Pac-12 football preview: Stanford faces a tough road
In some ways, 2013 was a strange year for Stanford. During the regular season they were 6-0 against Top-25 teams, and they were beaten twice by unranked teams.
One of those, of course, was Utah.
Stanford head coach David Shaw recently said that very little separates the top nine teams in the conference — and if that's true, Stanford has its work cut out.
Of those six games last year against ranked opponents, five came at home. This year they again face six ranked teams, and they'll travel for five.
Gone are defensive leaders Trent Murphy, Ed Reynolds and Shayne Skov. Tyler Gaffney, the source of 1,709 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns, is in New England. The Cardinal will also replace four of five starters along the offensive line.
When you add it all up, their No. 11 ranking seems a little generous.
And that has to be read, in part, as a tip of the hat to Shaw — widely regarded as one of the nation's best coaches and a leading candidate to land an NFL job, should he desire it.
"We've lost a lot of senior leadership, but that's what happens every year," he said at Pac-12 Media Days last month. "Every year you lose guys, and guys step up."
Shaw's defense still has a wealth of tried-and-tested senior leadership, including defensive end Henry Anderson, strong safety Jordan Richards and linebacker A.J. Tarpley.
And Stanford has a third-year quarterback in Kevin Hogan who, while no world-beater, has made few mistakes since inheriting the mantle from Indianapolis star Andrew Luck.
It may be tough to repeat 11-2. But while little may separate the Pac-12's top nine teams, there is no question what end of the order Stanford sits at.
2013 IN REVIEW » 11-3, 7-2 Pac-12
RETURNING STARTERS » 12 total (5 offense, 7 defense)
TOP RETURNING PLAYER » Ty Montgomery is a first-team All-American kick returner, a second-team All-Pac-12 wide receiver, and he rushed for 159 yards on just 13 carries. There's no doubting what he can do when healthy. He had right shoulder surgery during the off-season, however, and he's still awaiting his status for the opener against UC Davis.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK » The one guy coming back, Andrus Peat, is a 6-foot-7 monster who might be in consideration for a top-10 draft pick if he chooses to come out after his junior season. But the other four guys are all going to be new faces for a team that prides itself on trench warfare. Shaw said he's not sure how quickly they'll get, but told reporters at Pac-12 Media Days: "This is potentially our most talented offensive line we've ever had."
SCHEDULE OUTLOOK » The Cardinal open Pac-12 play with No. 15 USC and conclude with No. 7 UCLA. In-between they have No. 25 Washington, No. 17 Notre Dame, No. 19 Arizona State and No. 3 Oregon. Of their six ranked opponents, they play five — their final five — on the road.
— Matthew Piper