Despite the loss of a quarterback who was the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft and responsible for much of the Cardinal's success the past two seasons, Stanford enters its Aug. 31 season-opener against San Jose State ranked in the preseason top 25.
There is a lot of debate about how good the Cardinal will be this season. On one hand Stanford returns many of the components of both its strong defense and the running game that defined the team's personality the past two years. On the other hand they lost Andrew Luck, who occupied the most important position on the field and expertly handled the Cardinal's complicated offense, and replaced him with a quarterback (Josh Nunes) who has thrown two passes in his college career and none last season.
The Cardinal should get by San Jose State, partly because the game is at Stanford, partly because Stanford has better overall talent than its South Bay rival from the Western Athletic Conference, and partly because the Spartans are starting a new quarterback themselves (junior college transfer David Fales).
However, San Jose State should be better than it has been in recent seasons, and could pose enough of a challenge to begin to get a read on the Cardinal in general and Nunes in particular.
Even though sophomore Brett Nottingham, last year's backup, has a stronger arm, David Shaw chose Nunes because he is more consistent and more adept at handling the offense. In short, he's less likely make the crippling mistake.
The Cardinal will go as far as Nunes' talent allows them to go, and though he won't be asked to do nearly as much as Luck did, he has to show that he is a passing threat because opposing defenses are going to load up against the run.
Although the focus from the outside will be on Nunes, this will be introduction of TB Stepfan Taylor as the face of the offense. He has rushed for more than 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons, but having the passing threat of Luck beside him made that easier to accomplish.
The Cardinal still has concerns at the wide receiver spot and in the defensive secondary, which are the two most noticeable weaknesses on the team. Having vulnerability in the passing game on either side of the ball is not conducive to success in the Pac-12.
But the Cardinal figures to try to pound the ball and control time of possession, while minimizing the opponent's success on the ground. The Cardinal may have the best defensive front seven in the Pac-12, and their linebacking corpse ranks among the best in the country, even though ILB Shayne Skov is coming off a severe knee injury and will sit out the opener because he was arrested for DUI last winter.
Getting to a BCS game for a third consecutive season may be too much to ask in Shaw's second season as head coach, but the opener may begin to indicate whether the Cardinal is headed for steep drop-off. This season will give us a better indication of Shaw's coaching skills.
Notes: Two freshmen who are sons of former NFL stars could have an impact this season. WR Kodi Whitfield is the son of Bob Whitfield, a former Stanford star and NFL all-pro offensive tackle. Whitfield has been wowing coaches with his grasp of the offense, and he figures to get considerable playing time immediately at a position where the Cardinal needs help.
RB Barry Sanders is the son of Hall of Fame Lions running back Barry Sanders, and the younger Sanders has the breakaway skills that made his father famous. Because he is still learning the intricacies of the position and Stanford is deep at running back, he could be redshirted in 2012.
--The starting secondary will probably consist of Terrence Brown and Barry Browning at cornerback and Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards at safety. The safety spots are particularly important after the loss of two key veterans, Michael Thomas and Delano Howell.
--Stanford's incoming freshman class featured a number of highly touted offensive linemen, and freshmen Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy have been vying for starting spots, although Peat was slowed by injuries late in preseason camp.
--Stanford leads the all-time series with Week 1 opponent San Jose State 50-14-1 (last meeting, 2011, 57-3 Stanford).