A second road Pac-12 loss derailed Stanford's bid for a national championship for 2013, and perhaps longer.
With veteran upperclassmen up and down the roster and a preseason Top 5 national ranking, this version of Stanford football looked like the program's best hope for winning a BCS championship. Sure, the Andrew Luck-led 2010 and 2011 Cardinal were outstanding in their own right. But those teams lacked the top-to-bottom balance on both sides of the ball that this year's edition had on paper.
Of course, games aren't played on paper—they're played in stadiums filled with raucous fans, like those who cheered on Utah and USC to wins over the Cardinal in Rice-Eccles Stadium and the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Its losses in those two venues removed all hope of Stanford playing for the national championship and likely ended its defense of the Pac-12 championship. The six combined points by which the Cardinal lost to the Utes and Trojans are reminiscent of a season ago, when they dropped road decisions to Washington and Notre Dame by four and seven points, respectively.
The difference for Stanford as this year winds down compared to last is just how much player personnel head coach David Shaw must replace in the upcoming offseason.
Sure, running back Stepfan Taylor, tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo and linebacker Chase Thomas left some pretty big shoes for Shaw to fill. But defensive stars Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov and Ben Gardner made for a very solid returning foundation.
Preseason projections also suggested a more effective offense with quarterback Kevin Hogan returning, a year older and with an offseason as the unfettered No. 1. But projections can't account for unexpected player struggles, like the sudden regression plaguing Hogan. Fourth-quarter misfires from the sophomore punctuated each of Stanford’s losses.
Hogan is still only in his second year in the program, with plenty of time for development. But he also might not have a team as deep around him in the future as he has currently.
Depth is one of the defining qualities of this Stanford team. Projections also cannot foresee injury, and to that end, Stanford’s defensive line has never been at full strength, with Henry Anderson missing the season’s first half and Gardner gone for the second.
Injuries are an inevitability of football, and Stanford’s defense was no worse for the wear losing Anderson and Gardner. But it’s rare for any team to boast the kind of depth Stanford has this season and is tasked with replacing for 2014.
And the possibility of Stanford replacing leaders like Skov, Gardner and Murphy without coordinator Derek Mason overseeing the action is a real one. Mason’s proven ability to contain even the most explosive spread offenses should make him a hot commodity on the coaching carousel.
Now, the narrative changes quite a bit with Mason back in the fold and if a few redshirt juniors forgo the NFL draft for one more season. Safety Ed Reynolds, linebacker A.J. Tarpley and offensive guard David Yankey all have professional futures ahead of them, but waiting another year to pursue that path gives next year’s Cardinal lineup a similar makeup to this year’s version.
However, the schedule next season is not as conducive to a championship as Stanford's 2013 slate. Because of divisional splits, the Cardinal are not guaranteed the same kind of BCS-bolstering docket that features each of the South's top three teams, as they played this year.
It's even more rare to draw the conference's other three top teams—Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA—all at home.
There's certainly no shame in boasting the No. 9 ranking in the BCS and playing for a fourth consecutive season of 10-plus wins. Still, the 2013 season feels like a missed opportunity for Stanford’s national championship pursuit.