The 2012 season will tell us two things about Stanford football:
1. Were the past two seasons, with Cardinal in two BCS bowls, reflective of Stanford's status as a regular member of the college football elite, or were they an aberration produced by the individual brilliance of QB Andrew Luck?
2. Was David Shaw's 11-2 record and Fiesta Bowl berth in his first season as a head coach indicative of his coaching talent, or was he the beneficiary of outstanding talent and a system installed by Jim Harbaugh?
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With no Luck around and the momentum provided by Harbaugh likely to begin to fade, Stanford faces a pivotal season. The Cardinal still have lots of talent, particularly at running back, tight end, linebacker and the offensive line, which is why it was picked to finish second in the Pac-12 North by the media and is expected to be ranked in the preseason Top 25.
But the Cardinal lost four players taken among the first 42 picks of this year's NFL Draft -- Luck, tight end Coby Fleener and offensive linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin. Luck was the first overall pick and the Heisman runner-up the past two seasons. He did so much for the Cardinal offense that it's impossible to minimize the significance of his departure.
The Cardinal do not have an apparent replacement for Luck, as Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes enter preseason camp virtually even in the competition for the starting quarterback job.
Shaw has told the two not to try to be Andrew Luck.
"They can't do it," Shaw said. "It's not possible."
Although the presence of tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo will provide proven targets, the Cardinal have concerns at wide receiver, which might make the quarterback's job tougher.
But the Cardinal offense does have RB Stepfan Taylor, probably the best all-around back in the conference.
"I think we have the most underrated running back in the country," Shaw said.
The offensive line, anchored by David Yankey should be solid, and even when Luck was the quarterback, the offense was based on a physical running game. This season, the running game will be emphasized even more.
The defense was the most improved part of the team the past two seasons, primarily because of the improved pass rush. Stanford's front seven is as good as any in the conference, and its linebacker corps is among the best in the country. ILB Shayne Skov (assuming he's healthy), OLB Chase Thomas and OLB Trent Murphy were all named to the Bronco Nagurski Award watch list, and Jarek Lancaster and AJ Tarpley are able linebackers as well.
But there are issues in the defensive backfield, which was a weakness last season and may be a bigger problem this year. With the first two conference games being against Southern California (and QB Matt Barkley) and Washington (and QB Keith Price), the Cardinal will find out quickly whether they can hold down opposing passing attacks sufficiently now that the offense is not going to score 40 points every game.
HEAD COACH: David Shaw, second year at Stanford, 11-2 record at Stanford and as a head coach.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: TB Stepfan Taylor -- Really the most important player is either Nottingham or Nunes -- whoever wins the starting quarterback spot -- but assuming neither can come close to matching what Luck did last season, the Cardinal must get a big season from the ground game in general and Taylor in particular. Taylor was a second-team all-conference pick last season and both first-team picks are gone, so Taylor may be the best running back in the conference. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons, and he is also a good receiver and pass-blocker. He's as complete a running back as there is.
BREAKOUT STAR: TE Levin Toilolo -- Although Fleener is gone after being a second-round pick of the Colts, tight end might still be the most talented position on the team with Toilolo and Ertz returning. If Toilolo is not the breakout star, it will be Ertz as they will be getting a greater portion of the passes with Fleener gone and the Cardinal still hurting at wide receiver. Toilolo and Ertz combined for 52 receptions and 10 touchdowns last season, but Toilolo may be the better all-around player. Both have the size -- Ertz is 6-feet-6 and Toilolo is 6-8 -- and speed to be major threats. Toilolo is now nearly two years removed from the torn ACL he suffered as a freshman, and he may be ready for stardom.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: RB Barry Sanders -- The departure of Tyler Gaffney to pro baseball opens up a spot for a running back. Although Taylor and Anthony Wilkerson figure to be the top two tailbacks, Stanford likes to use three or four running backs in a game. That third back might be Ricky Seale, but Sanders might get a chance to show his moves, especially late in the season. He rushed for more than 5,000 yards at Heritage High School in Oklahoma City, and his father, Barry Sanders, won the Heisman Trophy in 1988, so he will get plenty of media attention.
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KEYS TO SUCCESS: Obviously Stanford's success depends on the play of the QB -- whether it's Nottingham or Nunes. But if you assume that neither will be able to direct the offense as well as Luck did, the key will be the running game and the defense, both of which have been good the past two seasons but need to be even better this fall. The Cardinal offense won't be able to march up and down the field as it has in past seasons, so the defense must hold down the score, and, at the very least, force teams to use a lot of plays to manufacture points. Having a reliable running game is imperative, because the Cardinal need to use the clock, wear down defenses and avoid relying on a passing game. The Cardinal certainly have the ingredients -- good offensive line, good running backs -- but it remains to be seen whether Stanford can generate a consistent ground game when defenses load up against the run. RBs Taylor, Wilkerson and promising sophomore Seale need to have big seasons. The Cardinal still have two outstanding tight ends and they need to produce big plays regularly.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Quarterback is the biggest concern, followed closely by wide receiver. It adds up to potential problems in the passing game. The top three receivers from last year are gone, and although Ty Montgomery figures to be one starting wide receiver and has shown potential, it's unclear who the other wideout will be. The Cardinal lost two offensive linemen taken early in the NFL Draft -- DeCastro and Martin -- and although the Cardinal have depth on the offensive line, it's difficult to replace dominant linemen like them. On defense, the biggest concern is the two safety spots, where the Cardinal lost all-conference selection Delano Howell and Michael Thomas. Starting corner Johnson Bademosi is also gone. The Cardinal defense struggled against the pass last season -- as Justin Blackmon demonstrated in the Fiesta Bowl while catching nine passes for 186 yards and three scores in Oklahoma State's 41-38 overtime victory -- and losing three of four starting defensive backs won't help matters. The confidence of K Jordan Williamson may be an issue. He was outstanding early last season before he injured his groin, but was less reliable when he returned from the injury. He missed a 35-year field goal on the final play of the fourth quarter that would have won the Fiesta Bowl, then missed a 43-yearder in overtime. Those are tough to forget.
-- LB Shayne Skov is recovering from a serious knee injury sustained in the third game of last season when he tore his ACL. He also has been suspended for the first game of the 2012 season by Shaw for being arrested for DUI last January. As of July 26, Skov has been cleared for all conditioning work but is not ready to play in a game yet. Shaw hopes and expects Skov to be ready to go 100 percent for the second game of the season against Duke. Skov is not only one of the team's best players, but he provides a tough presence on the field Stanford needs.
-- Gaffney chose to sign a pro baseball contract rather than return for another season of football. Gaffney did not have a great season in baseball and was not drafted until the 24th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He would have been the No. 2 running back in 2012 behind Taylor, and was expected to get quite a few carries, especially with the Cardinal relying more heavily on the running game this season. He was particularly effective in the wildcat formation in 2011. His presence in the offense will be missed, although Stanford is fairly deep at tailback.
-- WR Chris Owusu signed a free-agent contract with the 49ers despite sustaining three concussions in a span of 13 months, including two last season that ended his season and was expected to end his football career.
-- LB Chase Thomas was one of 50 players overall and one of 15 defensive players to be named to the Walter Camp Player of the Year watch list.
-- Taylor was named to the watch list for the Doak Walker Award that goes to the nation's top running back.