Published January 13, 2015
At this point, it can be readily agreed upon that coach David Shaw and the Stanford Cardinal have not suffered much of an Andrew Luck/Jim Harbaugh hangover.
In the two seasons after the departure of that coaching/quarterback duo, the Cardinal have gone an impressive 23-4 and made back-to-back trips to BCS bowls.
Despite the success, the Cardinal are still residing in the shadow of other programs in the country, including fellow Pac-12 squad Oregon. That would be the same Oregon team that Stanford handed a 17-14 defeat in Eugene which ended the Ducks' run at No. 1 in the country last season.
This season will be really crucial for Shaw and Co. It could very well spell the difference between being a good program and becoming a great one. The difference between a Virginia Tech or Wisconsin and a LSU or Oklahoma.
As it stands, Stanford is a team, like the Hokies or Badgers, that consistently find its way into the top 15 of the country but is never among the teams mentioned in the same sentence as Alabama, Oklahoma and Oregon. The type of team that you can lock in for 10 wins and a New Year's Day bowl game but not the big game held a few days later.
By no means are those types of accomplishments anything to scoff at, but this season Stanford will be taking aim at much more. The Cardinal aren't the only ones thinking a trip to the BCS title game is within reach as the Sporting News had Stanford ranked No. 2 in its first preseason Top 25 released at the end of May.
One of the more intriguing and prime rationales behind such an argument is just the type of team that Stanford has become over the last few seasons.
Unlike conference foe Oregon, which has relied on flashy offensive schemes, Stanford is a team that hangs its hat on strong defense and a power running game. Some might go so far as to call it "old school."
Perhaps it's not the type of strategy that lights up the scoreboard or stuffs the stat sheet, but it is the proven way to win championships in the current college football landscape. It's the type of game plan that they play in the SEC - the conference that owns the last seven BCS titles, including back-to-back championships for defending champs Alabama.
Each of those Alabama teams was ranked No. 1 in the country in total defense. The two teams Alabama played in the title game - Notre Dame (No. 7) and LSU (No. 2) - were each among the top 10 defenses in the country as well.
Last season, Stanford was 20th in total defense (336.2 yards per game) and fifth in rushing defense (97.0 ypg). The year before that, the Cardinal ranked 28th and fourth, respectively, in those categories.
Though the heart of last season's defense, inside linebacker Chase Thomas, was lost to graduation, the Cardinal still have a number of their most productive players on that side of the ball in 2013.
There's 2012 leading tackler Shayne Skov (81 total tackles, nine tackles for loss), sack machines Trent Murphy (10 sacks) and Ben Gardner (7.5 sacks) as well as ball-hawks Jordan Richards (three interceptions, 15 passes defended) and Ed Reynolds (six interceptions). That is quite a returning cast.
During the spring game, Shaw saw what he was hoping to out of his acclaimed unit that could very well give Alabama and the rest of the SEC a run for its money in more ways that one.
"I thought that defensively we ran to the ball and hustled. I thought we were physical," Shaw said. "I thought that the feeling of the practice was good. It was as physical as we wanted to be."
While the defense looks poised to keep the clamps down on just about any offense it will face, the other half of the Cardinal's equation is much less certain.
A year ago, Stepfan Taylor was the Cardinal offense. While the quarterback situation was as rocky as any in the country, with Josh Nunes and Kevin Hogan spending time under center, Taylor was a constant force. However, Taylor and is 1,530 yards and 13 touchdowns will be helping the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL this fall.
Replacing Taylor will be difficult. There are six running backs on the roster right now. In the spring game, five of those players had at least four carries, which indicates there will likely be more of a spreading of the load this season. However, Barry Sanders, who had a team-high seven carries in the spring game, is the most intriguing back in the stable. His genes certainly don't hurt.
While the running game retools, Hogan will be called on to show some progression in his junior season as he takes control of the starting job. Hogan threw for two touchdowns and completed 14-of-23 passes in the spring game, but Evan Crower (26-of-35, 197 yards, two touchdowns) may be breathing right down his neck if Hogan should stumble.
"I'm going to push for balance. I think we had that two years ago and I don't think we had it this year," Shaw said, while also indicating a need to adjust the offensive playbook from the tight end-heavy sets of a year ago with Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, also lost to the NFL.
Having so many concerns and relying on so many ifs and hopes in one entire phase of the game isn't a good thing. Thankfully for Stanford, its defense will allow it to stay close in just about every contest, meaning if the offense can improve just slightly, the Cardinal won't be a team playing in Pasadena on New Year's Day. They'll be playing there five days later.