Throughout the summer, we’ll be previewing select college football teams and conferences for the upcoming 2012 campaign. We’ll get into the latter in August.
For the moment, however, a quick look-ahead at what appear to be some of the more intriguing teams to watch this fall. Our first look is at the Stanford Cardinal.
Life after Andrew Luck begins this fall at Stanford. Consensus opinion around the college football world is that the Cardinal are due for a drop-off sans Luck. We don’t necessarily disagree, but we’re not convinced Stanford is about to fall off the college football map, either, after back-to-back BCS bowl appearances.
True, a special player such as Luck might appear only once in a generation. But it’s not as if Stanford football hasn’t had great QBs throughout the years, or had to replace several legendary signal-callers names in the past. Luck was hardly the first star QB to grace Palo Alto in his college days.
Coming immediately to mind is John Elway, but before making a connection between Stanford post-Elway and Stanford post-Luck, consider that the Cardinal finished 5-6 in Elway’s senior season of 1982. The rot had already set into the program under coach Paul Wiggin, who was dismissed after a 1-10 mark the following 1983 campaign. Instead, the post-Luck Stanford team still has much of the veteran core from last year’s 11-2 side.
A better Stanford analogy might exist from the early ‘70s, when the then-called Indians had a QB named Jim Plunkett on campus. All Plunkett did was lead a resurgence of Stanford football in the late ‘60s into 1970 under creative and colorful head coach John Ralston. Unlike Luck, however, Plunkett won the Heisman Trophy (in 1970), and his Stanford team won the Pac-8 and went on to upset Woody Hayes’ Ohio State, 27-17, in the Rose Bowl.
In the following year of 1971, much of the college football world was as dismissive of the Indians much as they are for the upcoming 2012 version of the Cardinal, reckoning, as current onlookers are similarly projecting post-Luck, that there would be no way Plunkett could be adequately replaced. Ralston, however, had by that time developed a solid program with a talented supporting cast around Plunkett and an underrated, big-play defense that simply ceded some of the spotlight to Plunkett in 1969 and ‘70, two big years on The Farm.
Ralston had an able backup QB during Plunkett’s later years in Don Bunce, who simply needed a chance to perform so he could shine. Much of Plunkett’s supporting cast – RBs Jackie Brown Hillary Shockley, & Reggie Sanderson, and WR Miles Moore – was still on hand in 1971, and Ralston’s improved recruiting pipeline introduced new components in ‘71 including dangerous WR John Winesberry and a highly-regarded crop of offensive linemen. Moreover, much of the Stanford “Thunder Chicken” defense from 1970 was still in the fold in ‘71, including linemen Pete Lazetich and Greg Sampson, LBs Jeff Siemon and Mike Simone plus DBs Benny Barnes and Charles McCloud.
The ‘71 Indians suffered a few upset defeats (much like the ‘70 squad) but rose to the occasion in Pac-8 road showdowns vs. Washington and Southern Cal, throttling each en route to comfortably defending the conference crown. To top things off, just as it did the previous year, Stanford pulled another major Rose Bowl upset, nipping an undefeated Michigan 13-12 on a last-second Rod Garcia field goal.
There might not be a direct link of analogies between the 1971 and 2012 teams, but we suggest it might be a lot closer to what eventually transpires this fall than the doomsday, post-Luck scenario in which some Stanford critics are trying to promote in the run-up to the fall.
Second-year Cardinal head coach David Shaw knew he had a tough act to follow in 2011 when promoted from offensive coordinator to succeed Jim Harbaugh, but Shaw hardly inherited a bare cupboard in Palo Alto, with Luck and many other key contributors still in the fold from the 12-1, Orange Bowl-winners the previous season.
Similarly, even minus Luck, Stanford is not entering 2012 wearing blindfolds. Indeed, if the QB situation can sort itself out, there’s no reason the Cardinal can’t continue to appear in the national rankings this fall.
Playing the Don Bunce ‘71 role this fall will be either soph Brett Nottingham or junior Josh Nunes, a pair of 6-foot-4 gunslingers who separated themselves from pack of five contenders in the spring. Each has thrown only a handful of passes in their respective college careers, but both are well-versed in the Cardinal’s pro-style, power-oriented attack with well-defined West Coast principles.
Nottingham, due to the fact he served as Luck’s official back-up last season and played in six games, is listed as the slight favorite to win the job, but Nunes (one of the gems of the 2009 recruiting class) impressed enough in spring for Shaw and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton to wait until camp reconvenes later this summer to name their starter.
If it’s Nottingham, expect a QB who has the wheels to get out of the pocket and the sort of snap and accuracy on his short-and-intermediate routes that the coaching staff desires. Nunes, well-versed in the offense entering his fourth year in the program, has impressed with his poise.
There were other key offensive weapons besides Luck who moved to the NFL in last April’s draft such as linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin,along with tight end Coby Fleener, each picked within the first two rounds. But expect the Stanford offense to again operate in a similar fashion, its pro-style looks augmented by a power running game designed to leverage the big bodies creating space up front.
The fall will prove a test for Stanford’s recent recruiting emphasis on top-notch blockers, some of whom are required to immediately step into the breach after the graduation of All-Americans DeCastro and Martin. Three starters still return on the forward wall, and Hamilton spent the spring shuffling some of the pieces in the OL puzzle. One of those, 302-lb. junior David Yankey, appeared to make a smooth transition to Martin’s abandoned yet crucial left tackle spot after starting 13 games as a red-shirt frosh last year at left guard.
Thus, expect the Stanford infantry to run effectively again after bulling for 210 ypg and better than five yards per carry in 2011. Senior RB Stepfan Taylor is an accomplished slasher who churned for 1330 YR a year ago, with another senior, Tyler Gaffney, still around for a nice change-of-pace in the more physical, Toby Gerhart-like mold after banging for 449 YR in 2011. Rugged 243-lb. fullback Ryan Hewitt is an effective H-back for the offense who doubles as a reliable receiving threat out of the backfield, reflected in his 34 catches a year ago.
Though Fleener has graduated, Shaw is still knee-deep in top-flight tight ends. A pair of mountainous juniors, 6-foot-6 Zach Ertz and 6-foot-8 Levine Toilolo, are both on an NFL career-trajectory and offer plenty of options Hamilton, including double TE sets as well as the ability of each to line up as wideouts, which might tempt Hamilton, as the Cardinal will be looking for new go-to sources at the WR spots after the graduation of last year’s starters Griff Whalen and Chris Owusu. Soph Ty Montgomery, who performed with plenty of flair when catching 24 passes as a frosh last fall, is expected to move seamlessly into a featured role. Whippet-like senior Drew Terrell is a smaller-sized option at 5-foot-11 and only 180 pounds, but could provide a spark as he does as a feared return man. He’ll get his chance to make his mark as a wideout in the fall.
Meanwhile, much like 1971's Thunder Chickens, the 2012 Stanford defense could similarly dominate. It’s not Lazetich, Sampson, Siemon and Simone, but six of seven starters return in the front seven of defensive coordinator Derek Mason’s robust 3-4 that ranked third nationally in rush defense last season, allowing a puny 3.01 ypc and 84 ypg.
The LB corps that could be really special, especially if playmaking ILB Shayne Skov is beyond last season’s knee injury that KO’d him for almost the entire season. Skov, who was held out of spring work, is expected to be ready for fall camp, although hanging over his head is a February DUI that likely causes suspension in the first game or two.
If there is a concern in the stop unit it’s in the secondary, where three starters must be replaced. As it was, the Cardinal was vulnerable to the highest tech pass attacks it faced last season, allowing at least three TD passes to Southern Cal, Oregon and Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. Although a 95th ranking vs. the pass was a bit deceiving because foes couldn’t run on the Cardinal and were often playing a desperate game of catch-up a year ago, it was still the most-vulnerable piece of last year’s stop unit. But the strength of the front seven and its ability to generate a pass rush should again come in handy and allow the DBs to more concern themselves with pass-coverage chores.
The schedule has an altered look this season with the Big Game against Cal moved to a midseason slot (October 20 at Berkeley) after being a traditional season-ender for almost 90 years. A trip to Notre Dame precedes the Big Game, but otherwise the key games are well-spaced, including hosting revenge-minded Southern Cal on September 15 and traveling to Eugene to face Oregon on November 17. For all of Stanford’s success in 2010 & 2011, it has not been able to cope with the go-go Ducks, who have put 52-31 and 53-30 beatings upon the Cardinal in the last two seasons, Stanford’s only regular-season losses during that span.
Pointspread-wise, Andrew Luck’s presence was certainly a plus the last few years, as the Cardinal sported an eye-opening 27-12 spread mark the past three seasons (including 11-2 a year ago). But that mark is going to be hard to replicate this fall.
Summing up: Stanford is not likely to fall too far in 2012, as its emergence the past few seasons had other contributing elements besides Andrew Luck. Shaw, like predecessor Harbaugh, has a bit more leeway with special admits than past Stanford coaching regimes, and the talent base in the program has increased substantially thanks to some of these relaxed entrance requirements. With blue-chip talent now stockpiled in Palo Alto, Stanford might not backslide much at all this fall if either Nottingham or Nunes step up at QB. "Remember 1971" should be a battle cry heard all autumn long on The Farm.