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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. 5: Stanford

Which star had the higher stock: Stanford’s then-coach or its quarterback? Both were set to entertain offers once the final whistle blew on Stanford’s one-sided Orange Bowl win — Andrew Luck from the N.F.L. and Jim Harbaugh from Michigan and the San Francisco 49ers, if not others. Only one answered the call, as Harbaugh took on the rebuilding job in San Francisco rather than join Luck for one more year of fun in the Pac-12. And so the questions arise about the program ability to rebound from losing one of the nation’s best coaches. Those questions lie in the future — the very near future, unfortunately. And they’re all addressed with one name: Luck.

Conference
Pac-12, North

Location
Stanford, Calif.

Nickname
Cardinal

Returning starters
11 (5 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 25

2010 record
(12-1, 8-1)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 4

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    San Jose St.
  • Sept. 10
    at Duke
  • Sept. 17
    at Arizona
  • Oct. 1
    U.C.L.A.
  • Oct. 8
    Colorado
  • Oct. 15
    at Washington St.
  • Oct. 22
    Washington
  • Oct. 29
    at U.S.C.
  • Nov. 5
    at Oregon St.
  • Nov. 12
    Oregon
  • Nov. 19
    California
  • Nov. 26
    Notre Dame

Last year’s prediction

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. Harbaugh has spent three years instilling a physical mentality in this team; that won’t change, regardless of having Gerhart or not. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Let’s reflect back on Stanford’s finest season in 70 years, since the Cardinal concluded a perfect 10-0 campaign with a win over Nebraska in the 1941 Rose Bowl. Twelve wins, eight coming in Pac-10 play. A single loss: Oregon, a team Stanford led at halftime before crumbling under an onslaught of points in the second half. Only two victories decided by less than 10 points; only one game, U.S.C., where Stanford ever seemed in real danger of defeat. The most points, 524, in program history. The nation’s 14th-best offense altogether, and one of the most balanced at that. A vastly, vastly improved defense. The best team in program history? If nothing else, without question the finest team in 70 years. Can Stanford keep it going in 2011?

High point A number of options, befitting a 12-win team. I’ll go with a 48-14 victory over rival California as the regular season high point, as it both defined Stanford’s dominant level of play throughout the season while including the added bonus of a Big Game win. As a whole, however, it’s hard not to point out the Cardinal’s 40-12 win over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.

Low point The loss to Oregon. Disappointing? Without question. Of course, Stanford can take solace in the fact that Oregon finished the regular season undefeated, lending credence to the train of thought that lists the Cardinal as the finest one-loss team in the land prior to bowl play. A small victory, but one to remember.

Tidbit 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). Stanford remains the only one of the group to make back-to-back bowl berths. Stanford and Syracuse are the only two of the pair to win at least eight games, though the Cardinal remain the only team to win more than eight. Sadly, Duke and Washington State are the only programs among the 10-loss faction to have not reached bowl play in one of the last two seasons.

Tidbit (Heisman edition) So we know that Stanford is the only program to put forth a Heisman finalist in each of the last two years. The Cardinal land bonus points for having two separate individuals earn the trip to Manhattan. How far back in the Heisman’s history do you have to go to find one school sending two separate players to the trophy ceremony? There’s a three-year gap for Texas, which sent Vince Young in 2005 and Colt McCoy in 2008 and 2009. U.S.C. had two players, Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, both go in 2005. Florida’s Tim Tebow repeated from 2008-9 — as did McCoy — and Arkansas’ Darren McFadden went to Manhattan in 2006 and 2007.

Tidbit (alumni edition) David Shaw is the fifth Stanford alum to serve as the university’s head coach. Each debuted well: Charles Fickert went 3-2-2 in 1901, his only season; Carl Clemens went 6-1 in 1902, likewise his lone season; Chuck Taylor went 9-2 in 1951, earning a trip to the Rose Bowl; and Paul Wiggin went 6-5 in 1980. While Taylor did a fine job over the next six years, eventually finishing with a 40-29-2 mark, things went downhill quickly for Wiggin: 4-7 in 1981, 5-6 in 1982, 1-10 in 1983, gone.

Former players in the N.F.L.

26 S Oshiomogho Atogwe (Washington), WR Doug Baldwin (Seattle), C Chase Beeler (San Francisco), DT Brian Bulcke (San Francisco), WR Greg Camarillo (Minnesota), OT Kirk Chambers (Detroit), TE Jim Dray (Arizona), QB Trent Edwards (Oakland), DE Pannel Egboh (Tennessee), DT Sione Fua (Carolina), RB Toby Gerhart (Minnesota), DT Amon Gordon (Kansas City), OT Derek Hall (San Francisco), DE Thomas Keiser (Carolina), OT Matt Kopa (Miami), TE Erik Long (Tampa Bay), FB Owen Marecic (Cleveland), TE Evan Moore (Cleveland), TE Konrad Reuland (San Francisco), CB Richard Sherman (Seattle), TE Alex Smith (Cleveland), OT Will Svitek (Atlanta), CB Leigh Torrence (New Orleans), WR Ryan Whalen (Cincinnati), K Nate Whitaker (Minnesota), LB Coy Wire (Atlanta).

Arbitrary top five list

Stanford wins under Jim Harbaugh
1. 2007: Stanford 24, U.S.C. 23.
2. 2009: Stanford 55, U.S.C. 21.
3. 2010: Stanford 48, California 14.
4. 2007: Stanford 20, California 13.
5. 2010: Stanford 40, Virginia Tech 12.

Coaching

David Shaw (Stanford ’95), entering his first season. Stanford tabbed Shaw as Harbaugh’s replacement in an effort to retain continuity, which was an extremely wise move. Shaw was his predecessor’s chief offensive lieutenant, having served as Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator since his arrival in 2007. Over his first two seasons, 2007-8, Shaw coached the running backs in addition to leading the offense; over the last two years, Shaw coached Stanford’s wide receivers. Regardless of where he’s 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.: Philadelphia in 1997; coaching the quarterbacks in Oakland from 1998-2001, when he first worked alongside Harbaugh; and 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, which went on to win the Division-II national title. 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 name keeps popping up, it’s both because of his work with the Cardinal and his importance to Shaw’s career: Shaw wouldn’t be here today if not for his former boss. He’ll follow the lessons he’s learned along the way as he takes on a top team with weighty expectations.

Tidbit (coaching edition) The key members of Shaw’s staff are holdovers: former wide receivers coach Pep Hamilton will be offensive coordinator, and former secondary coach Derek Mason will be the co-defensive coordinator. He’ll share those duties, ironically enough, with a former San Francisco 49ers assistant, Jason Tarver, the 49ers’ former outside linebackers coach. The staff members still around from last fall include linebackers coach Lance Anderson, defensive line coach Randy Hart and special teams coordinator Brian Polian. The new guys, not including Tarver: running backs coach Mike Sanford, tight ends and offensive tackles coach Ron Crook and offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren.

Players to watch

Where do I discuss Owen Marecic, here or on defense? If we count Stanford’s departed fullback — and linebacker — as an offensive departure, he’s the lone loss along a backfield that has ranked among the nation’s best over the last two years. Only Oregon has done it better in the Pac-12 since 2009, and no team in the conference has dictated the tempo so forcefully on the ground. Marecic was the battering ram for the running backs, opening up hole after hole as the lead blocker and, when given the call, showing a nose for the end zone. He’s the lone missing piece in the running game.

And he’ll be a handful for the Cardinal to replace — on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Stanford will audition sophomores Ryan Hewitt and Geoff Meinken as his potential replacements. Hewitt holds the edge as Stanford prepares for September, with his receiving ability (two catches in 2010) one aspect of Hewitt’s game that Stanford could tap into this fall. But Hewitt, if he starts, will have the primary task of opening up lanes for junior back Stepfan Taylor (1,137 yards and 15 touchdowns), a reigning all-conference pick and an all-American candidate heading into 2011. Taylor is solidly consistent: at least 59 yards rushing in each game against F.B.S. competition minus one; at least one score in eight games, including four against Arizona; and at least 104 yards in seven games, with a season-high of 142 yards against Washington State.

Taylor’s the leader. And it’s unfortunate, in a way, that he shares the backfield with the nation’s best quarterback: yeah, Taylor’s yards come because Luck is under center, but Taylor will again be overshadowed all season. His backup will again be sophomore Anthony Wilkerson, who rushed for 408 yards a year ago. There’s more: junior Tyler Gaffney (255 yards, 4 scores) and senior Jeremy Stewart (137 yards, 2 scores) round out a top-notch quarter of running backs.

The Cardinal need to find a pair of starting targets at receiver. This is a position that took a slight hit to graduation, losing leading receiver Doug Baldwin and second-leading receiver Ryan Whalen. What the Cardinal do have is a strong tight end in senior Coby Fleener (28 receptions for 434 yards and 7 touchdowns), not to mention a very promising backup at the position in sophomore Zach Ertz (16 for 190 and 5 scores). Stanford loves, loves to use the tight ends, as most pro-style offenses do. But there are some holes at receiver, though any concern could be assuaged should senior Chris Owusu (25 receptions for 396 yards) prove himself capable of remaining healthy.

Owusu is guaranteed a starting spot if healthy, with senior Griff Whalen (17 for 249), a former walk-on, his likely running mate in the starting lineup. One note on Whalen: he’s Andrew Luck’s roommate, but don’t tell Brent Musberger. The receiver corps as a whole is quite experienced. The two-deep heading into September features Whalen and Owusu as starters and juniors Drew Terrell and Jamal Rashad-Patterson, sophomore Jemari Roberts and senior Corey Gatewood as reserves.

And then there’s Luck. The most telling thing you can say about the junior: he gives fans of bad N.F.L. teams a reason to root for their teams to be worse. Like 1-15 bad, because — silver lining — your front office can make the no-brainer decision to draft the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning. There’s no need to go into anything further, as you’re going to see a dozen Luck-centric post in this space from now until January, not to mention thousands upon thousands elsewhere. The love affair is in full bloom, and here’s the reason: even casual fans can admire his once-in-a-generation ability. Just love the player, appreciate what he brings to the table and sit back and enjoy his 13 or 14 remaining 60-minute clinics on the college ranks. Luck is even better than you’ve heard he is. He’s everything you want in a quarterback. And more.

Last fall’s move to the 3-4 was an unqualified success; so much for those concerns. Unfortunately, the architect of last year’s vast improvement, Vic Fangio, followed Harbaugh to San Francisco. So it’s on Mason and Tarver to keep things flowing along nicely, replacing at least one key figure at each level of the defense and taking advantage of the talent that returns along each same level. Two starters must be replaced along the line, two more at linebacker and a fifth in the secondary — fairly substantial losses, but the Cardinal have a nice corps of returning starters.

The lone returning starter on the three-man line is senior end Matt Masifilo (33 tackles, 4 sacks), an honorable mention all-conference pick in 2010. Masifilo’s a good one, perhaps a very good one, whose numbers as a 3-4 end belie his importance to the entire defense. His production and leadership will be in high demand as Stanford attempts to replace a terrific nose guard in Sione Fua. Junior Terrence Stephens is the likely answer as his replacement, but Stephens brings dangerously little experience into 2011. Until he shows himself capable of shouldering the load — and he’s light, at 287 pounds — Stephens will share snaps with redshirt freshman David Parry, who’s a shade bigger.

There’s similar youth at the end opposite Masifilo, as sophomore Ben Gardner brings little game time to the table and his backup, redshirt freshman Henry Anderson, brings none, obviously. I trust in Stanford’s rejuvenated recruiting efforts, as the hard work on the trail has brought in some impressive talent, but two-thirds of this line needs to prove itself.

Two starters are back at linebacker, and they’re both of all-conference caliber. One is inside linebacker Shayne Skov (84 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 7.5 sacks); the other is outside linebacker Chase Thomas (70 tackles, 11.5 for loss, 7.5 sacks). Eerily similar production, right? Call them Palo Alto’s version of Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside: two productive linebacker who just get things done, albeit in slightly different ways. The Cardinal would — should — have had three returning starters at linebacker had Thomas Keiser opted to return for his senior season, but he’s off to the next level. So two holes exist. And Stanford has linebackers coming out of the woodwork in the fight to join the pair of all-conference incumbents.

One is fifth-year senior Max Bergen at the second inside spot. You can’t place a value on his experience, but this is a productive-driven position: if Bergen doesn’t produce, he’ll quickly find himself leapfrogged on the depth chart — he’s currently the starter — by redshirt freshman A.J. Tarpley, if not a second rookie, James Vaughters. If not a third redshirt freshman Joe Hemschoot, or a sophomore, Jarek Lancaster. The Cardinal have options. The fight at outside linebacker is only slightly less competitive. Stanford only has two options here, at least for now: sophomore Trent Murphy and Alex Debniak. The latter has played quite a bit over the last two years, so that should give him the edge in September. From then on out, all bets are off.

The secondary could be very, very good even given the loss of cornerback Richard Sherman. Finding his replacement is the lone quest for a secondary that needs little tweaking: great last year in a conference full of talented quarterbacks, the Cardinal could be even stronger against the pass should a defensive back step up. There’s little question as to who will start at cornerback: that’ll be senior Johnson Bademosi (40 tackles, 1 interception) and sophomore Barry Browning (15 tackles, 1 interception). The duo combined to start 12 games a year ago, with Browning starting three as a true freshman. There’s good talent here; all that’s missing is experience, especially with Browning.

The safeties are terrific. Both are seniors; both are multiple-year starters; both are productive; both are versatile; and both were all-conference picks a year ago. Strong safety Delano Howell (60 tackles) led Stanford with five interceptions a year ago, and strong safeties who can defend the pass as well as they play the run are rare indeed. Free safety Michael Thomas (61 tackles, 6 for loss) has taken well to safety after beginning his career at cornerback. You won’t find a better safety tandem in the Pac-12. It’s a nice way to back end a defense.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Three starters must be replaced, so it’s a good thing that the two remaining starters were all-conference selections. It’s even better when one of the two, junior Jonathan Martin, occupies left tackle. He’s a very good one, as is junior right guard David DeCastro, the two linchpins of a new-look offensive front. There are holes to fill elsewhere, particularly at center: junior Sam Schwartztein holds the lead in the race to replace Chase Beeler, but sophomore Khalil Wilkes remains in the conversation. The situation may be equally unsettled at left guard and right tackle. In January, one probably would have posited that the starters at those spots would be sophomore Kevin Danser and fifth-year senior Tyler Mabry, respectively. And hey, here we go: it’s nearly September, and Danser and Mabry could very well be the starters. But it’s not decided, as redshirt freshman David Yankey could earn the nod at left guard and redshirt freshman Cameron Fleming at right tackle. That would be a bit surprising, especially at right tackle. Mabry was a reserve for the last three years and, in terms of time with the program, is the Cardinal’s most experienced linemen. So it’s somewhat surprising to see Fleming running strong at what most projected to be Mabry’s spot to lose. There’s still some time until Saturday, and the Cardinal could very well alternate four linemen through the early going before making a final decision. But it may be a youth movement at the three spots breaking in new starters. Despite that, I’m not worried. DeCastro can help Fleming learn the ropes, and Martin can do the same with Yankey. And Stanford has been absolutely tremendous along the offensive line for two years running. I’m not that concerned.

Game(s) to watch

Oregon stands as Stanford’s game of the year, the Pac-12’s game of the year and one of the games of the year, period, in the F.B.S. in 2011. It has it all: action, intrigue, the Rose Bowl, a national title, the Heisman. The date with Oregon is also the first three home games with big-time meaning to end the year: the Ducks, the rival Golden Bears and Notre Dame. It’s not a stretch to say the season finale has B.C.S. intrigue of its own.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Is the Andrew Luck love affair overshadowing the retooling Stanford needs to do at several positions heading into 2011? That’s a rhetorical question, as we all know the answer. But 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. That’s receiving early points for the national game of the year for a reason: two teams with all that intrigue listed above, with the largest difference being that Stanford shouldn’t really lose — shouldn’t, but could — to any team before or after that game; Oregon could very well lose to L.S.U. on Saturday, though the Tigers’ continuing issues under center are reason to favor Oregon. What does Stanford need to do in order to beat the Ducks, let alone top all comers en route to the Pac-12 title game? At least two receivers need to step up to replace the departed targets. The offensive line must also rebuild on the fly, as must the defensive front. The secondary needs to play up to expectations. And in this intangible way, Stanford needs to retain the sort of confidence that propelled it forwards throughout last season. You can’t judge the latter, but it’s the most important thing the Cardinal can take from Harbaugh to Shaw. 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.

Dream season Stanford trounces all comers save Oregon and Notre Dame, which the Cardinal top by only 10 and 14 points, respectively. A berth in the inaugural Pac-12 title game awaits, after which point Stanford heads into the B.C.S. National Championship Game at 13-0.

Nightmare season The team misses the leadership provided by its former coach. His touch would have come in handy during a 9-3 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 The Daily Axe.

Word Count

Through 116 teams 370,065.

Up Next

Who is No. 4? The head coach at tomorrow’s university is the only one in program history to win at least 10 games in his debut season.

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

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Comments

  1. bfahey says:

    Boise St.

  2. Peace says:

    FSU. Way too easy of a hint.

  3. Washington Irving says:

    Florida State for tomorrow. Eleven head coaches in all, and five of those didn’t win 10 games in their entire tenure as HC.

  4. percolating says:

    Couldn’t it be either/or Boise St. or FSU. No coach at either school won at least 10 games in their first year at either program. Peterson and Fisher both fall in that category. I’m going with Boise St.

  5. [...] since you’ve now read this news-free, analysis-void post, check out some great football content from college football aficionado and friend of the site Paul Myerberg ov…. Paul has an in-depth preview of the Card, which he ranks as his #5 team in the country. And his [...]

  6. misha says:

    Paul, do you mean first season with the program, or first season as head coach? If it is the latter, I’m going to go with Florida State. In 1951, George Blankley’s first year as head coach, Boise Junior College went 10-1. Also, Lyle Smith debuted at 9-0 in 1947.

    Paul: First year with the program. And there are multiple answers for a reason, I guess. It’s very hard to stump when there are only four teams left.

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