Opponent: Stanford Cardinal
Date: September 18, 2021
All-time series record: First meeting
Last year: 4-2, 60th in SP+, 75th in Sagarin
Head coach: David Shaw (11th year, 90-36 record)
Surprisingly, Vanderbilt has never met Stanford, a fellow academic powerhouse that also plays Power 5 football, on the football field prior to the Week 3 meeting this season, which will be broadcast at 7 PM CT on ESPNU.
In fact, this is only the second game ever that Vanderbilt has played against a Pac-12 school, with the only other one being a 1961 loss to UCLA. As for Stanford, they’ve only played seven games against current SEC member schools, and only three of those were against a team that was in the SEC at the time of the game, all three in bowl games: the 1935 Rose Bowl against Alabama, the 1977 Sun Bowl against LSU, and the 1978 Bluebonnet Bowl against Georgia. They’ve also played games against Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas A&M while those three were still in, respectively, the SWC and the Big 8, and their 1927 Rose Bowl matchup against Alabama actually predated the existence of the SEC.
This is not, however, Stanford’s first scheduled game against an SEC school. The Cardinal played Tulane three times in the 1960s while the Green Wave were still in the SEC.
Anyway, weird history done. The Stanford game is the third game on Vanderbilt’s schedule, and it’s probably the place where we’ll really see if 2021 is a “heeeeeeeeey, we might have something here” season or a “nope, we’re going winless in the SEC” type of deal. Stanford coach David Shaw never won fewer than eight games in a season in his first eight years with the Cardinal, with the peak being a Christian McCaffrey-fueled Rose Bowl win and #3 final AP poll ranking in 2015. But the Cardinal collapsed to a 4-8 season in 2019, then bounced back somewhat to 4-2 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
A closer look, though, shows that the Cardinal won four games by a total of ten points in 2020, and they’ll have a new quarterback after Davis Mills was drafted in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Jack West completed 13-of-19 passes last season as Mills’ backup, but the San Jose Mercury-News thinks he might have been beaten out for the job in the spring by redshirt freshman Tanner McKee, though Shaw won’t announce a starter until the fall.
And the new quarterback will have to find a new receiving target, too, with last year’s top receiver Simi Fehoko now with the Dallas Cowboys. The Cardinal do at least have something of a weapon out of the backfield in junior RB Austin Jones, who rushed 126 times for 550 yards last season and also caught 21 passes (second on the team) for 156 yards last season. A 4.4 yards per carry average isn’t actually good, though playing a Pac-12-only schedule might have suppressed that number somewhat compared to a normal season.
A young offensive line probably didn’t help; the Cardinal started three second-year players on the line last season, and those three all return, though Stanford does have to replace its starting center and right tackle, the latter (Foster Sarell) being a former five-star recruit.
On defense, the good news is that the Cardinal return eight starters; the bad news is that they’re returning off a unit that surrendered 31.7 ppg, and among the losses was fifth-year senior defensive end Thomas Schaffer, who led the team in both sacks and tackles for loss. The Cardinal gave up 6.6 yards per play last season and 5.5 on the ground; this wasn’t a good unit. What’s more, Stanford’s 3-4 defense is probably similar to what most of Vanderbilt’s offensive players have been seeing in practice over the last few years.
In other words, Stanford is a respected name, but at least over the last two years this hasn’t been a good team, and if Vanderbilt is showing signs of life in the first two games of the season this could be a winnable game for the Commodores.