Notre Dame was 30 seconds short of a legitimate shot at the playoff last season. That’s a distant memory given the bowl loss to Ohio State and Jaylon Smith’s career-altering injury, but there it was nonetheless. Ranked No. 6…with the lead…on the road…against a Top 10 team…to close the season. A win would’ve only lead to an argument for a Top 4 spot, and a chance–if the conference championship games broke their way. But Kevin Hogan led a five-play, 45-yard drive to set up a game winning field goal in those 30 seconds. Whatever machinations the Irish needed to go right became irrelevant.
This year’s game is in mid-October in South Bend. It will, no doubt, be a critical matchup if Notre Dame is going to make another playoff run, but it certainly won’t have the narrative context of a season ago. That said: Despite major roster turnover, Stanford has earned the benefit of the doubt and, as Irish fans have come to expect, this will be one of the most challenging games on the schedule.
“The Cardinal’s five-year average S&P+ rating (plus-18.0) ranks sixth in college football, barely behind No. 3 Ohio State (plus-18.3), No. 4 Oregon (plus-18.2), and No. 5 Oklahoma (plus-18.0).” — from Bill Connelly’s Stanford preview.
Here’s what you need to know:
Before arriving in South Bend, the Cardinal play Kansas St., USC, at UCLA, at Washington, and Washington State. Add Notre Dame to those first five games and you get arguably the toughest first half of any team in the country. It’s impossible to project injuries or roster depletion. But to whatever extent a “body blow theory” exists, Stanford will test its hypothesis by Oct. 15.
Sophomore Keller Chryst, the highest rated QB recruit in Stanford’s history (yes, including Andrew Luck), is the heir apparent to Kevin Hogan. Hogan won 37 games in his 3-plus seasons. That’s really, really good quarterback play. And by most accounts, Chryst hasn’t separated himself from junior Ryan Burns.
That likely puts even more pressure on running back Christian McCaffrey to improve on last year’s remarkable season in which he lead the team in receptions and rushing yards and set multiple all purpose yardage records. That, in and of itself, is a major – perhaps unreasonable – ask. When you also consider that the Cardinal lost Outland Trophy winner Josh Garnett (LT) and All-Pac-12 lineman Kyle Murphy (LG), expecting more production out of McCaffery – at least on the ground – is quite the reach.
A brief aside: I wouldn’t put too much stock into McCaffery’s pedestrian numbers in last year’s game. For all of its issues, that Notre Dame defense with Sheldon Day and Jaylon Smith was probably the most equipped unit to stop McCaffery on their schedule. Day and Smith are gone, and McCaffery’s impact, without putting up huge numbers, is still pretty compelling: Stanford scored 38 and won the game.
Back to the 2016 squad, Stanford will look to senior wide receivers Michael Rector and Francis Owusu to increase their production as McCaffery draws the attention of every defensive coordinator on their schedule. The other offensive player to watch is freshman tight end Kaden Smith. Smith was the No. 2 tight end in his class, and chose Stanford over Alabama – not a recruiting matchup that occurs often.
The Cardinal came into last season with major questions on the defensive line. Coach Shaw and his staff were able to figure out a defense – thanks in large part to the play of All-Pac-12 linebacker Blake Martinez – that was good enough to win a Rose Bowl. Martinez is gone, and so are all but two of the players in the D-line rotation from last year.
We’ll talk about this is every scouting report or game preview likely, but that’s because it’s worth talking about: the major strength of Notre Dame’s offense – for the second year in a row – is the offensive line group. Pro Football Focus has them ranked as the best returning group in the country. We’ll know by Oct. 15 if they’re playing up to the hype, but on paper this is Notre Dame’s biggest talent-gap advantage.
Conversely, Stanford returns most of the linebackers who took significant reps last season, minus Martinez, and has really good young players and above average depth in the secondary. The perimeter matchups are going to be really interesting to watch is this game. There are quite a few players recruited by both schools and the talent/experience of these competing units is pretty even.
STANFORD’S SPECIAL TEAMS
McCaffery is going to get his touches returning punts and kickoffs. Every one of those snaps is chance to change the game. In kicking game, Conrad Ukropina was 6-7 in 40-plus yard field goals last season, made all of his PATs and was an 86 percent kicker overall. There are two able punters on the roster as well. All in all, this a plus-unit for the Cardinal. They make few mistakes and usually win field position.