Andrew Luck was his productive self in what is expected to be his final spring game performance of his collegiate career. The junior passed for 165 yards and three touchdowns on 16 for 22 passing in the Cardinal’s 42-3 win over the White in the annual spring game. The Heisman runner-up last season, Luck and his Stanford teammates could be in for even big things in 2011 coming off a 12-1 season that included an Orange Bowl shellacking of Virginia Tech.
Last year, not many people expected Stanford to have the season they did after losing Toby Gerhart to the NFL, but the Cardinal came close to running the table and was in the national title hunt near the end of the year. This year, however, expectations are higher with Luck returning and the Cardinal has its sights set on the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game and perhaps, dare I say, an appearance in the BCS National Championship Game.
As with just about every team, there are plenty of questions heading into the season, but three will get most of the attention.
One of those questions is whether Stanford is able to beat the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 North. The Ducks return several members of their Pac-10 Championship team fell to Oregon in the national title game. Circle the showdown on November 11 right now because it’s going to be a doozy when these two meet in Palo Alto. An end-of-the-year showdown with Notre Dame could also throw a wrench in Stanford’s BCS hopes.
Another big question heading into the season is how first year head coach David Shaw takes over for Jim Harbaugh, who’s now plying his trade in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers. Shaw had been the offensive coordinator since 2007 and takes over a team with a win-and-win-now mentality. He should be afforded time to rebuild with several key losses this year and several more expected next season, but for the time being, he’ll feel the pressure to win right away.
As touched upon, there are several key contributors leaving The Farm—Owen Marecic (FB, ILB), Ryan Whalen (WR), Doug Baldwin (WR), Andrew Phillips (G), Chase Beeler (C), Derek Hal (OT), Sione Fua (NT), Richard Sherman (CB), Thomas Keiser (OLB). There’s also plenty of talent coming back, though, and the Cardinal has recruited well the past few seasons under Harbaugh. How the new starters handle their new roles is the third key question facing this team. A rather lax early season schedule—with the possible exception of a date with Arizona in the third week—should give them time to adjust.
Luck will look to find his new favorite targets with Whalen and Baldwin leaving, but something tells me the top quarterback in the nation will have no problem finding the open man. Getting running back Stepfan Taylor back is a big deal, and tight end Coby Fleener was phenomenal in the Orange Bowl. Tight end Zach Ertz caught all three of Luck’s touchdown passes in the spring game and should be a big part of the Stanford offense as well. Chris Owusu is also back and should step in as a big part of the passing game. The biggest area of concern for the offense will be the offensive line, which is faced with the unfortunate task of replacing several starters.
The Cardinal will lose two big parts of the defensive line in Fua and end Brian Bulcke, but the secondary should be even better than a year ago with Johnson Bademosi, Delano Howell and Michael Thomas forming a core of veteran players leading that unit. Linebacker Shayne Skov also returns and is a player to watch in 2011. You may remember Skov from the Orange Bowl win in which he put on a brilliant performance only to be practically snubbed by an ESPN reporter following the game as she searched for Luck to publically ask him his future plans.
A start in the top seven shouldn’t be unexpected with the best player in the nation returning and coming off a spectacular season. Whether they’re able to maintain that lofty ranking with a new coach and new personnel across the board is something that’s going to be interesting as Stanford takes the field with high expectations and real national title aspirations for the first time in a long time.