Rant Sports 100 in 100 College Football Previews: No. 20 Stanford Cardinal

How do you replace one of the best players in college football, especially when that player is your long-time starting quarterback?  A daunting task for any program, and one that the Stanford Cardinal will have to try to figure out in 2012.

For three seasons Andrew Luck led Stanford to winning seasons and consecutive bowl appearances for the first time since 1995, and brought them back to prominence in the national landscape.  So what does Stanford do in the post-Luck era?

The team was able to survive a complete coaching staff change in 2011, so I think they’ll be able to manage without Andrew Luck, but it won’t be easy.

Strengths:

Offensive line – The Cardinal gave Luck some of the best pass protection in the nation, allowing a total of only 33 sacks in his entire three seasons (11 in 13 games during 2011), and also opened huge running lanes for the Stanford backfield.  Coach David Shaw and his staff recruited very well again this season at the offensive line position, so there won’t be much of a drop off.  In fact, they may even be better than in 2011.

Running Game – Rising senior running back Stepfan Taylor rushed for 1330 yards last season, averaging 102 yards per game.  As one of those backs who gets stronger as the game wears on, and likes getting more carries at the end of the game, he’ll be a big piece of the Stanford offensive puzzle, and will probably be an early Heisman Trophy candidate.  They also have nearly an entire army of running backs and fullbacks – a good mixture of upper and lower classmen – to spell Taylor and provide a change of pace.  Probably one of the best running games in the Pac-12 this year.

Defense – Most people thought offense when they thought about Stanford last year, but the defense was quietly a very solid group and kept them in a number of games. Stanford finished fourth nationally in run defense and ranked second in the Pac-12 in scoring defense. They have a top linebacking corps, who will probably end up among the best in the nation by the end of they year, and with defensive end Ben Gardner to build around, they can bring some heat on opposing quarterbacks.

Weaknesses:

Passing game – Not only is Stanford having to replace Andrew Luck at quarterback, but their receiving corps is undergoing an overhaul as well.  Right now there isn’t a receiver who stands out as the big playmaker, and quarterback Brett Nottingham isn’t guaranteed a starting spot either.  Coaches will need to figure out as early as possible who will take the reigns both throwing and catching the ball.

Defensive Secondary – The Cardinal ranked 95th nationally against the pass and they lost three starters from the 2011 team, including first-team All-Pac-12 safety Delano Howell.  Having to face Matt Barkley and some of the other top flight quarterbacks in the Pac-12 will really put this secondary to the test, and it could end up being quite a long season for them.

Overall Prediction:

Stanford is returning a total of 13 starters from last year’s team, and they still have a good coaching staff and had an excellent recruiting year.  But the glaring weaknesses in both the passing game, and pass defense will not bode well for any championship hopes.   They wont fall off the map completely, but you are more likely to see a four or five loss season from Stanford this year.  National Championship hopes are nearly non-existent, and Pac-12 championship hopes are slim.  They could play spoiler for a team or two however.

I see the losses coming to USC, Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA.  If Oregon stumbles, Stanford could end up in the Pac-12 Championship game, but only to lose to USC once again.

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