, which played its best down the stretch, should be better this year, but there are depth issues on defense for the first time in a while. If they can plug those gaps and find solid replacements in the kicking game, the Cardinal should threaten Oregon for supremacy in the Pac-12 North.