Saturday Out West Crystal Ball: Predicting every Stanford football game for 2023
Editor’s note: Saturday Out West’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series will preview every team in the Pac-12. Today: Stanford.
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Let the Troy Taylor era reign.
The former Sacramento State head coach and Utah offensive coordinator has the unenviable task of taking over for a successful and well-liked head coach in David Shaw, the winningest in Stanford history. Worse, he begins the season with the program in a place of massive upheaval, just when he was getting hot on the recruiting trail. The Cardinal are on the precipice of an important season without a known home for the following campaign.
It’s hard to imagine how Stanford will adjust to this curious position. Will the Cardinal embrace the role of the downtrodden? Will the slight of 8 conference companions leaving for greener (much greener) pastures leave the program in momentary paralysis?
Those are only some of the questions plaguing Taylor and the Cardinal.
Can Taylor resurrect the offense?
Stanford once boasted one of the best play action-oriented attacks in college football, lauded for its toughness and versatility. Maybe not always aesthetically pleasing. Maybe not always statistically dominant. Maybe not entirely balanced. But you can’t deny the results: Stanford was a top-10 team in 7 -of-9 years between 2010-2018.
You also can’t deny the failures of the past 4 seasons.
- 2019: 21.3 points per game (109th nationally)
- 2020: 20.4 (113)
- 2021: 29.3 (56)
- 2022: 21.7 (109)
In comes the offensive-minded Taylor, who led the Hornets to 3 consecutive Big Sky titles and 3 straight FCS playoff berths. He brings a balanced offensive scheme that will need to restore some strength and speed to a running game that was once the toast of college football. Last year, Sac State led the Big Sky in total offense and tied for the lead in scoring.
Taylor’s problem? Three weeks into training camp, it was unclear who would lead that offense. Junior Ari Patu, one of the first two early enrollees in program history, was the leader going into camp, but former Syracuse QB Justin Lamson and even sophomore Ashton Daniels have arguably made more of a splash. Figuring that out is step one.
Who will be Stanford’s next QB: Lamson, Daniels or Patu?
Stanford HC Taylor:“We’re focusing on the three older guys getting reps and seeing who separates themself. It’s happened a little bit, I’m not gonna say in what way, but there’s definitely separation that has taken place.” https://t.co/7Dkt6U1K70 pic.twitter.com/Ddvdhm1WJF
— Jackson Moore (@JacksonMoore247) August 17, 2023
Is this EJ Smith’s breakout year?
One of the most tantalizing talents of the Pac-12, Smith has battled injuries throughout his Stanford tenure. His 2022 campaign ended just 2 games into the year after a terrific start: 206 rushing yards on 30 carries with 3 rushing touchdowns and 63 receiving yards on 8 receptions and a score.
Extrapolate that over a full season — always a fool’s errand, but still fun — and you’ve got the top returning running back in the Pac-12.
What happened to Stanford’s dominant D?
It hasn’t just been the offense that’s fallen on tough times. From 2010 through 2018, Stanford’s defense never allowed more than 22.9 points per game.
- 2019: 29.8 (80th nationally)
- 2020: 29.3 (56)
- 2021: 32.4 (106)
- 2022: 32.2 (113)
That’s, uh, not good. Also not good? Stanford loses a stud defensive back in Kyu Blu Kelly, one of a few players with NFL talent in the unit. Leadership will fall on the shoulders of sophomore linebacker David Bailey, who had a sensational freshman year last year, earning 247Sports’ True Freshman All-American status.
Week 1: at Hawaii (W)
The Cardinal kick off the Taylor era with the often-enigmatic Warriors, another team in a gully. Both teams are coming off 3-win seasons and probably can’t aspire to improve much this year.
Like Stanford, Hawaii has issues all over the field. Last year, the Warriors allowed 438.2 yards per game, 15th-worst in FBS, while averaging 342.8 yards per game.
In their first matchup since 1972, Stanford will win, but it won’t be pretty and it won’t be fun.
Week 2: at USC (L)
Speaking of not fun, a road trip to USC in Week 2? Two weeks before any other Pac-12 team kicks off its conference campaign? Brutal. A 6.2% chance to win in ESPN’s Football Power Index? Worse.
I actually think that’s too high, even if the Cardinal kept it close last year in a 41-28 USC win. This year won’t be so close. Despite a big game from EJ Smith, the Trojans will light up the scoreboard as Caleb Williams hits 350 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Week 3: vs. Sac State (W)
This will be a nice little reunion for Taylor and the Hornets. He’ll look to put a little extra on this one, and he’ll make sure it’s not particularly close. Stanford picks up its best — and last — win of the year.
The Cardinal QBTBD will have a big day against a Hornets defense that allowed 3,159 yards, 2nd-most in the Big Sky Conference.
Week 4: vs. Arizona (L)
ESPN’s FPI model think this one will be pretty close, with Arizona favor and 52.1 to 47.9, but I don’t see that happening. Arizona returns too much firepower on offense, and despite some big losses on defense, the unit might actually be improved.
Ignoring Stanford’s 6 straight wins in the series, I see the Wildcats winning big. We’re talking 300 yards and 3 touchdowns for Arizona QB Jayden de Laura in a monster game for his favorite target Jacob Cowing.
Week 5: vs. Oregon (L)
So much for one of the West Coast great rivalries. The Oregon/Stanford matchup lost its mystique long ago as the former Pac-12 North rivals are going in different directions, and I don’t just mean league affiliations. Count on a patented all-around performance from Oregon QB Bo Nix, who will put together 350 total yards and 4 touchdowns.
Not the kind of matchup Stanford is looking for before heading into a bye week.
Week 6: Bye
Week 7: at Colorado (L)
In a showdown of new head coaches, I’m more impressed by what Taylor has done on the high school recruiting scene, but Coach Prime has absolutely owned the transfer portal, which will never be kind to the Cardinal. With the likes of Shedeur Sanders and Travis Hunter in tow, the Buffaloes will stampede Stanford at Folsom Field, with Sanders torching the Cardinal’s defensive backs.
Week 8: vs. UCLA (L)
UCLA’s 38-13 win last year was the biggest margin of victory in the series since Stanford won 45-19 in 2011, one year after shutting out the Bruins in the Rose Bowl, 35-0. That was part of an 11-game winning streak for the Cardinal, the longest in the nearly century-long rivalry.
With Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet moved on to the NFL, UCLA won’t put quite the same whipping on the Cardinal this time around, but Dante Moore and Carson Steele will still help UCLA prevail.
Week 9: vs. Washington (L)
Loaded with returning weapons, this is the best Washington team in ages. This is a nice showcase game for Michael Penix Jr. and the Huskies, who won convincingly last year, 40-22, and could very well double this margin this year. Truly, 500 yards is not out of the question for Penix.
Week 10: at Washington State (L)
Talk about a turnaround. Stanford won 8 straight in the series from 2008-15, but Washington State is 6-0 since, including a 52-14 thrashing last year. That 38-point embarrassment was the worst loss of the season for the Cardinal. And it was at home. Woof.
Now returning to Pullman, I expect a similar outcome. Cameron Ward will go off for his best game of the year.
Week 11: at Oregon State (L)
While Stanford is in a much better position on the conference realignment front, the Beavers have a definitive edge in this year’s matchup. Early reports out of training camp are that DJ Uiagalelei is getting more and more comfortable in Jonathan Smith’s offense. I’m a little worried that the Beavers will get caught looking ahead to a dreadful final 2 games against Washington and Oregon, but even if that happened, Oregon State has much more veteran talent. I certainly expect the Beavers to look better than their 28-27 win last year.
Week 12: vs. Cal (L)
Certainly the most winnable game of the 2nd half of the schedule, the Big Game offers Stanford at least a reasonable chance at a 3rd win 2023, which would match its 2022 mark. Alas, even with the game at home, I like Cal’s defense in this on. The Bears are 3-1 in their past 4 games against the Cardinal after 9 straight Stanford wins — a familiar refrain, no? — and boast the 2 best players on either side: running back Jaydn Ott and linebacker Jackson Sirmon. Smith might have something to say about that, of course.
Week 13: vs. Notre Dame (L)
The Fighting Irish enter the 2023 campaign with big expectations and a No. 13 preseason ranking, which is not a surprise, given the talent that returns on both sides of the ball. Of course, that matters little compared to the newcomers, including one of the best in the land: Former Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman, who had nearly 8,000 yards and 77 touchdowns the past 2 years. He’s aiming for the 40-touchdown plateau, and he’ll hit it with ease with the help of 4 scores against the Cardinal.
After a 16-14 upset loss last year, you know the Irish are going to come into this one hungry.
2023 Projection: 2-10 (0-9)
A winless conference record in its last Pac-12 season is not what Stanford would envision, particularly as the Cardinal dangle on the precipice of doom. But there is not a ton to like about the Stanford roster, particularly the quarterback position. With the role still up for grabs less than 3 weeks before Stanford kicks off its season, it is hard to be that positive.
Ultimately, this season isn’t all that much about wins and losses but the Cardinal buying into Troy Taylor’s culture. If that happens, the whole season is a win.