The Contenders: Stanford stays Lucky for one more run at the top

Breaking down the preseason favorites for the BCS championship. Previously: LSU. Today: Stanford.

Hide the women and children, and most of the men. As far as a quality seasons and bowl games go, Stanford has come too far from the skid-row years that preceded Jim Harbaugh's arrival to dismiss it as a one-man band: The Cardinal finished in the top 25 nationally in every major statistical category in 2010, on both sides of the ball, en route to a smashing Orange Bowl win and Stanford's best poll finish in 70 years. But there is one reason and one reason only they occupy this space after losing 11 starters, four draft picks and their head coach since Jan. 3: Andrew Luck is the best college quarterback in America.

He was arguably the best pure passer in the country last year, when he came in second in Heisman voting and first in the hearts of NFL draftniks after passing three former No. 1 overall picks in the school record books for total offense, completion percentage, touchdown passes and overall efficiency in a season. (He also quietly led the Pac-10 in yards per carry as a runner, flashing impressive speed and power in the open field.) Luck gives Stanford as real an opportunity at a conference or national championship as it's going to have in the foreseeable future, and new head coach David Shaw was promoted from offensive coordinator to provide the familiarity and continuity to make good on it.

All the ways you will disappoint us. The immediate effect of Harbaugh's ascension to the NFL is anybody's guess, but with the departure of three starting offensive linemen, Luck's top three targets and pile-driving fullback Owen Marecic, there's no guarantee that the beat will go on offensively — at least not to the tune of 470 yards and 40 points per game. But the attrition may be felt most acutely on defense, specifically in the front seven, where a pair of starting linebackers and the entire defensive line are gone from an outfit that finished in the top 20 in rushing defense and sacks.{YSP:MORE}

That group grew and improved exponentially over Harbaugh's tenure, during which time the run defense gradually crept up from 77th nationally in 2007 and 2008 to 55th in 2009 and finally to 19th last year. Two of the key run-stuffers between the tackles, Marecic (who also started at middle linebacker) and nose tackle Sione Fua, were both drafted in the first four rounds last month, making them the first Cardinal defenders in Harbaugh's tenure to go in any round. Junior linebacker Shayne Skov is a standout, but assuming recruiting has yet to reach the point to allow the defense to reload with NFL-bound linemen on an annual basis, a regression to the middle of the pack seems inevitable.

Stumbling blocks. Barring a stumble at Arizona in September, the schedule sets up for the Cardinal to be 7-0 going into USC on Oct. 29, and most likely 9-0 when Oregon comes to Palo Alto two weeks later for the de facto Pac-12 North championship game. Not that anything is ever certain against Cal or Notre Dame or on trips to Corvallis, Ore., but Stanford should be favored against everyone except the Ducks — even there, it's a tossup — and can certainly run the table if it sustains the momentum of an eight-game winning streak to close 2010 on a week-to-week basis. Besides Oregon, the biggest obstacle will be consistency.

Visions of champions past: Auburn (2010). Only one team since 1948 has won a national championship in its first season under a new head coach — Miami in 2001 — and no one is about to confuse Stanford's depth chart for the abundance of top-shelf talent Larry Coker inherited a decade ago. It's equally rare for a champion to ride to the title the strength of a single superstar player, at quarterback or elsewhere: No BCS champion from 1998-2009 sent fewer than eight players to the NFL within two years of its championship season, and most sent more than a dozen.

None, that is, except Auburn, which saw just four of its 14 departing starters snapped up in the draft last month, the same number as the Cardinal. The Tigers leaned more heavily on quarterback Cam Newton last year than any other championship team has leaned on any other player in recent memory, overcoming an unusually mediocre defense in the process. Stanford will be in the same boat with Luck, who is destined follow Newton as the No. 1 pick in next year's draft and will also have to lift the offense to 40-plus points and just shy of 500 yards per game if his team has any chance of following Newton's to the crystal ball.

Crystal ball says… As long as he's healthy (the last guy who passed up a shot to be the No. 1 pick for one last title run on campus had a little trouble with that part), Luck is an irresistible force who gives the Cardinal a chance to win every game. But he won't be as well-protected as he was last year, when he was only sacked six times, and big-play threats are still sorely lacking elsewhere in the offense. He also can't do anything to stop the inevitable regression by a rebuilding front seven, which is bound to be proven as a fatal flaw at some point. He can finish off the best three-year run in Palo Alto since the Great Depression, but the final rung on the ladder is too dependent on the emergence of a supporting cast of unknowns.
out of five.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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