As spring practices commence around the nation, I’ll be looking at each of Notre Dame’s 12 opponents in the 2013 season and addressing some key questions and identifying potential breakout players.
This installment features the Stanford Cardinal, whose 35 wins over the past three seasons trail only Oregon. David Shaw's team will open the season ranked in the top 10 as it looks to defend its Pac-12 title. Stanford opens spring practice on February 25, with its spring game coming on April 13.
Let's take an early look at the 2013 Cardinal.
Date: Nov. 30
Site: Stanford Stadium (Palo Alto, Calif.)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 20, Stanford 13 (OT) (2012)
Last Meeting in Palo Alto: Stanford 28, Notre Dame 14 (2011)
Current Win Streak: Notre Dame, one game
Record: 12-2 (8-1, Pac-12)
Bowl: Rose (defeated Wisconsin, 20-14)
Leading Passer: Josh Nunes (Jr.)—124-for-205, 1,643 yards, 10 TDs, 7 INTs
Leading Rusher: Stepfan Taylor (Sr.)—322 caries, 1,530 yards, 13 TDs
Leading Receiver: Zach Ertz (Jr.)—69 receptions, 898 yards, six TDs
With the meeting between the Cardinal and Irish in South Bend last season in its traditional early October date, Notre Dame did not have to face Kevin Hogan.
The redshirt freshman led Stanford to six straight wins upon taking over the starting role for Josh Nunes in early November. Hogan is a dual-threat quarterback who should be able to withstand what has become one of the most physical rivalries in college football.
The Cardinal still run a pro-style offense, but Hogan can extend plays and escape pressure much better than the slow-footed Nunes did in the team's overtime loss at Notre Dame Stadium last season.
Despite a bit of an unorthodox throwing motion, Hogan protects the football well, throwing just one interception over the team's final four games.
The Stepfan Taylor era is over, but Stanford received some good news earlier this month when Tyler Gaffney announced he would return to school after missing 2012 while pursuing a baseball career. Gaffney ran for 449 yards and seven touchdowns in 2011 as a backup to Taylor.
Gaffney and rising senior Anthony Wilkerson are expected to share carries this fall. Wilkerson matched Gaffney's 2011 touchdown total last season with seven scores of his own.
Stanford will again be a power football team. There's no need to mess with success. Taylor's loss is significant, but the Cardinal still have two talented options in the backfield, along with a mobile quarterback.
If there's been one criticism of Stanford over the past few seasons, it's been its lack of a downfield passing game. Even with Andrew Luck at quarterback, most of the Cardinal's big plays came from their elite group of tight ends.
Coby Fleener departed after 2011, and now Stanford must replace both of its top two tight ends—leading receiver Zach Ertz and 6'9" Levine Toilolo. Ty Montgomery, who missed the Notre Dame game last season, is the leading returning receiver, but had just 213 receiving yards in 11 games. Rising sophomore Kelsey Young is the team's fastest receiver after moving from running back.
Notre Dame held the Cardinal to just 125 yards through the air last season on a rainy afternoon in South Bend, benefiting from a strong front seven that was able to contain the Stanford running game. Bob Diaco's conservative defense matches up well with what Stanford likes to do offensively.
You can credit Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck for the resurgence of Stanford, but offensive line play has to be mentioned in the same sentence. The Cardinal have vaulted to the top of a conference known more for speed and skill by mauling their opponents at the line of scrimmage.
Notre Dame won the line-of-scrimmage battle last season with an epic overtime goal-line stand, but Stanford brings back four of its five starters up front, led by All-Pac-12 tackle David Yankey. Fourth-year junior Cameron Fleming returns to give the Cardinal an elite pair of bookends up front.
Center Sam Schwartzstein is the lone loss, but David Shaw and staff have recruited well, signing arguably the best offensive line class in the country in 2012. Offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren (formerly the offensive line coach) has spoken very highly of Graham Shuler, Schwarzstein's likely replacement in the middle.
Stanford's defensive front created "party in the backfield" as its slogan last season. Expect much of the same in 2013 with both defensive ends, Ben Gardner and Henry Anderson, returning. The duo combined for 13 sacks a year ago.
Terrence Stephens must be replaced at nose guard, but Stephens fell out of favor late in 2012, with sophomore David Parry filling in adequately. Parry returns to give the Cardinal one of the better defensive lines in the nation.
The key contributors behind the top three all return as well, but keep an eye on sophomore Aziz Shittu, a top recruit in the 2012 class. While still extremely raw, Shittu should be a factor in 2013 after a year of learning and developing.
Like Notre Dame, Stanford utilizes a 3-4 defense. Also like the Irish, the Cardinal will bring back three of their four 2012 starters.
Shayne Skov, the team's leading tackler, and Trent Murphy, who led the Cardinal in sacks, both return as fifth-year seniors. A.J. Tarpley is also back on the inside to complement Skov.
The lone loss is outside linebacker Chase Thomas. It's a big loss, however, as Thomas made 48 career starts for the Cardinal. Sophomore Noor Davis, one of the highest-rated linebackers in the 2012 class, could assume Thomas' role after redshirting in 2012.
It appeared as if Stanford would return its entire starting secondary, but cornerback Terrence Brown somewhat surprisingly chose to enter the NFL draft. Despite the loss of Brown, this should still be one of the best secondaries in the Pac-12.
Juniors Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards, who combined for nine interceptions last season, give the Cardinal the experienced pair of safeties that Notre Dame thought it had last season before Jamoris Slaughter's season-ending injury.
Former Notre Dame target Wayne Lyons could take over for Brown, with sophomore Alex Carter returning at the other cornerback position. Veteran Barry Browning gives the team three solid corners. The Irish will have their hands full once again on Nov. 30 against a unit that held Tommy Rees and Everett Golson to just a 57 percent completion rate in last season's meeting.
Jordan Williamson, the hero of the Cardinal's upset of Oregon, had a very productive 2012 season following a Fiesta Bowl the previous year in which he missed a potential game-winning field goal attempt in the final seconds. His two field goals provided the winning margin in Stanford's 20-14 win over Wisconsin the Rose Bowl.
While Williamson does return, Stanford does have to replace punter Daniel Zychlinski. Rising junior Ben Rhyne appears likely to step into Zychlinski's shoes after filling in for him in both of the team's games against UCLA late last season.
The kick-return game looks to again be a Ty Montgomery-Kelsey Young platoon, with both also candidates to replace Drew Terrell as the primary punt returner. Terrell was second in the Pac-12 last season in return average, aided by a touchdown return against Duke.
We keep waiting for Stanford to miss a beat, but the Cardinal have kept on winning despite losing Harbaugh and Luck during the past two offseasons. If they can overcome that, there's no reason to think Shaw's team will slip back without Taylor, Ertz and Thomas.
It's another Oregon-Stanford race in the Pac-12 North, with the Cardinal getting the Ducks at home on a Thursday night in November. Anything short of a second straight division title will be seen as a disappointment in Palo Alto.
Notre Dame catches a bit of a break, as it draws Stanford at the tail end of its four-game stretch of rivalry games against Oregon, USC, California and the Irish. Expect little to be different from last year's overtime thriller when the teams reunite in Stanford Stadium on Thanksgiving weekend. Well, except for the weather.