College Sports

Stanford, Christian McCaffrey return with higher expectations

One of the biggest reasons Stanford is picked to win the conference title again is junior running back Christian McCaffrey. ... McCaffrey, left, runs past Iowa defensive back Jordan Lomax during Rose Bowl NCAA college football game, Jan. 1, 2016 in Pasadena.
One of the biggest reasons Stanford is picked to win the conference title again is junior running back Christian McCaffrey. ... McCaffrey, left, runs past Iowa defensive back Jordan Lomax during Rose Bowl NCAA college football game, Jan. 1, 2016 in Pasadena. The Associated Press

Who says a stoic coach can’t amuse?

This is how one of the hottest names in college football opened his interview session at this summer’s Pacific-12 Conference media days in Los Angeles: “In case you don’t know, my name is David Shaw. I’m the head football coach at Stanford. You never know if there’s people here from out of town.”

Shaw needs no introduction in the Pac-12. He is the face of Stanford’s program, serious and stern the past five seasons in place of the fuming, scowling Jim Harbaugh.

When people mention football schools, our name doesn’t come up. We’ve won as many games as anybody. But when you say football schools, you still talk about all these other schools.

Stanford football coach David Shaw

There always may be a bit of an identity crisis on the Farm, where Stanford is best known for academics, though football also has flourished. Under Shaw the past four seasons, Stanford captured three conference championships and played in three Rose Bowls, winning two.

More of the same is expected this season. Stanford was picked to win the conference for the first time in the 56-year history of the preseason media poll, causing Shaw to quip, “That just shows how little the media knows.”

Shaw continued: “When people mention football schools, our name doesn’t come up. We’ve won as many games as anybody. But when you say football schools, you still talk about all these other schools.”

But Stanford does come up regularly. The Cardinal was No. 8 in The Associated Press preseason poll, behind Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Florida State, LSU, Ohio State and Michigan. Stanford went 12-2 last season, won the Pac-12 and pummeled Iowa 45-16 in the Rose Bowl.

The return of perhaps the nation’s best player helps keep Stanford in the discussion. Running back Christian McCaffrey was second in the Heisman Trophy voting last season as a sophomore. He broke the NCAA season record for all-purpose yardage with 3,864 and earned AP Player of the Year honors, a first for the program.

McCaffrey rushed for a school-record 2,019 yards and produced six games with 300 or more all-purpose yards, four more than any other player. And McCaffrey is “significantly better” this season, his coach said.

“I’m talking about a young man who is just maturing,” Shaw said. “He’s a year older. He’s stronger. He’s faster. He knows the offense better.”

Still, there are questions within the program:

▪ Can Ryan Burns effectively replace record-setting, four-year starting quarterback Kevin Hogan?

▪ Can the Cardinal replace three graduated offensive linemen?

▪ Will the secondary make more interceptions after collecting just eight last year, tied for 100th among Football Bowl Subdivision schools?

Burns beat out Keller Chryst, last season’s backup, and his task is daunting if gauged against conference history. In the past 10 years, only two first-year starting quarterbacks won a title: Mark Sanchez at USC in 2008, when the Trojans went 12-1; and Darron Thomas of Oregon in 2010, when the Ducks went 12-1 and reached the national title game.

I’m talking about a young man who is just maturing. He’s a year older. He’s stronger. He’s faster. He knows the offense better.

Stanford football coach David Shaw, on running back Christian McCaffrey

Then again, the Pac-12 includes eight other teams that enter the season with first-year starting quarterbacks.

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Burns led his high school in Virginia to state championships by running the triple option. He quickly adapted to Stanford’s pro-style sets to edge Chryst, who played across the street from Stanford Stadium at Palo Alto High.

“There hasn’t been a huge separation between the two,” Shaw said last week after a practice. “Both guys have played extremely well. But Ryan’s been just barely enough ahead to get the nod.”

Stanford’s defense has been strong under Shaw and expects to be so again. The mandate to defensive backs Terrence Alexander, Frank Buncom, Alijah Holder, Dallas Lloyd and Justin Reid is to force turnovers. There are good genes within this unit. Buncom is a cousin to Everson Walls, a Dallas Cowboys cornerback in the 1980s, and Reid is the brother of 49ers safety Eric Reid.

“We just know this: It’s time to play football,” McCaffrey said.

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

College football previews

  • Sunday: The national scene
  • Monday: Cal
  • Today: Stanford
  • Wednesday: Sacramento State
  • Thursday: UC Davis

Three Stanford players to watch

CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY, RUNNING BACK, JUNIOR

What can McCaffrey possibly do for an encore after breaking Barry Sanders’ 27-year-old NCAA record for all-purpose yardage with 3,864? Even if he doesn’t eclipse that total, the encore would be a national championship or even the Heisman Trophy. Regardless, this is college football’s most exciting player.

DANIEL MARX, FULLBACK, JUNIOR

There isn’t a bigger fan of McCaffrey on the Farm than Marx. Stanford’s bullish and bearded fullback said of his star teammate, “It’s great to block for him.” McCaffrey is a fan, too, understanding he needs his fullback to help create space.

SOLOMON THOMAS, DEFENSIVE END, JUNIOR

Stanford has been the Pacific-12 Conference’s most physical defensive team the past five seasons under coach David Shaw, and that trend may continue with the efforts of Thomas, who had 10 1/2 tackles for loss in 2015. His best efforts last season came in the final three games – wins over Notre Dame, USC in the Pac-12 title game and Iowa in the Rose Bowl.

Stanford football schedule

DATE

OPPONENT

TIME

Friday

vs. Kansas State

6 p.m.

Sept. 17

vs. USC

5 p.m.

Sept. 24

at UCLA

TBD

Sept. 30

at Washington

6 p.m.

Oct. 8

vs. Washington State

TBD

Oct. 15

at Notre Dame

4:30 p.m.

Oct. 22

vs. Colorado

TBD

Oct. 29

at Arizona

TBD

Nov. 5

vs. Oregon State

TBD

Nov. 12

at Oregon

TBD

Nov. 19

at Cal

TBD

Nov. 26

vs. Rice

TBD

Dec. 2

Pac-12 championship

6 p.m.

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