Debriefing: Stanford hits us with its best shot

The least you should know about the 2011 Cardinal. Part of Pac-12 Week.

Fear the beard no more. The world wept when quarterback Andrew Luck shaved his highly publicized beard earlier this week, but if you're superstitious, it's probably just as well. Luck, the nation's top Heisman nominee, didn't have a beard a year ago when he threw for 3,338 yards and 32 touchdowns and found himself in New York getting the royal treatment from the Heisman Trophy Trust. And he had no beard when he decided to forego the NFL draft, where he was sure to be a top pick, and returned to Stanford for his junior year.

No, the beard would just confuse all that good karma and perhaps cast a black cloud over what could be an all-time great season for the Cardinal. Despite only four offensive starters returning (five if you count senior receiver Chris Owusu, who was injured last year), Stanford should once again have one of the top offenses in the country, after ripping defenses for more than 30 points in 12 of its 13 games in last year's breakthrough.

Personal protection. One thing that has made Stanford so good the past few years has been its steady offensive line, but the front five is rebuilding: Left tackle Jonathan Martin and right guard David DeCastro return on the heels of All-Pac-10 seasons, but All-American center Chase Beeler is gone along with two other senior starters who made Luck one of the best-protected men in America. Two of the newcomers, senior right tackle Tyler Mabry and junior Sam Schwartzstein, have been around the block a bit as backups; redshirt freshman Dillon Bonnell and sophomores Kevin Danser and Khalil Wilkes have not.

If the line can live up to past form, Stanford has the chance to not only have a stellar passing game, but also another 1,000-yard rushing year. Stepfan Taylor, who rushed for 1,137 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2010, returns and the Cardinal have the depth to go four-deep in the backfield. Overall, 90 percent of their total rushing yards return.

Defensive renaissance. Across the board, Stanford's defense pulled a major 180 from 2009 to 2010. In '09, the Cardinal ranked 90th in total defense and 69th in scoring; last year, those numbers improved to 21st and 10th, respectively. This year could see even more improvement with six starters returning and several others with experience.{YSP:MORE}

The only hiccup might be the transition to a new defensive coordinator, Derek Mason, but like new head coach David Shaw, Mason was on the staff last year and isn't interested in any radical changes. The secondary is the strength, with returning safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas and cornerback Johnson Bademosi. Still, losing corner Richard Sherman, who had 50 tackles and four interceptions as a senior, will be a big loss.

Location, location, location. Stanford had just one loss last season, a 52-31 shootout at Oregon that the Cardinal led 21-3 in the first quarter. This time around, conference media and most of the preseason magazines put the Cardinal in the same boat when they picked them behind Oregon in the North Division.

While both teams return their Heisman heroes on offense, the deciding factor in the Pac-12 race — and possibly, like last year, in the national title picture — could be the fact that this year's showdown with the Ducks is Stanford Stadium, where the Cardinal have won seven in a row and 16 of 18 over the last three years. That streak includes a 51-42 pounding over Oregon on its last trip to Palo Alto in 2009, a repeat of which could send Stanford on to its first conference title in more than a decade.

What to Read Next