Especially on offense, Stanford could hardly look worse in a 25-23 Sun Bowl win Friday versus North Carolina. Without its starting quarterback and the best running back in the nation, the Cardinal went touchdown-less in five red zone tries and totaled a whopping negative three yards on those possessions.
But even so, Stanford is poised to return to the ranks of college football’s elite next season.
With up to 18 starters returning next season, the future is looking bright for a team which was a mere fumbled snap away from its fourth Rose Bowl appearance in five years.
But only if it can find an effective signal-caller.
Even with Christian McCaffrey, last season’s Heisman runner-up, in the backfield, Stanford failed to find consistent results on offense in 2016. The offensive line couldn’t gel quickly enough for Stanford to compete with Washington and Washington State, while a combination of Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns at quarterback left the Cardinal dead last in the Pac-12 in passing offense.
But there’s plenty of reason to believe that the offensive line, returning everyone but Johnny Caspers next season, will finally coalesce to be the foundation of the offense.
Overall, the line’s play wasn’t nearly as mediocre as it was made out to be, ranking in Football Outsiders’ adjusted top-25 in the nation. According to their figures, the “Tunnel Workers’ Union” was a top-ten team in the nation in run blocking, but was merely average in pass blocking.
Pass blocking requires more time to perfect than run blocking, indicating that another offseason to hone these skills could help the re-tooled line make strides like it did in the 2015 season.
The Cardinal was similarly average in its power success rate, likely because they lacked a potent power back. Cameron Scarlett couldn’t replicate Remound Wright’s short-yardage production, averaging just 3.1 yards per carry and finding the end zone just once.
With talented, physical back Trevor Speights likely moving into a short-yardage role after a redshirt season, a more experienced offensive line, and another year for Scarlett to develop, don’t expect Stanford’s power game to do anything but improve next season.
Don’t expect there to be much of a drop-off from McCaffrey to Bryce Love, who shone in his second career game as the feature back, racking up 115 yards on 22 carries against North Carolina. He also eclipsed the century mark in his first start, totaling 129 against Notre Dame Oct. 15.
He’s much more than a speed back -- he can bring it inside the tackles, a hallmark of Stanford’s power offense. As I said in my Sun Bowl preview, Love averaged more than two yards per carry better inside the tackles than outside against the Irish — 6.43 YPC inside (14 rushes, 90 yards) as compared to 4.3 YPC outside (nine rushes, 39 yards).
With his instincts, vision, and improvisation skills, the elusive Love will be able to handle being the feature back in the Cardinal’s offense next season with flying colors.
Especially with the return of the return of the Cardinal’s top two receivers and tight end Dalton Schultz, whoever is under center will have all the tools necessary to succeed next season. Now, the question remains: who will it be, and will they be able to mature into an effective quarterback?
Either Chryst or redshirt freshman K.J. Costello will have an imposing defense behind them to assist in their growth. If Solomon Thomas elects to return to The Farm, Stanford will return ten starters from a defense surrendered just over 20 points per game, second in the Pac-12. That feat becomes even more impressive when you consider how much they had to be on the field with the offense’s up-and-down play.
With a Thomas-led defense Friday, Chryst looked strong and more accurate and confident than Burns, posting a near-perfect QBR before going down with what Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman reported to be a torn ACL. Allowing six-to-nine months for recovery, Chryst could be available for the beginning of the season, but he certainly wouldn’t be 100 percent prepared.
For this reason, Costello, a former five-star recruit and Rivals' No. 2 pro-style quarterback in his class, will likely be given a good shot at the job. His talent is so undeniable that Shaw didn’t dismiss the possibility of him starting 2016 under center, albeit calling it “unlikely.”
From the tape, Costello looks to be a strong and confident signal-caller with strong pro potential.
“Costello possesses very good physical tools and measurables for the position,” ESPN said in its scouting report of Costello. “(He) [c]an play in a variety of offensive schemes. (He) [p]ossesses natural arm talent you can't coach along with just enough athleticism to buy second passing chances. (He) [i]s the ideal fit for the multiple, pro-style scheme as he can play under center as well. He is a pure passer from within the pocket and you don't see a ton of those guys as much anymore.”
If Chryst recovers quickly and continues to improve, or if Costello can develop on the skills he displayed in high school, Stanford could have a very good chance to push Washington for the Pac-12 North Crown next season.
A team with some of the worst passing production in the nation and a just-okay offensive line reached the ten win mark this season, so there’s no reason to think what figures to be a much-improved team won’t be elite once again next season.