Editor’s note: Saturday Out West’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series will preview every team in the Pac-12. Today: Stanford. Already covered: UtahOregonUSCUCLAOregon State, Washington, Washington State

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Anyone who remembers the Stanford Cardinal of a decade ago remembers a team built on toughness and fortified on grit. Big and strong up front with a running game to match. Maybe not electric in the passing game, but good enough for 12-win seasons and Rose Bowl victories.

What in the world has happened to the Cardinal? Did the Trees get chopped down?

Coming off a season in which they averaged fewer than 90 yards on the ground, the depths to which Stanford has fallen has never been more stark. A three-win season in Palo Alto hearkens to the days of Walt Harris and Buddy Teevens, when two- and even one-win seasons were common.

That’s the main thing David Shaw has to fight now: That losing doesn’t become endemic in this program.

The problem is, Stanford has a brutal schedule this year, with a six-week stretch that ranks among the hardest in college football.

How will the Cardinal navigate murky waters? Find out below …

Will the running game back on track?

Back in 2012, the year after Andrew Luck’s departure, Stanford had one of its best seasons in program history. The Cardinal went 12-2, including 8-1 in conference play, and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl 20-14. Stanford only averaged 27.9 points per game that year, 72nd out of 124 FBS teams, but the Cardinal averaged 174.3 rushing yards per game. The next year, 11-3, and 207.4 rushing yards per game. In 2015, they upped it to 223.6 rushing yards on average in yet another 12-2 season, and in 2016, en route to an 11-3 finish, the Cardinal rushed for 208.9 yards per game. In 2018, the Stanford running game collapsed to 107.9 yards per game, and after two more middling seasons, the bottom truly fell out last year, as the Cardinal gained just 87.3 yards per game rushing last year.

All those numbers are to say this: Stanford used to be great on the ground, and to be great in the win column, it will need to rediscover that nasty edge. Is EJ Smith the guy to get them there? The son of NFL legend Emmitt Smith, the younger Smith is expected to get the bulk of the carries behind an offensive line that should be improved. The Cardinal probably won’t put up numbers like the 11-win campaigns of the 2010s, but any improvement matters.

Is Tanner McKee a top NFL Draft prospect?

How high are advanced scouts on the Stanford junior quarterback? Pro Football Focus has McKee as its No. 3 2023 NFL Draft quarterback prospect.

That not high enough for you?

PFF’s Mike Renner goes his site one better.

Can that really be? Based on his first half last year, well, yes. McKee went 79-for-138 for 1,093 yards with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions through Week 5. In his last 5 games: four touchdowns, seven interceptions.

If he stays healthy, with more mature skill position talent around him, a 25-touchdown season is in the offing.

Can David Shaw survive another poor season?

Going 81-26 in eight years gives a head coach a measure of street cred. Or, at least, a long leash.

But after a brilliant run to start his Stanford career, David Shaw is 11-19 over the past three seasons, with one fifth-place finish in the North and a sixth-place finish last year.

Shaw means so much to the Cardinal that it’s almost unfathomable that they’d let him go, but this is the big bucks of college football we’re talking about here. He has to turn things around at some point, you’d think.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Colgate (W)

ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Colgate a 1.7% chance to win the opener. Stanford gets on the board early with a rout. Question is: Can the Cardinal run all over the Raiders and start to get some of its edge back?

Week 2: vs. USC (L)

In a matchup of 4-8 teams last season, Stanford had perhaps its best showing of the season. Of course, this is nothing new in this surprising rivalry. The Cardinal has won nine of the last 14 after USC won 39 of 48 from 1958-2008.

Unless Stanford toughens up on the offensive line, the Trojans are going to have a field day. USC is not the same 4-8 team it was a year ago. The Cardinal, unfortunately, might be.

Week 3: Bye

Week 4: at Washington (L)

Much like its rivalry with the Trojans, Stanford has roared back against a once-dominating opponent. Prior to 2004, the Huskies had won 20 of the previous 22 matchups with the Cardinal. Since then, Stanford has won 12 of 17. One of the five Washington wins came last year, as the Huskies ran for 229 yards at Stanford. With the game back at Husky Stadium, Washington will squander Stanford’s too-early bye.

Week 5: at Oregon (L)

It’s hard to imagine a year ago Stanford beating both USC and Oregon and still considering it a lost season. Yet somehow the Cardinal did take out the Ducks, in overtime, 31-24. McKee was fantastic in that game, completing 20-of-36 passes for 230 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, including a 14-yard touchdown pass to John Humphreys in overtime.

The game returns to Autzen Stadium, where the Ducks are 7-3 against the Cardinal in their past 10 matchups.

Week 6: vs. Oregon State (L)

Stanford didn’t just own Oregon State during the 2010s, the Cardinal absolutely steamrolled the Beavers. Stanford won every game in the matchup between 2010-2020 by a combined margin of 350-184. Oregon State turned the tables on the Cardinal last year, though, outgaining Stanford 475-230, nearly doubling the Cardinal up in first downs (29-15) and putting them away 35-14. While Stanford has some impressive defensive talent, the Beavers are better up front on both sides of the ball.

Week 7: at Notre Dame (L)

After Stanford won seven of nine over Notre Dame from 2009-17, the Fighting Irish have won three straight by dialing up the offense. Notre Dame scored 20 or fewer points in all but one game during that 2010-2017 span but has exploded for 38, 45, and 45 points in the three straight wins.

The Irish are expected to take a step back this season in Marcus Freeman’s first season as head coach, but they still have the firepower to make it four straight over the Cardinal.

Week 8: vs. Arizona State (W)

A 28-10 loss to the Sun Devils in Week 6 last year portended terrible things to come for the Cardinal. McKee had 356 yards but was picked off three times and sacked five times.

That started a brutal stretch for Stanford that saw the Cardinal go from 3-2 to 3-9.

While the Sun Devils suffered more offseason losses than Stanford, the talent level is relatively even. Coming off a difficult six-week stretch, the Cardinal finally get back into the win column by taking it to the Sun Devils.

Week 9: at UCLA (L)

Visiting the Rose Bowl has been a most-welcomed road trip for the Cardinal, who have won six straight in Pasadena. UCLA won six straight at home from 1997-2008, and this is the year the Bruins regain their advantage.

UCLA has found its edge over the past three years against the Trees. In 2019, UCLA won 34-16, then fell a year later in double-overtime, 48-47, at the Rose Bowl. Last year, the Bruins won 35-24 in Palo Alto, as Thompson-Robinson had 251 passing and two touchdowns to Kyle Phillips and added two rushing touchdowns.

Home finally is sweet for UCLA this year.

Week 10: vs. Washington State (W)

These teams are evenly matched, and this should be a thrilling matchup between Stanford’s talented pass defense, led by Kyu Blu Kelly, and Washington State’s passing game, led by Cameron Ward. The Cougars have taken hold of the series in the past half-decade, winning five straight over the Cardinal with a pair of 20-plus point wins. But this is the year Stanford rededicates itself to hard-nosed football. The Cardinal have now won two of three and cling to postseason hopes.

Week 11: at Utah (L)

Utah has steadily improved its talent over the last decade. Stanford is no longer better on paper, and the evidence is in the box scores. The Utes scored 27, 20, and 20 points in 2013, 2014, and 2017, going 2-1. In the past two matchups — in 2018 and last year — Utah won 40-21 and 52-7.

The Utes are just better these days.

Week 12: at Cal (W)

Don’t look now, but Cal has taken over a one-sided rivalry. The Bears’ 41-11 win last year was the largest margin of victory in the rivalry since 2013, and Cal’s biggest win in the series since 2004. The Bears’ passing game and defensive front, however, have a lot to improve on, and Stanford returns one of the most talented quarterbacks in the country.

Last year’s game will prove an aberration, and Stanford will take revenge on the 40th anniversary of the Big Game’s wildest finish.

Week 13: vs. BYU (L)

If the Cardinal were fighting for a bowl game in Week 13, my opinion would be different. As it stands, with a very good BYU team coming to town, Stanford rolls over in the season finale. BYU will pick up its first win over the Cardinal in series history.

2022 Projection: 4-8 (3-6)


After a three-win season, a four-win season will certainly not feel like 33% improvement. Stanford expects big things this season, but the Cardinal just haven’t recruited well enough up front, and the team certainly hasn’t developed the kind of top-line talent that propelled them to double-digit wins on the regular.

With that tough five-game stretch and a nonconference slate that includes Notre Dame and BYU, even if the team does regain some of its mojo offensively, it won’t matter much in the win column.