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Stanford Football: 2022 Cardinal Season Preview and Prediction

Tanner McKee, Stanford Cardinal Football

Tanner McKee and the Cardinal are ranked No. 69 in Athlon Sports' Top 131 for the 2022 college football season

After earning bowl bids 10 straight years, Stanford has gone three consecutive seasons without a postseason berth. The Cardinal are no longer a national power and are just trying to be competitive in the Pac-12 after a perplexing 2021 season. Stanford had wins over then-No. 14 USC and then-No. 3 Oregon early in the season but then lost the remaining seven games on the schedule. "Started slow, got exciting for a little bit, then fell off the table," says head coach David Shaw. Stanford's 3–9 record in 2021 was its worst since 2006. Despite the presence of an NFL-caliber quarterback, Stanford's inability to run the ball and stop the run — which were the Cardinal's strengths when they were going to bowls regularly — plagued Stanford all season and are likely to be problems again in 2022.

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2022

Previewing Stanford's Offense for 2022

The Cardinal should have an outstanding passing game, as long as they can keep their quarterback upright. Quarterback Tanner McKee is in his second season as a starter, and he showed NFL-level potential last season. "He'll be one of the best guys in America this year," Shaw says.

However, his production tailed off the second half of the 2021 season; he threw four TD passes with seven interceptions in his final five outings after tossing 11 touchdown passes with no picks in his first five games.

Stanford has plenty of receiving talent. Last year's top two receivers, tight end Benjamin Yurosek (43 rec., 658 yds., three TDs) and wideout Elijah Higgins (45, 500, four TDs) are back and are joined by two high-level wide receivers whose 2021 seasons were cut short by injuries — Michael Wilson and Brycen Tremayne.

The question is whether the offensive line, which is experienced but has been ineffective, can provide McKee the two things he needs to be productive — protection and a running game. "That's one of the biggest jumps we have to make," Shaw says of his offensive line, which allowed 31 sacks last season.

Left tackle Walter Rouse (29 career starts) and left guard Barrett Miller (26 consecutive starts) are the best of an offensive line that returns all its starters. But that group has yet to show that it can run block effectively. The Cardinal ranked last in the conference and 126th out of 130 Division I teams in rushing yards per game in 2021 (86.9). Making matters worse, Stanford lost its top two running backs from last season. Austin Jones (transferred to USC) and Nathaniel Peat (transferred to Missouri) accounted for 782 of Stanford's 1,047 rushing yards in 2021. The Cardinal will rely on E.J. Smith, who is the son of Emmitt Smith and showed promise last season when he averaged 5.1 yards per carry, and Casey Filkins.

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Previewing Stanford's Defense for 2022

Stanford's ineffectiveness on defense led to a significant change from the 3-4 alignment it had used for years to a four-man front. Defensive ends and outside linebackers have been replaced on the Cardinal's roster list with edge designations. "We don't have those big, wide bodies that you use in the thirty-four," Shaw says. "We've got smaller, quicker, more athletic guys."

The Cardinal ranked last in the Pac-12 in total defense last season, yielding 451.2 yards per game and an alarming 6.49 yards per play, but they were particularly ineffective against the run, ranking last in the Pac-12 and 127th in FBS in rushing yards allowed per game (235.7). Stanford allowed 5.72 yards per rushing attempt, which was last in the conference by a wide margin.

Much of the problem was in the front three, and the loss of its two best defensive linemen, second-team all-conference defensive end Thomas Booker and Dalyn Wade-Perry, will not help. Tobin Phillips, who started one game last season, is the only current defensive lineman who has started a college game, so the Cardinal will continue to be vulnerable in the middle of their defensive front.

Freshman David Bailey and sophomore Aaron Armitage have shown considerable potential at the edge position, and the Cardinal hope that potential turns to big-play production in 2022.

The Cardinal have two experienced linebackers in Levani Damuni and Ricky Miezan, who were the team's top two tacklers last season, but if Stanford has a strength on defense, it is in the secondary, which features second-team all-conference cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly. Kendall Williamson (28 career starts) and Patrick Fields, a three-year starter at Oklahoma before transferring, provide solid play at safety.

Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2022

Previewing Stanford's Specialists for 2022

The Cardinal have a solid placekicker and punter. Kicker Joshua Karty made 10-of-15 field-goal attempts last season with a long of 51 yards, and punter Ryan Sanborn averaged 43.3 yards per kick in 2021, with 19 downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Filkins and Wilson are expected to handle the return duties, and both are above average in that department, although Stanford may be reluctant to use Wilson extensively as a returner because of his history of injuries.

Final Analysis

McKee should put up some big passing numbers for the Cardinal, but the absence of a reliable run game and shortcomings in the interior of the defensive line will put too much pressure on him to be perfect in every game. Stanford again will struggle to stop the run, and unless the offensive and defensive lines are better than expected, Shaw is looking at another losing season with little chance of contending in the Pac-12 North.

National Ranking: 69

Podcast: Complete Pac-12 Preview + Predictions for 2022