NCF Nation: Andrew Luck

STANFORD, Calif. -- Richard Sherman has kept a consistent presence around the Stanford football program since being drafted in 2011, but Tuesday's visit to spring practice was a little different.

He returned a Super Bowl champion.

The All-Pro cornerback is part of a group of several NFL players -- including Andrew Luck, Zach Ertz and Jonathan Martin -- back on campus as part of a coordinated trip. More than 20 are expected back at some point to train together and take advantage of the program's new alumni locker room, which was part of a $21-million addition to the Arrillaga Family Sports Center completed in October.

"It's unbelievable, man," Sherman said. "It feels nice to have somewhere to go when you come here. You don't have to borrow or bum any of the young guys' lockers."

That Stanford has a designated area for NFL players is symbolic in the program's rise.

"It's a testament to a lot of groups of guys. It's testament to the group of guys that came before us who set the groundwork for us," Sherman said. "Jim Harbaugh did a heck of a job changing the culture and changing the mindset and also the players now."

Sherman's arrival was good timing, too. The Cardinal are still without a full-time defensive backs coach following Derek Mason's departure for Vanderbilt and are in the process of converting Kodi Whitfield from receiver to safety. Sherman made a similar change, albeit to corner, while he was at Stanford.

The Seahawks star spoke with Whitfield and other defensive backs about technique during position drills and watched from the sideline during team drills.

"He's trying not to coach from the sidelines, but he can't help himself sometimes," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "Just the fact that he's here, just the fact that he's around kind of reaffirms why some of these guys are here."

Sherman said he would like to get into coaching after his NFL career is over, but said he's more interested in the high school level.

He will spend the majority of his offseason in Seattle, but, along with several others, plans on being a visitor to his old home.

Looking back at some teams the current group of Pac-12 coaches have led during their respective head-coaching careers turns up an impressive list. All 12 have coached a team to a bowl appearance, 10 have finished a season with double-digit wins and eight have had teams appear in the AP top 10.

Taking it a step further and just looking at each individual coach's best team (in college) also made for an interesting study. Choosing which teams those are is clearly a subjective process so for the purpose of consistency, the teams listed below were chosen based on the final spot in the AP poll.

Here are some notable takeaways:

  • Eight teams ended with bowl victories, but two occurred after the coach left.
  • Seven teams started unranked, but only one finished out of the polls.
  • Half of the coaches did it at their current school, four of which occurred in 2013.
  • Six teams appeared in the top 5 at some point and nine were in the top 15.
  • Three coaches immediately parlayed the success into their current job.
  • Only three of the teams won conference titles, none of which was in the Pac-12.
  • Two teams beat No. 1-ranked squads.
  • Four teams played in BCS bowls, and three were victorious.
We're not going attempt to rank them ourselves, but here they are in reverse order based on each team's final AP ranking:

No. 12 Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech, 2012

Dykes' record: 9-3 (4-2, third in WAC)
Final AP rank: unranked
Highest AP rank: 19
Bowl result: no bowl
The team:
The Bulldogs finished the season as the country's highest scoring team (51.50 ppg) and top-ranked offense (577.9 ypg). They rose to No. 19 in the AP poll before losing their final two games of the season, including one against Mike MacIntyre-coached San Jose State in the season finale. Louisiana Tech was offered a spot in the Independence Bowl, but it was given away while the school unsuccessfully sought other bowl options. Dykes left for Cal after the season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian parlayed his successful 2013 season into the head-coaching job at USC.
No. 11 Steve Sarkisian, Washington, 2013

Sarkisian's record: 8-4 (5-4, third in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 25
Highest AP rank: 15
Bowl result: Beat BYU in Fight Hunger Bowl (Sarkisian did not coach)
The team:
The season began with a win against then-No. 19 Boise State, and the season ended with Broncos coach Chris Petersen being hired by the Huskies. Sarkisian departed for USC prior to the bowl. After the win against Boise, Washington debuted in the rankings at No. 19 and rose four spots before a string of three straight losses to Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State.

No. 10 Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State, 2012

MacIntyre's record: 10-2, (5-1, second in WAC)
Final AP rank: 21
Highest AP rank: 21
Bowl result: Beat Bowling Green in Military Bowl (MacIntyre did not coach)
The team:
Two years after coaching San Jose State to a 1-11 record in his first season as head coach, MacIntyre's team became the first in program history to finish in the final AP poll -- although, the Spartans were unranked when MacIntyre accepted the job at Colorado. SJSU didn't beat any ranked teams, but lost just 20-17 to Stanford, which went on to win Pac-12 and Rose Bowl championships. The other loss came to Utah State, which finished No. 16.

No. 9 Todd Graham, Arizona State, 2013

Graham's record: 10-4 (8-1, won Pac-12 South)
Final AP rank: 21
Highest AP rank: 11
Bowl result: Lost to Texas Tech in Holiday Bowl The team: In his eighth season as an FBS head coach, Graham's most recent Arizona State team was his best. The Sun Devils began the season unranked and entered and exited the Top 25 twice before closing the regular season with a seven-game winning streak. It was ranked No. 11 when it hosted Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game, but a second loss to the Cardinal kept ASU out of the Rose Bowl.

No. 8 Mike Riley, Oregon State, 2008

Riley's record: 9-4 (7-2, tied for second in Pac-10)
Final AP rank: 18
Highest AP rank: 17
Bowl result: Beat Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl
The team:
The Beavers started unranked and lost their first two games before winning eight of nine to peak at No. 17. After a 1-2 start, it beat No. 1 USC in Corvallis, but didn't immediately build off the big win. The next week the Beavers lost to Kyle Whittingham's undefeated Utah team (more later). Riley's highest spot in the polls came in 2012, when the Beavers reached No. 7 after a 6-0 start. He was a head coach in the NFL for three years and the Canadian Football League for four, where he won a pair of Grey Cups.

No. 7 Jim Mora, UCLA, 2013

Mora's record: 10-3 (6-3, second in Pac-12 South)
Final AP rank: 16
Highest AP rank: 9
Bowl result: Beat Virginia Tech in Sun Bowl
The team:
The Bruins spent the entire season in the polls after starting at No. 21. They began 5-0 and rose to No. 9 before road losses to No. 13 Stanford and No. 3 Oregon. Mora's best coaching job came in the NFL in 2004 when he guided the Atlanta Falcons to an NFC South title and an appearance in the NFC Championship.

No. 6 Mike Leach, Texas Tech, 2008

Leach's record: 11-2 (7-1, tied for first in Big 12 South)
Final AP rank: 12
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Lost to Ole Miss in Cotton Bowl
The team:
The Red Raiders started the year at No. 12 and moved up to No. 6 after an 8-0 start. They rose to No. 2 after Michael Crabtree's memorable touchdown catch secured a win vs. No. 1 Texas. After two weeks at No. 2, the Red Raiders lost to No. 5 Oklahoma in a game that propelled Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford to the Heisman Trophy. Leach arrived at WSU in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Kevin ReeceDavid Shaw's best team at Stanford didn't win the Pac-12 title.
No. 5 Mark Helfrich, Oregon, 2013

Helfrich's record: 11-2 (7-2, tied for first in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 9
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Beat Texas in Alamo Bowl The team: Of all the teams on the list, none started higher than the Ducks in Helfrich's head-coaching debut at No. 3. Oregon spent eight weeks at No. 2 before losses to Stanford and Arizona in a three-game span ended any hopes of a conference or national title. The team finished ranked No. 2 in the country in both total offense (565.0 ypg) and scoring (45.5 ppg). Quarterback Marcus Mariota dealt with some late-season injury problems, but, when healthy, he was as good as any player in college football.

No. 4 David Shaw, Stanford, 2011

Shaw's record: 11-2 (8-1, second in Pac-12 North)
Final AP rank: 7
Highest AP rank: 3
Bowl result: Lost to No. 3 Oklahoma State in Fiesta Bowl The team: In three seasons as head coach, Shaw has won a pair of Pac-12 titles. But in 2011, when Oregon won the Pac-12 title, he probably had his best team. The Rose Bowl championship team the following year also finished No. 7 and has more hardware, but it didn't have Andrew Luck. Stanford started the year at No. 7, moved up to No. 3 after winning its first nine games, but then lost 53-30 at home to No. 6 Oregon. Stanford received a second consecutive BCS at-large bid, but suffered an overtime loss to No. 3 Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. In addition to Luck, 10 other players landed on 53-man NFL rosters from the team's departing class. Stanford's low ranking of No. 8 was the best among teams on this list.

No. 3 Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia, 2005

Rodriguez's record: 11-1, (7-0 Big East champion)
Final AP rank: 5
Highest AP rank: 5 Bowl result: Beat No. 8 Georgia in Sugar Bowl The team: Freshmen QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton were the names of note for the current Arizona coach. West Virginia started the year unranked and its lone loss came to then-No. 3 Virginia Tech. It was the first of three consecutive double-digit win seasons for the Mountaineers, who were undefeated in Big East play and capped the season with a win over No. 8 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. A strong case can be made that West Virginia had a better team in 2007, when Rodriguez left following the regular-season finale to become head coach at Michigan. The Mountaineers were ranked No. 2 (No. 1 in the coaches poll) going into Rodriguez's final game, but lost to a 4-7 Pittsburgh team in the 100th Backyard Brawl, which cost them a chance to play for the national title. They finished No. 6.

No. 2 Chris Petersen, Boise State, 2009

Petersen's record: 14-0 (8-0, WAC champions)
Final AP rank: 4
Highest AP rank: 4
Bowl result: Beat No. 4 TCU in the Fiesta Bowl The team: Washington's new coach has quite the résumé. Many consider Boise State's undefeated 2006 team that beat Oklahoma in that's year memorable Fiesta Bowl as the school's best, but three years later the Broncos finished 14-0 and finished a spot higher in the final AP poll. They opened the season at No. 14 and started with a win against No. 16 Oregon in Chip Kelly's first game as head coach. Boise capped the season with a win against undefeated TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. The team's offensive coordinator, Bryan Harsin, is now the head coach and its defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox, spent last season with Sarkisian at Washington and followed him to USC in the same capacity.

No. 1 Kyle Whittingham, Utah, 2008

Whittingham's record: 13-0 (8-0, Mountain West champions)
Final AP rank: 2
Highest AP rank: 2
Bowl result: Beat No. 4 Alabama in Sugar Bowl The team: In Whittingham's fourth season as head coach, the Utes finished as the nation's lone undefeated team after starting unranked. Utah opened with a win at Michigan -- Rodriguez's first game as the Wolverines' coach -- and went on to beat four teams that finished in the final AP poll, including Alabama (6), TCU (7), Oregon State (18) and BYU (25). Quarterback Brian Johnson threw for 336 yards in a convincing 31-17 win against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Want to swap out one team for another or switch the order? Email me at Kyle.Bonagura@espn.com.

LOS ANGELES -- Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan is not Andrew Luck. Only one man is. Hogan's not terribly flashy. He's far from perfect. His 2013 season included a few more down moments than perhaps Cardinal fans and a few college football pundits expected.

Yet he has led Stanford to a second consecutive Pac-12 championship and a chance to win two Rose Bowls in a row. He's the only quarterback in college football who has beaten Oregon twice. He probably deserves a break.

That break came on Friday from an unlikely source.

"I think [Stanford's] passing game is a little underrated," Darqueze Dennard said.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesThough his stats don't always show it, Stanford signal-caller Kevin Hogan is one of the most dynamic players in college football.
Dennard is not only a cornerback for Michigan State, which Stanford will face on Wednesday in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO, he is a consensus All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation's best defensive back. He knows passing offenses, and he's not so sure after watching game film that Hogan and company aren't more effective than many think.

For one, just consider Hogan's efficiency. He ranks 12th among the nation's quarterbacks in ESPN.com's Total QBR advanced metric. By the conventional efficiency measure used by the NCAA, he ranks third in the Pac-12 and 17th in the nation.

Not too shabby.

Yet the negative chirping is out there. He struggled during Stanford's shocking loss at Utah and its surprisingly tight win at Oregon State. He threw two interceptions in the Cardinal's loss at USC.

"He's had his ups and downs -- no one is perfect," All-American offensive guard David Yankey said. "But I think he's done a great job mentally because even when everyone's been down on him, it's never guys in our facility. We're all behind him."

One of the reasonable jabs at Hogan is he doesn't play nearly as well on the road, the 2012 win at Oregon notwithstanding. If that was a legitimate question, however, he seemed to answer it at Arizona State during the Pac-12 championship game, when he turned in one of his most efficient performances of the season. He completed 12 of 18 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown, averaging a stout 15.4 yards per completion, while using his athleticism to buy time against a furious Sun Devils pass rush.

Further, he came back strong after throwing four of his nine interceptions this season in the previous three games.

"He makes a mistake and he comes back fighting full speed," coach David Shaw said after the Pac-12 title game. "That's what I love about him. We can coach him up hard and beat him up and know he's going to fight back the next week. When given the opportunity, and games are on the line in big moments against ranked teams, he shows what he's capable of."

Hogan could probably put up bigger numbers if given the opportunity. He has the size (6-foot-4, 228 pounds), arm and athleticism to match just about any quarterback out there. But Stanford's offense, as everyone knows, is run first and run second. Even Luck only ranked fifth in the conference in passing yards per game his final year on The Farm.

If the criticism has gotten to Hogan, he doesn't seem to show it. As for the middling numbers -- just 191 yards passing per game -- he claims he's not paying them any mind.

"I don't care about the stats," he said. "I know I'm not going to throw for 300 or 400 a game. If we get into the right plays, get first downs, move the chains and pick up wins, that will make me happy. That was what I was happy with. Getting 11 wins and a chance for a 12th."

Hogan said he's most proud of the improvement of the Cardinal's downfield passing game, and that can be quantified. He has dramatically improved his completion percentage on passes of 25 yards or longer -- from 30 percent in 2012 to 48.8 percent in 2013. His 11 touchdowns on passes of this distance -- with just one interception -- leads the Pac-12 and ranks third among AQ conference quarterbacks behind Baylor's Bryce Petty (13) and Clemson's Tajh Boyd (12).

So when it comes to explosive plays in the passing game, Hogan ranks with Petty and Boyd, two players who have yet to be called "game managers."

It's likely that Hogan will need to be at his most efficient for the Cardinal offense to be successful against the rugged Michigan State defense, which ranks among the nation's statistical leaders in nearly every category, including total defense and rushing defense (No. 1 in both). If Stanford can't get its power running game with Tyler Gaffney going, the ball will be in Hogan's hands. And then he'll get to deal with Dennard and company, who rank second in the nation in pass efficiency defense.

It's important to remember that Hogan is only a sophomore who took over the starting job midway through the 2012 season. Perhaps he created outsized expectations by going undefeated as the starter. While he didn't put up big numbers this fall, the clear consensus among the Cardinal coaches and players is he improved, a consensus with which Hogan concurs.

"I felt much more comfortable in the pocket and at the line of scrimmage, getting into the right plays," he said. "I was much more comfortable overall. I knew what I was doing much more than last year. I was very happy with my development."

With every receiver and tight end scheduled to return next fall, and the offense's top two rushers graduating, it's possible that Stanford will ask more of Hogan in 2014. He's probably going to throw more than 21 passes per game, as he did this season.

Even then, he won't be perfect. He won't suddenly become Luck. But he might just turn out to be pretty darn good, perhaps even good enough to get the Cardinal to the top of the Pac-12.

Like he has already done twice before.
Last year’s Stanford-Oregon game didn’t just break the mold of the rivalry’s previous three matchups. It detonated it with an ordnance of smothering defense and glacial tempo.

Stanford’s 17-14 overtime win was a stark contrast to how the previous meetings had played out since 2009 -- the first game that featured both David Shaw and Mark Helfrich on their respective sidelines.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesThe trend of high-scoring Stanford-Oregon games was halted last season, as Marcus Mariota and the Ducks couldn't get on track.
No. 3 Oregon takes its nation-leading 18-game road winning streak to No. 5 Stanford Thursday night in a true clash of schematic styles. And there are lessons to be learned from some of the recent matchups -- trends and themes that paint a picture of what could transpire Thursday night.

The teams have split their past four meetings, with Stanford winning at home in 2009 and on the road in 2012. Oregon won back-to-back games in 2010 in Eugene, Ore., and 2011 in Palo Alto, Calif.

In the three games prior to last season, the winning team had scored at least 51 points and the loser had scored at least 30. The margin of victory was at least nine points. It was an annual offensive feast worthy of a league known for putting up points.

But last year’s game flipped the script as the offenses took a backseat to trench warfare, making every point a premium.

“Each game is its own entity,” said Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, who was offensive coordinator for the previous four matchups. “One big thing is our programs are a lot more similar than they are different from a number of perspectives. Their offense is different from our offense. But we’re similar in the fact of playing with heart -- playing fundamentally sound. We recruit a lot of the same people.

“But at some point it’s going to come down to our best person and their best person in space or in tight.”

Clichés become clichés for a reason. Some coach somewhere once said “big-time players make big-time plays” and everyone thought it was a profound statement at the time. Then more and more coaches started saying it and the meaning dulled. And in the case of Stanford-Oregon, it’s cliché, but true.

The past four meetings have all been defined by outstanding individual performances. Some were statistically sensational: Toby Gerhart’s 223 rushing yards and three touchdowns in 2009; LaMichael James' 257 yards and three touchdowns a year later; James again in 2011; and Zach Ertz in 2012.

Others were more understated. But regardless of the total points scored, it still comes down to players making plays.

“The biggest one is, and I hate to put it on one side of the ball because it is a complete game, but when we make the open-field tackles and don’t miss them, we have a chance,” Shaw said. “And then the two wins, the common denominator is making big plays. Toby Gerhart ripping off some big runs. Chris Owusu had a huge touchdown pass. Ryan Whalen had a huge catch to get us in the end zone. Zach Ertz last year was huge. Then Kevin Hogan's mobility. He ran for a touchdown and could escape and slide and find Zach off schedule. Defensively, we have to make those open-field tackles and line up and not be out of position.”

Thursday’s showdown is a true struggle of strength versus strength when you consider the following:

  • Oregon hasn’t scored fewer than 35 points in its past 10 games -- the last time coming in the 17-14 loss to Stanford last season.
  • Stanford hasn’t allowed more than 30 points in its past 17 games, the nation’s second-longest active streak.
  • The Ducks have won 18 straight on the road -- their last loss coming to Stanford in 2009.
  • Stanford has won 13 straight at home, its last loss in Palo Alto coming to Oregon in 2011.

There are dozens of notable sidebars to this matchup. Obviously, Stanford’s defense versus Oregon’s offense is the storyline that garners the most attention. But this is also a Heisman showcase game for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, just as it was for Andrew Luck in the 2011 loss to the Ducks. There are the recent struggles of Stanford’s offense and the inconsistencies of Hogan, who made his first career road start last year at Autzen and was lauded as one of the game’s heroes for his poise on the grand stage. There is Oregon’s defense -- so smothering and so in the shadow of the offense.

Stanford’s top priority is and always will be to stop the run. But the Ducks have also developed a dangerous downfield passing attack that wasn’t as developed last season. No Oregon wide receiver had more than 500 receiving yards last season. This season Josh Huff (703) and Bralon Addison (609) give the Ducks' offense an added dimension that Stanford will have to account for. And then there is the always-accurate Mariota, who hasn’t thrown an interception since the first half of last season's Stanford game.

Defensively, the Cardinal are very good at getting to the quarterback without having to send extra blitzers. No team in the country has more sacks over the past two years when sending four or fewer rushers at the quarterback.

“They have some guys up front that really try to control the line of scrimmage,” Mariota said. “They have done an awesome job all year of being physical. But I think our offensive line is up to the challenge. They are going to go out and play their best and we’ll do our best at executing.”

The recent past between these teams might not be entirely prologue. But history tells us that big-time players will make big-time plays -- if you'll pardon the cliché.

Oregon-Stanford: Respectful rivalry grows

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David Shaw Russ Isabella/USA TODAY SportsStanford coach David Shaw is 1-1 against Oregon and 30-5 overall.

Stanford had just torn the hearts out of Oregon and its fans inside Autzen Stadium. The Ducks' unbeaten season had ended in shocking fashion. National championship hopes had been kicked to the curb.

"It's such an honor to come into this stadium and beat a phenomenal team," the Stanford quarterback said after the victory.

A gracious, classy and perhaps rare take from a college player. But no, that was not Kevin Hogan talking about the Cardinal's 17-14 overtime upset of the Ducks in Autzen Stadium last Nov. 17 that ruined the Ducks' drive for a berth in the 2012 national title game. It was Stanford's backup quarterback, Chris Lewis, talking about the Cardinal's 49-42 win in Autzen Stadium on Oct. 20, 2001, that ruined the Ducks' drive for a berth in that season's national championship game.

Lewis' postgame quote, however, generally sums up the Oregon-Stanford series, which Thursday night again will be the Pac-12 game of the year. There appears to be little animosity and a good dose of respect between the Ducks and Cardinal, who both own road wins as underdogs against each other in the past three years.

Though they are very different institutions, playing football in very different ways and, well, dressing very differently while doing so, the rivalry between the Pac-12's top two teams in the past four seasons doesn't include much ill will compared to the rivalries between Oregon and Washington and USC and UCLA.

Perhaps it should, at least in terms of what Stanford and Oregon have taken away from each other through the years, and not just during their recent and simultaneous rise to join the nation's elite.

Nine times since 1964, Stanford has handed Oregon its first defeat of the season. Twice it was the Ducks' only defeat. Without a loss to Stanford in 1995, the Ducks would have played in a second consecutive Rose Bowl in Mike Bellotti's first season.

Oregon has returned the favor of late as Stanford became nationally relevant. The Cardinal lost just one regular-season game in both 2010 and 2011. To Oregon.

Stanford's win in Autzen Stadium last year was shocking in many ways. The Ducks had owned the Cardinal and Andrew Luck the previous two years, so much so that in advance of the 2012 season, Stanford coach David Shaw openly admitted his team had an "Oregon problem," though he reasonably noted that the entire Pac-12 shared the Ducks conundrum.

Yet, as stunning as it was to witness the Cardinal shut down the Ducks' offense last November, the 2001 game eclipsed it 20-fold in terms of sheer nuttiness.

While some of Oregon's younger fans might not remember 2001, the older ones surely slapped their foreheads upon seeing the name "Chris Lewis" again. In that contest, the unbeaten and fifth-ranked Ducks were seemingly cruising, leading 42-28 in the fourth quarter at home, with Stanford quarterback Randy Fasani knocked out of the game in the second quarter.

But things went haywire in the fourth quarter, particularly on special teams, when Stanford blocked two punts and recovered an onside kick. Still, it appeared the Ducks would prevail 42-41 when they blocked the potentially game-tying PAT.

Unfortunately for Oregon, quarterback Joey Harrington was turning in his only poor performance of the season. On third-and-1 from Oregon's 30, Harrington was hit by safety Tank Williams, and his throw was picked off by diving defensive end Marcus Hoover at the 33 (it was Harrington's second interception of the game). After Stanford scored the go-ahead TD, Harrington, who had led nine fourth-quarter comebacks in his career and was popularly known as "Captain Comeback," threw four consecutive incompletions from the Cardinal 37.

The normally straightforward Associated Press report noted that the game "had everything but aliens landing on the Autzen Stadium turf."

Oregon, one of the earliest victims of a BCS controversy, went on to finish No. 2. Bellotti showed up at the Rose Bowl, host of the BCS title game, to watch Miami stomp overmatched Nebraska, a team that was blown out in the regular-season finale by Colorado, a team the Ducks had crushed in the Fiesta Bowl.

Yes, there were a fair share of what-ifs from the Ducks, not unlike last year, though it's worth remembering that Miami team was one college football's all-time great squads.

Of course, things were much different for both Oregon and Stanford in 2001. Neither team had established itself as a consistent national power. In fact, both would go through significant downturns thereafter, particularly Stanford.

In 2007, both programs made inspired decisions that inspired initial befuddlement among media and fans: Bellotti hired Chip Kelly away from New Hampshire, an FCS team, to coordinate his offense, and Jim Harbaugh was plucked away from San Diego, another FCS team, by Stanford. Harbaugh brought along Shaw to coordinate his offense.

As isolated events, the Stanford-Oregon game on Oct. 20, 2001, and some buzz-less coaching hires in 2007 didn't resonate nationally. But from a long-term view, they are notable dots to connect for what has become one of the nation's best and most meaningful rivalries.

Even if the teams don't provide much cartoonish trash talk to foment the hype.

Stanford looks to make statement

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Arizona State coach Todd Graham has watched film of Stanford's first two games, against San Jose State and Army. He doesn't believe, however, it was terribly revealing. It seemed likely that the Cardinal have plenty of schematic inventory on both sides of the ball that they have yet to reveal.

"I think they've been very basic," Graham said. "Obviously, there's a lot more."

Of course, with Stanford, it's not really about fooling an opponent with scheme, though there's certainly some creativity within its rough-and-tumble ways. Stanford is about lining up and trying to push its opponent backwards. And the Cardinal have been pretty darn good at it for a while.

Summed up Graham, "They are going to bloody your nose, they are going to play great defense, and they are not going to beat themselves."

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Brian Murphy/Icon SMIStanford coach David Shaw and QB Kevin Hogan haven't revealed a lot of wrinkles through two games.
Stanford has been the quietest of the nation's top-five teams. We've seen Alabama tested, Clemson make a statement, Oregon romp AQ conference foes and Ohio State grab national headlines with QB issues. The Cardinal, meanwhile, had a bye the first weekend then easily handled a San Jose State team that most folks don't realize is led by one of the nation's best quarterbacks. Last week, they were pretty lackluster in a win at Army, a game that was most notable for the collegiality among the teams and fan bases.

Stanford has yet to have a "hello world" moment, to announce itself as a Pac-12 and national title contender -- again. Therefore, a visit from No. 23 Arizona State should provide a strong initial test. This matchup certainly has more spice since the Pac-12 officials threw up on themselves last week at the end of the Sun Devils game against Wisconsin, allowing the Sun Devils to enter the game unbeaten and ranked.

It's also interesting that these teams have not seen each other since 2010, when Stanford and Andrew Luck prevailed in a 17-13 defensive struggle.

Stanford coach David Shaw, after watching the Sun Devils on film, sees a team that is different than old ASU crews. He sees a top-25 squad that plays smart football, which wasn't always the Sun Devils M.O. in the past.

"I'd wager to say maybe even a top-15 team, just as far as having the players and the scheme and the way the guys play, a quarterback who makes plays," Shaw said. "It's a big credit to what they have done there."

Shaw added, "They play as hard as anybody in our conference. I don't know if you said that about the Arizona State team in years past. You say it about these guys. They are going to fight you tooth and nail. They will get after you on both sides of the ball."

So even though you have an up-tempo spread team and a pro-style huddle-up team, the contrast in styles doesn't preclude it from being a physical, mano-a-mano matchup. It should help the Sun Devils that they got a test run of physical, line of scrimmage football last week against the Badgers and proved more than up to the task. The Cardinal, however, are far more talented on both lines than Wisconsin.

Further, Stanford is much better at quarterback. While the Cardinal offense is run first, it also has an improved downfield passing attack with quarterback Kevin Hogan, now a second-year starter.

"We're attempting more downfield, explosive passes than we have the last few years, but that doesn't take anything away from our basic identity as a power, downhill-running team," Shaw said.

While Stanford probably has been sandbagging a bit, that doesn't change the fact its first notion will be overpowering the smaller Sun Devils lines. The Cardinal are about imposing their will, and they will try to do that before they worry about being tricky.

"That's always what we strive for," running back Tyler Gaffney said. "We want people to know how we play. As Coach Shaw says, we're not a team that tries to put up 50 points. We grind. Everybody knows that. We run power for 4 yards a pop, 4 yards a pop, 4 yards a pop."

That approach might not be as fancy as Oregon's, but it undeniably has worked over the past three years while the Cardinal have won 35 games. Arizona State, however, should provide a nice test for whether it will continue to work as well in 2013.
Who is this year’s Johnny Manziel in the Pac-12? In other words, which player could come out of nowhere and win the Heisman from the conference? Well, if we knew, he wouldn't be coming out of nowhere in the preseason, now, would he?

Perhaps it is better that the Pac-12’s elite players are coasting below Mr. Heisman's persnickety radar. After all, front-runner status hasn't been kind to the Pac-12 the past couple of years. Two seasons ago it was Andrew Luck -- a shoo-in from the day he announced his return to take home the Heisman. Last year, it was Matt Barkley who had the unpropitious front-runner title pegged on him.

Luck carried the title much longer in his final season. Barkley, however, quickly gave way to Geno Smith, who in turn gave way to Collin Klein, who in turn fell to Johnny Football.

[+] EnlargeMarion Grice
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsArizona State's Marion Grice averaged 6.6 yards per carry and had 11 touchdowns last season.
So how about the Pac-12?

Marcusy Football?

Marqy Football?

DATy Football?

Ka’Deemy Football?

Bretty Football?

Not exactly phonetically pleasing.

Within the Pac-12, there aren't many dark-horse candidates. There are some front-runners who immediately come to mind: Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas, USC’s Marqise Lee, Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. But none of them are considered national front-runners with Manziel (maybe?) back to defend his title, Braxton Miller coming off a perfect season, AJ McCarron and his ridiculous 30-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year and Teddy Bridgewater soaking up his share of hype.

You can make a case for all five in the preseason. Mariota and Thomas will be playing for a top-five team, which always helps garner the necessary attention from the national media, and they should continue to put up video game numbers. Hundley is one of the most exciting players in the league, and with a year of maturity, many are anxious to see just how far he can lead the Bruins. Lee was last year’s Biletnikoff winner and is arguably the top skill player in the country. Carey was last year’s national leader in rushing. Solid credentials for all.

But this is about the sleepers. The guys who are so under the radar they're practically stealth. So who are they?

You have to start with ASU’s Marion Grice, who is going to continue putting up fantastic dual-threat numbers as a runner and receiver. He’s packed on more weight and ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said they've expanded the playbook now that he and quarterback Taylor Kelly are a year into the system. (Probably not a bad idea to keep an eye on Kelly, either).

Stanford’s Kevin Hogan could also be a sleeper. Like the Oregon duo, he’ll be on a high-profile team that is going to get plenty of national exposure with showdowns against Oregon, UCLA, USC and Notre Dame on the 2013 docket. He’s not as flashy as the other players and his numbers might not be as lofty, but he’s asked to do a lot more behind the scenes than a lot of other quarterbacks. That was Luck’s brilliance, as well as his Heisman curse.

The appearance of Manti Te’o in New York last year proved defensive players aren't immune to getting some attention in the spread era. So UCLA’s Anthony Barr and ASU’s Will Sutton certainly deserve to be in the conversation if we’re talking defensive players. Both should be atop the national defensive rankings in sacks and tackles for a loss. But both will have to play well enough to surpass the well-deserved hype of South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and overcome the public perception of the Pac-12 when it comes to defense. As I’ve written previously, the Heisman is all about subjectivity and perception. (Full disclosure, I have Clowney No. 1 on my preseason Heisman ballot).

Finally, a guy who I think is really a long shot -- but should be getting more love than he is -- is Oregon State running back Storm Woods. In the Beavers’ first six games against FBS opponents in 2013, they face only one defense that ranked in the top 20 last year in total rushing yards allowed (Utah), and only one other in the top 50 (San Diego State). The opportunity will be there early in the season for Woods to make a name for himself. He’s got four of five offensive linemen coming back (including an outstanding center), an offense that wants to be more balanced, and a quarterback-to-be-named who is a veteran and knows the offense. He’s also really, really good.

It’s probably best not to put all your hopes into one of these guys winning the Heisman. For now, it’s safer to track the conference front-runners. But don’t sleep on these guys, either.

The next Stormy Football is just waiting to breakout.

Breaking down Manziel's NFL skill set

May, 2, 2013
5/02/13
2:30
PM ET

Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesWhat parts of Johnny Manziel's game need to improve for him to play in the NFL?
The NFL began to look more like the college game last season with mobile quarterbacks, zone-read options and spread passing attacks. With some work, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel has the tools to continue the evolution.

Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick transformed the game with their speed and versatility, forcing defenses to adapt to a new style of play.

All three of those quarterbacks were also proficient passers. They each possess four qualities necessary to be a successful quarterback in the NFL: overall accuracy, ability to handle the blitz, downfield precision and composure under duress.

Manziel is skilled in all four categories, but he could improve in each next season to boost his draft stock if he decides to declare for the draft.

Overall accuracy
In 2012, Manziel completed 68 percent of his passes, which ranked ninth among FBS teams. He was at his best on short and intermediate passes, completing more than 76 percent of his throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

One of his greatest strengths was putting the ball in spots that enabled his receivers to run after the catch. Texas A&M ranked sixth among colleges in AQ conferences in yards after the catch, averaging 6.5 yards after the catch per reception.

Ability to handle the blitz
Opponents blitzed Manziel on fewer than 30 percent of his dropbacks last season.

Although Manziel’s completion percentage was significantly lower against the blitz, he exploited blitzing defenses with big plays.

Manziel averaged a play of 20 yards or more once every 6.4 dropbacks when opponents blitzed, compared with once every 8.5 dropbacks when they sent standard pressure.

His biggest plays came when scrambling, with him rushing for 389 yards and seven touchdowns on 32 scrambles against the blitz.

Downfield precision
This is probably the one area Manziel could improve the most. Last season, he completed 38.7 percent of his passes of 20 yards or longer with eight touchdowns and four interceptions.

To put that into perspective, Griffin III, Wilson and Andrew Luck all completed a higher percentage of their passes on throws of this distance in their final year of college.

Manziel can learn from those quarterbacks, who all increased their completion percentages on throws of at least 20 yards downfield in their final college seasons.

Composure under duress
Last season, Manziel completed 51.4 percent of his passes when under duress, about 11 percentage points higher than the FBS average.

He was at his best when forced to improvise. Manziel ran for 857 yards and 10 touchdowns on 86 scramble attempts in 2012. He also threw for 581 yards and eight touchdowns when forced to throw from outside the pocket.

Many question whether this aspect of Manziel’s game will translate to the NFL, given his size and the speed of NFL defenses. At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Manziel is small for an NFL quarterback. Of the 49 NFL quarterbacks who attempted at least 30 passes last season, only three were 6-1 or shorter, and only one weighed 200 pounds or less.

In terms of the speed of NFL defenses, Texas A&M faced its share of NFL talent last season; 26 opposing defensive players were taken in the 2013 NFL draft.

Last season against Alabama, the top defense in the nation, Manziel ran for 92 yards. It was the most rushing yards the Crimson Tide had allowed to an opposing quarterback since Nick Saban became Alabama's coach in 2007.
When something seemingly loud happens, we can't help but stare. The momentum of attention, which of course can be monetized by the media, creates a hungry void that is filled with endless analysis. The end-result is a suffusion of broad statements of "This proves this!"

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Kirby Lee/US PresswireThe Eagles drafted USC QB Matt Barkley with the 98th pick in the fourth round of the 2013 draft.
So we have USC quarterback Matt Barkley. It seems now we all should have seen Barkley's precipitous slide in the NFL draft coming. He would have been a top-10 pick in the 2012 draft, not the 98th overall selection he ended up being on Saturday, if he'd only been smart enough not to return to USC for his senior season.

I get it. Hindsight rocks. We'd all be rich, infinitely happy people if we could do a rewind and relive the past, knowing what we know after going through it once before.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's fair to say now that Barkley made a huge mistake. How huge? This is from Sports Illustrated's Peter King:
P.S.: Wondering what that extra year of school cost Barkley? He went 98th overall. Let's say he'd have been the eighth pick a year ago -- that's where Ryan Tannehill went. It's all speculation, of course. But the consensus was he'd have been a top 10 pick. Tannehill's deal: four years, $12.7 million. The 98th pick last year, Ravens center Gino Gradkowski, signed for four years and $2.58 million. Turns out it was a $10.1 million year of school for Matt Barkley.

Ouch.

You business school guys can pencil that out for us over a lifetime. Forget Barkley's second contract. You can't make up a $10.1 million hit.

So, yeah, bad call. Barkley undoubtedly will become a cautionary tale for future players who are debating whether to stay in school or enter the draft early. More than a few folks will insist that if there's a consensus first-round grade for a third-year player, returning merely to make a run at being the first overall pick or a top-10 pick is not a good idea.

Support for that notion comes from the evaluative distance between the end of the regular season and the actual draft. So much happens between December and April that a player, particularly one with great athletic measurables, can dramatically influence the affections of NFL scouts and GMs.

Still, let's look at the Barkley who stood in front of a Christmas tree in December 2011 and smoothly announced his return to USC.

  • There was seemingly no question at that point he would be, at best, the third QB chosen behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Further, you'd think that some of his supposed red flags -- arm strength and foot quickness -- would have revealed themselves at the NFL combine and during workouts, so it's even questionable that he would have won out over Tannehill.
  • Go back to your December 2011 self. Who was the best college QB in the nation? There was Barkley and then a whole bunch of "Who?" and "Neh." Phil Steele's ranking of QBs after Barkley in advance of the season: 2.Tyler Wilson, Arkansas; 3. Landry Jones, Oklahoma; 4. Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech; 5. Tyler Bray, Tennessee.
  • Ergo, his rating as the top overall QB entering 2012, based on three years as a starter, seemed absolutely secure.
  • Then there were the Trojans around him: 18 starters back from a team that went 10-2 and won at Oregon. That included four starters on the offensive line to protect him and the best tandem of college receivers in recent memory: Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.

There were only two potential red flags at the time: 1. Injury; 2. The unknown. Both ended up contributing to Barkley's slip.

"The unknown" includes that old scouting adage that a guy can have "too much film." If a guy duplicates his great play from a previous season, scouts will wonder why he didn't dramatically improve. And woe unto him whose numbers drop.

But the now-marginalized reasons for Barkley's return also were sound:

  • Win the Heisman Trophy.
  • Win the national title.
  • Enjoy another year of college as USC's QB, which is a nice thing to carry around the idyllic campus, before taking on real world stresses of playing a game for a living.
  • Become the first QB taken in the 2013 draft, which is typically in the higher reaches of the top-10.

At the time Barkley made his decision to stick around, there were few naysayers about his and his team's prospects. That everything went so completely rear-end-over-tea-kettle still boggles the mind if you aren't one of those people who pretends you saw it all coming a year ago.


All this said, with a few exceptions, my long-held belief on this is a player should enter the draft as soon as possible. "Stay in school!" sounds nice, but a guy can always go back to school.

That position, however, is not all about merely jumping into the draft when your stock is seemingly high. It's also about age. It's better to start earning a (substantial) paycheck at, say, 21 than 22, if it is available to you. The career clock doesn't tick very long in the NFL, and an extra couple of million can help later in life.

Consider two Pac-12 players who had less fanfare this draft cycle but are probably nearly as disappointed as Barkley: Oregon RB Kenjon Barner and Stanford OLB Chase Thomas.

Both opted to return for their senior seasons in order to improve their NFL draft prospects. It appears neither did, with Barner going in the sixth round and Thomas going undrafted. My hunch is they would have done better last spring.

Both now have an additional year of wear-and-tear on the bodies without getting paid, which is particularly an issue for Barner because running backs see their productivity drop substantially at 30. Barner just turned 24.

Ultimately, a disappointing draft doesn't make or break an NFL career. Ask Tom Brady. I think just about every conversation I had with former Seattle Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck circled back to his annoyance at being picked in the sixth round, watching QBs he felt were inferior to him get picked before him.

Barkley, who has seemingly led a charmed life at quarterback, might get a boost from having a chip on his shoulder (a Chip Kelly one, at that). Maybe "Angry Matt" will turn out better than "Breezy Matt."

The NFL draft is often confounding. It is laden with risk and reward on both sides of the process. Barkley took on a defensible risk and things didn't go as he hoped. That's notable, but it's also an annual occurrence.

As for Barkley, you'd think that at some point in his life he will encounter a greater adversity than being picked in the fourth round of the NFL draft.

STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, as a redshirt freshman, made his first career road start against No. 2 Oregon in Autzen Stadium, the most inhospitable venue in the Pac-12. Entering the game, the Ducks had won 13 games in a row overall, the nation's longest winning streak, and they had won 26 of their past 27 games at home.

With Andrew Luck playing quarterback the two previous years, Stanford teams that would finished ranked in the top-10 had suffered blowout defeats against the Ducks.

So when Hogan led Stanford to a 17-14 win -- of course, with a strong assist from a superlative defensive performance -- it seemed liked a time for celebration and euphoria. If there ever was a moment for a young player to whoop and holler and then wear a Cheshire cat grin in front of the media, this was it.

Yet here was Hogan sitting at the postgame interview table looking... bored? No, that implies some degree of rudeness. Sedated? No, that implies something unnatural. Poised? Yes, but that also implies something more practiced than how Hogan appeared as he provided brief and humble answers to questions in his signature monotone.

Sleepy? Hmm. That feels, perhaps unexpectedly, accurate. Let's combine poised and sleepy and say Hogan was "sloised."

Hogan would go 5-0 as the Cardinal starter after taking over the sputtering offense at midseason, with his final victory giving Stanford its first Rose Bowl win since 1972. His play was steady and efficient, but rarely flamboyant. Sort of like the young man himself.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesQuarterback Kevin Hogan ran for 263 yards and two TDs last season, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
When you ask Hogan's teammates about him, about whether he lets his hair down when the cameras aren't around or has a secret dark side, you're met with an amused grin.

Said linebacker Shayne Skov, a demonstrative sort, "You don't get much out of him much of the time."

Other than winning, which is nice. Oh, and Stanford is widely viewed as a top 2013 national title contender because many expect Hogan to give the Cardinal a lot more in 2013.

The 2012 season was largely the "Year of the Young QB" in the Pac-12, with first-year starters such as Hogan, Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and UCLA's Brett Hundley turning in outstanding debut seasons. The 2013 campaign projects as something different. What will these guys do for their encore?

The most interesting one might be Hogan, 2.0. While Mariota, Kelly and Hundley put up big numbers in high-powered, up-tempo offenses last fall, Hogan was mostly a game-manager for the Cardinal's physical, run-first attack.

Yet with a year of seasoning, you'd expect Hogan would be champing at the bit to showcase his passing skills.

Hogan doesn't do champing at the bit.

"I'd love to hand it off every time again if that's what gets us first downs and touchdowns," he said. "Whatever they need. I like winning. Whatever it takes to get that."

Good answer. But Stanford is no longer trying to win 10 games or end up in the top-10. Coach David Shaw admits he's thought about the program making the proverbial next step from conference champion to national champion. That requires eliminating the one or two losses that speckled the Cardinal's previous three seasons, which it's worth noting is the best run in school history.

That means Hogan becomes capable of taking a game into his own hands when things are slightly off on either side of the ball. That means in those close games where two or three critical plays go horribly wrong, Hogan steps up and takes corrective action with two or three plays he creates from the ether.

"The big thing for Kevin is taking the next step as far as knowledge and understanding," Shaw said. "He's going to work hard. He's very selfless. He's very team-oriented. We're to the point now where we can give him more to do, more things in the passing game, more things to handle at the line of scrimmage."

Stanford likely will remain a run-first team in 2013, in large part because it might have the nation's best offensive line. But with questions at tight end and improvement at receiver, there's a good reason Hogan said his primary focus this spring is getting better at throwing the deep ball. The Cardinal running game will be that much better if opposing secondaries are fretting about getting beat over the top, thereby limiting their leaning into run support.

Another aspect of Hogan's game worth watching: His running. He rushed for 263 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry, and not exclusively on scrambles. The 6-foot-4, 225 pounder is agile and not easy to bring down, and the Cardinal isn't afraid of throwing a few designed quarterback runs at a defense.

"His athleticism is our bailout," Shaw said. "His ability to run changes defenses."

The 2013 season will feel different for Hogan and Stanford. For the team, it will face a season rated as a top title contender by just about every pundit with few legitimate doubters. Each of the previous three seasons, that was not entirely the case. As in: How can they possibly replace Toby Gerhart!? Jim Harbaugh!? Luck!?

And the spotlight will burn much brighter on the understated Hogan.

That might not test his innate poise, but it could prove grating and distracting.

"There's going to be a higher amount of pressure on him, but he needs to just embrace it," Skov said. "Expectations are going to rise. But he's more than capable. So embrace the higher demands and pressure. I'm sure he's going to deliver. He did it time and time again last year, and he's only going to get better."

One thing working in Hogan's favor is the type of school Stanford is. As Luck often noted, Stanford's student body isn't the sort to go gaga over a quarterback. Luck, in fact, barely created a stir when he hung around this spring. Johnny Manziel might be forced to take on-line classes at Texas A&M to avoid to paparazzi, but that won't be the case for Hogan. He said his budding star turn in 2012 didn't earn him a fan club on campus that he's noticed.

"I wouldn't say it's changed too much," he said. "That's one of the things about this school. There's so much going on and there are so many people doing great things that people congratulate you after winning games, but they treat you like any other student. That's one of the nice things about being here. Being able to stay myself."

Hogan, Shaw and the Stanford players talk mostly about winning the Pac-12 and getting back to the Rose Bowl. They say that's something they can control with their play on the field. The national title game is something that includes outside forces, such as the final year of the BCS computations.

So Hogan said repeatedly it's all about getting back to Pasadena. Next question: "You do know the national title game is in Pasadena, too, right?

Sloised Hogan, "Yes."
David Shaw Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesThe Cardinal adopted a blue-collar attitude under Jim Harbaugh (not pictured) and David Shaw and became national title contenders. Now that they've found success, can they stay hungry?
STANFORD, Calif. -- The first step in Stanford's national ascendancy was wearing blue shirts a mechanic would wear at the gas station. The message then-coach Jim Harbaugh was trying to deliver was simple: Sure, Stanford is one of the nation's elite universities, chock full of members of the privileged class. But the football team wanted to adopt a blue-collar mentality.

It was such an obsession for Harbaugh that he once congratulated a reporter for noticing the Cardinal seemed eager to sneak in a few shots after the whistle blew.

That was good enough for 8-5 in 2009, Year 3 under Harbaugh. It was the program's first winning record since 2001.

Over the next three years, however, Stanford won 35 games and lost five. The Cardinal were a missed chip-shot field goal from going 3-0 in BCS bowl games. Yet during that span the locker room theme was a lack of national respect. Players saw doubt from every angle: Could the program survive the loss of Toby Gerhart? Surely things are done now that Harbaugh is off to the NFL? A team simply can't replace Andrew Luck, can it?

Oh, and Stanford has an Oregon problem.

Doubts were addressed. Wins piled up. The Ducks were plucked in their own house last November.

Now it's the spring of 2013. Much to everyone's chagrin on the Farm, respect has arrived. Now just about everyone views Stanford as a top national title contender. Even SEC fans seem to tip their hats to the Cardinal's bruising brand of run-the-ball-and-play-tough-defense football.

Ah, but this is where the "C" word comes in. Stanford coach David Shaw knows his biggest enemy is complacency. His team taking winning for granted. His team feeling entitled. His team, well, acting like USC a year ago.

[+] EnlargeStanford's Kevin Hogan
Richard Mackson/US PRESSWIREThe Cardinal welcome back 16 starters, including quarterback Kevin Hogan, who was 5-0 after entering the starting lineup.
"You can't talk your way into winning games," Shaw said. "The circumstances that surround a game never matter. Only the game matters. We've done a good job as coaches here really beating that into the players' heads. The first question I asked guys before we started spring football was 'Are we collectively hungry?' You have to have that hunger."

Said linebacker Shayne Skov, "People have finally started to notice what we've been doing around here but we have to stick to the same plan we've had every single year, the same method. Guys are still hungry."

Hunger is good because talent is not the question. The Cardinal, which starts its second spring session April 1, welcomes back 16 starters from last year's Rose Bowl champions, including quarterback Kevin Hogan, who went 5-0 as the starter and was the quarterback of record in the clutch 17-14 overtime win at Oregon.

But returning starters doesn't tell the whole story, particularly on the offensive line, where four starters are back. Stanford has a troika of extremely talented sophomores who are fighting for starting jobs or at least playing time.

Andrus Peat -- 6-foot-7, 310 pounds and two years ago the nation's No. 1 prep offensive lineman -- is the likely starter at left tackle, which allows Morris Trophy winner David Yankey to move inside to his natural guard position. There are NFL teams that have weaker combinations on the left side of their line.

Meanwhile, Kyle Murphy is pushing Cameron Fleming at right tackle and is certain to see action at multiple positions and act as a sixth O-lineman when Stanford goes "big," as it is wont to do. Inside at guard, 317-pound Josh Garnett is in the mix, which could allow veterans Kevin Danser or Khalil Wilkes to take over at center.

However this crew stacks up, it's getting tested by the Pac-12's best defensive front seven. Suffice it to say, when Stanford goes full-go in practice, things get pretty salty.

Stanford's two biggest questions -- tight end and running back -- don't seem to worry many folks around the program. The return of Tyler Gaffney from pro baseball eased concern at running back, while there's young talent at tight end, not to mention a deeper crew at receiver.

Of course, Stanford is sharing its "national title contender" label with a familiar foe: Oregon. Winning the Pac-12's North Division might turn out to be nearly as difficult as winning the national title. But the Cardinal bucked its Oregon problem last year, and that victory still resonates, both as fact and symbol.

Every Stanford player or coach (or fan) quickly picks up the story when someone refers to the biggest play of that game, and perhaps of the college football season: Backup safety Devon Carrington slipping by De'Anthony Thomas to catch Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota from behind to prevent a long touchdown run in the first half.

"That play exemplified the heart and determination we are going to play with," Shaw said. "There also were multiple times we had a guy in space with Kenjon Barner and we tackled him. Last couple of years, we missed that tackle. You miss that tackle, and it's over."

Oregon could no longer simply outrun Stanford. And if Oregon can't outrun Stanford, no one can.

Stanford may still view itself as a blue-collar team, but it's moved into college football's penthouse. The question is no longer can it stay there. The new question is whether it can take the next -- and final -- step up.
You might have noticed a theme this week. We kicked off the "Biggest Shoes" series and had two polls (North and South) on replacing departed players. So that means it's now time for your Pac-12 bloggers to weigh in on which two players we believe leave the biggest holes. Given our penchant for quarterbacks, you might find our two choices surprising. Read on.

Ted Miller: I do not know what size 6-foot-3, 320-pound Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei's shoes are, but I'd bet they are among the biggest in the Pac-12 -- in more ways than one.

The thing about replacing a dominant interior defensive lineman is that it's difficult to measure what you're losing. An All-America receiver or running back or even cornerback leaves, and you feel fairly comfortable quantifying what is lost and must be replaced. Lotulelei, however, was more than the sum of his stats -- 42 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, five sacks, four fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and a very important blocked kick.

Lotulelei changed what an offense could do. He changed blocking schemes. He demanded specific attention from an offensive coordinator and a line coach. He made sure the interior of the opposing offensive line -- even if the offense was winning the overall battle -- wanted to ask for its check.

He was a unique presence. An anomaly. A college center could start 48 games in his career and face a guy like him just once. That's why Lotulelei will be a first-round NFL draft pick, even with a heart condition. He could get picked in the top five if a team deems him healthy.

But his shoes are even bigger because Utah, after a disappointing defensive campaign in 2012, is replacing three of four defensive linemen. Moreover, the Utes were unhappy with their linebacker play last fall, even with all the protection Lotulelei provided. Opposing offensive lines, unencumbered by the need to double-team Lotulelei every play, will get a lot more hats on those linebackers in 2013. Not what coach Kyle Whittingham wants.

[+] EnlargeSam Schwartzstein
Charles Baus/CSMCenter Sam Schwartzstein was a huge piece of Stanford's recent offensive success.
The cupboard isn't empty. The Utes are high on Tenny Palepoi, a 305-pound senior who played well as the backup to defensive tackle Dave Kruger last season. And there are other big bodies: LT Tuipulotu, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, a 320-pound redshirt freshman, and Viliseni Fauonuku will be in the mix.

Yet the Utes defensive coaches won't even pretend one of those guys will fill Lotulelei's shoes. They are just too big.

Kevin Gemmell: This is a tough one. I've been going through a bunch of players all week long trying to come to a conclusion on which one I wanted to write about (and Lotulelei was already taken). All of them are important -- Matt Barkley, Khaled Holmes, Robert Woods, Jordan Poyer, Travis Long, Markus Wheaton, Brandon Magee, Desmond Trufant, Stepfan Taylor, Johnathan Franklin, Zach Ertz, Dion Jordan and … (insert name I unintentionally omitted and now you feel wildly offended).

There really is no wrong answer here. Each player is a major contributor to his team in his own way. But the one name that kept coming back to me is Stanford center Sam Schwartzstein. I know, not as exciting as Kenjon Barner or glamorous as Matt Scott. But in terms of sheer contributions to the team that will be tough to replace, Schwartzstein has to be in the conversation.

In 2011, he was regarded as having the second-best football mind on the team -- behind only Andrew Luck. And he didn't lose any of that in 2012.

After the quarterback, there is no more important position on Stanford's offense than the center. He makes all of the scheme and protection calls at the line of scrimmage. He even calls plays in the huddle when the Cardinal go into the Wildcat.

Schwartzstein started every game since taking over for All-American Chase Beeler, and twice he blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher in Taylor. The Cardinal played 14 games in 2012 and allowed just 20 sacks. In the 12-game regular season, they had allowed a conference-best 17. The year before that? Just 11 in 13 games. I know for a fact that there were zero quarterback-center exchange fumbles in 2011. And none comes to mind in 2012.

Khalil Wilkes, who started almost every game last year at left guard (one start at left tackle) moves over to compete with Conor McFadden for the gig. Maybe the transition from Schwartzstein to one of those guys will go as smoothly as the handoff from Beeler to Schwartzstein. After all, the new center will have one bona-fide All-American at his side and potentially a couple more on the line.

But they won't be the ones making the calls. That falls on the center -- and Schwartzstein was outstanding at it. He was second-team all-conference and honored with the school's leadership award. Not Taylor, not Ertz. Not Shayne Skov nor Ryan Hewitt nor the aforementioned All-American David Yankey. The center … the most crucial position in Stanford's offense that you never hear about.

Tough shoes to fill, indeed.
David ShawKyle Terada/US PresswireDavid Shaw knows expectations are going to be high for his Stanford team in 2013.
The narrative for Stanford football has changed. It didn't occur overnight, and it certainly didn't happen without scrutiny, skepticism and a challenge to the preconceived notion that an institution couldn't be elite in academics and football.

The story wasn't back-to-back appearances in BCS bowl games or the 23-3 record the past two years. Rather, it was, "How can Stanford replace ____?" Toby Gerhart, Jim Harbaugh, Andrew Luck. Take your pick.

But the story has changed. Stanford has now been to three straight BCS bowl games, and the three-year record stands at 35-5. The question now is how far can the Cardinal go?

Of course, getting coach David Shaw to talk about long-term goals is like getting bears and salmon to strike a peace accord. Though his team may be primed for a run at the national championship, it's not something he's eager to discuss.

"I don't know anything about that," Shaw said. "I pointed out a year ago there were a few teams that everyone said were on the brink, and some of those ended 8-5 and 7-6."

Indeed, public opinion can be a fickle mistress, which is why he does his best to keep it out of his office and locker room.

"I like being relevant in the national conversation," he said. "That's great. But as far as expectations, I remind people all the time we weren't supposed to be as good without Toby. We weren't supposed to be as good without Jim. We weren't supposed to be as good without Andrew. And then Andrew's last year we were supposed to be great. And then as soon as Andrew left, we were supposed to be terrible. And then halfway through we were supposed to be OK. And then early in the season everyone thought we were terrible. And then at the end of the year we win the Rose Bowl."

(He pauses for his own laughter. Seriously.)

"Public opinion is like a wave. You can ride the wave or say, 'You know what, we're going to stay where we are and concentrate on our work.' I do love being mentioned nationally, as far as our university and football program is concerned, because we've earned that. But at the same time, it doesn't translate to anything but noise that doesn't help us win games."

Hope he has earplugs, because the noise is coming -- perhaps louder and more distracting than it's ever been in the history of the program. Stanford is expected to be a top-five team in the preseason polls, and Shaw will once again have a glaring spotlight pointed down on his team. The two-time Pac-12 coach of the year has constructed a team that is built to grind on both sides of the ball, and many feel Stanford is capable of challenging the SEC's stranglehold on the BCS championship.

With -- potentially -- 19 juniors and seniors starting at 22 positions, Stanford is a team that knows how to win close games. Last season, 10 of Stanford's games were decided by a touchdown or less. The Cardinal went 8-2 in those games -- including 2-1 in overtime games.

"A big chunk of the team is [mature]," Shaw said. "But there is also a group that hasn't been in those games. We'll be at a point early in the season when we're in some tough situations, and we're going to have somebody on the field that wasn't in those overtime games, that wasn't in some of those big victories. And we have to count on them."

Standing in Stanford's way is the always-present nine-game conference schedule -- a huge point of contention among conferences and something that is sure to be hotly debated as the sport moves into the playoff era.

The Cardinal are back loaded in 2013 with four straight rivalry games to close out the season: Oregon, USC, Cal and Notre Dame. Not to mention their own division, which includes the Ducks -- who may join the Cardinal in the preseason top five -- and Washington and Oregon State programs on the rise. Couple that with the UCLA and USC tie-in and the Cardinal have as daunting a schedule as any team in the country.

"Those rivalry games at the end of the year, it's great for TV, it's great for the conference. I think it's awesome," Shaw said. "Not all conferences do that. Some conferences play eight games and have late-season byes, which we're not allowed to do. They'll have late season nonconference games that are lesser opponents that they can sandwich in between big games."

He fired a not-so-subtle warning shot across the bow of the playoff selection committee-to-be.

"I don't have a problem with our schedule," he said. "I just think it would be better for all of us in college football -- particularly as we're going forward toward a four-team playoff -- I think it would make more sense if all of us were on the same schedule; if we're all on nine games or eight games. I hope that firms up as we get closer to that in order for it to truly be a level playing field and truly have all of the teams go through the same gauntlet during the season to get to that four-team playoff."

Should the Cardinal successfully navigate the 2013 schedule, the story won't be about who wasn't there -- but how Stanford got it done with those who were.
While quarterback competitions are typically front-and-center during Pac-12 spring practices, there are always other interesting spring storylines.

Here are two.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Harry How/Getty ImagesUSC coach Lane Kiffin enters the spring with several new assistants, a new defensive scheme, and uncertainty at quarterback.
Ted Miller: It was a horrible, no-good, rotten, very bad 2012 season for USC coach Lane Kiffin. And the 2012-13 offseason has been no picnic either. Some Trojans fans wanted Kiffin fired. Just about all were frustrated. Justifiably so, by the way.

Lane: Welcome to spring, the season for rebirth! Time to turn the page. Or, perhaps, pick up an entirely new book.

At the very least, the situation at USC is interesting. One of the nation's premier programs is front-and-center for many of the wrong reasons, but there is enough talent on hand for Kiffin to turn things around and shut up his critics.

Interesting plot lines? Kiffin will be breaking in four new assistant coaches, including a pair of new coordinators, his defense will be transitioning from a 4-3 base to a 3-4, and he's looking for a new quarterback for the first time in his tenure.

There's a lot going on. Lots of questions. Lots of doubt, too. Yet negative momentum isn't irreversible.

What if the Trojans have an exceptional spring?

What if Clancy Pendergast shakes things up and, suddenly, the defensive guys are playing hard and fast in a sound scheme they understand? And what if the offense, nonetheless, makes plenty of plays because the quarterbacks are sharp and the line is manning up? What if the fitness level of the Trojans improves? What if offensive tackle Aundrey Walker breaks through, realizing his future NFL contract will be based on performance, not measurables? What if Devon Kennard proves a perfect fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker, as we believe he is? What if guys like Marqise Lee, Hayes Pullard, Silas Redd, Dion Bailey and Kevin Graf step up as leaders? What if receivers George Farmer and Victor Blackwell decide they don't want to be left in the dust behind Lee and Nelson Agholor? What if running back Tre Madden says, "Hey, remember me?"

What if Kiffin simultaneously refocuses and relaxes? What if he uses his capable brain to be smart, not a smart aleck, to be creative, not sneaky? What if he realizes the media is not an enemy, but just a bunch of folks trying to do their job whom he should humor with vague though sometimes amusing answers?

There are a lot of "What ifs?" with USC and Kiffin. It's not difficult, by the way, to talk yourself into believing a bounce-back is entirely possible.

That's what is interesting. Kiffin 2.0 was 2010 and 2011, when he seemed to find his rhythm as a coach after controversial stints with the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Volunteers. Kiffin 3.0, was 2012, a complete face-plant.

This spring presents us with Kiffin 4.0. It could prove to be the most important transition of his career as a head coach.

And that is interesting.

Kevin Gemmell: Besides quarterback battles -- which I think are always the most exciting position battles there are -- I'm most curious to see how the running back battle is going to play out at Stanford.

When you look at a Stanford squad that is very heavy on upperclassmen -- on both sides of the ball -- you have to wonder if all of the pieces are in place for Stanford to make a legitimate run at the national championship.

I wasn't sure before, but with the addition of Tyler Gaffney to the running back corps, I'm warming up to the idea that the Cardinal could challenge any team in the country for a BCS championship -- if they can get out of their own conference (or division for that matter) -- which anyone will tell you is no easy task.

It's no surprise that Stanford's primary offensive weapon is the quarterback. Not because of what he does with his arm -- but because of what he does when he goes under center -- checking out of bad plays and putting the offense in the best possible play against the defense shown. This allows running backs to flourish. Andrew Luck was phenomenal at it. Kevin Hogan should get better.

So, when Hogan turns to handoff on power right or power left, who is going to be the primary ball carrier? Anthony Wilkerson has shown bursts and outstanding top-end speed. But injuries have slowed him, and playing behind Stepfan Taylor the past few years didn't allow him to really break out following his strong true freshman season. Gaffney is a rock and hard to bring down. He's the kind of guy who could carry the ball 10 times for 4.5 yards a pop.

Barry Sanders is an interesting X-factor. He obviously was a high-profile recruit because of his name -- but beyond that, he's supposedly a pretty darn good back. Maybe he ends up winning the job and can be a 15-carry type of guy.

Then you have Ricky Seale, a shifty runner with great vision who has been trapped at the bottom of the depth chart, but continues to receive praise from David Shaw. Remound Wright and hybrid Kelsey Young are also in the mix.

Whoever is Shaw's go-to back, he'll have the benefit of running behind an outstanding offensive line that is only going to get better with David Yankey -- an All-American and last year's Morris Trophy winner -- moving back to his natural position at guard. And Shaw has said he plans to keep Ryan Hewitt at fullback -- giving the running backs a cadre of blockers that rivals any other in the country.

By season's end, this could be your national championship team. The question is, which back will carry it there?

Gaffney's return a boost for Cardinal

February, 11, 2013
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One of the biggest questions facing Stanford in 2013 was how would it replace so many key offensive players who graduated or left for the NFL following the highly-successful 2012 season.

Enter -- errr -- re-enter Tyler Gaffney, who could prove to be a game-changer for the Cardinal.

[+] EnlargeTyler Gaffney
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireTyler Gaffney is returning to Stanford after a year in minor-league baseball.
Gaffney announced that he'll return to the Cardinal on April 1 after spending one year playing minor league baseball. His college eligibility for baseball is up, but he has one year remaining on his "football clock."

You put an outstanding athlete like Gaffney behind Stanford's offensive line and you have the makings of a 1,000-yard rusher who can take the pressure off of quarterback Kevin Hogan and allow the Cardinal to do what they want to do on offense -- which is pound the football.

Gaffney spent the bulk of his career backing up Stepfan Taylor -- and there's no shame in that because Taylor was one of the greatest backs in Stanford history. In three years Gaffney totaled 791 yards and 12 touchdowns, plus three receiving touchdowns. In 2011, he rushed for 449 yards (6.1 average) and seven touchdowns.

With his return, Gaffney gives a fairly inexperienced running back corps an immediate veteran presence and you'd expect he jumps to the top of the list of candidates to replace Taylor. And you have to assume he'll be in pretty good shape, too. After all, he's been a professional athlete for the last year. He'll know the system, since it hasn't changed, so all he has to do is make friends with the new offensive linemen.

Remember, Gaffney was one of the most sought after backs on the West Coast coming out of Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego -- turning down offers from USC, UCLA, Notre Dame and Utah to come to The Farm. And I'm also a little bias because I've known him since he was a sophomore in high school and I watched him put on one of the greatest rushing performances in California prep history in the California State Championship game (current Oregon State quarterback Cody Vaz was pretty darn good in that game, too).

Given the opportunity to be a 15-to-20-carry back, Gaffney could do some damage. In 2011, he only had double-digit carries once. But remember in 2011 Stanford was rotating heavily between Taylor (242 carries), Gaffney (74), Anthony Wilkerson (56), Jeremy Stewart (55) and Andrew Luck (47).

The Cardinal will still likely be by-committee in 2013, more so than they were in 2012 when Taylor carried a league-high 322 times. But the addition of Gaffney is a major boost to a Stanford offense that has plenty of potential and talent, but is lacking in proven playmakers.

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