In losing Derek Mason to the head-coaching position at Vanderbilt, Stanford is losing arguably the best defensive coordinator in the Pac-12. The repeated success of Cardinal defenses certainly points to Mason being the cream of the crop.
Replacing a coordinator who oversaw a top-10 ranked scoring defense and was a catalyst of two conference championships is the greatest challenge David Shaw has faced in his tenure as Stanford's head coach.
The Cardinal's place atop the Pac-12 and standing as a national championship contender rests largely with Shaw's next move.
Dave Kotulski spent each of the last two seasons working with Stanford's elite inside linebackers, including All-Pac-12 Conference selection and team leader Shayne Skov. Thanks in part to his unit's efforts, the Cardinal ranked No. 5 against the run in 2012 and No. 3 in 2013.
Kotulski has defensive coordinator experience—a lot of it. His previous six coaching stints were all as as a defensive coordinator, spanning more than two decades.
His most recent run was at Lehigh. Kotulski's GoStanford.com bio touts that his 2009 Lehigh defense led the Football Championship Subdivision in sacks with 39.
Stanford's swarming defense led the nation in sacks in each of the last two seasons, and central to that was Lance Anderson's outside linebackers unit.
With All-American Trent Murphy racking up a national best 15 sacks, the Cardinal finished 2013 with 44 quarterback takedowns as a team.
Anderson has been part of the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw coaching tree since the duo was at the University of San Diego, and he has been key to Stanford's emergence from Pac-12 cellar dweller to two-time conference champion.
By working within the program so long, Anderson is acutely aware of the demands on a Stanford student-athlete. He's worked as a recruiting coordinator and admissions liaison. Shaw touted Anderson's contributions to CBSSports.com reporter Bruce Feldman:
Lance has been vital to us...A lot of other coaches get notoriety for getting four- and five-star guys, but Lance realized we're not gonna change admissions here...Those first few years we were looking to find guys, but we found them too late, and by then their courses were set, so it was too late. We lost out on some guys. Lance was the first one to realize and put that road map together.
Few defenses allowed fewer points in 2013 than Stanford's, but among them was the defense that Utah State's Todd Orlando coordinated.
The Aggies surrendered just 17.1 points per game, seventh fewest in the Football Bowl Subdivision. In three of their final four games of the 2013 season, the Utah State faced the No. 22 (Colorado State), No. 6 (Fresno State) and No. 11 (Northern Illinois) scoring offenses.
Utah State gave up a total of 38 points in those games.
Orlando's defense is founded on an aggressive front seven, which in 2013 featured the outstanding linebacker corps of Jake Doughty and Nick and Zach Vigil.
He previously held the same position at Florida International, helping the Golden Panthers to just their second bowl game in program history in 2011. He also was defensive coordinator at Connecticut under current Maryland head coach Randy Edsall.
USC's defensive transformation in just one season under Clancy Pendergast's guidance was among the more prominent storylines of the 2013 Pac-12 season. Stanford was among the opponents that experienced the Trojans' defensive prowess firsthand, managing just 17 points in a November loss.
The Trojans ranked No. 16 nationally in scoring defense via an overwhelming approach at the line of scrimmage, a hallmark of Pendergast's 52 scheme.
The physical style, reliant on an aggressive pursuit from the outside linebackers, bears certain similarities to Stanford's scheme under Mason.
Pendergast is no stranger to the Bay Area, having spent three seasons at Cal prior to his run at USC.
Outlets, including The San Jose Mercury News, report that former Texas defensive coordinator Greg Robinson interviewed with Stanford rival Cal. Snatching the tenured coaching veteran away from the Golden Bears would certainly add a notch in the Cardinal's belt.
Robinson struggled with the 3-3-5 stack scheme when he was defensive coordinator at Michigan in 2010 under current Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez. However, rejoining Mack Brown at Texas in 2013, Robinson scored a measure of redemption by guiding a Longhorns defense to respectability after the unit had twice given up 40-plus points at the beginning of the season under then-defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
One potential red flag, however, is Texas' performance in December's Alamo Bowl. The Longhorns struggled to contain Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who rushed for a season-high 133 yards in the Ducks' 30-7 rout.