Just so we're clear, I'm not a fan of what-ifs. Never have been. But a lot of you are, and I can see the for-kicks value of asking what-if questions.
Over the course of the season, I've kept several of these questions in my back pocket. They were sent to me through email, mailbag and just general conversations with readers at games and around the stadium. These are composites of the most popular what-if questions I've been asked this season.
You guys wanted them, so here we go: Questions worth asking, the "what-if" edition:
What if Andrew Luck had left last season?Pretty safe to assume Stanford would not be going to a BCS bowl game. There would have been a quarterback competition, and since Brett Nottingham won the back-up job, let's assume he would have won the starting gig. First-year starting quarterbacks are exactly that -- first year-starters. He would have had some struggles. While the defense would have performed the same, the offense probably wouldn't have clicked as efficiently. With the talent at tight end and running back, plus with the same defense, I would confidently say nine wins. I think they would have dropped Oregon, USC and at least one other road game in which they were favored to win. It happens to almost every first-year guy -- that "one" game where nothing clicks.
What if Jim Harbaugh was still the head coach? First off, I don't think the San Francisco 49ers would have nine wins. So as a Niner's fan raised in the South Bay during the Montana-to-Rice era, I'm happy he's there. But I think we'd still be looking at an 11-1 season. I don't think the result of the Oregon game would have turned out differently. David Shaw still would have set the general offensive game plan. Stanford has kept the essential defensive system that Vic Fangio installed, with a few new wrinkles. But for the most part, I think things would have turned out the same.
What if Zach Ertz was healthy and played against Oregon? I like Ertz a lot. But as we saw in the Notre Dame game, the tight ends could use some brushing up on their tackling skills (great hustle by Coby Fleener, bad technique on the horse collar). What I'm getting at is Ertz doesn't play defense. When things became pass-heavy for the Cardinal in the second half against Oregon, another reliable option in the mid-range passing game would have helped. Would it have made enough of a difference to overcome a 23-point loss? I don't think so. Certainly, Luck and the coaching staff would have had more of the playbook at their disposal with the three tight-end sets. But I don't think one tight end would have been enough to make that significant of a difference.
What if Luck had "marquee" wide receivers, ie. Robert Woods, Ryan Broyles, Justin Blackmon etc? I think they would make fantastic downfield blockers in David Shaw's pro-style offense ... But seriously, I hear this a lot. I think Griff Whalen has given every ounce of talent his body is capable of this season. But it's not like Luck has been throwing to Pee Wee League guys. Fleener is the most productive offensive tight end in college football. Ertz and Toilolo are probably NFL bound down the road. Would his numbers be better? Yeah, probably. But he's had some pretty good targets to throw at this season.
What if Shayne Skov played the whole season? He would lead the team in tackles. I think we can all agree on that. This takes us back to the Ertz issue versus Oregon. Would Skov had made a difference? In this case, maybe. The Ducks got a lot of their production by running up the middle. You have to think Skov would have been in on at least half of those plays. Would it have been enough? Again, I don't know. I do know this, they won eight of nine games without him, and Stanford's middle linebacking corps looks filthy next season. Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley return with eight full games of experience under their belts -- plus Skov (not breaking any news here, just assuming he comes back).
So there you have it, your first and only what-if blog post of the 2011 season. The debating flood gates have been opened. The floor is yours ...