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As Stanford retools, don't expect Cardinal to rule

For Stanford Cardinal, this figures to be a good, not great football season, Chris Dufresne writes
Stanford Coach David Shaw faces his biggest test since taking over from Jim Harbaugh
Stanford needs to identify a back to carry on after Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney

Permission has been granted by the highest authority to don Google Glass and eyeball order a search for "new Pac 12 champion."

Lower the shades, also, on the Cardinal's winning even the Pac North.

It isn't easy dismissing the two-time defending Pac-12 Conference champions and handing the pinball crown back to Nike Nation.

This decision comes with the blessing, though, of Stanford Coach David Shaw.

"I would be shocked if someone picked us over Oregon, to be honest," Shaw said at Pac-12 media day in July. "I don't mind it one bit."

Good.

Because this figures to be a good, not great, season for Stanford. The Cardinal's run of major-bowl success starting with Jim Harbaugh has been one of college football's remarkable stories.

The nerds did it!

They beat down the Nutty Professor stereotype and proved academics and Southeastern Conference-like football success are not mutually exclusive.

Too bad the four-team playoff is starting now, because Stanford would have been a serious contender every year since 2009. The Cardinal finished fourth in the final Bowl Championship Series standings in 2010 and 2011, sixth in 2012 and fifth last year.

This year, though, there is probably too much "ground under repair" to let the Cardinal make it through unscathed.

Stanford not only loses cement-mixer tailback Tyler Gaffney and his 1,709 yards, but also several household names on defense: Shayne Skov, Ben Gardner, Trent Murphy and Ed Reynolds.

There are four new starters on what could be a great offensive line, but will it coalesce in time for USC's visit to Palo Alto on Sept. 6?

Stanford has steadfastly, perhaps surprisingly, remained hyper-competitive at a place where success, historically, has been difficult to sustain.

Yet the truth is undeniable since David Shaw took over for Harbaugh. Shaw has gone 11-2, 12-2 and 11-3 in three years, which included three straight BCS bowl games and a Rose Bowl championship in the 2012 season.

This, however, will be Shaw's biggest test. He's retooling on the run against an unforgiving schedule that includes games at Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA.

Stanford's mind-set won't change. It will stick to its conservative, mule-team approach of containment and punishment.

"We're wearing shoulder pads," Shaw says, "we might as well use them."

Shaw needs to identify the next back in the continuum of Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor and Gaffney.

Stanford doesn't know who that guy is yet as it tries to sort out a three-way runoff among Kelsey Young, Barry J. Sanders and Ricky Seale. It could be some combination of all three and Shaw might even loosen his collar and let them run outside the tackle box. Young is the fastest of the backs while Sanders has the irreplaceable, swivel-hipped lineage to his father.

Sanders has shown sidewinder glimpses in his first two years but, in Shaw's offense, you don't get touches until you learn how to pass-protect.

Stanford is stable with Kevin Hogan at quarterback and also returns star receiver-return man Ty Montgomery. This could be a breakout year for Montgomery, recovering nicely from off-season shoulder surgery. He reminds Shaw of Tim Brown, the former Raiders receiver.

Let's be clear: Stanford isn't going anywhere and Oregon may only be renting space this year in the preseason Pac North penthouse.

Life in the top five is tough, though, and Stanford may need a dip year before it takes another leap year.

If it was easy, anyone could do it.

Shaw: "If you want to be really good, why not travel a tough road?"

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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