The Stanford Cardinal just keeps churning along. They enter a sequence of two big games—Notre Dame on Saturday night and the Pac-12 Championship Game against the UCLA-USC winner the following week—with a chance to reach at least the Rose Bowl, and maybe the College Football Playoff with a little help. And for my purposes as a handicapper, they’ve been an excellent bet all season long.
Stanford is 8-3 against the spread (ATS), covering in five of six home games and going 3-2 on the road. They do it primarily with the power running game that has become a staple of this program under the current leadership of head coach David Shaw and his predecessor Jim Harbaugh.
This year’s stud running back is Christian McCaffrey, a Heisman contender who has rushed for over 1,500 yards and is averaging nearly six yards a pop. McCaffrey has also caught 34 passes for 416 yards, making him the Cardinal’s second-leading receiver.
You don’t run the football like that without talent on the offensive line, and NFL people love the left side of the Stanford line, with tackle Kyle Murphy and guard Joshua Garnett. Both of them will be on your TV screen on Sundays next season.
The combination of McCaffrey and the great offensive front has made Stanford that rare team that can not only run the football, but still be explosive offensively while doing it. It’s enabled the Cardinal to cover big pointspreads in conference games—they won at Oregon State 42-24, at home against Washington 31-14, and at Colorado 42-10 each time covering a two-touchdown line. Stanford dropped 50-plus points in easy covers over Arizona and UCLA, and they delivered another double-digit cover last week, beating Cal 35-22 as a (-10) favorite.
Those type of offensive explosions are coming almost exclusively through the running game, which ranks 15th in the country. Quarterback Kevin Hogan is in his fourth year as a starter and he’s smart and competent, but his limitations along with that of the receivers’ corps have resulted in a passing game that ranks 79th.
On the flip side, Stanford is not an outstanding team defensively. They aren’t bad by any stretch, but good offenses have been able to put up points—notably Oregon, which came to The Farm on November 14 and won 38-36. Stanford also gave up 35 points to UCLA. The Cardinal defense isn’t dotted with players that attract NFL attention.
So the question becomes whether the running game alone will be enough to win and cover against Notre Dame and UCLA/USC.
It’s a rare team that’s built on the running game and yet also is more comfortable playing high-scoring games. Of Stanford’s three ATS losses (two of which were outright defeats, at Northwestern and Oregon), two of those games went Under the total. The one exception was Oregon, which is as comfortable playing high-octane as anyone in the country. The Cardinal will want to “push the pace” if I might use a basketball term in discussing football strategy.
Stanford’s interest in going up-tempo is likely to be heightened against Notre Dame, which is likely to be playing without its own good running back, C.J. Prosise. The Cardinal are currently a four-point favorite, with the total at 55. It’s a similar total to what was posted in the October 15 Stanford-UCLA game, in which the Cardinal went against another offense that likes to run the football. In that game, Stanford exceeded the total all by themselves.
The Cardinal have at least three games ahead against quality competition—the two mentioned, plus a marquee bowl date. If that bowl date is also a Playoff semifinal, there could be an additional game yet to come. If you haven’t watched Stanford yet this year, or don’t yet feel qualified to handicap them, time is not lost. There’s plenty to watch for on Saturday night against Notre Dame.
While my staff and I are fully prepared to handicap the Cardinal and we have a developed opinion on Saturday’s game, we’ll still be on the lookout for more information. That’s going to start with an evaluation of Stanford’s ability to force Notre Dame into an up-tempo game and of the Cardinal defense’s ability to contain an opponent similar in quality to what will be faced in a major bowl game. Answer that question and you’ll unlock the keys to ATS winners on Championship Saturday and in the bowl season.
Jim Hurley has been a successful public handicapper since 1985, when he began a Network that emphasized a team approach to handicapping. Hurley consults with statistical analysts, personnel experts and Vegas insiders to narrow the NFL and college cards down to the most bettable games each and every week. Visit him online at www.winningedge.com.