For years, the Stanford football team has been one of the dominant forces in the Pac-12 Conference.
Having won the conference in three of the past four years, the Cardinal were picked to win it again this year — the first time they’ve ever been the preseason favorite.
It’s been a surprisingly mediocre first half of the season for the Cardinal (4-2, 2-2 Pac-12), however, and they are now a long shot to challenge for the North division title.
Stanford did win a nonconference game at Notre Dame last week, but on Saturday will host Colorado (5-2, 3-1) in hopes of avoiding a third consecutive Pac-12 loss.
BuffZone: Obviously Christian McCaffrey missed the Notre Dame game, but even when he’s been healthy this year, the Stanford offense has struggled. What factors have contributed to those struggles?
Abeytia: First and foremost, Stanford’s offensive line has been a turnstile for much of (the season). Even rare sparks of good play from Stanford’s signature position group have been undermined by penalties, communication breakdowns, and a stunning lack of physicality from a team that brags about “Intellectual Brutality.” The entire offense is built on the foundation of a dominant offensive line, and without that as a constant, Stanford’s offense has cratered. They were adding three new starters this season, and injuries have forced almost weekly reshuffling of the positions, but all that notwithstanding, nobody expected Stanford to play this poorly up front. Add to that a first-year starter at quarterback (Ryan Burns), and you have the team who has made the fewest appearances in the red zone in the FBS.
BuffZone: From what you’ve observed around the team this week, what are the chances McCaffrey plays this week? And, if he does play, will he be at full strength?
Abeytia: The prognosis has graduated from “iffy” to more optimistic he’ll be available, but there is almost no way he’ll be at 100 percent, If he gets on the field at all. Of course, not all of us are sure he’s human, so I wouldn’t put it past him to make an impact Saturday even in a limited role.
BuffZone: Stanford’s defense has had a hard time against the pass, especially against Washington and Washington State. How big of a concern is that going into a game against a Colorado team that ranks 10th nationally in passing efficiency?
Abeytia: It’s a concern, but people should take the results against Washington and Washington State with a big grain of salt. The Cardinal played without both of its starting cornerbacks, Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder, in both those games. Meeks returned last week and his 50-yard game turning pick-six speaks pretty loudly to how much he was missed. Holder remains questionable for the Buffs but the emergence of Frank Buncom (who had a pick-six against WSU) suggests Stanford’s secondary is far better equipped to challenge Colorado’s very efficient and explosive passing game.
The place to look at in the passing game is at the linebacker level. Stanford has been unable to find an inside linebacker combination capable of offering anything even remotely resembling adequate pass coverage.
BuffZone: Colorado comes in to this week believing it matches up better with Stanford than ever before. How do you see this matchup, compared to previous years when Stanford dominated?
Abeytia: There is no question the Buffs have gained significant ground on Stanford and the rest of the Pac-12, for that matter. Colorado’s play on the offensive line, as well as their run game success, profiles very similarly to what Stanford has been in terms of productivity, if not stylistically. Stanford took baby steps in regaining its identity in South Bend, but Stanford blowing out Colorado on Saturday would qualify as a pretty stunning quantum leap for this year’s version of Stanford. I think both teams view this as a big game that they can win. To me, the determining factor is Stanford’s offensive line. Colorado’s defense is very stout, and Burns isn’t yet capable of beating a team solely with his arm, so the Cardinal is gonna need to run to be in the game, let alone win.
BuffZone: Stanford hasn’t lost three consecutive conference games since 2007. Does it happen this week, or do the Cardinal get back into the Pac-12 win column?
Abeytia: I am gonna dodge this one, if for no other reason that nobody knows what to expect from Stanford this season. I expect the Cardinal to play well, and for the winning score to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 21-17. This is Stanford’s best remaining opponent on paper, and I expect a salty and motivated team to take the field against Colorado on Saturday. Colorado is a strong, well-coached group. This should be a great game.