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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 23: Stanford

Andrew Luck is gone but not forgotten. He’ll continue running this offense, but in name, not action: Pep Hamilton is no longer simply Stanford’s offensive coordinator but the Andrew Luck Director of Offense – which is ironic, because more than one would say that Luck himself directed the Cardinal’s offense a season ago. The program won’t retire his number, not yet, but will “put it on ice for a while,” said David Shaw. It’s a daunting situation: Stanford needs to embrace its past, in which Luck plays a huge role, but can’t afford to get caught looking back. Not when Oregon continues to flourish up north, not when U.S.C. aims to reclaim its role as local heavy, and not when the rest of the Pac-12 has shifted its gaze towards the Cardinal, looking to unseat the program from its newfound national relevance.

Pac-12, North

Stanford, Calif.


Returning starters
13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 5

2011 record
(11-2, 8-1)

Last year’s

No. 8

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 31
    San Jose St.
  • Sept. 8
  • Sept. 15
  • Sept. 27
    at Washington
  • Oct. 6
  • Oct. 13
    at Notre Dame
  • Oct. 20
    at California
  • Oct. 27
    Washington St.
  • Nov. 3
    at Colorado
  • Nov. 10
    Oregon St.
  • Nov. 17
    at Oregon
  • Nov. 24
    at U.C.L.A.

Last year’s prediction

Luck is that good, and I don’t even need to tell you that. He’s good enough to lift this team on his back — like a Tebow at Florida, McCoy at Texas, Vick at Virginia Tech, Crouch at Nebraska — and carry it all the way to the national title game, which is a scenario very much in play should the Cardinal take out Oregon in early November. As for 2012: I can’t say today that I believe in the future of this program in quite the same way I did 12 months ago. But Shaw will have a wonderful opportunity to show his worth on the field, off the field and on the recruiting trail. Let’s talk about 2012 in 2012. For now, the Cardinal are built for another run towards B.C.S. success.

2011 recap

In a nutshell The Cardinal didn’t break a sweat until U.S.C., when it pulled out one of the great wins in program history – and there are some great wins against just U.S.C. over the last five years. The season didn’t end in a national title run, nor did it end in style: Stanford even seemed a bit drained after the victory at the Coliseum, taking care of business against Oregon State but dropping two of its last four, and not looking particularly sharp in either of those two wins. While Stanford did many, many things particularly well – superbly, in fact – it was stymied by unreliable special teams play and a defense that simply lacked the horses to run with elite offenses. That’s the difference between 11 wins, which is nothing to sneeze at anywhere, let alone Stanford, and the chance to play for a national title.

High point The win at U.S.C., which took three overtimes, countless big plays, an outstanding performance on offense and a little bit of luck – and a lot of Luck. The week before, Stanford put on an absolute clinic in a 65-21 win over Washington.

Low point The home loss to the Ducks. The defeat poked holes in Stanford’s defensive armor: Oregon had its way with the Cardinal, busting off long run after long run against a defense that seemed utterly unable to keep pace with the Ducks’ team speed. Unfortunately, Stanford blew the win against Oklahoma State by taking the ball out of the hands of its star quarterback and putting it on the foot of its kicker – an unwise coaching decision by Shaw, who made a few head-scratching moves during his rookie season.

Tidbit There was no more dominant team in college football over the first seven weeks of last season. The Cardinal outscored their first seven opponents by a combined 340-88, doing the same thing to Pac-12 foes – outscoring Arizona, U.C.L.A., Colorado, Washington State and Washington by a combined 239-71 – as they did to Duke and San Jose State during non-conference play. Over the first seven weeks, Stanford gained 3,529 yards while allowing 2,199 yards of total offense.

Tidbit (11 wins edition) How many F.B.S. programs in college football history have notched back-to-back 11-win seasons? Well, Stanford is one: 12-1 in 2010, 11-2 last fall. In doing so, the Cardinal gained access to a somewhat exclusive club. The other members: Alabama, Arizona State, Boise State, B.Y.U., Cincinnati, Colorado, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Hawaii, Kansas State, L.S.U., Marshall, Miami (Fla.), Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northern Illinois, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Penn State, Pittsburgh, U.S.C., Tennessee, Texas, T.C.U., Toledo, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Tidbit (red zone edition) Stanford’s red zone offense was the best I’ve ever seen – the absolute best. The Cardinal converted on 67 of their 69 trips inside the red zone last fall, with 53 touchdowns and only 14 field goals. The team’s overall conversion rate of 97.1 percent led the nation, and its touchdown rate of 76.8 percent ranked fourth. Of course, one of those two point-free trips came in the Fiesta Bowl, when the Cardinal missed a 35-yard field goal as time expired in regulation.

Former players in the N.F.L.

33 S Oshiomogho Atogwe (Philadelphia), S Johnson Bademosi (Cleveland), WR Doug Baldwin (Seattle), C Chase Beeler (San Francisco), OG David DeCastro (Pittsburgh), TE Jim Dray (Arizona), QB Trent Edwards (Philadelphia), DE Pannel Egboh (Tennessee), TE Coby Fleener (Indianapolis), DT Sione Fua (Carolina), CB Corey Gatewood (Minnesota), RB Toby Gerhart (Minnesota), DE Amon Gordon (Kansas City), OT Derek Hall (San Francisco), S Delano Howell (Buffalo), DE Thomas Keiser (Carolina), OT Matt Kopa (New England), FB Erik Lorig (Tampa Bay), QB Andrew Luck (Indianapolis), FB Owen Marecic (Cleveland), OT Jonathan Martin (Miami), DE Matthew Masifilo (San Francisco), TE Evan Moore (Cleveland), WR Chris Owusu (San Francisco), TE Konrad Reuland (San Francisco), CB Richard Sherman (Seattle), TE Alex Smith (Cleveland), OT Will Svitek (Atlanta), CB Michael Thomas (San Francisco), CB Leigh Torrence (Jacksonville), WR Griff Whalen (Indianapolis), WR Ryan Whalen (Cincinnati).

Arbitrary top five list

No. 1 draft picks, non-quarterbacks (1980-2010)
1. DE Bruce Smith (1985).
2. OT Orlando Pace (1997).
3. DT Russell Maryland (1991).
4. WR Irving Fryar (1984).
5. WR Keyshawn Johnson (1996).


David Shaw (Stanford ’95), 11-2 after his first season. Stanford tabbed Shaw as Jim Harbaugh’s replacement in an effort to retain continuity, which was an extremely wise move. Shaw was his predecessor’s chief offensive lieutenant, having joined Harbaugh as Stanford’s offensive coordinator in 2007. Over his first two seasons, 2007-8, Shaw coached the running backs in addition to leading the offense; over his final two years as an assistant, Shaw coached Stanford’s wide receivers. Regardless of where he lent a hand, Shaw did a fabulous job helping the Cardinal go from also-ran to one of the best teams in the country. And for Shaw, doing so has the added pleasure of helping both his alma mater and a place held dear for his entire family: his father, Willie, served two stints as a Stanford assistant — from 1974-76 and 1989-91. Prior to returning to Palo Alto in 2007, Shaw spent nearly a decade in the N.F.L., beginning with Philadelphia in 1997; then coaching the quarterbacks in Oakland from 1998-2001, when he first worked alongside Harbaugh; and from 2002-5 with the Ravens, again with the quarterbacks. In 2006, Shaw took a somewhat surprising position as Harbaugh’s wide receivers coach at San Diego, helping the Toreros net a national championship. A move that seemed like a step back was eventually the best move of Shaw’s career: he followed Harbaugh to Stanford the next fall and took over at his dream job four years later. If Harbaugh’s pops up when discussing Shaw, it’s both because of his work with the Cardinal and his importance to the latter’s career: Shaw wouldn’t be here today if not for his former boss. He followed his lessons nicely last fall, though as with any first-time head coach, Shaw is still learning his new job on the fly. With several meaningful pieces gone, Shaw now looks to continue Stanford’s winning ways while breaking in a fairly new cast.

Players to watch

The situation isn’t as dire up front as the N.F.L. Draft would have you believe. While the Cardinal lost a pair of all-American starters in left tackle Jonathan Martin and right guard David DeCastro, this team returns not only three starters and a solid portion of last year’s two-deep but also adds in the nation’s most impressive haul of offensive linemen – six prospects who almost ensure another half-decade of solid play while also adding valuable depth at tackle and guard for this coming season. In fact, it’s entirely possible that at least one true freshman grabs a starting role before the year is through.

You see four already listed in the two-deep: Andrus Peat at left tackle, Joshua Garrett at right guard and Kyle Murphy and Nick Davidson at right tackle. The tackle help is especially useful, seeing that the Cardinal lost not only Martin but also Tyler Mabry, the line’s top backup on the outside and a two-game starter at right tackle. At worst, Peat and Murphy give Stanford some valuable talent behind redshirt freshman left tackle Brendon Austin, Martin’s replacement, and sophomore right tackle Cameron Fleming.

The lone change inside finds junior Kevin Danser moved over into DeCastro’s starting spot at right guard; I thought Danser would start last fall, but sophomore David Yankey took over at left guard during fall camp. Then there’s the lone senior, center Sam Schwartzstein, who returns for his second season in the starting lineup. The line lacks its two stars, but the Cardinal aren’t starting from scratch. Rather, this team is experienced along the interior and promising at tackle, with Peat and Murphy pushing Austin and Fleming for starting roles.

Running back depth took a hit over the summer, when would-be senior Tyler Gaffney (449 yards), the team’s second-leading rusher, opted to forego his final season of eligibility in favor of professional baseball – let’s hope he can hit the curveball. That leaves Shaw and Hamilton looking for increased production from junior Anthony Wilkerson (282 yards), who had a nice run of games to open last season’s conference play but tailed off in November. Before assuming a role as the Cardinal’s top reserve, however, Wilkerson must fend off more than a few freshmen and sophomores: sophomores Jackson Cummings and Ricky Seale, redshirt freshmen Remound Wright and Kelsey Young and a true freshman named Barry Sanders, whose father could play a little running back.

Basically, this group will fight over the carries left over after senior Stepfan Taylor (1,330 yards and 10 touchdowns) get his – and he’ll should get close to 325 touches this fall as Stanford looks for even more production out of its running game. If Luck was the heart and soul of last year’s offense, Taylor was its arms and legs; he was the engine behind the third-best running game in program history, and it was Stanford’s ability to work the run that allowed Luck and the passing game to be so successful off of play-action. With Luck gone, Taylor becomes the new face not only of this offense but of this entire team – and there’s no question that he’ll deliver. While I hesitate to call Taylor a Heisman contender, he is the most complete back in the Pac-12.

For now, at least, Stanford’s passing game will continue to roll heavily through its talented group of backs and tight ends. Despite losing Coby Fleener, the Cardinal should suffer no decline in production at tight end – not with juniors Zach Ertz (27 receptions for 346 yards) and Levine Toilolo (25 for 343) ready to make an even larger impact. Ertz was Luck’s favorite tight end target last fall, in fact, and Toilolo is one of the nation’s best red zone targets. Taylor (25 receptions) will also work his way into the mix, as will fullback Ryan Hewitt (34 for 282), who is a deceptively strong target in the red zone. With this quartet in place, the Cardinal’s intermediate passing game will continue its recent ways: Stanford will simply pick opponents to death, eventually getting Ertz or Toilolo into a seam down the middle of the field – boom, touchdown.

While his rookie season had its downs – a drop or two, your typical freshman missteps – you cannot ignore how receiver Ty Montgomery (24 for 350) developed over the second half of the year. Montgomery accounted for 22 of his receptions and 329 of his receiving yards over the Cardinal’s last six games, moving from special teams contributor into one of this offense’s most dangerous weapons. He’ll be counted on to deliver a full season of production this fall while limiting his mistakes, especially with the cupboard relatively bare of proven production.

The favorite to join Montgomery in the starting lineup is senior Drew Terrell (8 for 81), who filled a role as Stanford’s fourth receiver a year ago. As at running back, there are youngsters angling for a spot in the rotation: sophomore Keanu Nelson, redshirt freshmen Jordan Pratt, Devon Cajuste and Rollins Stallworth and four incoming freshmen, led by Kodi Whitfield, a four-star recruit out of Los Angeles. Stanford needs Montgomery to add some explosiveness to its passing game.

You can put Stanford’s linebackers up against any team’s in college football, especially with the Cardinal expected a full, healthy season out of senior Shayne Skov, who missed all but the first three games of last season due to injury. What his return does is push senior Jared Lancaster (70 tackles, 3.5 sacks) into a reserve role, which seems slightly unfitting for the team’s leading returning tackler – but at worst, Lancaster gives Stanford not only one of the top backup linebackers in the Pac-12 but also a security blanket should Skov struggle regaining his form prior to last year’s injury. Another option at Stanford’s disposal is moving Lancaster into the lineup in the middle and moving Skov outside on passing downs; that’s an appealing scenario, to put it mildly.

The only contributor not still in the fold is Max Bergen, who made five starts last fall at one of the team’s two inside linebacker spots. His departure is more than offset by Skov’s return, especially given the fact that sophomore A.J. Tarpley (57 tackles, 4.0) took Bergen’s starting spot over the final two months-plus of last fall. That’s your trio inside, and it’s a good one: Skov and Tarpley starting, Lancaster in reserve. Add in sophomore Joe Hemschoot and true freshman Noor Davis, who could begin his career inside or out, and you have absolutely outstanding depth at new inside linebackers coach David Kotulski’s disposal. Again, the Cardinal will be able to put Skov into a pass-rushing role.

Skov is one potential all-American at linebacker, though he needs to prove that he’s 100 percent before entering the conversation. Stanford has one sure-fire all-American, however, in senior outside linebacker Chase Thomas (52 tackles, 17.5 for loss, 8.5 sacks) – a defender whose yearly progression points towards an enormous final season. Thomas and junior Trent Murphy, the other starter on the outside, combined last fall for 27.5 tackles for loss and 15.0 sacks. Add Skov into this mix – and I think that Davis will get into the action on passing downs –and you have a potentially terrifying second level.

And the front three is steady, if not particularly dynamic – that’s a byproduct of this scheme, of course, and the line’s impact goes far beyond the box score. Not that the Cardinal don’t make things happen up front: Ben Gardner (35 tackles, 10.0 for loss) is coming off an all-conference season at end, and the Cardinal were pleased with what senior Terrence Stephens gave this defense on the nose a year ago. This pair will be joined up front by either sophomore Henry Anderson or junior Josh Mauro, two ends battling to be Matt Masifilo’s replacement in the starting lineup.

The Cardinal could use a little bit of help up front – this group is already good, but it could be better. Stanford needs more athleticism at end, especially on passing downs; cue true freshman Aziz Shittu, a 3-4 end straight out of central casting, who could make an impact in a situational role. This front could also use more help on the nose, as Stephens isn’t an every-down linemen. Sophomore David Parry will again be the backup, and he should be improved without another year of experience under his belt.

Stanford needs its younger defensive backs to step to the forefront. These cornerbacks and safeties, recruited during the program’s recent climb, give Stanford the sort of speed and athleticism it needs along the back end; these defenders can run with Oregon’s receivers and backs and give shoulder-to-shoulder chase to the Trojans’ all-everything targets – and that’s what the Cardinal need, obviously. But this added athleticism and overall ability comes with a cost: youth. So while the potential is there in spades, there is going to be a steep learning curve.

Barring a surprise – like senior Harold Bernard unexpectedly grabbing the top spot at strong safety – each of the Cardinal’s four starters will be underclassmen. There’s good-enough experience at cornerback, where Stanford brings back juniors Barry Browning (21 tackles, 1 interception) and Terrence Brown (43 tackles, 1 interception). This pair split time opposite of Johnson Bademosi last fall, with Brown starting eight games and Brown four, and this taste of experience gives them a slight edge over sophomore Wayne Lyons and redshirt freshman Ra’Chard Pippens. While Lyons would need a strong camp to move into a starting role, he will serve in a key role as Stanford’s third cornerback – and will eventually become a starter once he gains more experience; Lyons missed all but two games last fall after suffering a hand injury.

There are two pretty big holes to fill at safety. Stanford will look to replace Michael Thomas and Delano Howell with a pair of sophomores, Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards (31 tackles), with Richards taking on Howell’s mantle at strong safety. He’s ready to roll: Richards was impressive as a true freshmen, when the Cardinal used him at both safety spots. But Reynolds, who missed all of last season, is a question mark – even if the last season wasn’t a total wash, seeing that Reynolds was able to spend time in this defensive system. While Stanford will start the freshman at cornerback, I wouldn’t be surprised if Alex Carter eventually moves over to free safety. Another option is junior Devon Carrington (30 tackles), who started two games at the position a year ago.

I’d love to see Jordan Williamson come out and split the uprights with his first five attempts, gaining some confidence and putting last year’s disastrous Fiesta Bowl firmly in his rearview mirror. Williamson can kick, as he showed through much of last season; you just wonder about how he’ll rebound from that single game, and whether Shaw will shorten his leash heading into September. The Cardinal will have a new punter in senior Daniel Zychlinski, who started in David Green’s stead during last season’s win against the Trojans. Oregon and U.S.C. are the only Pac-12 teams that can offer more in the return game: Montgomery handles kickoffs and Terrell punts.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback Don’t say that Stanford doesn’t have options, because I see seven quarterbacks on the roster. Four are not considered to be serious contenders for the starting job this fall: sophomore David Olson and freshmen Dallas Lloyd – back from a two-year mission – Kevin Hogan and Evan Crower. While this group remains part of the overall picture at the position, this quartet’s future lies at least two seasons down the road. For now, the Cardinal’s quest to find Luck’s replacement centers around three quarterbacks, and around two in particular.

The only reason I’m including junior Robbie Picazo among the top three is that he has played before; he attempted three passes in last year’s win over San Jose State. This sort of game experience – and familiarity with the system – might give him an edge above the four younger quarterbacks should Stanford encounter any substantial injuries at the position. But if all goes according to plan, Shaw and his staff will need only two quarterbacks this fall. And if the year started today, the Cardinal’s pick would be either junior Josh Nunes, who struggled with a toe injury last fall, or sophomore Brett Nottingham – this we know.

Nottingham replaced an injured Nunes as Luck’s backup last fall, playing in six games and making eight attempts, throwing for a touchdown in the season opener against the Spartans. It’s important to keep this in mind: Nottingham may have a tad more experience and may have been last year’s top reserve, but that role would have gone to Nunes had the junior remained healthy. In other words, don’t hand Nottingham the job simply due to the fact that he backed up Luck a season ago. While I’m not working off a huge sample size, I don’t see any marked difference between the pair: both have nice arms, both are fairly athletic and both know the system. And I don’t think that Shaw is valuing upside as much as mere reliability; he’s going to pick the quarterback who protects the football, not simply the one who projects to have the better career. Look for Stanford to make a decision near the end of fall camp.

Game(s) to watch

Five Pac-12 road games, including a sure-fire loss at Oregon and two very intriguing dates against Washington and California – the first game against a team looking to avenge last year’s embarrassment and the second one of the great rivalries in college football. The Cardinal also go to Notre Dame, play U.C.L.A. on the road late, when the Bruins will be playing their best football, and play host to U.S.C. on the third Saturday of the season. It’s not an easy schedule by any means. But on the plus side, Stanford will cruise to victory over San Jose State and Duke, will have no problem against Colorado and shouldn’t have too much difficulty running right past Arizona, Washington State and Oregon State.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Stanford is certainly an interesting team; the Cardinal may not be a B.C.S. bowl team or a Pac-12 title favorite, two superlatives used to describe last year’s team, but the rebuilding and retooling Cardinal will be interesting. There are several areas worth watching as Stanford enters its post-Luck phase, beginning with the most obvious: quarterback. Don’t look for Nunes or Nottingham to play at an all-conference level, nor look for either to come out misfiring; look for the winner to reach the middle, neither replacing Luck’s production nor being the cause of a great, offense-wide decline. There are other issues facing this team that point to a step back off of last year’s 11-win finish: offensive tackle play, production at wide receiver, athletic depth on the defensive line, cornerback and safety play.

But while it’s clear – clear to me, at least – that Stanford is not a leading B.C.S. bowl contender heading into September, you can see not only a heightened level of talent along the two-deep but also a wonderful corps of youthful players with three or more seasons of eligibility remaining. The signal is clear: Stanford’s not going anywhere. In fact, you can make the case – based on the program’s recruiting over the last 24 months and counting – that this could be a launching-pad year for the Cardinal; take some lumps, lose four games, come back next year.

It’s too early to make that claim; the youthful defenders and skill players must still prove themselves, to a degree, and Stanford needs to show some proof of contention without Luck driving the offense. But this season’s team alone is good enough to win another eight games and earn a national ranking – the Cardinal are steady but far less spectacular. For now, maintaining the program’s recent pace is far more important than looking ahead to 2013 and beyond. Eight wins and a second-place finish in the North would be a good start.

Dream season Stanford loses early to U.S.C. but bounces back to win every game the rest of the way, setting up a much-anticipated Pac-12 title game rematch with the Rose Bowl on the line.

Nightmare season This team is missing not only last year’s production but also all of its confidence; Stanford loses a game or two early and crumbles, losing six games during the regular season.

In case you were wondering

Where do Stanford fans congregate? Begin with The CARDBoard, the program’s best independent Web site. For recruiting coverage, try Cardinal Report and The Bootleg. Jon Wilner of The San Jose Mercury News covers Bay Area college sports — Stanford and San Jose State, most notably — at College Sports Hotline. Additional options include Go Mighty Card and Rule of Tree.

Stanford’s all-name nominee WR Gautam Krishnamurthi.

Word Count

Through 102 teams 413,910.

Up Next

Who is No. 22? The head coach at tomorrow’s program was hired in the same year as 17 first-time F.B.S. head coaches. He was one of eight new coaches that fall to lead his new team to bowl play in his first season.

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  1. VT says:

    Virginia Tech is next.

  2. VT says:

    Read the clue wrong.

    Hokies are NOT next.

  3. Jimbo says:

    Is Florida State next?

  4. Aaron says:

    West Virginia.

  5. Delawaresinglewing says:

    Paul: I predict you will rue the day for omitting James Vaighters from the analysis of Standford linebackers.

    Paul: Vaughters is definitely a guy who is going to play a lot for Stanford this year, but especially as a junior and senior. Just trying to figure out what his place is in the rotation with three veterans atop the depth chart. Certainly someone to watch.

  6. Chase says:

    It could easily be BYU. Bronco Mendenhall took them to the Vegas Bowl in ’05. For that matter, it could also be Utah. Kyle Whittingham did the same thing. So it’s probably not either of them.

  7. Greg says:

    Georgia is next

  8. Eksynyt says:

    BYU seems right

  9. Greg says:

    It can’t be BYU because Utah and LSU would fit the clue too. Of the remaining schools the only ones that can fit are Oklahoma, and Georgia. I did the numbers on Georgia and it fit.

  10. Andrew says:

    Stanford beats Oregon at Autzen without Luck…. ha

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