The Stanford Cardinal are coming off a third consecutive BCS bowl game appearance and their first conference title since 1999.
Coach David Shaw has proven to be the perfect successor to Jim Harbaugh. Plus, Stanford didn't miss a step last season even though Andrew Luck was gone.
As for the 2013 campaign, Shaw brings in the No. 57 (Scout.com) and No. 63 (Rivals.com) ranked recruiting class. Even though that's not on par with conference foes Oregon, USC and UCLA, don't expect Stanford to just slide back this season.
To that end, let's check out how Shaw's crew can repeat as Pac-12 champs.
Note: Full view of Stanford's depth chart courtesy of GoStanford.com.
Rely on a dynamic ground game
With Stepfan Taylor out of the equation, Stanford has to keep its rushing attack moving.
Anthony Wilkerson must take the reins and simply attack the line of scrimmage. After averaging 4.5 yards per rush in 2012, Wilkerson briefly brought back the potential displayed in 2010. The Cardinal will need him to consistently produce as the season unfolds.
Elsewhere, Tyler Gaffney is back.
According to Kyle Kensing of SaturdayBlitz.com via Sports Illustrated, Gaffney was playing minor league baseball in 2012. Nevertheless, the guy accounted for 704 rushing yards and 11 scores between 2010 and 2011.
Feeding a sound mixture of Wilkerson and Gaffney allows the Cardinal to run a variety of plays geared toward controlling the trenches.
Defense...and more defense
There are three guys coach Shaw and Co. can always count on heading into the 2013 campaign.
First is linebacker Shayne Skov.
He logged 146 tackles through his first two college seasons, but then missed most of 2011 due to injury. Fortunately Skov returned nicely in 2012, recording 81 tackles, and Kevin Gemmell of ESPN.com believes he is Stanford's most important player:
There is no debate, however, about what Skov means to this team. Before his season-ending knee injury at Arizona in 2011, he was slotted as a potential first-round draft pick. He returned in 2012 and was very good. But not quite back to where he was pre-injury.
He is now. And that bodes very well for one of the top defensive units in the country.
The next guy that must keep producing is Ben Gardner.
Between 2011 and 2012 Gardner racked up 24.5 tackles for loss, 12 of which were sacks, and defended seven passes. His knack for disrupting the backfield is a great complement to Skov in the front seven.
Finally, there is safety Ed Reynolds, whose ability to change the field position on turnovers creates a huge competitive advantage.
Reynolds picked off six passes last season and returned them for 301 yards and three touchdowns. This ability to swing the momentum and instantly change any game gives Stanford a chance regardless of the second-half situation.
Winning the turnover battle is one primary aspect that allowed Stanford to take the Pac-12 title.
Finishing the year at plus-nine, the Cardinal ranked No. 26 in turnover margin. Quarterback Kevin Hogan only tossed three picks the six games where he contributed the most, not to mention putting up a 71.7 completion percentage.
Provided Hogan continues to develop and set up the play-action, Stanford gains a favorable edge by establishing balance.
The pass rush will get pressure to force fumbles, and the coverage will make plays on the ball for interceptions. As a result, Hogan and Co. must capitalize accordingly or simply reduce turnovers to play the field-position game.
Regardless, sticking to a physical philosophy on each side of the line of scrimmage will propel Stanford ahead of its conference competition.
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