2010 record: 12-1, 8-1 (2nd Pac-10)
2010 bowl: 40-12 win over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl
2010 final AP/coaches’ ranking: 4th/4th
Coach: David Shaw, first year
Offensive coordinator: Pep Hamilton, first year
2010 offensive rankings: ninth, scoring offense (40.3 ppg); 14th, total offense (472.5 ypg); 17th, rushing offense (213.8 ypg); 29th, passing offense (258.7 ypg)
Defensive coordinator: Derek Mason, first year; Jason Tarver, first year
2010 defensive rankings: 10th, scoring defense (17.4 ppg); 21st, total defense (322.9 ypg); 19th, rushing defense (120.9 ypg); 35th, passing defense (202 ypg)
Returning offensive starters: 5
Returning defensive starters: 6
Location: Stanford, Calif.
Stadium: Stanford Stadium (grass; 50,000)
Last league title: 1999
2011 schedule: [view]
2011 roster: [view]
2010 statistics: [view]
Snapshot: Before we get started, and to answer your question, yes, I’m fully aware of the crap I’ll take for placing the Cardinal this high in a preseason ranking. Yes, this is likely the biggest reach in my Top 25 — well, until you get to No. 2, anyway — if for nothing more than the departure for the NFL of Jim Harbaugh, the head coach responsible for scraping the Cardinal football program off the scrap heap and transforming it into a West Coast power. The fact that Harbaugh’s longtime offensive coordinator, David Shaw, replaced his former boss lends some familiarity and continuity to a situation that could’ve otherwise led to quite a bit (more) uncertainty and upheaval.
And then there’s Andrew Luck. The Heisman runner-up surprised, for some reason, many observers by eschewing a shot at the NFL draft and the millions of dollars he stood to make by returning to the Palo Alto school for one more season of college football. Simply put, if the quarterback had decided to leave early, the Cardinal would’ve been nothing more than a middle-of-the-road team in its own conference. With him, they have a shot at, once again, being a player on the national stage.
While the schedule makers did the Cardinal few favors with road games at USC, Oregon State and Arizona, they did draw a home game for what’s expected to be their toughest test of the season — Oregon in the middle of November. Additionally, they’ll get Notre Dame at home at the end of the season as well.
On the field, a top-10 defense returns somewhat intact, losing just five starters. Stepfan Taylor, last year’s leading rusher, is one of five offensive starters who will return in 2011. Luck will, though, have to adjust to at least a couple of new receiving target as their top two pass-catchers from a year ago have departed, as did three members of the starting offensive line.
Given all that’s gone on with attrition on both the coaching staff and the roster, it’s by no means guaranteed that they’ll repeat — or trump — last year’s 12-win season; in fact, it might be more likely that they stumble to three or four losses than duplicate that magical last season under Harbaugh. Still, the presence of Luck, and the continuity brought about by Shaw’s promotion, has me feeling that the Cardinal may have a lot more magic left in them.
Make-or-break game: Nov. 12 vs. Oregon
There are no-brainers, and then there’s this game, a notch above a no-brainer. For both teams, if things play out the way it’s thought they will, this will be the game of the year. Of course, thanks to the addition of Utah — which Stanford will not play — and Colorado, and the fact that the Cardinal and the Ducks were placed in the same division, this won’t technically be for the conference title. In reality, though, it will as those two schools are clearly the class of the Pac-12 this season. And, unlike last year, the Cardinal gets the luxury of hosting the Ducks. Of course, if Stanford coughs up another big first-quarter lead like it did last year it won’t matter where the game’s played, but the table could be set for the Cardinal to both exact a measure of revenge and put themselves in the position for an appearance in the conference’s first-ever title game.
Heisman hopeful: Luck
Luck finished a distant second to Cam Newton in the voting last year but, thanks to the Auburn quarterback’s early leap to the NFL, the redshirt junior enters this season as the prohibitive favorite to finish one spot better in the 2011 race. Luck threw for over 3,300 yards and 32 touchdowns last season. Again, losing his top two receivers from a year ago may hurt in the short-term, but Luck’s the type of player, the type of QB who will make work whatever he has at his disposal.
Postseason projection: Rose Bowl