Gather 'round, boys and girls, and let me tell you a story of yesteryear. It was 2006, and Stanford football had just completed a 1-11 campaign. The Cardinal's 1-8 record in conference play marked a fifth straight season below .500 in the league, their second last-place finish in four years, and the bottom falling out over a brutal half-decade on The Farm.
Jim Harbaugh took over the next season, and thus began Stanford's ascent not only in the conference, but on the national college football scene. The Cardinal have now gone bowling every season since 2009, won three Pac-12 championships and two Rose Bowl Games, and reached the 10-win milestone six times. Harbaugh's former assistant and current Stanford head coach, David Shaw, has led the program through much of its success.
Times – and indeed, standards – have very much changed. Just a decade removed from losing 11 games, winning 10 in 2016 brings out a shocking number of results when Googling the phrase "Stanford football underachieved." Alas, expectations for Stanford ahead of last season deemed 10 wins without a Pac-12 championship something of a failure.
The Cardinal begin 2017 preparations in earnest with the opening of their spring camp, and there are some noteworthy changes. Nevertheless, the lofty standard under Shaw remains intact.
5 Storylines to Watch in Stanford Spring Practice
1. Feeling The Love
Much of last season's hype centered around the return of 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey. He left a game early, departing before December's Sun Bowl to embark on his NFL career. Reserve Bryce Love acquitted himself nicely, rushing for 115 yards in Stanford's defeat of North Carolina.
The Sun Bowl propels Love into his new role as the Cardinal's every-down back. He need not be Christian McCaffrey for the Cardinal to succeed offensively – really, the only way to replace McCaffrey straight-up would be to add vintage Reggie Bush or C.J. Spiller to the backfield.
Love also won't be a throwback to past Stanford ball carriers like Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor or Tyler Gaffney, all of whom had at least 30 pounds on Love. He has an opportunity to carve out his own style unlike previous Jim Harbaugh or David Shaw-coached running backs – particularly because of the uncertainty surrounding the overall look of the offense.
2. Quarterback Questions
Kevin Hogan quarterbacked Stanford to three Pac-12 titles and a couple of Rose Bowl wins; was placed on a hypothetical Mount Rushmore with Jim Plunkett, John Elway and Andrew Luck; and somehow, left The Farm wholly underappreciated.
Stanford's struggles at quarterback last season should have engendered greater appreciation for all Hogan accomplished in his time there. Meanwhile, the Cardinal head into 2017 still seeking to adequately replace him.
Ryan Burns started initially, but struggled mightily. Keller Chryst showed promise after taking over midway through the campaign, throwing 10 touchdowns with just one interception after settling in as starter. However, a knee injury sustained in the bowl game will keep him out of spring practices. Five-star recruit Davis Mills also suffered a knee injury at the end of his prep season.
Burns opted not to transfer, so expect him to get the majority of first-string reps in the spring – unless talented youngster K.J. Costello impresses.
3. Keeping the Party Going
The Stanford defense coined the phrase "Party in the Backfield" to denote the many sacks it racked up during the 2012 and ‘13 seasons. The party's raged on for years since, with Solomon Thomas serving as M.C. a season ago. He'll take his quarterback-terrifying ways to the NFL, which leaves new faces in charge.
Tackle Harrison Phillips is Stanford's top returning sacker, last season tallying 6.5. However, the Cardinal always thrive bringing a rusher off the edge, whether Thomas, Trent Murphy or Ben Gardner.
Sophomore Dylan Jackson has a prime opportunity to carry the mantle of outstanding Stanford pass rushers. He can arrive fashionably early to the party in spring practices.
4. Solidifying the Secondary
Amid its mid-season losing skid in 2016, the Stanford secondary struggled mightily. Chalk some of it up to injury; Quenton Meeks and Frank Buncom missed invaluable time early in Pac-12 play. Both return, and Meeks has the potential to be an All-American-caliber cornerback.
However, after giving up more than 2,900 passing yards a season ago, the Cardinal secondary does need more consistency.
5. The Big Trees up Front
Outstanding offensive lines powered Stanford throughout its run atop the Pac-12. While McCaffrey racked up highlights en route to the Heisman Trophy presentation in 2015, lineman Joshua Garnett could often be seen blasting would-be tacklers out of the way.
Garnett's absence loomed large on the Cardinal offense a season ago – perhaps largely than the void Hogan left at quarterback. The 2017 line's big loss is Johnny Caspers. A youthful front five awaits, with players like Nate Herbig likely to see their first opportunities.
Stanford’s Pre-Spring Outlook in the Pac-12
Washington and Washington State blowing out Stanford in consecutive weekends suggested that the balance of power in the Pac-12 North shifted northward. However, the defending conference champion Huskies face considerable question marks with players leaving for the NFL, while Washington State's late-season collapse begets questions of the Cougars' ability to contend for a divisional title.
With Oregon and Cal breaking in new head coaches, and Oregon State thus far showing only scratching the surface under Gary Andersen, Stanford may well be Old Faithful in an uncertain division.
Surely, the Cardinal are not without their own issues, the quarterback conundrum being the most troubling. A talented and veteran defense ensures that at the very worst, however, Stanford will be a candidate to again win 10 games – if not the conference.