Under coach Jim Harbaugh, Stanford has gone from one-win weakling in 2006 to eight-game winner and Pac-10 contender.
This season, Stanford must prove it can win without Toby Gerhart spearheading a powerful running game. But any decline in rushing production may be offset by the further development of sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck, who, as Gerhart did last season, could emerge as a Heisman contender.
Harbaugh also made several moves to improve the defense, most notably bringing in coordinator Vic Fangio to supervise a switch to the 3-4.
THE SCHEME: Under Harbaugh, Stanford uses a pro-style attack with one- and two-back looks. There also are two-tight end sets.
STAR POWER: Luck is an All-America candidate, a Heisman hopeful and a possible first-round selection should he opt to enter next year's NFL draft. As a redshirt freshman last season, Luck led Stanford to its first postseason appearance in eight seasons. He directed the highest-scoring offense in school history while passing for 2,575 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also led the Pac-10 with a 143.5 pass efficiency rating.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The potential size mismatches that 6-foot-8, 263-pound redshirt freshman tight end Levine Toilolo creates are obvious. He was rated by Rivals.com as the nation's fourth-ranked tight end out of high school. Toilolo sat out last season recovering from a foot injury, but he was impressive on the scout team. He could be a big-play threat at tight end.
STRONGEST AREA: Quarterback would be an easy choice here, but Stanford also is strong along the line. Despite the loss of All-Pac-10 T Chris Marinelli, Stanford still figures to be among the nation's best up front. Four starters return from a line that last season allowed just seven sacks and sparked the nation's 11th-ranked rushing offense. C Chase Beeler, T Jonathan Martin and G David DeCastro should contend for postseason honors.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: No slight is intended at sophomores Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney, but running back has to be an area of concern. Gerhart rushed for 1,871 yards and scored 27 touchdowns last season. Now that he's gone, the Cardinal have to find a way to replace that production.
THE SCHEME: With the arrival of Fangio, Stanford is changing to a 3-4 base from a 4-3.
STAR POWER: Even though LB Shayne Skov didn't start until midway through last season, he still distinguished himself among the country's top first-year players. The relentless and instinctive Skov posted 62 tackles in his debut season, but 50 came in the final seven games after he took over the starting job at middle linebacker. Skov was at his best at the end of the season. He posted 12 tackles against archrival California and 15 against Oklahoma in the Sun Bowl. He followed that up with an impressive spring in which he established himself as a defensive leader.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Senior Owen Marecic isn't a newcomer; he earned honorable mention all-conference recognition for his play at fullback for three consecutive seasons. But this season, he is expected to start at inside linebacker after making some appearances there in goal-line situations in '09. If he cannot handle the load at linebacker, the Cardinal will look to true freshman Blake Lueders, a 6-5, 240-pound four-star prospect.
STRONGEST AREA: The Cardinal project to be strong at linebacker. Skov coming off an excellent freshman season and Marecic showed he can be solid in the middle in spring drills. In addition, last season's starting ends are moving to outside linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme. Thomas Keiser has 15 sacks in his career, while sophomore Chase Thomas had a good debut season with 36 tackles and four sacks.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: A year ago, Stanford ranked 110th in the nation in pass defense while allowing 23 touchdown passes. Subpar play at cornerback was a major problem. Richard Sherman was inconsistent in his first season after moving from wide receiver. Fingers are crossed the experienced he gained in '09 will lead to a much better performance this season. Good health from senior Corey Gatewood would help at corner. He started the first six games last season, but eventually was sidelined by injury. Injuries limited him to one game in 2008.
There are so many Pac-10 teams that excel in the kicking game that Stanford sometimes gets overshadowed. Overall, though, the Cardinals' specialists are better than most. WR Chris Owusu is among the nation's most explosive returners. Last season, he averaged 31.5 yards per kickoff return and took three back for touchdowns. Sherman isn't nearly the same threat on punt returns, but he's still effective. This season, he'll aim to improve on the 10.3-yard average he posted in '09. The Cardinal kick effectively, too. K Nate Whitaker aims to build on a solid season in which he converted 16-of-22 attempts and hit from as far as 54 yards. Steady P David Green averaged 41.2 yards and had 15 punts killed inside the opponents' 20. The coverage units were good last season.
Stanford will mount a legitimate challenge for the Pac-10 crown if it capitalizes on home-field advantage. USC, Arizona and Oregon State - three of the league's projected top four contenders - visit Palo Alto. Back-to-back games in early October at Oregon and against USC - teams Stanford beat in '09 - will give the Cardinal a chance to take an early lead in the league race. Six opponents did not manage winning records last season, which seems to hint that a second consecutive postseason appearance looms. Three of those teams - Sacramento State, Wake Forest and Notre Dame - are on the September schedule.
More than a decade has passed since Stanford won a conference championship, but this could be the year the Cardinal return to the Pac-10 throne. Gerhart's departure will force the Cardinal to rely more on Luck and the passing game. That's not a bad plan. Luck also could be a Heisman contender and has talented receivers in Owusu and underrated Ryan Whalen. The Cardinal have turned to Fangio to bolster a defense that struggled mightily a year ago. If the Cardinal make strides in that area, they could mount a serious challenge for the league crown.