2012 Pac-12 Team Preview and Breakdown: Stanford Cardinal

David HedlindAnalyst IIAugust 9, 2012

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 02:  Stepfan Taylor #33 of the Stanford Cardinal runs the ball against the Oklahoma State Cowboys during the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on January 2, 2012 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Over the past few years, I have learned not to underestimate Stanford and not to assume that who they lose will mean that the team will fall apart.  After 2009, they lost Toby Gerhart, who led the nation in rushing.  They got better.  Then they lost their head coach Jim Harbaugh and I thought they would slide; they did not.  Now they lose the No. 1 draft pick, quarterback Andrew Luck.  I expect them to slide again, but I’m not betting on it. 

After Jim Harbaugh left, the job was handed over to offensive coordinator David Shaw.  His first year as head coach was a success, but like I said, he had the first pick of the NFL draft at his disposal.  He named then wide receiver coach Pep Hamilton as his offensive coordinator.  Derek Mason is the defensive coordinator, but this will be his first go at it alone since there were co-coordinators previously. 

Andrew Luck has been considered one of the top quarterbacks in college football the past couple of seasons.  He led Stanford to one of their best runs in school history.  He took them to back-to-back BCS bowls.  And now he is gone.  Brett Nottingham will likely take Luck's place.  He had limited playing time last season but still had the most of the potential players. 

While there will be questions at quarterback to start the season, the running back position will not be under any such scrutiny.  Stepfan Taylor ran for over 1,000 yards each of the last two seasons and was a steady backup in 2009.  He will have a couple of capable backups of his own to spell him. 

Not only will Stanford be replacing their quarterback, but their top three receivers as well.  The combination of losing the top two wideouts and a tight end could be trouble for the passing game.  The players who are returning do have experience, but it fails in comparison to those they lost. 

The offensive line has to replace a couple of starters, but will have experienced players to fill in.  Also in the mix will be a handful of top offensive line recruits that Stanford brought in.  The collection they brought in was from the top offensive line group in the nation. 

Stanford’s run defense was the best in the conference last season, and I don’t see that changing this year.  They are only replacing one out of the front seven.  The one person they have to replace is three-year starter Matt Masifilo, but they do get back Ben Gardner and Terrence Stephens.  Both could make all Pac-12 teams this year. 

Behind the line is the best linebacking corps in the conference and maybe the country.  Jarek Lancaster led the team in tackles.  Chase Thomas led in tackles for loss and sacks.  Trent Murphy was right on the heels of Thomas in both of those categories.

Shayne Skov tore his ACL early in the season and missed the rest of it.  He led the team in tackles in 2010 so his loss was a big one.  I have not heard any kind of estimate as to where Skov feels his rehab is, but if he stays healthy, he could have a big year. 

While Stanford’s run defense was one of the best, the pass defense was not.  To make things worse, this is the area to lose the most starters.  Only corner Terrence Brown returns.  The good news is that the other guys vying for spots do have some starts under their belts and experience on the field.  This unit will need to come together quickly in the pass-happy Pac-12—especially with USC, Washington and Arizona on the early schedule. 

Kicker position returns two kickers with experience.  Jordan Williamson had some struggles, including some big misses in the Fiesta Bowl.  Backup Erik Whitaker was solid in his role.  The punter will be Daniel Zychlinski, who started in 2010 but not last year; he will be back in for 2012. 

Punt returns were handled by Drew Terrell and kicks by Ty Montgomery last season, and both were fairly productive.  Both are back and should do just as well.

Stanford has been the main team to challenge conference champion Oregon the last few seasons.  They have been just behind the Ducks in the standings.  A lot of people are curious as to whether they will slide back and if so, by how much.  They should still be the main contenders for the North division right behind Oregon. 

I would expect a nice bowl placement, but not the BCS.