2011 record: 11-2 overall, 8-1 in Pac-12 (1st-tie North)
2011 postseason: Fiesta Bowl (41-38 OT loss to Oklahoma State)
2011 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 7/No. 7
Head coach: David Shaw (11-2 overall in one season at Stanford)
Offensive coordinator: Pep Hamilton (third season at Stanford, second as OC)
2011 offensive rankings: 18th rushing offense (210.6 ypg); 22nd passing offense (278.7 ypg); 8th total offense (489.3 ypg); 7th scoring offense (43.1 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: six
Defensive coordinator: Derek Mason (third season at Stanford, second as DC)
2011 defensive rankings: 3rd rushing defense (84.4 ypg); 95th passing defense (253.2 ypg); 26th total defense (337.6 ypg); 30th scoring defense (21.9 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: seven
Location: Stanford, Calif.
Stadium: Stanford Stadium (50,000; grass)
Last league title: 1999
2011 statistics: [view]
Despite the one huge loss, there are several positives for the Cardinal heading into the post-Andrew Luck era. 1,000-yard rusher Stepfan Taylor (no relation) came back for his senior season. Almost the entire front seven from the top statistical defense in the Pac-12 returns as well. Additionally, Jim Harbaugh built a program with an eye toward sustained and long-term success, and his successor, David Shaw, has continued the philosophy ingrained by his predecessor. Such a tack will help the Cardinal weather the annual personnel attrition, although some departures most certainly hurt more than others.
Speaking of which, how do you replace a player like Luck who has meant everything to the program the past three seasons? Not easily, obviously. Making the task of replacing the Heisman runner-up and consensus All-American all the more difficult is also being forced to adjust to the loss of two All-American offensive linemen. Add in being forced to travel to Pac-12 North rival and preseason Top 5 Oregon, and 2012 has the makings of a rebuilding season — at best — for the Cardinal.
Of course, this all goes back to Luck yet again. Charged with the unenviable task of replacing one of the greatest quarterbacks in the school’s history will be either sophomore Brett Nottingham (pictured, No. 7) or junior Josh Nunes (No. 6). The former is the perceived front-runner heading into camp, although either one could emerge with the job. Thanks to what should once again be a very solid run game and above-average defense, neither should have to shoulder the load carried by Luck, although some resemblance to the former QB certainly wouldn’t hurt the Cardinal’s chances in the Pac-12.
Make-or-break game: vs. USC, Sept. 15
While this may not be a make-or-break game when it comes to the Pac-12 North, it will prove to be a very good gauge for where the inexperienced quarterbacks stand against the best the conference as a whole has to offer. Last season with Luck at the helm, it took the Cardinal three overtimes to finally put away the Trojans in Los Angeles. While sans Luck this season, the Cardinal does actually catch a break on at least one front as they will host the Trojans in mid-September.
Heisman hopeful: running back Stepfan Taylor
Given the situation at quarterback, especially early on in the season, Taylor should expect to both literally and figuratively carry an even greater percentage of the Cardinal’s offensive burden this year. With 242 attempts last season, Taylor rushed for 1,330 yards and touchdowns while adding 25 catches and two touchdowns in the passing game. Expect those numbers, particularly the amount, to increase exponentially as a new signal-caller is eased into his role as a first-time starter.