Stanford's 2013 offensive line will average about 10 pounds heavier at each position than its 2012 counterpart (and Shannon Turley will make sure that's functional weight and not just blubber). Plus, the Cardinal will feature a bevy of intriguing weapons at the skill positions, despite losing Zach Ertz, Stepfan Taylor, and Levine Toilolo.
Admittedly, many of those key players will be virtually untested commodities. Still, spring ball demonstrated that the framework is present for the Stanford offense to stride forward 2013. Thus, the most vital variable in the equation is the play of quarterback Kevin Hogan, who started for the Cardinal down the stretch run and through the Rose Bowl. If Hogan's progression as a redshirt sophomore is anything like the second-year maturation of the previous two Stanford quarterbacks in the Jim Harbaugh/David Shaw era, Stanford has much to look forward to this coming season.
CoachingSearch.com's Pete Roussel compiled a simple collection of Stanford offensive stats from the past six seasons that presents a good picture of the improvement that one can reasonably expect in 2013. Obviously, Roussel's compilations confirm that Stanford offensive production did indeed peak during Andrew Luck's Heisman Trophy runner-up 2010 and 2011 seasons (the 2011 offense averaged a staggering 489 yards per game), but the third down efficiency column best portends future trends.
Third Down Percentage in a Quarterback's Second Year
Stanford's sputtering 2012 attack converted 38 percent of third downs, on par with 2008, the last pre-Luck year. That 2012 figure was down 19 points from its peak in 2010, when the Cardinal converted a sensational, NCAA-best 57 percent of third downs. That Orange Bowl season, Luck's redshirt sophomore year, saw a drastic 13-point increase in third down conversion percentage from Luck's first season as quarterback. (The Cardinal converted 44 percent of third downs in 2009.)
Similarly, Stanford enjoyed marked gains in Tavita Pritchard's second year under center, though Toby Gerhart's 2008 return from knee injury also obviously played a significant part in that improvement. The 2007 Cardinal converted on only 29 percent of third downs, while the 2008 squad moved the chains 38 percent of the time.
It's important to separate 2012's performance into two distinct categories, though. When discussing Hogan, the 38-percent figure is deceptively low since it includes the eight-game Josh Nunes stint during which Stanford converted only 38 of 112 third downs (34%). After Hogan came along at Colorado, that figure shot up to 45 percent through the final six games of the season -- comparable to Luck's freshman season.
Hogan's mobility proved to be an excellent asset when it came to moving the chains. But the best news for Stanford is that his starting career is less than half a season old. Expect third down efficiency under No. 8 to improve even more in year two, just as it did under Pritchard in 2008 (+9%) and Luck in 2010 (+13%).
Fifty percent third down efficiency isn't out of the question, and the framework for that improvement to occur seems to be present with Stanford's developing offensive line and spring promise from the skill positions. Combine that with an entire offseason of preparation as the starting quarterback, and it's reasonable to expect that Hogan's offense will establish consistency and avoid the long scoring droughts that plagued 2012.
Importance of Defensive Rest
The good news is that even modest offensive efficiency improvements should provide a potentially significant boost to the Cardinal's elite defense. Many Stanford defensive players have told me that their point of greatest physical exhaustion was the 2010 win at Arizona State, a contest in which the Cardinal offense struggled to convert a first down throughout a large chunk of the first half. Winded because of such constant defensive activity, many defenders yelled toward the offensive huddle on the sidelines, pleading with them to move the chains, not necessarily to score, but just to buy a minute or two of extra rest for the defense on the sidelines.
The Cardinal's defense successfully battled through similar fatigue last season, particularly when they overcame 10 straight scoreless offensive possessions to shut down a blur-speed Oregon attack at Autzen Stadium. Superior depth, which returns in 2013, certainly helped the cause, but an overworked defense runs the risk of eventually cracking. (See the disastrous loss at Washington this past season, in which one poor hustle cost the Cardinal the game.)
If Stanford's third-down efficiency percentage can replicate past improvement, the Cardinal defense will have the oxygen to make the make the jump from an elite unit to a virtually unstoppable one. A 50-percent offensive conversion rate would be yet another lethal asset for Derek Mason's defense.
That's the key for this 2013 team's Rose Bowl and national championship hopes. The Stanford offense doesn't need to be spectacular. It just needs to buy the defense the rest necessary to suffocate its opponents. Hogan's 2012 insertion in the lineup was step one. Now, recent statistical trends demonstrate that further improvement is a legitimate possibility.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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