Pac-12 preview: Stanford

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- The perennial doubts about Stanford seem to have disappeared.
The Cardinal responded to suggestions that its surprising 8-5 campaign in 2009 was a fluke by going 12-1 in 2010.
When the Cardinal was downgraded after Jim Harbaugh left following the 2010 season, the Cardinal went 12-2 in David Shaw's first season in 2011.
Doubters arose again in 2012 after the departure of quarterback Andrew Luck, and the Cardinal responded last year by going 12-2 and winning the Rose Bowl for the first time in 40 years.
Now, with Shaw in his third season, Kevin Hogan entrenched as the quarterback and a defense that should be among the best in the nation, Stanford looks like a national championship contender.
Picked by the media to finish second in the Pac-12 North behind Oregon, the Cardinal is ranked No. 4 in the country in both polls.
"The foundation of our team is the team," Shaw said at Pac-12 media day. "It's never been about one player or one coach -- it's about how we play together. We've gotten attention about possibly being in the national championship chase this season. ... We anticipate being in the hunt for the foreseeable future."
The potential problems are smaller, and the questions are few this year, although Stanford does have some issues.
The Cardinal's 20-14 Rose Bowl victory over a Wisconsin team that went just 4-4 in the Big Ten did not impress the nation.
And while Stanford's talented offensive line should help the Cardinal maintain its identity as a physical offense, there are some obvious holes.
The loss of Stepfan Taylor, the school's all-time leading rusher, and two talented tight ends, Zach Ertz and Levin Toilolo, leave the Cardinal offense again looking for the big-play threat it has lacked in recent years. And some still wonder whether the versatile Hogan is as good as he showed in his five starts under center as a redshirt freshman.
There are few doubts about the Cardinal defense, which is awash in star players. Defensive end Ben Gardner, inside linebacker Shayne Skov, outside linebacker Trent Murphy and free safety Ed Reynolds are among the standouts that return from a unit that led the nation in sacks and was fifth in rushing defense.
The weakest spot on defense is at cornerback, and the emergence of Alex Carter late last season as a freshman has helped strengthen that position.
If Hogan approaches the level of play he showed last season, Stanford might well be playing in one of the five BCS games for the fourth straight year. And it could be the big one.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Stanford's schedule is back-loaded with games against UCLA, Oregon, Notre Dame and USC in the second half of the season. But two of its four September games will be critical. Its Sept. 7 opener at home against San Jose State is tougher than it might look. The Spartans won 10 games last year and return standout QB David Fales, who gave the Cardinal fits before Stanford eked out a 20-17 victory last season. Stanford should not have problems in road games against Army on Sept. 14 or Washington State on Sept. 28. But in between, the Cardinal hosts Arizona State on Sept. 21. The Sun Devils didn't play Stanford last year, but they are considered a strong contender in the Pac-12 South, and ASU QB Taylor Kelly is the kind of versatile quarterback who has given Stanford's defense problems.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Stanford's defense has stars throughout the lineup and should be one of the best units in the country. The Cardinal will stay in games because of its defense alone. If Stanford can find a way to score enough points, it could be a national championship contender. Scoring points depends on several things. First of all, at quarterback, Hogan must prove his performance over the second half of last year was not a fluke. In fact, he must improve his efficiency because opponents will be better prepared to face him this season. With a year's experience under his belt and Stanford coaches having an entire offseason to find ways to utilize his skills, Hogan should be better. Second, an offensive line that appears to be the strength of the offense must be the driving force in maintaining Stanford's identity as a physical running team.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The Cardinal still lacks big-play threats at wide receiver and must replace talented players at tight end and running back. The Cardinal has lacked game-breakers at wide receiver the past several years, and that has limited its ability to score in a hurry. There is no apparent remedy. Losing two standout tight ends -- Ertz and Toilolo -- to the NFL adds to the problem because Stanford relied heavily on that position with its talent shortage at wide receiver. Last year, Ertz and Toilolo combined for 103 catches and 10 of the team's 19 receiving touchdowns. The loss of Taylor, Stanford's career rushing leader, will be difficult to replace. He provided a physical identity to the offense and was an outstanding receiver and blocker as well. Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson will be asked to fill that sizable void.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.

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