Where Stanford needs to get better

"If only" is a silly game to play while watching a college football game, but it's impossible to avoid. It's the foundation of excuse-making, but perhaps it's sometimes useful for projecting a team forward, imagining what it needs to do to get better.

Take Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, a tough 24-20 loss to Michigan State. You could play the, "If only Stanford hadn't dropped two easy interceptions" and find yourself simply cogitating over straightforward execution. Yeah, "if only" plays that happened had instead happened another way.

A more valuable "if only" is this: If only Stanford had a dangerous pass-catching tight end, as it had during its previous three BCS bowl games.

Sure, pining for personnel that isn't there is equally silly, but it does point to a major reason the Cardinal offense was inconsistent this year.

If Stanford had a reliable tight end, it would have given quarterback Kevin Hogan a place to dump the ball when his receivers were blanketed by A-list cover corners, which was the case against Michigan State. It would have given the Cardinal an option in the intermediate passing game, a guy who could have exploited the Spartans' questionable safeties, who were joining the fight at the line of scrimmage in an effort to outnumber the Cardinal's power running game.

Moreover, it would have made the Cardinal's "jumbo" formation more diverse in terms of potential threats. Instead of using a bunch of backup offensive linemen, Stanford could have included a guy who could give it a dangerous pass option out of that formation.

Every coach in the offseason asks himself what his team needs to do to get better the next season. Know that coach David Shaw is thinking a lot about his tight end position, which it doesn't appear has yet been addressed in recruiting.

Defensive coordinator Derek Mason resisted a couple of "if only" questions after the game, but he clearly saw some things he believes need to improve. While his defense did a good job both stopping the run and rushing the passer, Spartans quarterback Connor Cook, who was outstanding at buying himself time while facing a furious pass rush, consistently found open receivers against the Cardinal secondary.

In what is probably a bit of a surprise, the Michigan State receivers outplayed the Stanford cornerbacks. More than a few folks on the Michigan State side of things said Stanford's reluctance to use press coverage made life easier for receivers who were more athletic than physical. Stanford corners Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons are both talented players who will be back next year, and Mason expects them to take a significant step forward.

"They need to be the two most feared corners in the conference a year from now," Mason said.

Stanford has plenty of talent coming back, but it also has huge holes to fill. There figures to be at least one early NFL defection -- likely All-American offensive guard David Yankey -- to join a strong crew of seniors, led by Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy. As Hogan noted after the game, it is "the greatest class in Stanford history."

If Stanford is going to win a third consecutive Pac-12 title in 2014, it will need to do some "if only" based on the 2013 season. The Rose Bowl made clear getting better at tight end and cornerback are two places to consider.