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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. 25: Stanford

Enthusiasm previously unknown to mankind will only take Stanford so far. Talent helps.

Enthusiasm will only get you so far, even if it’s enthusiasm previously unknown to mankind. Stanford has this intangible in spades, thanks to a boisterous, fiendishly optimistic coach in Jim Harbaugh. Yet the program did not take off until it had the pieces in place — the Jimmys and the Joes, compared to merely enthusiasm, Xs and Os. Last season’s eight-win finish was propelled by a Heisman-caliber running back, a burgeoning franchise quarterback and a physical, intense offensive line, talented pieces that allowed this offense to catch up with the philosophy and mentality instilled by its coach. A year later, with a breakthrough achieved, Stanford’s goal becomes to prove last year was no fluke, that this success is built to last.

Conference
Pac-10

Location
Stanford, Calif.

Nickname
Cardinal

Returning starters
15 (8 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 50

2009 record
(8-5, 6-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 28

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Sacramento St.
  • Sept. 11
    at U.C.L.A.
  • Sept. 18
    Wake Forest
  • Sept. 25
    at Notre Dame
  • Oct. 2
    at Oregon
  • Oct. 9
    U.S.C.
  • Oct. 23
    Washington St.
  • Oct. 30
    at Washington
  • Nov. 6
    Arizona
  • Nov. 13
    at Arizona St.
  • Nov. 20
    at California
  • Nov. 27
    Oregon St.

Last year’s prediction

As stated earlier, this is Stanford’s year. The overwhelming majority of last year’s team is back, and the Cardinal will add one of the best recruiting classes in recent history in the fall. Finally, I believe in Jim Harbaugh, who has done nothing over the first two years to indicate an inability to get this program over the hump and into postseason play. Now, before I get ahead of myself: How good can Stanford be? This team is not good enough to win the Pac-10, for starters. But I expect seven wins, which would be a monumental achievement when considering the difficulty of the schedule.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Eight wins, three against Top 25 competition, six in conference play. Five losses, four by a touchdown or less, all by 10 points or less. If anything, as impressive as last season was — and, potentially, as unexpected — Stanford was better than its record indicated. Of those five narrow setbacks, only one, a 24-17 loss at Wake Forest, can be nitpicked. The rest — at Oregon State, at Arizona, home against California and against Oklahoma in bowl play — is as impressive a resume of losses to be found in the country. Quite the backhanded compliment, I know. Use it, in this case, as evidence of just how good Stanford was last fall. On a team level, the Cardinal were the story of the Pac-10. On an individual level, running back Toby Gerhart was the talk of the nation. Can Stanford continue to progress without its star?

High point Back-to-back wins over then-No. 8 Oregon and then-No. 9 U.S.C. to open November. The high-profile wins — both of the shootout variety — catapulted the Cardinal from merely being in the bowl mix to being the hottest name in college football. Though the win over Oregon was the more noteworthy, the 55-21 destruction of U.S.C. was the most impressive: Stanford put up 325 yards rushing, converted 8 of 11 third downs and forced four U.S.C. turnovers. The only low note? Harbaugh’s decision to go for two while up by 27 points in the fourth quarter.

Low point Stanford followed up the win over U.S.C. with a disappointing loss to Cal in the 112th Big Game. Though Stanford would not have won the Pac-10 with a victory over its bitter rival (though we didn’t know that yet), a win would have left the Cardinal at 7-2 in the Pac-10 and in sole possession of second place. That’s the difference between playing in the Holiday Bowl, one of the top two or three non-B.C.S. bowl games, and heading to El Paso for the Sun Bowl. (Quick aside: The New York Times’ Pete Thamel loves El Paso. Ask him about it sometime.)

Tidbit Take a look at Stanford’s haul at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing: eight gold medals, 13 silver medals and four bronze medals. From one university. The gold medal count — just from Stanford, mind you — would have tied Italy for ninth-most at the Games; the silver medal count would have tied Great Britain for sixth; and the overall count — again, from a single school — would have tied Japan for 11th. And the 2008 Games might not have been Stanford’s finest showing: Cardinal athletes and alumni scored 17 gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Tidbit (50-point edition) Stanford has scored 50 points in successive weeks only twice in school history. Last fall saw the Cardinal score 51 points on Oregon and 55 points on U.S.C. on Nov. 7-14. That streak joined Sept. 11 and 18, 1999, when Stanford defeated Washington State, 54-17, and Arizona, 50-22, respectively.

Tidbit (turnaround edition) Eight B.C.S. conference teams lost at least 10 games in a single season from 2005-8: Duke (2005-7), Illinois (2006), Stanford (2006), Syracuse (2007), Minnesota (2007), Iowa State (2008), Washington State (2008) and Washington (2008). Only Stanford won at least eight games in 2009, though Iowa State and Minnesota did reach bowl play.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) Today’s guest writer is Wyndam Makowsky, whose correct answer to a quiz via Twitter landed him the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of his favorite team. Wyndam covers Cardinal football for the Stanford Daily, the university’s superb school paper. So it was logical — his Twitter handle is “StanfordSports” — that Wyndam would write about the Cardinal. Take it away, Wyndham:

Obvious storylines: Luck’s rapidly rising star, replacing Gerhart, 3-4 switch (and the position changes therein—Marecic, Thomas, Keiser, Masifilo). Under the radar: Skov poised to break out (at more natural ILB), young WRs (Patterson, Terrell, etc.), loaded TE depth (so much so that H-Backs are being introduced), nearly completely revamped defensive staff. Key game: at Oregon on 10/2; could determine if Stanford contends for Pac-10 title. Cliff notes: superb OL should give Luck time to find his vast array of targets; success contingent on vast defensive improvement, particularly in the secondary/against the pass. Bowl game a must; Rose Bowl a possibility.

Former players in the N.F.L.

21 LB Jon Alston (Tampa Bay), S Oshiomogho Atogwe (St. Louis), WR Greg Camarillo (Miami), OT Kirk Chambers (Buffalo), LB Chris Draft (Washington), TE Jim Dray (Arizona), QB Trent Edwards (Buffalo), DE Pannel Egboh (Houston), RB Toby Gerhart (Minnesota), DT Amon Gordon (New England), C Eric Heitmann (San Francisco), OT Matt Kopa (San Francisco), DE Erik Lorig (Tampa Bay), OG Chris Marinelli (Indianapolis), C Tim Mattran (St. Louis), TE Evan Moore (Cleveland), TE Alex Smith (Cleveland), OG Allen Smith (Oakland), OT Will Svitek (Atlanta), CB Leigh Torrence (New Orleans), LB Coy Wire (Atlanta).

Arbitrary top five list

Technologically inclined Stanford alumni
1. Ted Hoff.
2. Sergey Brinn.
3. Steve Ballmer.
4. Jerry Yang.
5. William Hewlett/David Packard (tie).

Coaching

Jim Harbaugh (Michigan ’86), 17-20 after three seasons at Stanford. The Cardinal broke through last fall, Harbaugh’s third with the program, winning eight games and challenging for a Rose Bowl berth. The year ended with Stanford just outside that latter goal, though a second place finish in a deep Pac-10 was a very impressive result. The previous season saw the Cardinal inch closer to a bowl trip, with the team finishing 5-7, 4-5 in the Pac-10. That season, only a pair of tough road losses kept Stanford from making its first bowl appearance since 2001. Harbaugh is the program’s third head coach since that year, and his two predecessors — Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris — certainly did not leave him much of a cupboard to work with. But with his enthusiastic, infectious personality and shockingly strong recruiting, Harbaugh has the Cardinal on the verge of challenging for conference championships on a yearly basis. Not to say this wasn’t expected — at least somewhat — when Harbaugh arrived in 2007; that is has happened this quickly, particularly with the dearth of talent he inherited from his predecessors, is surprising. He was hired after a three-year stint as the coach at Division I-AA San Diego, where he led the Toreros to a 29-6 record and a pair of Pioneer League titles. Prior to San Diego, Harbaugh was the quarterbacks coach with the Oakland Raiders and, from 1994-2001, an unpaid assistant for his father, Jack, at Western Kentucky. He had a stellar N.F.L. career – in addition to being one of the great Michigan quarterbacks – taking the Bears and the Colts to the playoffs, coming within a Hail Mary pass of an A.F.C. championship in 1995. It’s hard not to be impressed by Harbaugh, his demeanor and the success he’s had leading Stanford back into the Pac-10 mix.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Tired of seeing his defense give up points and yards in chunks last fall, Harbaugh made wholesale changes to his defensive coaching staff. Most importantly, he replaced defensive coordinator Andy Buh with longtime N.F.L. coaching veteran Vic Fangio; his first order of business was installing a 3-4 defense, which Stanford will alternate with the more familiar 4-3. Also joining the defensive staff are defensive line coach Randy Hart, most recently of Notre Dame but also an assistant at Washington from 1998-2008; and secondary coach Derek Mason, formerly an assistant defensive backs coach with the Minnesota Vikings. Also of note: Stanford added former Chicago Bears quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton to lead the wide receivers; Brian Polian, formerly the special teams coordinator at Notre Dame, in the same capacity; and Steve Wisniewski, one of the finest N.F.L. offensive guards of his generation, as a strength and conditioning intern. Make no mistake: while Wisniewski technically holds that title, he’ll have an impact on Stanford’s offensive line.

Players to watch

The talk of sophomore Andrew Luck being the best quarterback in the country is a bit premature. He’s certainly in the conversation, however, after taking careful care of this offense as a redshirt freshman a season ago. While Toby Gerhart was the heart, soul and engine of this offense, Luck exceeded all expectations in throwing for 2,575 yards, a Stanford freshman record. More than anything, Luck impressed with his ability to avoid turnovers, a factor that typically plagues rookie quarterbacks. He tossed only four interceptions in 288 attempts, helping him lead the Pac-10 with a 143.5 quarterback rating. Thanks to his passing output and 354 yards rushing, Luck’s 244.1 yards of total offense per game ranked second in the conference.

What does the future hold for the sophomore? A Heisman run, in my opinion. As for 2010, he must illustrate an ability to carry this offense while Stanford breaks in several new contributors in the running game — I’ll touch on that below. Luck is absolutely capable of doing that and more as a sophomore. Look for a huge season, a conference player of the year-type season, from the second-year starter. The sky is the limit.

Stanford returns both of Luck’s favorite targets from a year ago: senior Ryan Whalen led the team in receptions (57), receiving yards (926) and touchdowns (4) last fall; while junior Chris Owusu added 37 receptions for 682 yards — a team-best 18.4 yards per catch. Establishing depth at wide receiver will be key: senior Doug Baldwin is the most experienced hand among the second team, though his numbers took a steep slide in 2009. The Cardinal will look to several unproven receivers, such as Jamal-Rashad Patterson, Drew Terrell and Griff Whalen, in an effort to increase the number of options in the passing game. Depth is not a concern at tight end, even with Jim Dray’s departure. Coby Fleener is the best receiving option of the bunch, but Stanford can also turn to former Notre Dame transfer Konrad Reuland, Zach Ertz and Levin Toilolo.

Four starters return up front, with the lone loss that of right tackle Chris Marinelli. To be fair, he’s a big loss: Marinelli earned first-team all-conference and second-team all-American honors as a senior. Stanford has two experienced linemen to choose from in an effort to replace Marinelli. Sixth-year senior James McGillicuddy currently stands atop the depth chart, but the Cardinal could also turn to fifth-year senior Derek Hall. The rest of the line will feature tackle Jonathan Martin and guard Andrew Phillips on the weak side; David DeCastro at right guard; and Chase Beeler at center. Beeler, a senior, is the most accomplished returning starter. Just how good is this group? In addition to pacing the best rushing attack in program history last fall, it allowed only seven sacks on the year — the second-lowest total in the country. There’s absolutely no reason to believe the line cannot repeat last season’s success again in 2010.

The new defensive look will ask for only three defensive linemen, with Sione Fua landing the all-important task of manning the nose tackle spot. How will he fare? It’s hard to say. In Fua’s favor is experience on the interior of the line, as the senior started 11 games on the interior of Stanford’s line last fall — albeit in a different role. He does have good size, but it’s difficult to predict just how the reigning honorable mention all-conference pick will stand up against the run. Stanford certainly could do worse.

Senior Brian Bulcke and junior Matt Masifilo will bookend the line. Masifilo, who was slated to start at tackle last fall before suffering an early-season injury, will surely be asked to move inside on passing downs. Bulcke also missed time to injury in 2009, playing in only the first four games of the season before a thumb injury sent him to the sidelines. Still, if each is fully recovered, Stanford’s defensive line is in good shape. Much will depend on how rapidly this trio can find its comfort zone in this new defensive alignment; this is particularly true in Fua’s case. The second line is a concern, with sophomore nose tackle Terrence Stephens the only secondary linemen to have earned any playing time in 2009.

Play linebacker, rush to the sidelines, chug some water, rush back to the huddle, play fullback. Repeat for 60 minutes. Take an ice bath, I imagine. Senior Owen Marecic will do it all for Stanford, as the potential all-American adds starting inside linebacker duties to his already sterling resume of fullback play for the Cardinal. Some coaches pay lip service to the idea of playing their top athletes on both sides of the ball; in Harbaugh’s case, it seems he’s serious about starting Marecic on both offense and defense. It’s a fascinating idea, but it doesn’t exactly instill confidence in Stanford’s linebacker corps.

Just how good a fullback is Marecic? The best in the nation, though U.S.C.’s Stanley Havili is also in the conversation. How will he perform at linebacker? There’s really no way to know — as of now — though his athleticism is intriguing. In his defense, Marecic did play inside linebacker in certain packages last fall. Keep an eye on how he can translate his football acumen to the defensive side of the ball on a full-time basis. He’ll be joined on the inside in Stanford’s four-linebacker look by sophomore Shayne Skov, a seven-game starter as a rookie last fall. He made 62 tackles, third on the team, including a team-best 15 stops in Stanford’s bowl loss to Oklahoma. Senior Chike Amajoyi is also sure to see time in the middle, particularly with Marecic pulling double duties.

Junior Thomas Keiser and sophomore Chase Thomas will start on the outside. Thomas made eight starts as a redshirt freshman last fall, making 36 tackles (7 for loss). Keiser should excel as an edge rusher in this new defense, as he showed in his nine-sack sophomore campaign. He earned honorable mention all-conference accolades for his play.

The Stanford pass defense must improve: the team ranked 110th nationally against the pass last fall, allowing 264.7 yards per game. The Cardinal will have to do so without the services of three-year starter Bo McNally; his leadership, in addition to his production, of course, will be difficult to replace. Nevertheless, this will be the deepest secondary of the Harbaugh era.

Stanford returns seniors Corey Gatewood and Richard Sherman at cornerback. The latter, formerly a wide receiver, will be improved after getting his feet wet last fall. Sherman made 12 starts a year ago, making 62 tackles while tying for the team lead with two interceptions. Sophomore Quinn Evans and junior Johnson Bademosi provide depth, with the pair combining for seven starts last season. To recap: the Cardinal return each player to make one start at cornerback in 2009.

Junior Delano Howell returns at strong safety, one year after earning honorable mention all-conference honors in a 78-tackle, 2-interception 2009 campaign. Junior Michael Thomas currently holds the starting free safety role, replacing McNally. However, look for senior Austin Yancy to earn plenty of time: while a reserve last fall, he preceded an injury-plagued 2008 campaign with 12 starts at strong safety in 2007.

Position battles to watch

Running back Were you expecting something else? Gerhart might be the most irreplaceable player in college football, what with his 1,871-yard, 27-touchdown senior campaign. That output, of course, come on the heels of a 1,136-yard, 15-score 2008 season. Who could Stanford possibly turn to in 2010 to replace the Heisman runner-up? Not one player, that’s for sure. Not even two players, in fact. Stanford will go with a three-man — at least — by-committee approach, with three returning backs headlining this intense competition. One is senior Jeremy Stewart, who rushed for 107 yards and a touchdown last fall on 6.3 yards per carry. The key for Stewart is remaining healthy: he’s missed significant portions of each of the last two seasons; for his career — while on the field — he’s a productive option. He’s battling a pair of sophomores, Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney. Taylor rushed for 303 yards and 2 touchdowns last fall, with the former total good for third on the team — second among Stanford’s returning players. Gaffney earned less time, landing only 22 carries last fall, but his potential has the Stanford coaching staff excited. Keep an eye on three redshirt and true freshmen: Usua Amanam — the redshirt — Ricky Seale and Anthony Wilkerson. The opportunity is there, of course, for at least one of these unproven youngsters to earn significant time. Will one back duplicate Gerhart’s 1,800-yard output? Absolutely not. Can this running back corps put forth enough production for Stanford to match last season’s 2,837-yard rushing total as a team? Maybe, though it will be difficult. The hope is that Luck can do more with his arm, offsetting some of the lost yardage. Yet make no mistake: Stanford is not going to struggle to move the ball on the ground. It might just do so at a slightly diminished clip in 2010.

Game(s) to watch

Games against Cal, Washington, Arizona and Oregon State will go far towards determining the top half of a crowded Pac-10. Games against Oregon and U.S.C., however, will dictate which Pac-10 team heads to the Rose Bowl. Oregon State is also in the second group. Stanford lands the Ducks and Trojans in successive weeks in early October, so we should know where the Cardinal stand in the conference pecking order before we reach the mid-season mark.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The only thing keeping the Cardinal from being higher on this list is a questionable defense, one I believe will be improved yet must show progress on the field come September. The defense certainly is a concern, though the program has added several knowledgeable, experienced coaches to help the Cardinal turn around last season’s struggles. As for the running game: yes, losing Gerhart is troubling; there’s no team in the country that could replace such a meaningful talent. Yet I don’t think the running game is going to disappear, that Stanford is going to become a pass-first, pass-last type of team overnight. Harbaugh has spent three years instilling a physical mentality in this team; that won’t change, regardless of having Gerhart or not. If Stanford can average, say, 175 yards per game on the ground — down from 218.2 last fall — this offense is going to be superb. Luck is ready to step into the upper echelon of college quarterbacks — if he’s not there already. The offensive line is imposing, the receiver corps as talented and deep as any Stanford group in a decade. There’s little reason, in my mind, to expect anything less than a similar type of performance from the offense in 2010. Put that together with an expected improvement on defense — not an Alabama-type defense, but a competent group — and you have a Top 25 team. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Stanford is a clear Pac-10 contender, in my opinion, a team far more likely to finish among the top three in the conference than the four fellow bowl team inhabiting the middle of this deep 10-team league. This group includes U.C.L.A., Arizona, Washington and California, with each good, potentially eight-win teams — more for Cal, for instance — but not quite up to Stanford’s level.

Dream season The Cardinal continue to improve: from eight wins in 2009 to a 10-2 regular season, with a 7-2 mark in Pac-10 play. Due to head-to-head tiebreakers, Stanford heads to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2000 and the second time since 1973.

Nightmare season The losses are a bit too much for Stanford to overcome. A three-win slide — a slide out of bowl eligibility — would be severely disappointing.

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.

Up Next

Who is No. 24? Our next program’s 2009 win total was its least since 2003. Still wasn’t bad, just not as much as any season from 2004-8.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. M Meyer says:

    It looks like Boston College is next.

  2. Zaboo says:

    Ladies and Gentlemen, PSR’s most overrated team of 2010!

    I was really excited to see BC coming up at 24. I became less excited when I realized most other people had them at 24, too.

    Paul: Well, there’s no doubt that Stanford is the biggest boom-or-bust team in the Top 25. B.C. is up there as well. And I thought I had the Eagles ranked higher than most? Good to see B.C. get some more love than usual.

  3. batecher says:

    Boston College is up next – 8 wins in 2009 was their lowest win total since posting an 8 – 5 record in 2003.

  4. pedronel says:

    as long as you beat Notre Dame again, I am happy

  5. Jim Narby says:

    Nebraska is next

  6. joeyfenn says:

    BC!

  7. EC says:

    I’d be willing to bet lots of imaginary internet dollars that Boston College is more than one place ahead of Stanford in the final, actual rankings. And probably ahead of quite a few teams not yet listed.

  8. zack says:

    @jim narby, definitely not Nebraska. Last years win total was an increase on both of the last two years. gotta be BC.

  9. TresselBall says:

    With exuberance heretofore missing, I proclaim this spot pretty optimistic for the cardinal.

  10. [...] Five and Five: No. 25, Stanford By PAUL MYERBERG Paul Myerberg is getting you ready for the upcoming college football season over at Pre-Snap Read. The Quad will also feature a daily look at each of Paul’s top 50 teams in the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 25, is Stanford. You can find a larger Stanford preview here. [...]

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