Those ready to discount two-time defending Pac-12 Conference champion Stanford's bid for a three-peat need to brush up on history.
There are plenty of reasons to doubt head coach David Shaw can lead the Cardinal to a third-straight league title, and possibly a berth in the first College Football Playoff:
- More than a dozen departing seniors.
- The early entry of offensive guard David Yankey and safety Ed Reynolds into the NFL draft.
- The 11 starting spots that need to be filled as a result of the departures, second most in the Pac-12.
- A daunting schedule that includes conference road trips to Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA and Washington.
It all looks cumbersome, but Shaw's been here before.
Let's rev up the DeLorean and take a trip back to 2012. Apple's fifth-generation iPhone was brand new, Breaking Bad was still in its original run and Stanford was replacing the No. 1 overall pick in that spring's NFL draft, quarterback Andrew Luck.
Luck was arguably the greatest quarterback in Stanford history—a lofty distinction, given Jim Plunkett and John Elway are among his predecessors. His departure was the most noticeable but certainly not the only void left in a Cardinal roster that finished the 2011 regular season 11-1 and reached the Fiesta Bowl—Stanford's second BCS game in as many years.
Stanford also lost offensive linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, as well as tight end Coby Fleener and wide receivers Chris Owusu and Griff Whalen.
And yet, even while losing cornerstones of teams that went a combined 23-3, the next Cardinal squad reached a milestone that eluded its predecessors when it won the Pac-12 Championship.
Stanford's path to its first league title since 1999 was not without bumps, particularly on offense. Starting quarterback Josh Nunes never quite found his rhythm after the loss of Whalen and Owusu from the receiving corps—prompting Shaw to replace him with first-year quarterback Kevin Hogan in the regular season's final month.
Hogan will enter 2014 with roughly a season-and-a-half of starting experience, and a much deeper wide receiver corps than he had in 2012. The coming season could be a breakout for Hogan, who Shaw said after December's Pac-12 Championship game was "not perfect," but "in big moments against ranked teams...show[ed] what he's capable of.
"Kevin's got ice water in his veins," Shaw added. "He's got a short memory like all quarterbacks and pitchers need to have."
Despite losing Yankey, the Cardinal offensive line should remain one of the Pac-12's best with Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy anchoring it.
That the offense is the more veteran side of the ball during this restructuring period is a victory for Shaw and his staff. The defensive turnover is substantial; linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov were two of the best at their position in all of college football, and the tremendous void they leave is only part of the challenge new defensive coordinator Lance Anderson faces in the front seven.
Indeed, Stanford may actually be in better shape when the 2014 kicks off than it was when it opened 2012.
The Cardinal's 2014 slate is quite similar to its 2012 schedule. They swap Arizona for Utah at home, and a road contest at Colorado with a visit to Arizona State. Otherwise, it's the same games: A home, conference opener against USC, road trips to Oregon and Washington that will shape the Pac-12 North race and a regular season finale at UCLA.
It's the toughest schedule in the Pac-12, but the Oregon and UCLA dates fall in November. By that time, the new Cardinal should look an awful lot like the Cardinal of seasons past, and you don't need a Master's degree in history to know what that means.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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