Stanford football's excellence in David Shaw's tenure as head coach may be the most taken-for-granted development of the decade. Consider that since his first team went to the Fiesta Bowl in 2011, the Cardinal won 11 or more games five times, and fewer than nine just once. Over that same stretch, eight of Stanford's Pac-12 counterparts have cycled through at least three head coaches.
Because Stanford's been so consistently great, though, a 9-4 finish like last year gets treated as a downturn in some circles of college football punditry. Fair or not, the standard to which Stanford's held is conference titles at a minimum. And entering 2019, the Cardinal's ongoing, three-season drought is a veritable Sahara.
Claiming its first Pac-12 title since 2015 requires navigating what might be the most treacherous schedule in the nation. Stanford must also address question marks on defense and, uncharacteristically, the running game. Should Shaw and his staff solve these issues, however, things actually set up nicely for a return to the top of the conference.
Stanford Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2019
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Picking Stanford to finish 8-4 might be a tad optimistic. But then again, David Shaw has never won fewer than eight games in a season on the Farm. If the Cardinal are to contend in the Pac-12 North, they will need a big season out of quarterback K.J. Costello. Stanford’s running game wasn’t up to its usual standard last fall and concerns remain about it and the offensive line going into 2019. The Cardinal have holes to fill at every level on defense after giving up 5.7 yards a play last year, but cornerback Paulson Adebo is one of the nation’s best at his position, and the line has a couple of players to build around in Jovan Swann and Thomas Booker. Stanford’s September slate – Northwestern, at USC, at UCF, Oregon and at Oregon State – is one of the toughest starts to the 2019 season. Getting Washington and Oregon at home (and Notre Dame in non-conference play) is huge, but the guess here is Shaw’s team falls short of winning the division and stumbles once (at Colorado or somewhere else) unexpectedly.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Stanford will play arguably the most challenging non-conference schedule in college football, with three games against teams ranked in the recently released coaches poll — Northwestern, UCF (on the road), and Notre Dame. All three are winnable and all three are losable. The league slate is more manageable; Stanford does not play Utah (the clear-cut favorite in the South) and gets both Oregon and Washington at home. The Pac-12 opener at USC will be a big barometer game for both programs.
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
Despite the brutal schedule, there's a voice in my head urging me to take the Cardinal to win the Pac-12. Yes, it's a loaded slate, but at the same time works out favorably. Both Oregon and Washington come to The Farm, and Stanford draws Colorado instead of Utah in cross-divisional play.
The defensive front came along nicely down the stretch a season ago and should return to being a strength. So, too, will the offensive line. That should improve the run-game production that was lacking with Bryce Love sidelined much of 2018, and free up the pocket for K.J. Costello to operate. Costello is a dark-horse Heisman Trophy name to know should Stanford emerge as a legitimate Pac-12 title contender.
We'll know just how viable Stanford's hopes are early, with the Oregon and Washington games falling in the first half of the campaign.