National awards have become immaterial for Stanford football. The frustrations of the past have led to skepticism of the present, at least concerning Christian McCaffrey.
A year's worth of retrospection leaves even more bewilderment that he left New York empty-handed last year in light of record-breaking numbers that seem even more unfathomable than ever. And despite factors that have conspired against him this season -- an injury, inexperience at key positions -- it's clear that McCaffrey is as good as he ever was.
He leads the nation in all-purpose yardage (2,056). Among Power 5 conferences, McCaffrey is No. 2 in rushing yards per game (139.9) and No. 3 in rushing yards (1,399), and is one touchdown short (14) of his 2015 season total with two games remaining, against visiting Rice on Saturday night (5 p.m.) and a bowl game.
McCaffrey won't reach his season NCAA all-purpose yardage record of 3,864 or his school-record season rushing total of 2,019. However, his 139.9 rushing average is close to his 2015 average of 144.2, which was achieved in 14 games. McCaffrey has played in 10 games this year, making his total yardage numbers seem quite different, even though his production is nearly the same.
In the past four games, all Stanford victories, McCaffrey has had 787 yards (second among all FBS players), nine rushing touchdowns (fourth), 118 touches (second), 894 scrimmage yards (second), 223.5 scrimmage yards/game (second) and 10 scrimmage touchdowns (second). For his career, McCaffrey is averaging 181.51 all-purpose yards/game, the most of any active FBS player.
But numbers only illustrate McCaffrey's greatness, they don't define it.
At Stanford, there is full appreciation for his abilities. Nationally, it's hard to tell, particularly on whether McCaffrey will be in New York for the Heisman ceremony.
"I'm not going down that path," said David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "He's one of the best players in the history of college football. Just mark it down, it's the truth. The numbers say that.
"Whatever anybody wants to vote him in, or vote him out, or not give him, is inconsequential to me. The numbers say the same thing as the film says, which is, this guy's an all-time great.
"It's up to anybody else. If you want to put him on the All-America deal or not, you want to put him on any of these awards or not, to me it's inconsequential. He's a generational football player and an outstanding human being."
Saturday's game is the regular-season finale for Stanford and Rice. Before the game, 23 fourth- and fifth-year seniors will be honored. Not all the fourth-year players have determined whether they will use a fifth year. However, the fifth-year seniors, for sure, are playing their last home game: Johnny Caspers, Noor Davis, Chris Harrell, Zach Hoffpauir, Craig Jones, Luke Kaumatule, Dallas Lloyd, Michael Rector, Conrad Ukropina, and Jordan Watkins. Also, receiver Francis Owusu is completing his fourth season.
Stanford (8-3) has won four consecutive games and has achieved its eighth consecutive eight-victory season. That's every year since the 'Toby Gerhart Year' of 2009. Still possible: Its sixth 10-victory season in the past seven years.
That's a strong achievement for a team that once was 4-3 with three losses in four games.
"I'm proud of our football team for the many storms we weathered so far this season," Shaw said. "There had to be a lot of growth and maturity to come and play as well as we've played in the past month. Guys showed a lot of heart, a lot of character. I'm proud of these guys."
Saturday marks the first time since 2001 that Stanford ends the season against a team other than a conference opponent or Notre Dame. The 2001 finale at San Jose State was moved to the end of the season due to 9/11. The last time Stanford had a scheduled game to end the year against a non-Notre Dame nonconference opponent was in 1972, when Stanford played at Hawaii.
The last time Stanford played a non-Notre Dame nonconference regular-season finale at home against a college opponent was Nov. 26, 1938, when Tiny Thornhill's Stanford team beat Dartmouth, 23-13, to cap a 3-6 season.
The Rice game, originally to be played on Sept. 10, was pushed back to allow the teams to finish the regular seasons on Thanksgiving weekend -- in line with most major-college programs -- and to create a bye in Stanford's schedule. Otherwise, the Cardinal would have played 12 consecutive weeks.
"Scheduling has become a Rubik's Cube, trying to schedule out-of-conference opponents with our conference rules and TV, and all the things that go into it," said Shaw. "This is just when it could happen for both teams."
Shaw insists that this game, coming after a 45-31 Big Game victory over Cal, will not be anticlimactic for his team.
"For what we've gone through this year, we have no right to overlook anybody," Shaw said. "We have no right to look down on anybody.
"Hopefully, we have that feeling of trying to make up for lost time. We still have a lot of guys who are improving, (quarterback) Keller (Chryst) being in the forefront of that. We can't take a step back, we can't take our foot off the gas pedal. We have to keep improving, pushing and growing stag."
Rice athletics has several connections to Stanford. Athletics director Joe Karlgaard is a 1996 Stanford graduate. He was an 800-meter runner on the Cardinal track and field team and on the team's staff in 2000 when the Cardinal won the national outdoor men's championship. He went on to become Stanford's senior associate athletics director for development before coming to Rice in 2013.
Tanner Gardner, an All-America wrestler at Stanford (class of '07), is Rice's senior associate athletic director and chief revenue officer. And Josh Thiel, Rice's senior associate athletics director, came from Stanford's athletics development office.
McCaffrey's influence goes beyond his touches. During the 45-31 victory over Cal last week, Chryst scored on a 16-yard run after a play-action fake to McCaffrey around end lured to the defense away from the inside of the field.
On a 9-yard inside screen pass to tight end Dalton Schultz to tie the game 14-14 in the second quarter, the play was set up by a Chryst pump fake to McCaffrey on the outside.
"We want to keep that balance between giving the ball to Christian a lot and also using Christian as a decoy," Shaw said. "When you have one of the best players in the history of college football, you have to get him the ball, but you also have to use him as a decoy. And Christian is a very willing participant, because he loves for his teammates to make plays. That's just part of his game."
Schultz' touchdown was the first for a tight end this season, a surprising fact given Stanford's extensive use of tight ends as receivers. That tradition includes current NFL players Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener, Austin Hooper, and Levine Toilolo.
It was their success that attracted Schultz, who made first contact with Stanford while he was a sophomore at Bingham High School in South Jordan, Utah.
With inexperienced quarterbacks, often the tight end is the third or fourth option. As Chryst, who will start his fifth game on Saturday, becomes more comfortable, the tight end will become a greater part of the passing game.
"Dalton is the best complete tight end in our conference," Shaw said. "He's one of the best complete tight ends in the nation. Our receiver play is tied to our quarterback play. As Keller continues to grow and improve, those guys will continue to make plays."
As for his score, "I was psyched to finally get a touchdown," Schultz said.
Brandon Simmons has 10 solo tackles, most from his role as a special teams gunner. His tackle on a Cal punt return may have been the biggest hit in the Big Game.
"He's the best non-returner special teams player in the conference," Shaw said. "Week after week, he's the first guy down on kickoffs, he's phenomenal on punts, he's fast, he's decisive, he's physical and he's extremely sure tackler. Week after week, he makes plays."
Said Simmons, "This year's been about finding a role and playing within that role. Really, it's just about doing my job. When you do that, plays falls into your lap."
Schultz said that touchdowns aren't everything.
"Honestly, the more touchdowns for Christian, I take pride in that too," he said. "I see myself as just another lineman sometimes. As long as we're scoring, I'm happy."
Schultz' high school team played McCaffrey's Valor Christian side twice in high school. In 2012, McCaffrey scored three touchdowns but couldn't prevent a 21-20 overtime loss in Utah. In 2013, Bingham won 24-21 on a last-second field goal.
"Our entire defensive game plan was structured around this kid," Schultz said. "He tore our defense up. I remember one play, he broke like six tackles and went 99 yards. We had him pinned on the 1-yard line.
When I came to Stanford, I was happy to be playing with him."
As for blocking for McCaffrey, "He just needs this much space. You hear it all the time, give him a crease and the dude's going to make something happen. Just knowing, if you get on that block for an extra half-second, something good is going to come out of it."
Schultz said he's the best video gamer on the team.
"Hands down," he said.
Schultz loves multi-player online battle arenas, and is interested in a career in the video gaming industry. He is a science, technology, and society major.
He was surprised to hear that Stanford has a gaming team that played Cal in Oracle Arena last week.
"Put me on the team," he said. "Try me out."
Rice is 3-8, but on a two-game winning streak. However, Rice will have to play without their season starter at quarterback, Tyler Stehling, who injured his knee on the opening drive against UTEP last week. Stehling waited four years for his only season as starter.
Redshirt freshman Jackson Tyner took over and led the Owls to a 44-24 victory.
Right guard Johnny Caspers, a fifth-year senior in his final home game, said that Stanford does a great job of developing leadership qualities out of its younger players. An example would be during training sessions, where younger players are put together without having a voice of a veteran in their group.
"It forces those younger classes to really figure out who they are," Caspers said. "It forces guys to rise to the surface and find their voices. That's a product of this place and of the structure that's built around us.
"Some guys are more comfortable with leading. We've had some phenomenal leaders who don't say a word, and go about their business. That in itself, acting and doing everything correct and being a guys who can be counted on to do their job, often is more significant than words. I think of Stepfan Taylor, he was a great example of that."
Those who anxious about Stanford losing its motivation may find comfort in Shaw's words.
"We want to be known as finishers," he said. "We want to be better at the end of the year than the beginning. We want to show progress. It's in how hard we train in the off-season so that we can play great in November and a bowl game. We want to be great finishers."
Each year, fans can point to Cal, Notre Dame, Oregon, and USC as the most anticipated games on Stanford's schedule.
Stanford just wrapped up a perfect record against those four for the first time since 2001, when the Cardinal went 9-3. However, Tyrone Willingham's final season ended with a 24-14 loss to Georgia Tech in the Seattle Bowl.
The only time Stanford has beaten all four and won a bowl game was 1992 when the Cardinal went 10-3, captured a share of the Pac-10 title, and beat Penn State in the Blockbuster Bowl, 24-3.
Looking for something fun to do on Friday?
Join fellow Cardinal football fans for the final Council Luncheon of the year.
Special guests include head football coach David Shaw, head baseball coach and former Stanford quarterback Mark Marquess, 2001 All-American and NFL Veteran Eric Heitmann, and starting quarterback and Palo Alto High School graduate Keller Chryst.
Lunch will begin at Jimmy V's Sports Cafe starting at 11:15 a.m. with the main program getting underway on Dallmar Court at 12:05 p.m.
Parking is free, the program is $10 and lunch ranges from $5-15.
The Council Luncheon is a long-time event hosted by the Stanford Athletics Department. It originated in 1964 by legendary voice of Stanford Athletics Bob Murphy.
The luncheon has gone through several variations in the last two decades but has enjoyed unprecedented success and popularity in the last several years. Emceed by Matt Doyle, the program consists of former players, current players and coaches and special guests. Council members enjoy additional benefits throughout the year including invites to special events and insights and access to Cardinal football.