Pac-12 North Preview: Stanford

The Year That Was

Stanford had one of its best seasons in program history — going 12-1, finishing second in the Pac-10 and  crushing Virginia Tech, 40-12, in the Orange Bowl. Its No. 4 ranking at the end of the year was the program’s highest since 1940. More than the record, though, the Cardinal absolutely obliterated the  opposition. A 48-14 win over Cal was not as close as the score indicated. Stanford blanked three squads (UCLA, Washington and Oregon State) by a combined score of 114-0.

Quarterback Andrew Luck was stellar. The Heisman Trophy runner-up and Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year threw for 3,338 yards and 38 touchdowns with a 70.7 completion percentage. Offensively, though, it wasn’t just him. He overshadowed a powerful running game — Stanford’s committee of five rushers combined for 2,063 yards. Junior Stepfan Taylor carried the load with 1,137 yards on the ground and 15 touchdowns.

Key Departures and Returnees

Andrew Luck. The superstar lumberjack/signal-caller surprised seemingly everyone by passing up the NFL Draft (where he probably would have been picked first overall) to return to school for his junior season. With Luck—arguably the best player in the country— under center, Stanford will have a chance to win every game.

The biggest loss for the Cardinal is not a player; it’s a coach. Jim Harbaugh was the heart and soul of the team. The squad went 1-11 in 2006, Walt Harris’ last as head coach, and immediately improved under Harbaugh. Stanford defeated No. 1 USC — one of the biggest upsets in college football history — in his first season. The program reached a bowl the following season and turned in its best season in recent history as an encore. Harbaugh will coach the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers in 2011, leaving behind big shoes — and an expensive bathroom.

David Shaw, the offensive coordinator for the past four seasons, takes over. A Stanford graduate, Shaw coached in the NFL from 1997 to 2005, most recently as the wide receivers coach for the Baltimore Ravens.

Overall, Stanford returns just five starters on offense and six on defense. Notable losses include All-American center Chase Beeler, leading receiver Doug Baldwin (857 yards, nine touchdowns), stalwart cornerback Richard Sherman and linebacker Thomas Keiser. Owen Marecic’s graduation leaves a void at linebacker (51 tackles, two interceptions) and fullback (five touchdowns on 23 carries). That means no more ridiculous 13-second spurts like this.

Player to Watch

This one is easy: Luck. If he plays like he did last year, Stanford will be in the national championship conversation.

Key Questions

1. How far can Luck take the Cardinal? Based on how far Cam Newton took Auburn last season, the sky is the limit for Andrew Luck and Stanford. Even with holes in the offensive line and at receiver, Luck has the strength, speed and pinpoint accuracy to do … well, anything. 

2. How will the defense overcome its losses? Stanford’s defense was its unsung hero last season, ranking No. 10 in opponent scoring, but it loses almost half of 2010’s starters. The toughness and experience of players like Marecic and Sherman is almost unparalleled. Still, the squad returns a number of players, while its 2011 recruiting class, ranked No. 21 by ESPN, is heavy on defenders. Easing the transition will be the schedule, which looks to feature an easy first half of the season. Stanford’s first true battle won’t be until a trip to USC on Oct. 29.

Outlook

The Cardinal have holes to fill and a first-year head coach, but with the best quarterback in the county, Stanford will be a top-10 team all season long. The team is picked to finish second in the Pac-12 North Division behind defending conference champion Oregon. If the squad can beat the Ducks — at Stanford, where the Cardinal beat Oregon two years ago — look for Stanford to win the Pac-12 North and reach the Rose Bowl … or  perhaps the national title game.

Image source: Pac-12 Digital XChange