Stanford will play the unfamiliar role of underdog in 2020. The Cardinal suffered their first losing season since 2008 when they went 4–8 in 2019, and regaining championship form will be a challenge.
Besides the departure of several key seniors, several other important players left as graduate transfers, an ongoing issue for the Cardinal because admission to Stanford’s graduate schools is extremely difficult.
Instead of starting the season ranked among the Top 25, as it has in each of the past nine seasons, Stanford will begin 2020 hoping to surprise some people.
“Nobody in their right mind is going to pick us to win the conference,” coach David Shaw says.
Previewing Stanford's Offense for 2020
Stanford has an adequate quarterback in Davis Mills and capable receivers, but the key question is this: Can the Cardinal provide a rushing threat?
Known for its time-consuming, power-running game through most of Shaw’s reign, the Cardinal ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in rushing each of the past two seasons. That destroys everything Stanford wants to do offensively.
Injuries to offensive linemen had a lot to do with the running-game struggles, but the return of 2018 all-conference tackle Walker Little, who suffered a season-ending injury in the 2019 opener, along with second-team All-Pac-12 center Drew Dalman and tackle Foster Sarell give the Cardinal the basis of a productive offensive line.
However, it could have been better, as starters Devery Hamilton and Henry Hattis transferred away for their final seasons of eligibility.
Incoming freshman tackle Myles Hinton is one of 12 offensive line recruits Stanford signed the past two years, and he could be a factor in his first year.
Finding a capable running back is the concern. Austin Jones, the team’s top returning rusher after gaining 227 yards last season as a freshman, has star potential, and he could be the key to Stanford’s season.
The Cardinal might get immediate help from freshman back E.J. Smith, the son of Emmitt Smith.
If Stanford can run the ball effectively, the offense will be in good shape because the passing game has a chance to be outstanding. One of the nation’s top-rated recruits in 2017, Mills started six games in 2019 as a result of K.J. Costello’s injuries. His passing numbers were admirable, though the Cardinal were just 1–5 in his starts.
Every key receiver is back, except for tight end Colby Parkinson. Wide receiver Simi Fehoko might emerge as a star. The 6'4", 220-pound Fehoko showed dramatic improvement over the second half of last season and has the look of a big-bodied receiver in the mold of JJ Arcega-Whiteside. The Cardinal have so many experienced wide receivers that talented sophomore Elijah Higgins will have to fight for playing time.
Previewing Stanford's Defense for 2020
Stanford had the makings of a decent defense for 2020 before the transfer bug hit the Cardinal.
Inside linebacker Andrew Pryts, the team’s leading tackler last season, as well starting defensive end Jovan Swann (5.5 sacks) and starting defensive tackle Michael Williams (6.0 tackles for a loss) all entered the transfer portal after last season and will not be back at Stanford.
The Cardinal also lost their big-play outside linebacker, Casey Toohill (8.0 sacks, 11.5 tackles for a loss), who was a fifth-year senior in 2019.
The one positive offseason news was that Stanford’s best player, cornerback Paulson Adebo, opted to remain at Stanford rather than enter the NFL Draft. He is part of a secondary that should hold its own, but Stanford has serious concerns in its front three, with only defensive end Thomas Booker (4.0 sacks) being a proven performer.
The Cardinal must hope inside linebacker Ricky Miezan delivers on the promise he displayed before suffering a season-ending injury in the second game last season. He could join returning starter Curtis Robinson to form a formidable duo at the vital inside linebacker spots.
Ultimately the effectiveness of the Cardinal defense will depend on the success of the Stanford running game. In past years, Stanford’s defense excelled in large part because it was not on the field a lot. The Cardinal finished seventh in the Pac-12 in scoring defense in 2019, a significant fall after never finishing worse than third from 2010 through 2017, when Stanford controlled the clock with its run game.
Previewing Stanford's Specialists for 2020
Placekicker Jet Toner was a second-team all-conference pick in 2018 and was 12-for-16 on field-goal attempts in 2019, before missing the final five games with an injury. Punter Ryan Sanborn averaged 40.5 yards per punt as a freshman in 2019, with 18 inside the 20-yard line. Connor Wedington led the Pac-12 in kickoff returns last season, averaging 28.1 yards, and Michael Wilson was adequate as a punt returner, averaging 6.0 yards per return.
Unless Stanford suffers another barrage of injuries, Shaw won’t allow the Cardinal to drop as far as they did in 2019. But the Cardinal have too many questions on the defensive front and in the running game to suggest they will contend for a Pac-12 title. Stanford should get enough wins to land a bowl berth, and it will be a good bowl if Stanford re-establishes a productive running game.