Want some context as to just how good Stanford football has been in David Shaw's time coaching the program? The Cardinal's 9-4 mark in 2018 could reasonably be considered a down year.
Bryce Love's return after finishing as the program's fourth Heisman Trophy runner-up since 2009 (marking the fifth season a Cardinal player came in second for the award) set high expectations for 2018. A nagging ankle injury limited his production, which set the stage for wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside to emerge as the star of the offense.
Both are gone, as well as reliable receiver Trenton Irwin; tight end Kaden Smith; and offensive linemen Nate Herbig and Brandon Fanaika. Stanford thus embarks on the 2019 offseason with some uncertainty. But if there's one thing that's been predictable through the last decade of turbulent Pac-12 football, it's that Stanford under Shaw finds success.
2019 should be no different.
1. Building up the offense
Although the names exiting on offense are noteworthy, Stanford never really played with that full lineup in 2018. Bryce Love's injury was the most prominent, but the Cardinal were badly dinged up on the offensive line all season. That contributed as much, if not more, to their No. 11 finish among Pac-12 rushing offenses
Necessity forced players like Devery Hamilton to switch positions, and youngsters to play meaningful snaps. That translates to greater experience for the season to come, aided by the return of both Walker Little and Foster Sarell from injury. Stanford's offensive line play should be much improved in 2019. That's a step toward improving the run game, despite Love's absence.
This is the most uncertainty Stanford's faced at running back since the 2015 offseason — and all that happened in the ensuing campaign was a converted wide receiver named Christian McCaffrey rewrote college football records. That's an unrealistic expectation to set, but the run-game forecast isn't dire, either.
J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Kaden Smith are difficult to replace in the passing game, but it's worth referring to Stanford's Sun Bowl win. Quarterback K.J. Costello, tight end Colby Parkinson, and running back Cameron Scarlett, who powered the game-winning touchdown drive; all return in 2019.
2. Defensive line and secondary play
Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson faces some changes at linebacker, with Bobby Okereke and Joey Alfieri gone. However, the linebacking corps' restructuring isn't on as steep of a learning curve with the line and secondary looking like strengths.
The breakout star on Stanford's defense in 2018, cornerback Paulson Adebo, is just scratching the surface of his potential. Adebo has an uncanny ability to deflect passes and hits hard when given the opportunity. Adebo is the youthful star and likely cornerstone. Replacing cornerback Alijah Holder presents some challenge, though lengthy Obi Eboh could move into the spot seamlessly.
The emergence of freshman Thomas Booker to close the season sets up the defensive line nicely with veteran Jovan Swann returning.
3. Not an easy schedule — just easier
Stanford's brutal first month of 2018 included games against a physical San Diego State team; rival USC; and road trips to Oregon and Notre Dame.
The Cardinal again face a challenging docket in 2019; such is the nature of the Cardinal schedule, which never slacks in non-conference play. This year's out-of-league slate is particularly noteworthy, with all three opponents (Northwestern, Notre Dame and UCF) finishing 2018 ranked in the Top 25.
However, the way in which Stanford's schedule breaks down is dramatically more favorable than in 2018. Marquee Pac-12 North dates against Oregon and Washington are both at home, and the Oregon contest isn't one week before a roadie to Notre Dame. Instead, the Fighting Irish come to The Farm in the customary, odd-year Thanksgiving weekend spot.
The residual effects of facing Oregon and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks last season also carried over a third week, with Utah rolling at Stanford after that back-to-back. Stanford misses Utah altogether this season, instead drawing Arizona at home, and a rebuilding Colorado on the road.