For the first time since 2009 someone other than Andrew Luck will start under center for Stanford, as the 21st-ranked Cardinal open the season on Friday night against San Jose State.
San Jose State had a much better 2011 campaign as compared to head coach Mike MacIntyre's first season. However that does not look as impressive considering the Spartans went 1-12 in 2010. Still the 5-7 mark the team posted last year was the its best since 2008. This will be the fourth straight season in which San Jose State opens against a nationally-ranked team.
Stanford is coming off back-to-back seasons that ended with BCS berths. Last year the Cardinal shook off the loss of head coach Jim Harbaugh to go 11-2 and reach the Fiesta Bowl. The Cardinal lost in the contest in a shootout (41-38) with Oklahoma State that needed overtime to decide. However this season the team may have taken a even bigger hit with star quarterback Andrew Luck gone to the NFL. Luck was a two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up and was 31-8 as a three-year starter.
Stanford has to be pleased with how well first-year head coach David Shaw did with last season's team and there is still enough talent on the roster for the Cardinal to compete in the Pac-12.
The 2011 season started in the same place, as the Spartans traveled to Stanford Stadium on opening weekend last year as well. San Jose State will obviously want to improve on that performance when it was outclassed 57-3. Just like that game, Stanford has dominated against the Spartans in the all- time series. The Cardinal are 50-14-1 against its in-state foe. San Jose State has not won at Stanford Stadium in the last eight tries.
San Jose State's offense will be adjusting to a new quarterback this season after former starter Tate Forcier quit school after transferring from Michigan. That's not exactly good news for an offense that ranked second-to- last in the WAC in rushing (101.8 ypg), total offense (378.7 ypg) and scoring offense (24.5 ppg) last season.
Taking over for Forcier will be former Nevada reserve David Fales, who won the starting job over Dasmen Stewart and Blake Jurich. Fales spent last season at Monterey Peninsula College where he was efficient completing 62 percent of his pass attempts for 4,365 yards and 37 touchdowns.
I think David is definitely ready to handle it and he has good weapons around him," McIntyre said, "He's not going to do everything by himself."
There will be no shortage of pass catchers for Fales to throw to, as Noel Grigsby, Chandler Jones and Jabari Carr each return as starters to the team. Grigsby, a junior, had the best 2011 campaign catching a team-high 89 passes for 886 yards. Also adding to the deep talent in the passing game is the return of All-WAC tight end Ryan Otten (52 receptions, 739 yards, 5 touchdowns in 2011).
The offensive line needs to replace some key parts but is lucky to be anchored by All-WAC left tackle David Quessenberry.
On defense San Jose State excelled in creating turnovers, ranking fourth nationally in turnovers gained in 2011. It is a trend they hope to continue despite having only five returning starters on the unit.
The most experienced unit is the defensive line which returns senior defensive end Travis Johnson and sophomore defensive tackle Travis Raciti. Johnson has 29 career starts and is third among returning FBS players with 27.5 career tackles for loss and tied for second with 19 career sacks.
The linebacking corps has fewer returning starters but still has a great deal of experience. Keith Smith is the primary focus for the group as he has amassed 220 tackles over the last two seasons. Senior safety James Orth (78 tackles, four interceptions in 2011) will be a great cornerstone for the rebuilding secondary.
The 2011 Stanford offense set a school record with 561 points. The Cardinal also ranked eighth in total offense (489.3 ypg) and fifth in passing efficiency (169.46). However that was with Luck under center. Now the Cardinal need to find a way to be effective offensively without him.
After Brett Nottingham seemingly had the inside track to replace Luck after serving as his replacement last season, it was junior Josh Nunes who was named the starter for 2012. Nunes is a blank slate that has seen action in only four games over the last two seasons.
With an unknown under center, the spotlight will fall on running back Stepfan Taylor. The senior rushed for 1,330 yards as a junior. It was the second- highest single season total for a Stanford back in school history. He is currently ranked fourth all-time in career rushing yards at Stanford.
The Cardinal lost Griff Whalen, Chris Owusu and Coby Fleener in the offseason. Ryan Hewitt, a fullback, is the lead returning receiver (34 receptions, 282 yards). Zach Ertz (27 receptions, 346 yards) is the most experienced wide receiver.
Fifth-year center Sam Schwartzstein is returning to an offensive line that has three total starters back from last season. The Cardinal allowed the seventh fewest sacks in the nation last season and also blocked for the third-highest team rushing total (2,736 yards) in program history.
While the offense will certainly have a new look, the Stanford defense should be very much the same. The Cardinal were a stellar defensive unit especially against the run (84.4 ypg).
Leading the seven returning starters on the defense is the talented linebacking corps headed by Chase Thomas. Thomas is an outside backer who creates a ton of problems in opposing team's backfields. Thomas had 17.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks last season.Trent Murphy (40.0 total tackles) also returns on the outside and a lot is expected of Shayne Skov, who is coming off a knee injury.
Ben Gardner and Terrence Stephens both return as senior starters on the defensive line. Gardner had 10.0 tackles for loss last season.
"Our front seven is about as deep as you will find in the conference. When everybody is healthy and everybody is rolling, you might want to compare them to most teams in the nation with Thomas and Murphy on the edge," Shaw said of his defense after the spring game."