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Stanford Football: Unappreciated Cardinal Consistency Makes Trees Dangerous in 2021

Stanford Cardinal head coach David Shaw

In David Shaw's 10 seasons as Stanford head coach, the Cardinal have had one losing season 

Consistency is easily taken for granted; take Stanford football.

Heading into 2021, the Cardinal have the longest active winning streak in the Pac-12 after closing the 2020 campaign on a four-game run. Among those victories was a road defeat of Washington amid a stretch in which Stanford was essentially homeless. 

Related: Stanford 2021 Season Preview and Prediction

Stanford's strong finish to the last season marked the ninth time in David Shaw's 10 years as head coach that the program compiled a winning percentage better than .610. In the 2010s, only eight programs that played at the FBS level for the entire decade put together a mark better than Stanford's .737. 

Three Heisman finalists in eight years from 2009 through 2017, three Pac-12 championships from 2012 through 2015, Orange and Rose Bowl championships ... and all that with a $5 bill will get you a latte at Philz Coffee in 2021.  

Preseason consensus tabs the Cardinal as the conference’s third-best team in its division — at best. Some forecasts are more dire than others. 

For all the past success and despite some noteworthy playmakers returning to The Farm for 2021, preseason polls have Stanford nowhere near the Top 25. So what gives? 

"I think it stems a lot from ... my freshman year, going 4-8," offensive lineman Walter Rouse said in reference to the 2019 season. 

A trying, injury-plagued year, Stanford did indeed struggle in what was the only losing season of Shaw's tenure. 

There may be other avenues in which the attitude what have you done for me lately? applies as much as in college football. But more so? Good luck finding one. 

To that end, the bounce-back of 2020 would seemingly inspire more confidence that Stanford's first losing season since 2008 was more an aberration than a trend. 

"We lost the two games to Oregon and then Colorado [to open 2020], and then we ended the year on a great winning streak, but I think a lot of people think that's just a fluke," Rouse said. 

"I saw a lot of Instagram accounts that said 'Stanford will never be where they used to be,' when we won the Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl and the Orange Bowl," he continued. "'Oh, they had a good game against Washington? That's just a fluke.' [But] I think we could have been 6-0 last year." 

Although the opening loss to Oregon was lopsided, the Cardinal's second-week loss to Colorado came down to a field goal. The sting of the close loss prepared Stanford to come up on the other end of single-possession decisions against Cal, Washington, Oregon State, and UCLA. 

And while those wins weren't with quite the same stifling defense that defined Stanford teams of the first half of the 2010s, qualities reminiscent of the Cardinal's championship offenses showed up. 

Shaw-coached teams relied on a methodical power-run game, even as much of the rest of the Pac-12 emphasized no-huddle speed. That was by design then and remains the Cardinal philosophy even as the conference has shifted to more of a traditional style. 

"Trends can change, but there's certain things that don't," Shaw said. "Time of possession doesn't matter, but what does matter is possessions. So if we can have time of possession on our side, and we can score touchdowns in the red zone, the combination of those two things, we now put the disadvantage on some of these high-caliber, fast-paced spread offenses that count on two things: number of plays and number of possessions."

In 2019, Stanford's defense faced 68.3 opponent plays per game. Last season, the Cardinal trimmed that number down to 66.7. Stanford also increased its own number of snaps from 65.8 to 70. 

As Shaw put it: "It's purely math." 

Key to the uptick in offensive snaps, Stanford went from running the ball 346 in 12 games in 2019 (28.8 per game) to 198 in six games (33.0 per game) last year. An improved rushing attack is central to the Cardinal reestablishing itself atop the Pac-12. 

When 2017 Heisman Trophy finalist Bryce Love aggravated an ankle injury in 2018, Stanford spent the rest of that season and the next languishing in the basement for rushing production. 

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Room for improvement remains after 2020, but Austin Jones' late-season production has the Cardinal trending in the right direction. He punished Washington's stout defense with 138 yards and two touchdowns to pace the road win in December. 

Jones is a potential breakout star this season, thanks in no small part to the maturation of the offensive line. The hallmark of Stanford's success last decade, the front five was decimated immediately into the 2019 campaign. 

Injuries forced freshmen into the rotation, and the youngsters like Rouse, Barrett Miller, and Jake Hornibrook took their lumps. The punishment endured as freshmen poise this offensive line to emulate fronts of Stanford teams past now that they're third-year starters. 

There's a lot coming back to The Farm to like — but also plenty to replace with the exits of quarterback Davis Mills and wide receiver Simi Fehoko. 

And to that end, doubt of this year's Cardinal ahead of 2021 isn't entirely without merit, or at least explanation. Few teams return less starting production than Stanford's 55 percent, per's Bill Connelly

But not all experience is the same, either — and especially not after a season amid a once-in-a-century pandemic. 

No program — save reigning Mountain West Conference champion San Jose State, per Shaw — had experiences comparable to those of the Cardinal. Santa Clara County regulations in response to spiking COVID-19 cases forced Stanford and San Jose State on the road for a month each. 

In the Cardinal's case, that meant attempting to hold their walk-through in a Seattle-area parking garage before an overzealous staffer chased them away for loitering and sent them to rain-soaked public grounds. 

Few, if any, other college football teams can say they prepped for game week in a park caked with mud and duck poop. And no, that isn't colorful trash talk directed at Pac-12 North counterpart Oregon, but literal fowl feces. 

"There was a lot of duck poop," wide receiver Michael Wilson said of the workout session in a Bellevue, Washington, park, which went viral on social media. 

 "I originally thought we were going to be on the parking [garage]," remembered defensive end Thomas Booker of that day. "And it was going to be pretty dry on the parking lot, so I brought Jordan 1s. 

"I had a decision to make when I got to that park. Was I going to mess the 1s up, or was I going to practice barefoot?" Booker added. 

As anyone who has spent a frustrating morning waiting on the queue of the SNKRS app can attest, Booker didn't really have a tough choice. He practiced barefoot. 

Two days later, he blocked a kick in the win at Washington. 

It was Booker's second block in as many games, coming one week after a play for the ages to regain control of the Stanford Axe from rival Cal. 

For as consistent as the Cardinal have been under Shaw, Booker's back-to-back blocks were a first of the era and a feat not accomplished at Stanford since 1979. 

The block in The Big Game win over Cal broached more uncharted territory for the program under Shaw: Wilson joked it was the most excited he'd ever seen the coach in his time at Stanford. 

The ability to maintain that same high level of performance amid such unusual conditions is a reflection of Shaw himself, whose own consistency has proven downright meme-worthy in his 10 years leading the program. 

"Communicating with his words more than the way he's saying it," Booker said. "He knows his point, and he gets it across well." 

That's worked for a decade. No reason to think it can't continue for the Cardinal. 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.