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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Riddled by the transfer portal, Stanford looks for footing under Troy Taylor

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Colgate at Stanford

PALO ALTO, CA - SEPTEMBER 03: Stanford Cardinal running back E.J. Smith (22) leaves Colgate Raiders defensive back Jackson Price (10) behind on a full-field sprint in the game between the Colgate Raiders and the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday, September 3, 2022 at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California.(Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Based on reporting Wednesday afternoon, it looks more and more likely Stanford will join the ACC beginning in 2024. That is not yet a certainty; one of North Carolina, North Carolina State, Florida State and Clemson still needs to acquiesce to the rest of the ACC’s wants, but accommodations are being worked out to make that “Yes” vote more likely.

One of the first questions to ask once this possibility becomes a reality will be if Notre Dame will still play the Cardinal annually. Would that be in addition to the five ACC games on the annual Irish schedule? Would it be a fixed one among them? Or would Stanford pop up on the Notre Dame schedule only once every two or three years as is the case for the entirety of the ACC currently?

What is clear is that the Irish will play the Cardinal to end the 2023 regular season, and this may be the worst Stanford team Notre Dame has faced since at least 2006. (The Cardinal went 1-11 in Walt Harris’s second and final season, the program bottoming out following the departure five years earlier of Tyrone Willingham for South Bend, perhaps a precursor of the wreckage he would leave on the Irish roster, as well.)

The Notre Dame instinct may be to shudder at that thought, given Stanford arrived in South Bend at 1-4 last season, the one win coming against FCS-level Colgate, and departed with a 16-14 victory. That game still defies comprehension; at least when the Irish lost to Marshall earlier in the 2022 season, it was clear the Thundering Herd simply won the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. In that upset loss to the Cardinal, Notre Dame hardly even showed up to the game, thus undone by two lost fumbles including the game-deciding cough-up from Audric Estimé to snuff out an Irish drive that would have won the game.

Nonetheless, that Stanford team was better than this one. (And Marcus Freeman has a year of head-coaching frustrations under his belt now.)

With David Shaw stepping away after 12 seasons in Palo Alto and more than 20 players leaving the program via the transfer portal, not to mention losing quarterback Tanner McKee and his top-three receivers to the NFL, this Cardinal hardly looks like last year’s Cardinal. And that’s a bad thing.

When only 35 percent of total team production returns, ranking No. 130 in the country, the instinct may be to praise the new blood on the field, but realize, those players were not good enough to play ahead of the ones that went 3-9 last year.

Much like Notre Dame, Northwestern and Duke, Stanford discourages incoming transfers. Meanwhile, it has no way to slow exiting transfers. More than a dozen players from the Cardinal two-deep left via the portal, including …

— Defensive end Stephon Herron (5.5 sacks last year) to Louisville.— Defensive end Aeneas DiCosmo to Vanderbilt.— Leading tackler Levani Damuni to Utah.— No. 2 tackler safety Jonathan McGill (seven pass breakups plus an interception) to SMU.— Linebacker Ricky Miezan (4 sacks with three more tackles for loss) to Virginia.— Linebacker Jacob Mangum-Farrar to Indiana.

Oh, and four of the five starting offensive linemen, including tackle Walter Rouse to Oklahoma, while the fifth starting offensive lineman retired.

All in all, Stanford returns six total starters, three on each side of the ball.

There is still a touch of top-end talent on this roster. Three players, in particular, stand out.

Senior tight end Benjamin Yurosek finished last season with 49 catches for 445 yards and a touchdown, perhaps not overwhelming numbers but ones the 6-foot-4 target should improve upon. He has the looks of an NFL tight end, quite possibly the only 2024 draftee on this roster.

Senior running back E.J. Smith (pictured at top) missed that win against Notre Dame last year due to injury. In fact, he played in only two games, but he rushed for 206 yards on 30 carries — a 6.9 yards per rush average — and scored four total touchdowns in those two games. “E.J.” stands for “Emmitt Jr.,” as in, Emmitt Smith Jr. There is little doubt in his talent if he can stay healthy for an entire season.

And defensive edge David Bailey — deemed an “edge” here because it is strongly expected he may move from end to outside linebacker at points this season — racked up 8.5 tackles for loss in 2022, including 2.5 sacks.

Now, to risk being harsh, that may be it of returning players to note.

To patch up that offensive line, Stanford found two Ivy League transfers. No disrespect to the joys of Ivy League football, but a guard from Penn and a tackle from Harvard are not going to shore up an offensive line effectively replacing five starters.

More notably, the university administration allowed an undergraduate transfer to the football team for the first-time ever. Florida International linebacker Gaethan Bernadel made a habit of finding the ballcarrier in Conference USA, and he will be expected to continue that for the Cardinal.

Yes, this “Notre Dame’s Opponents” assessment is more plodding than usual, because to understand the woes at Stanford, a piece-by-piece look at the roster is necessary. And at quarterback, that is bluntly and specifically acknowledging a list of Syracuse transfer Justin Lamson, two returning passers who combined to attempt 15 passes last season and reclassified freshman Myles Jackson.

The Cardinal have yet to name a starting quarterback, just eight days before its opener at Hawaii on Sept. 1. It may not matter.

Troy Taylor arrives after three seasons in four years at Sacramento State. (The Hornets did not play in 2020.) Do not assume because Stanford pulled in an FCS-level head coach that it was completely avoided by candidates.

They may not have been lining up, but Taylor is well-respected in the coaching industry. If anything, the surprise here is that he is coaching the Cardinal and not Cal, a prolific quarterback for the Bears in the late 1980s and a coach there for five years a decade later.

An offensive mind, Taylor leans into the run. Just as a quick stat, Sacramento State ran the ball 55.8 percent of the time last season, if considering sacks to actually be pass attempts. Its raw rush attempts was No. 6 in the FCS, and at least two of the teams ahead of the Hornets were option-based offenses (The Citadel and Kennesaw State), while one of the others (North Dakota State) finished ahead simply because reaching the national championship game meant playing two more games.

But at Stanford, rushing the ball will be a challenge. First of all, the Cardinal is replacing an entire offensive line. Secondly, defenses will not much worry about the passing attack. Lastly, Stanford ranked No. 104 in the country in expected points added per rush attempt last season, each rush losing an average of 0.053 points from its expected point total (expected as in, factoring in score, time remaining, down-and-distance, etc.).

Taylor will have plenty of time to find success in Palo Alto, but his offense will struggle in 2023.

See the seven-plus minutes beginning at 5:23 in the below video for the most detailed conversation doubting Stanford’s 2023 outlook.

More bluntly, Stanford will struggle in 2023.

“Expected points added” is often cited here because its premise is relatively simple. On a given down-and-distance, knowing the score of the game and the time remaining, data can offer up an expected end-game point total for an average team. On the next down-and-distance, that expected point total will have changed. The play either added or took away expected points. Do that enough and averages emerge.

But if that is overly complicated, then simply know the Cardinal finished last season at No. 89 in EPA per pass, No. 104 in EPA per rush, No. 131 in EPA per rush defended and No. 86 in EPA per pass defended. And know, there were only 131 FBS teams in 2022.

Now, Stanford has less talent and literally fewer players.

And things should have been worse. Exclude the Cardinal’s game against Colgate. Against 11 FBS opponents, Stanford was outscored 218-99 in those 11 first halves. Through three quarters, it trailed by a cumulative 285-140. Treat that score like a final score, and the Cardinal would have been expected to win 0.04 of those games. Yet, Stanford led three of those games heading into the fourth quarter.

Which is to say, the Cardinal over-achieved last season when games were vaguely competitive, and when games were not competitive, opponents eased off the throttle, be it as usual sportsmanship or as a respectful nod to Shaw.

Overachieving that aggressively should not be expected again, not even with games against Hawaii and Colorado. For that matter, Sacramento State might gear up to face its old coach on Sept. 16.

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