In the last three years, only two schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) have equaled or surpassed Stanford's 35-5 record and two BCS bowl wins. One of them happens to be Alabama (also 35-5), which just happened to win a pair of national championships in that period. The other is Oregon, which came within a field goal of winning a national championship and has the best overall record (36-4) in that span. The Ducks also happen to be the Cardinal's Pac-12 North Division neighbor, which has been something of a problem for the Palo Alto gang, denying them at least – in 2011 – one shot at the BCS National Championship Game.
Will the 2013 season at last be the one in which the Cardinal play the final game on the college football schedule (which, by the way, will be staged in Pasadena, where Stanford has won two games in the past seven weeks)? It won't be easy.
Third-year coach David Shaw inherited a vibrant program from his predecessor, Jim Harbaugh (whatever became of him?) and has kept it aloft. The Cardinal are the gold standard outside the SEC West for excellence on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Four- and five-star recruits are finally being persuaded that attending school at one of the nation's most elite academic institutions, on a sublimely beautiful campus, in a climate that both Adam and Eve can relate to, isn't such a horrible idea. Perhaps these teenagers understand that Stanford football at last yearns to be more celebrated for its team than for its band. That was not always the case.
On a campus that is known as The Farm, Messrs. Harbaugh and Shaw have produced a trio of consecutive bumper crops. The harvest has been bountiful, but for three straight years it has fallen just shy of being the best in the nation. That may again be the case in 2013.
The Good: To begin, the Cardinal get the Ducks at home, although the visiting team has won the last two times these two have met. They also end the season versus another preseason top 10 squad, Notre Dame, in Palo Alto.
After a pair of losses in the first half of 2012 and a desultory 24-17 win at home versus Washington State, Shaw replaced incumbent quarterback Josh Nunes, a redshirt junior, with Kevin Hogan, a far more agile redshirt freshman. The Cardinal won all six of Hogan's starts, incuding a win at No. 1-ranked Oregon, and he should be a fixture under center for at least two more seasons.
Both sides of the line of scrimmage are stout. The offensive line, anchored by second team All-American left tackle David Yankey, returns four starters. Defensively, the Cardinal return leading tackler Shayne Skov as well as three of the four most prolific players in terms of sacks (Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner and Henry Anderson) from a unit that led the nation in sacks a year ago.
The Bad: Stepfan Taylor, the school's all-time leading rusher (4,300 yards, including 1,530 last season), has graduated. Anthony Wilkerson, who has gone from 408 yards rushing as a freshman to 283 as a sophomore to 224 last season as Taylor's understudy, is penciled in to replace him. The Cardinal started two tight ends last season and both of them, Mackey Award winner Zach Ertz and six-foot-eight Lev Toililo, will forgo their final year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. Ertz was the team's leading receiver and its absolute go-to guy. It was his nails fourth-quarter touchdown reception at Autzen Stadium that foiled Oregon's hopes to play for the national championship.
On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Chase Thomas will be sorely missed. Thomas finished second on the team in both tackles and sacks and was the quarterback on that side of the ball. The entire starting secondary returns, but that is, relatively speaking, the weaker half of the unit.
The Uncertain: We know that Stanford will win the line of scrimmage versus most everyone it skirmishes, but will it be able to score as easily as, say, Oregon? (Fair point: Who can?) Wilkerson, as the numbers above attest, has had diminishing numbers with each new season, although Taylor's production greatly contributed to that. Keep an eye on redshirt sophomore Ricky Seale, who in high school rushed for a CIF-San Diego section record 6,694 yards. The media will surely keep its eyes on Barry Sanders (yes, his son), who did not see the field as a freshman in 2012.
The Cardinal should tally double digits in victories for a fourth consecutive season, as Hogan is a budding star. But to whom will he throw? Who is Stanford's next Coby Fleener, its next Zach Ertz? Is there even a 40-catch end, wide or tight, on this roster?
The Verdict: This is the most physically imposing squad west of, in all likelihood, Tuscaloosa, and that will always keep the Cardinal in games. Harbaugh taught this program to trade (figurative) punches with other teams, which for decades was as anathema here as putting ice cubes in your cabernet. Stanford may have the best defense in the nation this season, but Shaw & Co. are seeking the pinnacle of the sport.
Stanford finds itself in the midst of the same dilemma that LSU has for the past half-decade. In order to be considered the best team in the nation, or even to earn a berth in the national title game, it must first be the best team in its division. Going up against Nike State University, that's going to be one monster assignment. The Ducks visit Palo Alto next autumn, although that date is to be announced. The winner should find itself on the inside track to the Rose Bowl (the stadium, not the game) to play for the national title.