Five years have passed since Stanford’s most recent Pac-12 championship, its third in four seasons at the time. In 2019, the Cardinal finished with a 4-8 record, their first losing season in more than a decade. Then, they started their weird and abbreviated 2020 campaign with two straight losses. Coach David Shaw’s program had seemingly hit an abyss.
But then, quietly, the Cardinal rebounded to win their last four games — despite having to spend the last three weeks of the season bouncing from Pac-12 city to city due to county health restrictions banning outdoor contact sports in Palo Alto. Shaw’s only disappointment was that star quarterback Davis Mills missed the Nov. 7 season opener at Oregon (a 35-14 loss) and most of the practices leading up to the next game against Colorado (a 35-32 loss) due to what turned out to be a false-positive COVID-19 test.
“I mean, we were close to winning the Pac-12 title last year,” Shaw said. “Give us our quarterback those first two games, I don’t know that we’re not the Pac-12 champions last year.”
Few outsiders seem to expect Stanford to contend for that prize in 2021. The early Vegas over/under for the Cardinal was just four wins. Perhaps that’s because Mills turned pro and became a third-round pick by the Houston Texans. Perhaps it’s a grueling all-Power 5 schedule that opens with Kansas State in Arlington, Texas, then at USC, with Notre Dame looming in the regular-season finale.
Or perhaps the oddsmakers viewed that four-game winning streak — at Cal (24-23), at Washington (31-26), at Oregon State (27-24) and at UCLA (48-47 in overtime) — as a fluke, given each victory came by one score.
Shaw would counter that the Cardinal, who last season practiced at multiple high schools and, at one point, a park in downtown Seattle, are finally sleeping in their own beds again and working out in their own facilities. Their second-year players finally experienced a full set of spring practices, and their coaches, for the first time since March 2020, can meet in person.
“The games will be fun; that’ll be a return to normalcy and something that we love to do,” offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard said. “But what I’m really looking forward to, from training camp to the summer, when hopefully we can have the guys over and barbecue — stuff like that just went away (last year). I’m excited to just get back to that community of our program, working together toward its goals.”
To reach those goals, Stanford will likely ride its productive tailback tandem of Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat while hoping highly touted second-year quarterback Tanner McKee will emerge as a worthy successor to Mills.