One thing should be made clear before Stanford’s 2016 debut against Kansas State on Friday night: Kansas State is not a great football team.
That idea rings eerily familiar to the 2015 season opener, when the Cardinal matched up against another purple-wearing set of Wildcats. A good-not-great Northwestern team stunned Stanford, 16-6.
“We got beat in the first game last year and it wasn’t close,” Stanford coach David Shaw said at Monday’s media luncheon. “Not to take anything away from them but we didn’t play our best game, so it’s incumbent on us to play our best.”
Since Nov. 14, Stanford has been at its best. The Cardinal closed out the year as arguably the hottest team in college football, winning 12 of its final 13 games, scoring more than 30 in every single contest. After losing to Oregon, the Cardinal decked Cal, Notre Dame, USC and Iowa, finishing well within the top 10 of the final polls and winning a second Rose Bowl for David Shaw. Meanwhile, Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey assembled the most electrifying year in college football history, shattering Barry Sanders’ record for all-purpose yards.
That was last year, however, and McCaffrey is no longer an under-the-radar underclassman darting through the defense. Beyond that, longtime quarterback Kevin Hogan has since graduated, a spot that has since been filled by Ryan Burns, though his title as starter remains tenuous.
Shaw dubbed Burns, a senior, the starter last Wednesday, though it shouldn’t be a surprise if junior Keller Chryst or even freshman K.J. Costello receive a few snaps against Kansas State.
“My expectation is for him to run the offense,” Shaw said. “To be efficient and protect the football. One of the biggest things about being a quarterback is helping other people do their jobs. So I don’t expect to put the whole game on his shoulders, I expect him to play his role.”
In essence: Burns will be given minimal demands, mainly to find McCaffrey, either through the air or a handoff.
“We’re going to give [McCaffrey] the ball,” he said. “Because the bottom line is, they still have to tackle him, which has proven to be a hard thing to do.”
The two Wildcats who may be able to do just that are safety Dante Barnett, a fifth-year senior making his return after shoulder surgery, and defensive end Jordan Willis, who posted 9.5 sacks in 2015. Defensively, should Burns wilt under the pressure of filling Hogan’s colossal shoes, Kansas State could be okay, particularly with a stout linebacker core of Elijah Lee, Charmeachealle Moore and Will Davis. Offensively, however, the Wildcats could struggle.
Per Stanford tradition, the Cardinal are stacked on defense, both in depth and talent. Defensive end Solomon Thomas went as far to claim this is the deepest defensive line Stanford has ever had. Making matters worse is that Kansas State quarterback Jesse Ertz is making his first road start, against the team favored to win the Pac-12 title, and an opponent that won its final two games – a conference championship and a bowl game – by nearly seven combined touchdowns.
History, too, is no friend of Kansas State’s in this one: The Wildcats have never beaten a top-25 team on the road, much less a top-10 team.
Then again, this same narrative was being written last year, when the Cardinal faced Northwestern. Such is the beauty of college football. It is, as Shaw says, always incumbent to play your best.