In my preseason preview of the Pac-10, I picked Stanford to finish seventh, lower than both Washington-who I had second in the conference (brushes egg from face)-and Cal. Oregon, Arizona, USC and even Oregon State are legitimate contenders in the conference (both of Oregon State's losses were to now-top-five teams and came out of the conference), but it's been Stanford who's been the biggest surprise even with Arizona's success this season, whose defense has been a similarly pleasant surprise.
There's so much parity in the Pac-10 that just about anybody in the conference could make the trip to the Rose Bowl at the end of the season. Even Arizona State, who gave two top 15 teams a serious run for their money in back to back weeks, looks very much improved and could challenge any team in the conference. Along with the Ducks, Wildcats and Trojans, though, the Cardinal is one of four teams at the top of the wide open conference.
At this point in the season, knowing what I now know and seeing what I've seen in the first month, the Stanford Cardinal would be in my top two with serious consideration given to naming them the favorite; and it's not just the offense that has the college football world impressed.
Everybody knew the offense would click. Even without Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart, few questioned that this would be a productive offense and thus far it has not disappointed. The rushing offense is ranked 19th in the nation with a few different backs getting carries. Stepfan Taylor has handled the bulk of the carries (59/169) for 265 yards and a touchdown, and Luck has taken off with it a few times himself, rushing for 163 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.
Through the air, the Cardinal is ranked a lower than would be expected 46th in the nation, although it's likely due to the fact that Stanford has carried such hefty leads into the third and fourth quarter that passing the ball was not exactly a priority. Luck hasn't turned the world on its head statistics-wise, but he's been productive, accumulating 912 yards and 11 touchdowns so far compared to just two interceptions-both of which came off of tipped passes in last week's game against Notre Dame.
Before the season, I was sure to mention that Stanford's problems would not lie on the offensive side of the ball. "Where Stanford needs to worry,"I wrote in my preview of the Cardinal, "is on the defensive side of the ball. The defensive line will be solid and the move to a three-man line improves the unit's depth. Question marks begin to arise a bit when you get to the second level and grow even more abundant at the third level."
Let's take a look at how that analysis has played out this season. "Where Stanford needs to worry is on the defensive side of the ball." Stanford is ranked 11th in the nation in total defense, allowing an average of 265 yards per game. They have not exactly faced an overly prolific offense this season, but they've nonetheless been impressive in limiting their opponent's ability to move the ball and keeping them out of the end zone. They've allowed an average of 13.8 points per game, 12th in the nation.
"The defensive line will be solid and the move to a three-man line improves the unit's depth." In their first year in the 3-4 defense, the Cardinal has done a fine job of getting to the quarterback. They currently rank sixth in the nation in sacks, averaging 3.5 a game, and they're 34th in the nation in rushing defense. Eight different players have come away with at least one sack and four have come away with more than one. Compare that to last year when just three players recorded more than one sack all season. In that respect, the analysis wasn't too bad. Of course, I also wrote...
"Question marks begin to arise a bit when you get to the second level and grow even more abundant at the third level." (Excuse me while I brush even more egg from my face.) The Cardinal ranks fourth in pass efficiency defense up from 98th in that category in 2009. In pure pass defense, where they ranked 110th last season, they rank 11th, allowing an average of less than 150 yards per game.
They haven't exactly had to defend against Case Keenum or Ryan Mallett, although Dayne Crist did put up 300 yards in last week's game, and there are plenty of reasons to hold off writing an article such as this lauding the Stanford defense after four games against teams with a combined winning percentage of .438 after the fourth week, but to go from one of the worst pass defenses in the nation to one of the best in the first few weeks of the season is special.
The Cardinal takes on Oregon this Saturday in Eugene only to come home to take on Southern Cal the following week. They get Washington State after the bye week and then must deal with Jake Locker and the Washington Huskies in Seattle, then Nick Foles and the Arizona Wildcats at home followed by a trip to Tempe to take on Steven Threet and an improved Arizona Sun Devils offense. Oh yeah, and then they finish up the year against Oregon State and the Rodgers brothers.
Clearly, the biggest tests are yet to come. The way the Stanford defense has turned things around since the new defensive coaches adopted a 3-4 scheme, though, has this team in a prime position to deal with what promises to be a tough conference slate. They may not rank so highly in the defensive categories at the end of the year, but the defensive system, coaching and talent is in place to make Stanford a viable contender for the Pac-10 title. - Danny Hobrock
Danny is a sports journalist primarily covering college football and professional baseball. His work for Xtra Point Football has garnered national attention and is critically acclaimed. Danny is the former editor of a political and current events website and the editor of our college football content.
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