Jim Harbaugh, Andrew Luck and a high-powered offense have garnered much of the credit for Stanford's recent resurgence. But the biggest difference with Stanford's program this season surrounded its defense.
Stanford's offensive backfield in 2009 featured Luck and Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart, yet the Cardinal lost five games because its defense ranked 90th in yards allowed per game. The Cardinal gave up at least 30 points in six games and allowed an average of 34 points in their five losses.
"They had an 8-5 season last year," Stanford defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said in the days leading up to the Orange Bowl. "Many people thought if they were better on defense, that it would have been better, more like what they got this year. So they were hungry for improvement.''
That all changed after Fangio's arrival.
Stanford improved to 21st nationally in total defense and 10th in scoring defense in its first season with Fangio, who took over as the Cardinal's defensive coordinator this season after spending 24 years on various NFL coaching staffs. Stanford recorded three shutouts and capped the season by holding Virginia Tech scoreless in the second half of a 40-12 Orange Bowl rout.
The Orange Bowl performance helped make Fangio the new No. 1 defensive coordinator in the final 2010 version of the Rivals.com College Football Power Rankings, which measure the nation's top performers at each position.
"You don't make the improvement that they have from one year to the next defensively unless something is going on there in terms of coaching and playing," Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said before the Orange Bowl. "And to go from a bottom tier in total defense to the top in their conference and to be [10th] in the country in scoring defense - that doesn't just happen by accident."
Stanford's defense was at its best late in the season. The Cardinal closed the regular season with a 38-0 shutout of Oregon State and followed that up by allowing just one offensive touchdown in the Orange Bowl. Stanford recorded eight sacks against the Hokies and limited Virginia Tech's high-powered rushing attack to 1.9 yards per carry.
"A lot of growth happened over this offseason," Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov said. "Coach Fangio's arrival was instrumental."
Fangio took over the top spot in the defensive coordinator rankings from Ohio State's Jim Heacock, whose team defeated Arkansas 31-26 in the Sugar Bowl.