Team countdown: No. 17 Stanford

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo Sports

Stanford lost coach Jim Harbaugh after the 2010 season and still made it to a BCS bowl in 2011. Now, the Cardinal finds out about life without Andrew Luck, and there don't seem to be any BCS bowls looming in the near-future.

Harbaugh and Luck helped turned the Cardinal from league bottom-feeder into a national title contender, and the goal now for second-year coach David Shaw has to be to keep Stanford nationally relevant. There is enough talent on hand to do so this fall, and the Cardinal also reeled in a great recruiting class, lending hope for the future.

But don't expect a top-10 finish this season. First, Luck is gone, as are G David DeCastro and T Jonathan Martin; all three were first-round picks. Also gone are the Cardinal's top three receivers, the best defensive lineman and three-fourths of the starting secondary.

The particulars

Last season: 11-2 overall, 8-1 in Pac-12 (2nd in Pac-2 North)
Coach: David Shaw (11-2, 2nd season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (6) – T Cameron Fleming, FB Ryan Hewitt, C Sam Schwartzstein, TB Stepfan Taylor, TE Levine Toilolo, G David Yankey. Defense (7) – CB Terrence Brown, E Ben Gardner, LB Jarek Lancaster, LB Trent Murphy, T Terrence Stephens, LB A.J. Tarpley, LB Chase Thomas. Special teams (1) – K Jordan Williamson.
Fast fact: Stanford has won 23 games in the past two seasons, the best two-year stretch in school history. In addition, the Cardinal has won double-digit games in back-to-back seasons for the first time.

Offense

Luck's departure means Stanford should rely more heavily on its ground attack. That should be fine with TB Stepfan Taylor, who was overshadowed by his quarterback the past two seasons. Taylor ran for 1,330 yards and 10 TDs last season and had 1,137 yards and 15 TDs in 2010. He has had 13 100-yard games in the past two seasons and 10 games with 20-plus carries. He can expect a heavier workload this fall;

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Senior RB Stepfan Taylor has had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for the Cardinal. (AP)

Taylor is a tough, durable guy who also is an effective receiver. Anthony Wilkerson is a good backup, and redshirt freshman Kelsey Young, a dynamic athlete, also should get some carries.

FB Ryan Hewitt is a good lead blocker and also had 34 receptions, with five going for scores. He again will be an important receiver.

Sophomore Brett Nottingham and junior Josh Nunes will battle for the quarterback job. Nottingham, a sophomore, played in six games and attempted eight passes as Luck's backup last season. He is physically gifted and has a strong arm. Nunes, a junior, also has a nice arm, but he has attempted just two passes in his career. Nunes probably has a better grasp of the offense, but Nottingham has the most upside of the two. Both are 6 feet 4 and both were four-star recruits out of high school. The coaching staff obviously feels comfortable with its quarterbacks: Stanford signed zero signal-callers in February.

The receiving corps will be a problem if sophomore Ty Montgomery doesn't progress. He started the final four games last season as a true freshman and looks to be a star on the rise. He has good size (6-2/212) and also the speed to get deep. Seniors Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson have good tools but never have lived up to expectations. No other wide receiver on the roster has done anything.

Even with the loss of All-America TE Coby Fleener, Stanford still will use a lot of two-tight end sets. Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz combined for 52 receptions and 10 TD catches last season, and they pose matchup problems for opposing defenses. Toilolo is huge (6-8/265) and should blossom into one of the nation's best this season.

Stanford returns three starting linemen, but the two guys lost were All-Americans. Senior C Sam Schwartzstein will be a two-year starter, and G David Yankey and T Cameron Fleming are sophomores who performed beyond expectations as redshirt freshmen last season. Yankey could move to tackle. Cole Underwood also can play tackle or guard, while Khalil Wilkes can play guard and center. Kevin Danser strictly plays guard, and he should end up as a starter.

Coaches have a lot of flexibility up front – and that's before you consider the freshmen. It might be the best haul of offensive linemen in recruiting history. Stanford signed seven offensive linemen in February, and Ts Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy were five-star signees. Stanford also signed four-star G Joshua Garnett, the No. 2 player at his position in the nation. Expect two or three freshmen to see time.

Defense

Stanford runs a 3-4 set, and the Cardinal returns six starters in the front seven. In addition, LB Shayne Skov – Stanford's most talented defensive player – is back from an injury that sidelined him after three games last fall.

Skov and Chase Thomas give Stanford one of the nation's top three or four linebacker duos. Skov is a physical, aggressive player, and Thomas is a big-time pass rusher (8.5 sacks last season). The other returning starters are Trent Murphy, A.J. Tarpley and Jarek Lancaster, who will lose his starting spot to

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LB Shayne Skov's return from a knee injury makes the defense even tougher. (AP)

Skov even though he was the team's leading tackler last season. Murphy, who lines up on the outside opposite Thomas, had 6.5 sacks last season. Depth is good, too.

The Cardinal will miss E Matt Masifilo, who graduated. E Ben Gardner had 4.5 sacks last season and should vie for all-league notice. NT Terrence Stephens is a tough run-stuffer. The end spot vacated by Masifilo likely will go to sophomore Henry Anderson, one of eight Georgians on the roster. Junior Josh Mauro also will contend for the job. Five-star recruit Aziz Shittu could work himself into the mix at end, too. Depth behind Stephens is untested, though.

Also untested is the secondary, which appears to be the team's weak link. The only returning starter is junior CB Terrence Brown, who had one interception (of Brandon Weeden) and four pass breakups last season. Junior Barry Browning, who has made six starts in his career, redshirt freshman Wayne Lyons and true freshman Alex Carter are expected to fight it out for the other cornerback job.

Sophomore Jordan Richards looks like the starter at strong safety, though sophomore Ed Reynolds, who missed last season with an injury, had a strong spring and could win the job. Junior Devon Carrington is the leading contender at free safety. Depth is an issue at safety.

Special teams

K Jordan Williamson returns after going 13-of-19 last season; two of his misses came in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State. The punter will be senior Daniel Zychlinski, who held the job in 2010 before losing it last season.

Montgomery and Terrell did nice jobs as the kick returner and punt returner, respectively, last season.

The return units were OK, but could tighten up a bit.

Schedule

Four of the first five games are at home, including a huge showdown with USC on Sept. 15. There would be no better way for Stanford to announce it remains a national title contender than by knocking off the Trojans.

The flipside: The Cardinal is at home just twice after Oct. 6 and ends the season with back-to-back road games against Oregon and UCLA. There also are road contests against Washington and archrival California.

Overview

Losing Luck is bad enough. But when you add in DeCastro, Martin and Fleener, a case can be made that Stanford lost its top four offensive players (or at least four of its top five). While Taylor is a good back, the passing attack is going to suffer a drop-off, and that could affect Taylor as well; opponents are going to stack the box until the new quarterback proves he can throw downfield.

And while the defensive front seven is going to be excellent, the secondary bears watching. A good pass rush would alleviate some of the concern, and Stanford looks to have more than enough guys to pressure the passer.

The game with USC will be a huge test; all the pressure will be on the Trojans in that one, so maybe the Cardinal can use that to its advantage. The trip to Oregon also is going to be difficult. The rest of the schedule is navigable, though it seems likely this team loses at least three times and maybe four.

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 25th nationally
The buzz: Perhaps no team in the nation closed as well as Stanford on National Signing Day, as the Cardinal landed three five-star players (Murphy, Peat and Shittu). USC felt it had a great chance with Peat and Murphy, so it was doubly sweet for Stanford to get both. The Cardinal finished with the No. 1 class in the Pac-12 and the No. 5 class nationally. Other notables included RB Barry Sanders Jr. and Garnett, who was one spot away from five-star status. – Adam Gorney, Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

WR Ty Montgomery. Montgomery emerged as a reliable weapon toward the end of his freshman season and will be the Cardinal's unquestioned No. 1 receiver in 2012. Stanford still will rely heavily on its tight ends in the passing game, but Montgomery should see more passes come his way. On a team light on wide receiver depth, Montgomery must bear a lot of positional responsibility for a sophomore, but if the final three games of his freshman campaign are any indication (he racked up 242 yards receiving yards and two touchdowns), Montgomery will be up to the task. – Andy Drukarev, CardinalSportsReport.com

For more on Stanford throughout the season, check out CardinalSportsReport.com

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