Stanford Football: Power Ranking the Cardinal's Top 2012 Challenges

Peter ChenContributor IIIJune 15, 2012

Stanford Football: Power Ranking the Cardinal's Top 2012 Challenges

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    Stanford football’s back to back BCS bowls, three straight Heisman finalists and recent 5-star recruiting hauls have returned the program to national prominence.

    If a third straight top 10 ranking in 2012 is in the cards (no pun intended, no really, the team’s nickname isn’t even plural), Coach David Shaw and his team will have several major challenges to overcome. 

    Check them out.

5. Replace That Luck Guy

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    Three times in the past forty years, Stanford has been blessed with a transformative talent at QB. There was Jim Plunkett, then John Elway and most recently, Andrew Luck.

    Spring practice on The Farm was inconclusive on Luck’s successor.

    There is no shortage of candidates among Brett Nottingham, Josh Nunes, Evan Crower and Kevin Hogan. All showed some flashes of great play in the spring. 

    Someone must seize the signal-caller job in training camp and play at least adequately in the team’s first two winnable home games on August 31 and September 7, against San Jose State and Duke. 

    Because after those two games comes the next big challenge.

4. USC on September 15

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    While USC has not been overly fast out of the gate during the Kiffin-Barkley era, the Trojans will be the presumptive preseason favorite for national champion honors. Troy, losers of four of their past five games against Stanford, visits The Farm in Week 3 of the season. 

    Despite being saddled with NCAA scholarship restrictions, USC has maintained quite a stellar starting 22. Barkley will be heavily touted for the Heisman, and Curtis McNeal, who exploded onto the national scene in the thrilling 2011 Stanford-USC game, returns to lead the running attack. 

    Oh, and there’s a couple decent WRs on SC—Robert Woods and Marquise Lee, the scariest WR duo in America. 

    That brings us to the next challenge for Stanford.

3. DBs

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    The Cardinal’s secondary, which was the weakest part of the 2011 defense, graduated three starters (Delano Howell, Michael Thomas, Johnson Bademosi) and a key backup (Corey Gatewood) from the Fiesta Bowl team. 

    There are several experienced returning players at CB and S, but none consistently distinguished themselves during spring practice. 

    Coach Shaw and his staff must identify the front line DBs in August and hope they withstand a formidable gauntlet of Pac-12 passing attacks, beginning with Barkley and USC and continuing with the likes of UW, Cal and Oregon.

    As William Shakespeare might have said, "DB or not DB—that will be the question."

2. On the Road Again

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    The UW, Cal and Oregon games will all be roadies. That’s another challenge for Stanford. 

    The 2011 schedule was made to order, with seven home games, including the final three in November against Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame. 

    2012 is the opposite, with a front-loaded home schedule featuring half of the Cardinal’s six home games in August and early September—before the undergraduates even return from summer vacation. 

    After that, Stanford plays six of its last nine games on the road, and has only one home game in November.

1. Karma

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    2009-11 was—by most metrics—the greatest three-year period in Stanford football history.

    Even with those missed FGs in the Fiesta Bowl.

    Sustaining that level of play will be difficult enough without Luck, his three teammates who joined him among the top 42 NFL draft picks and half a dozen other stars who have departed for NFL teams. 

    Adding to that challenge is the mental hurdle of facing opponents who no longer view Stanford as an underdog, upstart or flash in the pan led by the uniquely talented Luck. 

    The Cardinal, with a Heisman candidate RB in Stepfan Taylor, swift WRs, a strong defensive front and a spectacular group of incoming freshmen, are now the hunted. How they respond to the target on their collective backs will help determine whether 2012 will end with another BCS bowl.