Stanford has not finished a season ranked in the Top 25 since 2017, but the 2020 Cardinal rebounded from a poor 2019 campaign to resemble the Stanford teams that won three Pac-12 titles between 2012 and 2015. The power-running game that had marked Stanford's ascent to national prominence was noticeably absent in 2019. It was slightly better in 2020, when the Cardinal went 4–2, including 4–1 when quarterback Davis Mills was in the starting lineup.
Winning the final four games, all by five points or fewer, might indicate a Stanford resurgence in 2021, but optimism should be tempered by the fact that Stanford must find a new starting quarterback and also faces concerns about a defense that lost key players from a mediocre 2020 unit.
Previewing Stanford's Offense for 2021
Stanford's biggest concern is at the most important position — quarterback. Mills, who developed into a pro-caliber quarterback in 2020, is gone, and the Cardinal don't have a proven commodity to replace him.
Senior Jack West, who has made two career starts, and sophomore Tanner McKee will compete for the starting job, and that competition is likely to continue into the fall. Freshman Ari Patu will be in the mix, but he is a long shot to become the starter. "Jack West, very smart, very confident, great leadership skills," head coach David Shaw says. "I think his command of the offense is exceptional. Tanner McKee, coming off his Mormon mission, is more mature than your typical sophomore, 6'5", strong arm, good athlete, has a really, really high ceiling. Now how close can he get to Jack in terms of mastering the offense in order to truly have a chance to compete?"
West went 13-of-19 for 154 yards in his lone 2020 start in the season opener, but Stanford lost that game to Oregon 35–14.
Stanford's receiving corps will be diminished as well. All-conference receiver Simi Fehoko, who led the conference in receiving yards per game (95.7), is gone after helping the Cardinal rank second in the conference in passing yards per game. Connor Wedington (15 catches, 157 yards in just three games) and the team's top receiving tight end Scooter Harrington (8-58) are also gone.
Shaw thinks he has enough remaining talent at wide receiver in Michael Wilson and Elijah Higgins, the latter an improving big receiver who could also see some time at tight end.
Despite the loss of his two best offensive linemen, center Drew Dalman and tackle Foster Sarell, Shaw believes the Cardinal offensive line, led by tackle Walter Rouse and guard Branson Bragg, will be a strength. "I look to have one of the better offensive lines in America," Shaw says.
Stanford has two proven running backs. Austin Jones rushed for 100 yards or more in three of Stanford's six games and gained 550 yards for the season. Nathaniel Peat averaged 7.0 yards per carry as the No. 2 back. Stanford improved its running game in 2020, but it was still just ninth in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game. It should do better in 2021.
Previewing Stanford's Defense for 2021
Last season, the Cardinal ranked tied for eighth in the conference in scoring defense (31.7 ppg) and ninth in total defense (438.7), and Stanford loses its top tackler (ILB Curtis Robinson), top pass rusher (DE Thomas Schaffer) and top defensive back (S Malik Antoine) from that squad.
Shaw has one major priority for 2021. "We have to get better at stopping the run," he says.
Indeed. Stanford ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, yielding 222.0 yards per game.
Stanford has some talent in its three-man front with 330-pound nose tackle Dalyn Wade-Perry and defensive end Thomas Booker, a second-team all-conference selection in 2020 who has a knack for blocking kicks. But the Cardinal are thin up front.
Inside linebacker Levani Damuni, the team's second-leading tackler last year, heads a linebacking crew that has some untapped talent. Specifically, the Cardinal are hoping for a breakout season from inside linebacker Ricky Miezan, who has loads of potential but has missed nearly all of the past two seasons with injuries. More questions surround the secondary. The Cardinal ranked last in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense last season, when it played without two-time All-Pac-12 cornerback Paulson Adebo, who opted out of the 2020 season and turned pro.
The Cardinal have a quality cornerback in Kyu Blu Kelly, a junior who has been a starter since his freshman season. Kendall Williamson can handle the strong safety spot again, but finding a replacement for Antoine will be a challenge.
Previewing Stanford's Specialists for 2021
Stanford loses placekicker Jet Toner, a two-time second-team all-conference selection, but the Cardinal have Joshua Karty, a sophomore who was the nation's No. 1-ranked high school kicking prospect in 2020. Ryan Sanborn returns for his third season as the Cardinal's punter, and Peat (24.9 yards per kickoff return) and Wilson (7.0 yards per punt return) are solid performers in the return game.
Shaw can coax a winning season out this group, which has potential but a lot of question marks. However, the quarterback uncertainty and a shaky defense make contending for a Pac-12 championship a long shot.
National Ranking: 66
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