STANFORD, Calif. (AP) -- By David Shaw's standards, Stanford had another successful season.
The Cardinal won the Pac-12 for the second consecutive year, went to a BCS bowl for the fourth straight season and will likely send several players into the NFL again. While Stanford lost to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl, Shaw believes the best days are still ahead for his program - especially with a four-team playoff for the national title starting next season.
''You have to come out of the season saying, 'This was a successful season. It didn't end the way that we wanted it to. But as far as being one of the better teams in college football, you have to say that we were up there,''' Shaw said Thursday. ''Do we have high aspirations again for next year? Absolutely.''
The Cardinal will need to replace several top players - notably departing linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, defensive end Ben Gardner and running back Tyler Gaffney.
Shaw said that linebacker A.J. Tarpley and defensive end Henry Anderson will return for their final year of eligibility. He also said All-American left guard David Yankey, right tackle Cameron Fleming and free safety Ed Reynolds are still deciding whether to declare for the NFL draft.
Yankey is widely expected to leave and be one of the top interior linemen taken, while Fleming and Reynolds are projected middle-to-late round picks who ''could take it to the last day'' to decide, Shaw said. The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft is Jan. 15.
Shaw is looking forward to another date: Feb. 24 - the first day of spring practice.
Wide receiver and All-American kick returner Ty Montgomery, who injured his knee in the Rose Bowl, is expected to be ready but may be held out of the first portion of spring practice as a precaution, Shaw said. His injury did not require surgery.
Regardless of who's on the field, Stanford will carry the same high expectations the program had heading into this past season.
The Cardinal claimed the past two conference crowns, but for the fourth straight season they were one loss away from possibly playing for the BCS title. While Stanford has upended Oregon two straight years, close losses at Utah and Southern California kept the Cardinal out of the national championship mix.
After earning the highest ranking in The Associated Press' preseason poll in school history at No. 4, Stanford (11-3) finished at No. 11 following its 24-20 loss to Michigan State in the Granddaddy of Them All.
Count Shaw among those who feels the sting of a season ending in defeat. But he also takes the disappointment of losing the Rose Bowl as a sign of how far the program has come.
''I refuse to look at it as anything other than we are what we set out to be, which is one of the best teams in college football,'' Shaw said.
If the past few years have proved anything, it's that Stanford likely isn't going away anytime soon.
Quarterback Kevin Hogan will be entering his redshirt junior season, and Keller Chryst - one of the country's top recruits from right across the street at Palo Alto High School and the son of San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst - will be pushing for his job along with soon-to-be redshirt freshman Ryan Burns.
The offensive line should remain stellar. And while 1,700-yard rusher Gaffney is gone, Stanford has shown an ability to replace big-time running backs in recent seasons.
The biggest question on defense might be whether standout defensive coordinator Derek Mason, a rising star in the profession, leaves for a bigger job.
Unlike previous years, though, Shaw enters this one talking about more than just winning the Pac-12 title with his players.
The four-team playoff, the strength of the Pac-12 and the growing perception of the conference gives him hope the league's winner will earn one of the spots to play for something that has for so long seemed unreachable at Stanford: a national title.
''We have the most competitive conference in the nation. And if you win this conference, you'll get invited to that four-team playoff. That's just the way that it is,'' Shaw said. ''It's not just computers and random voters that may or may not see us play. There's a committee that can look and say, 'OK, we're going to take the teams that win the major conferences. And if there's a question, then we'll debate who that fourth team is and who's going to play who and what the actual seeding is, etc.''
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP