From 2009 to 2017, Stanford was Notre Dame’s most aggravating rival. The history of the USC rivalry may go back many more decades, and the Irish hate of Michigan may be based on its inarguable proximity, but it was the Cardinal beating out Notre Dame for recruits and then beating the Irish with them seven times in nine years.
These were supposed to be the two programs competing for football prominence but not at the expense of academic excellence, and one of them was doing it much better. Stanford won 10.3 games per year in those nine seasons, while Notre Dame managed 8.3 in that same stretch.
The Cardinal held on into 2018, but going 6-3 in the Pac 12 was a sign of trouble to come, a reality that came with a 4-8 record in 2019. Stanford rebounded in 2020, on paper, going 4-2, but it was hardly a campaign that suggested the Cardinal is back to its form from the early 2010s.
That skepticism comes from the fact that in Stanford’s four-game winning streak to end 2020, it won those four contests by a total of 10 points. The Cardinal needed everything to go right to win any game, and they obviously did. Stanford turned the ball over only a total of five times in those six games.
Even more impressively, the Cardinal never had a single positive coronavirus test during the season, at least not after a false positive ruled out quarterback Davis Mills in the season opener. Not that Stanford’s season was not interrupted by the pandemic.
Due to increasingly strict local pandemic restrictions, the Cardinal took to the road throughout the second half of the season, even when it was supposed to play at home. Stanford spent a week in Seattle before facing Washington, earning some unnecessary national laughs when it went through a pregame walk-through at a local park, and then a week in Corvallis before playing Oregon State in what was supposed to be a game in northern California.
David Shaw AND THE 2018 SEASON
Not exactly the warmest coach, at least when viewed from afar, Shaw’s relentless success in his first seven years leading Stanford did not earn him respect from Notre Dame fans. When the Irish steamrolled the Cardinal 38-17 in a top-10 matchup in 2018, it catapulted Notre Dame toward the College Football Playoff and Stanford into a 1-4 stretch that sent the first waves of criticism toward Shaw during his eight-year tenure.
Little did the world know.
Shaw had kept quiet the dire health status of his younger brother, Eric. Two years David’s junior, Eric had been diagnosed with a rare form of skin cancer in 2011, shortly after David was named Stanford head coach. Radiation did not help Eric, neither did chemotherapy, and two failed bone marrow transplants had the Shaw family readying for worst-case scenarios.
Medical advancements gave reason for a third attempt at a bone marrow transplant, this one coming from David. He began his treatments the day of a game, with no one within the football program having any idea of the severity of the situation aside from the defensive coordinator and the director of football operations. Stanford lost to No. 24 Washington State.
Shaw finished his treatment that Wednesday. The Cardinal lost at Washington the following weekend. The 1-4 stretch was far from Shaw’s primary concern. Less than two months later, Eric left the hospital, cancer-free.
Shaw kept all of that from the world, instead preferring to let his players focus on football.
David Shaw was told his brother wouldn’t survive a rare form of skin cancer.
Shaw details the days in between two games in 2018, when he helped save his brother’s life by donating his bone marrow. pic.twitter.com/O7ZAePKaEu
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 7, 2020
WHAT STANFORD LOST
Losing Mills was never expected to be notable until his strong 2020 turned him into a third-round draft pick. Along with him, the Cardinal needs to find a new leading receiver to replace Simi Fehoko (37 catches for 574 yards and three scores). With two starting offensive linemen also out the door, Stanford’s offense will need to reestablish itself in 2021.
Much of the same applies to its defense. In fact, the Cardinal lost more this offseason than most schools do in a normal year, despite the universal pandemic eligibility waiver boosting returning production rates across the country. The national average this season is 76.7 percent, compared to a usual of 62.6. Stanford returns only 57 percent of its production, nearly equal to Notre Dame’s roster turnover.
One of those programs has made two College Football Playoffs in three years, clearly putting plenty of NFL talent on the field. The other has slid backward in recruiting lately such that its best 2021 signee would have been the sixth highest-ranked among Irish freshmen, per rivals.com.
The Cardinal may need to replace two offensive linemen, but with 44 starts returning to a stout offensive line, that is far from the greatest worry, especially with sophomore running back Austin Jones returning after running for 550 yards and nine touchdowns in just six games.
Instead, Stanford needs to find a quarterback to replace Mills, and Shaw will not name one before the weekend. Senior Jack West brings a bit more experience, but sophomore Tanner McKee’s 6-foot-5 frame fits with Shaw’s prototype.
#Stanford coach David Shaw not announcing a starting QB today but says Jack West and Tanner McKee both will play against #KState. Shaw will announce a starter later in week. "They will rotate … and then we'll see how it goes from there."
— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) August 31, 2021
The Cardinal slide backward traces to its defense more than anything else. Turning toward the trusted analytics of SP+, Stanford had the No. 44 defense in 2017, was No. 87 by 2019 and dropped to No. 93 last year as it gave up 31.7 points per game.
A once-renowned defensive line gave up 222 rushing yards per game and notched only nine sacks. Combining senior end Thomas Booker with the aforementioned notable freshman end Aaron Armitage could change those trends, particularly with senior defensive tackle Dalyn Wade-Perry between them.
But if not, those Shaw clamors may pick up again, and though 2018 should have taught everyone not to assume the whole story, absolutely everyone would hope no such dire moments are occurring behind the scenes again.
Stanford will need to pull off some upsets to keep Shaw from getting defensive. Winning all four of its games last year by one possession, combined with losing a strong quarterback, puts the Cardinal in poor lighting in preseason analytics. To put it into context pertinent to this space, Stanford would be a two-touchdown underdog to Notre Dame on a neutral field this weekend.
Thus, PointsBet sets the Cardinal season win total over/under at four. Yes, that number is equal to how many games Stanford won in half a season in 2020. And by no means are there not winnable games on the Cardinal schedule, headlined by Kansas State this weekend and Clark Lea’s Vanderbilt two weeks later. But aside from those moments, Stanford would need to beat both Oregon State and Washington State on the road to have a strong chance at that over.
For the third straight year, Shaw and Stanford are likely to win only four games, though 2020 will stand out quite differently compared to the other two.
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NOTRE DAME’S OPPONENTS
— Despite influx of transfers, Florida State looking at another ugly season
— With nearly the entire roster returning, Toledo set to rocket
— Purdue’s 2020 slide a sign of worrisome trends
— Wisconsin looks to recapture the magic of Mertz’s debut throughout 2021
— Cincinnati’s Playoff hopes hinge on two trips to Indiana
— Virginia Tech and Justin Fuente need to bounce quick to avoid a big change
— Clay Helton remains on the perpetual hot seat at USC, despite offensive stars
— North Carolina & Sam Howell on the verge of national notice
— Coming off a nadir, Navy looks to restore triple-option
— Uncharacteristically dismal defense will need to correct itself for Virginia
— Daunting schedule will doom Georgia Tech to further Wreck status