NCF Nation: Jim Harbaugh

Back in 2007 new Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh seemed pretty foolish when, like a bombastic Don Quixote, he trash-talked USC and coach Pete Carroll. For no particular reason, he volunteered to a reporter that Carroll would soon bolt for the NFL. Then, at Pac-10 media day, a smirk flickered across his face when he archly announced that USC "may be the best team in the history of college football."

When challenged about his motives, he unveiled what became a program catchphrase: "We bow to no one at Stanford" -- pretty much saying he didn't give a rat's tookus if he bothered USC, Carroll or anyone else.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Matt SaylesThings started getting testy between Stanford and USC when Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll were at the helm.
Great fun ensued, of course. That first season, Harbaugh and Stanford shocked USC 24-23 as a 41-point underdog behind a backup QB, ending the Trojans' 35-game home winning streak. Any chance that would be viewed historically as college football's version of Halley's Comet was squelched in 2009 when Stanford drubbed USC 55-21, aggressively running up the score in the fourth quarter, including a gratuitous attempt at a 2-point conversion.

"What's your deal?" an irritated Carroll famously asked a smug Harbaugh during a wonderfully ungenial handshake.

Nonetheless, we had no idea what the actual deal would become between USC and Stanford. Early on, Stanford's success appeared to be a curious and anomalous run, a surprising reversal of fortune that briefly thickened the Pac-10 plot but seemed certain to be only temporary. Carroll and Harbaugh would both bolt to the NFL, where their personal rivalry has remained just as spicy. USC's short-term future was burdened with NCAA sanctions. Stanford's future seemed burdened by, well, being Stanford, the most elite academic institution playing FBS football.

When David Shaw, a polished Stanford graduate, ascended from offensive coordinator to replace Harbaugh, few imagined he'd maintain a top-10 program. There was a suspicion that Harbaugh built what he did because he was crazy enough to make it happen. Shaw was way too normal.

Yet here we are, two days away from a renewal of what has become the Pac-12's most meaningful cross-division rivalry. While Stanford-Oregon mostly has decided the Pac-12 champion the past four years, there's been little drama in their actual games, with only the 2012 contest being an actual nail-biter.

Three of the past four USC-Stanford games have been decided essentially on the game's last play, twice by field goals, once in triple-overtime. Average margin of victory in those four games? Five points. National importance? Stanford may have played Florida State in the BCS National Championship last year if not for being upset 20-17 at USC. In 2012, USC was ranked No. 2 in the nation before Stanford exposed the Trojans 21-14, starting a spiral from which former USC coach Lane Kiffin never recovered. QB Andrew Luck became Andrew Luck during thrilling Stanford wins in 2010 and 2011.

Both teams are star-laden NFL pipelines. Stanford, the two-time defending Pac-12 champ, enters this game ranked 13th, just a little annoyed at how Oregon and UCLA have grabbed the biggest preseason headlines in the conference. USC is 14th, a team with fewer than 60 available scholarship players but as gifted with its starting 22 as just about any team in the nation.

Both crushed overmatched foes last weekend and looked impressive in doing so. The Trojans added a wrinkle for this go-round by switching from their long-standing pro-style scheme to an up-tempo offense under new coach Steve Sarkisian, who notes "up-tempo" isn't a transition from a power to a finesse attack, only a means to create more touches for his talented skill players.

If the football part of football wasn't enough, if we needed to introduce some new drama and personalities at loggerheads to liven things up, it's worth noting that Shaw and Sarkisian engaged in a public war of words after last year's Stanford-Washington game. Sarkisian, then the Huskies' coach, accused Stanford of faking injuries in order to slow down his up-tempo offense, going so far as to specifically point a finger at Cardinal defensive line coach Randy Hart. Shaw wasn't happy with the accusation, and he opened that week's Pac-12 coaches teleconference with a lengthy and strongly worded statement.

"I believe it's unprofessional to call out an assistant coach on another team," Shaw said. "It's unprofessional and it's disrespectful. The only D-line coach that I know of that's ever instructed players to fake injury works at the University of Washington."

That would be controversial coach Tosh Lupoi, now working at Alabama, who was suspended in 2010 while at California for instructing players to fake injuries against Oregon. Sark, however, never backed away from his assertions.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillSteve Sarkisian has his hands full with off-the-field drama at USC, but Saturday's game at Stanford is at the forefront of his worries this week.
While it might be fun if Sarkisian and Shaw continued to eyeball each other's throats, that doesn't seem to be the reality. It appears, rather, that they have agreed to disagree and let the issue die. Though they both admit they haven't revisited the conflict in order to make a formal peace, they also pointed out they've spoken amiably multiple times since then -- a couple of times, in fact, within range of reporters -- and they claim to respect and like each other.

"We had a disagreement in the heat of the moment; both of us have moved on," Sarkisian said.

Offered Shaw, "There is no animosity whatsoever."

Still, one suspects there are at least some residual fumes from this squabble, since a few Stanford players also took issue with Sarkisian's accusation.

There is another Shaw on the sidelines of this game, though figuratively: USC CB Josh Shaw, who last week went from heroic to notorious. Coupled with Anthony Brown calling Sarkisian a racist after the running back quit the team -- a charge that has been supported by absolutely no one -- USC was dealing with substantial tumult and unfavorable national headlines last week. It may have been a bit surprising that the Trojans overcame those distractions to efficiently dismantle Fresno State 52-13, setting a Pac-12 record by running 105 plays.

An easy way for Sarkisian to change the narrative around his program and to win over Trojans fans who remain skeptical about his hiring is to beat the Cardinal on Saturday. Winning cures just about everything in college football.

In any event, even without Harbaugh and Carroll sniping at each other, we know the deal between USC and Stanford. It has endured as an annual battle imbued with drama and meaning, with the winner Saturday likely pushing into the top 10 and announcing itself as a Pac-12 and national contender.

And who knows? Maybe the postgame handshake will offer up another memorable exchange.
The 2014 Pac-12 season starts tonight, and that is unquestionably a righteous thing. The first week's slate of games? Well, it's not exactly going to awaken any echoes. Still, Confucius say he who casts a disrespectful glance at a season opener finds his beer warm and his prayers to the college football gods unanswered.

Yet with all due respect, the Pac-12 plays five games versus overmatched FCS foes and is double-digit favorites in four other games. The only underdog is California, which visits Northwestern.

Ah, but that second Saturday. That, my friends, is a biggie. Not entirely across the conference, but two games will attract beaucoup Pac-12 and national eyeballs and are decidedly meaningful in terms of setting up the first season of the College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Don RyanMarcus Mariota and Oregon can make a significant statement with a win over Michigan State in Week 2.
Start with No. 8 Michigan State's visit to No. 3 Oregon. This might be the biggest nonconference matchup of the season, and it's even bigger after the season-ending injury to Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. The Spartans are now the clear favorites in the Big Ten, as the Ducks are the popular preseason pick in the Pac-12. It might look like a Rose Bowl, but it probably ends up operating like a CFP elimination game. Or validation game.

It's an intriguing matchup, too: Celebrated offense versus celebrated defense, with the Ducks, led by preseason Heisman favorite Marcus Mariota, facing Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who might be the best in the business.

Meanwhile, No. 11 Stanford plays host to No. 15 USC. The Trojans used to feast on the Cardinal. Now this is a bitter and highly competitive rivalry. What makes this game fun is the rivalry is as much player-based as fan based. That bitterness ignited between Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh -- "What's your deal?" -- and has maintained its burn over the past few years, with the teams exchanging major upsets the past two seasons.

It also won't cool things down, at least in terms of perception, that new Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian and Stanford coach David Shaw were at public loggerheads last year over the Cardinal allegedly faking injuries in a tight victory over Sark's Washington team. While it might be responsible to note that Shaw and Sarkisian seem to get along well and chat amiably at coaching functions, that would de-sensationalize an angle the Pac-12 blog would prefer to jump up and down and point at next week.

It also has been established, though less publicly, that more than a few Stanford players were extremely unhappy with Sarkisian's accusation, most notably DE Ben Gardner, whose NFL career has already been waylaid by the shoulder issue that hampered him against the Huskies.

We also must add that the irreverent Stanford band surely is already clicking its collective heels over the possibilities the "Josh Shaw Tall Tale of Heroism" offers for a halftime snark.

Even if you cast aside the emotions, this is a big Pac-12 game. The winner figures to establish itself as a top-10 team and national contender. While they occupy different divisions, one will end up 0-1 in conference play and the other will be 1-0. In what figure to be tight races in both divisions, that one-game swing could prove critical.

A USC victory would be a significant event in the South Division. The Trojans don't play Oregon, as UCLA does. Arizona State doesn't, either. The Bruins and the Sun Devils both play Stanford. The Sun Devils visit USC. In other words, in terms of schedule strength among the contenders, a USC win over Stanford might change the perception of the South race.

Of course, from a coach's perspective we are getting ahead of ourselves. USC plays host to Fresno State on Saturday. While the Bulldogs don't look like the formidable foe the Trojans whipped in the Las Vegas Bowl a year ago, they certainly have a pulse. Stanford plays UC Davis and Oregon plays South Dakota. Both will roll, though some Davis folks have pointed out the Aggies upset the Cardinal in 2005, one of the notable moments of Walt Harris' coaching tenure.

As you well know, sports teams play one game at a time.

"We approach this game, literally, exactly like every other one," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said of South Dakota and, by extension, Michigan State. "To do anything else would be a conflict of our process, disrespectful to our opponent and to the game."

While Helfrich and Shaw admit that they spent plenty of time this offseason reviewing Michigan State and USC/Washington film knowing about their big dates in Week 2, the nature of football is routine, and routine dictates you prepare for each game the same way.

Dangers of looking ahead this week? Unlikely. For one, it's the first game of the season. The opportunity to play a real game in front of a crowd after a long preseason camp is a reward in itself. Don't expect players to be blasť and unfocused.

And there are stakes for players in game one, no matter how undecorated the foe is, according to Shaw.

"We have a lot of guys still competing for things, for who's going to get more playing time," he said. "I'd feel bad for the guy who shows a sign of not focusing on the task at hand. He's going to meet with a not very happy Coach Shaw."

Pac-12 rivalry heat meter

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A college football rivalry never exactly cools off, at least among the emotionally involved. But rivalries do go through upticks and downticks of relevance, both regionally and nationally.

So which Pac-12 rivalries are heating up, stagnating or cooling as we head into the 2014 season?

USC Trojans-UCLA Bruins

The facts: USC leads the series 46-30-7 and has won 12 of the last 15 games, but the Bruins have won two in a row under Jim Mora, including a 35-14 domination last year.

The meter: Sizzling and rising.

The animosity between the fan bases is always strong, but what makes a rivalry truly heat up is relevance. And substantial stakes. This rivalry is gaining in both areas. USC is one of the preeminent football programs in the nation, even though UCLA fans hate to read that. UCLA is the rising western power under Mora, even though USC fans mock the idea. USC has a new coach in Steve Sarkisian and is moving past NCAA sanctions. UCLA is a top-10 team eyeballing the College Football Playoff. Know what I say? Release the hounds!

Arizona Wildcats-Arizona State Sun Devils

The facts: Arizona leads the series 47-39-1, but Todd Graham has won the last two against Rich Rodriguez, including a 58-21 blowout last year in Tempe. Before that, the visiting team has won eight of the last 13 matchups, including the last four -- games that were decided by a total of 15 points.

The meter: Blistering and heating up.

While Oregon-Washington fans provide the most blowback to the Pac-12 blog -- Yakety Yak! Oh, yeah! Yakety Yak -- Arizona and Arizona State fans are a strong No. 2. It used to be the fans hated each other and whined a lot -- "You cover them more... waaaaaa!" -- because both teams were fairly mediocre. But the Sun Devils won the South Division last year and are now 2-0 under Todd Graham against the Wildcats and Rich Rodriguez. With both programs trending up in an overall sense, the rivalry is gaining relevance. It also helps that Graham and Rodriguez don't particularly care for each other.

Oregon Ducks-Washington Huskies

The facts: Washington leads the series 58-43-5, but the Ducks have won 10 straight in the series by at least 17 points, including a 45-24 win in Seattle last year.

The meter: Hot but stagnating.

This has long been the most bitter Pac-10/12 rivalry but it has experienced a dramatic power shift to the Ducks. Sorry Huskies, you know it's true. It seems like Oregon fans these days are more worried about winning that darn absent national title than fretting about that team from up North. Now, if Washington and new coach Chris Petersen go into Autzen Stadium and steal one this year... well, that can't happen. Can it? Maybe that possibility needs to be debated.

USC-Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The facts: USC has won nine of the last 12 meetings, but the Fighting Irish has won three of the last four, including a 14-10 win last year. Since 1967, USC has gone 24-20-3 in the series.

The meter: Simmering with many hoping for a boil (particularly TV executives)

As far as national rivalries go, this one is without peer. It's an annual classic that matches two of college football's top powers. Lately, both teams have been nationally relevant, albeit not on an annual basis, and that's the issue. This rivalry is more about national relevance than bitterness. What it needs to heat up is for both teams to be national contenders with the winner in line for the College Football Playoff.

Washington-Washington State Cougars

The facts: Washington leads the series 68-32-6, including a 27-17 victory last year. The Cougars have lost 11 of the last 16 Apple Cups, but are 1-1 under Mike Leach.

The meter: Simmering with lots of potential spice

Have you stopped and pondered just how fun this one might get if Petersen and Mike Leach get their programs' performances to match their respective coaching reputations? For one, in terms of the media, it could be a Don James-Jim Walden deal where Petersen is a "2,000-word underdog" to the loquacious Leach. As it is at present, the Cougars really, really hate the entitled Huskies but the Huskies reserve their most bitter distain for Oregon.

Oregon-Oregon State

The facts: Oregon leads the series 61-46-10 and has won the last six meetings, including a 36-35 thriller in Autzen Stadium last year.

The meter: Warm but in need of another log on the fire

Know what bothers Oregon State fans? When some Ducks fans say they root for the Beavers when the two aren't playing. It probably isn't a statement of emotional fact, but Oregon fans recognize it as the ultimate patronizing gesture. See above with Washington: The Beavers really, really hate the entitled Ducks but the Ducks reserve their most bitter distain for Washington. Now, if the Ducks start to slide a bit and the Beavers push past them in the North Division -- or at least become Oregon's equal again -- this one will immediately boil over, potentially returning to the back-and-forth turf battle it was from 1998-2008, when it was one of the conference's most interesting and meaningful rivalries.

USC-Stanford Cardinal

The facts: In a series that dates back to 1905, USC holds a 59-29-3 lead, but Stanford has won four of the last five meetings. Still, a year after Stanford upset the then-No. 2 Trojans, USC returned the favor by knocking off No. 4 Stanford 20-17 last fall.

The meter: Most rivalries are more about the fans than the players. This one might be more about the players than the fans. These two teams go at each other -- hard. Things really picked up steam with former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh mouthing off about Pete Carroll, then backing it up with two wins, including the classic "What's your deal?" game in 2009. Stanford started USC's and Lane Kiffin's downward spiral in 2012, while the Trojans ended the Cardinal's national title hopes in 2013. And I personally enjoy watching the Stanford band drive the Coliseum crowd crazy -- "And now a tribute to a great USC graduate... Joe Francis!"

California Golden Bears-Stanford

The facts: Stanford leads the Big Game rivalry 54-44-10 and has won four in a row, including a 63-13 blowout last year.

The meter: Luke warm until Cal rights itself

The Big Game is a great rivalry with a great history. The problem is getting the two teams to be good at the same time. Cal dominated the rivalry under Jeff Tedford until 2009. Now the Cardinal is fully in control. Second-years Bears coach Sonny Dykes probably could win over the Old Blues by pulling the upset this fall, but that will mean winning as a double-digit underdog.

BYU Cougars-Utah Utes

The facts: Utah leads the series 57-34-4. Utah has won four straight and nine of the last 12 games with the Cougars, including a 20-13 victory last year in Provo.

The meter: Always hot but chilling for two years

Utah has dominated this bitter series of late, most notably since joining the Pac-12, but there will be a two-year hiatus until the Holy War is renewed in 2016. That is unfortunate, as the series hasn't been interrupted since BYU didn't field teams during World War II (1943-45). Further, BYU is presently outside looking in, as it is not a Power Five conference member. It will be interesting to see how things go in the future.

Utah-Colorado Buffaloes

The facts: Colorado leads the series 31-26-3, and this is both teams’ longest series against any Pac-12 team. They played annually from 1903-62 with four exceptions, but then the rivalry went dormant for 49 years before it resumed in 2011 as Pac-12 members. As Pac-12 members, Utah leads 2-1 having won two in a row.

The meter: Tepid while awaiting some seasoning

Sure, this is a bit of an artificial rivalry. They are paired as rivals because they joined the conference together. But as both start to develop their Pac-12 legs, you can count on this rivalry heating up. They will be compared for a long time. Neither wants to be the one not measuring up. And don't forget the "Red Bike Incident."
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.

Stanford looks to sustain success

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STANFORD, Calif. -- As Stanford players jogged off the practice field Monday evening, nothing stood out in particular. Significant only because it marked the first spring practice of the year, and it had the look and feel of just another day on the Farm.

Maybe temperatures don't always hover around 70 degrees until just past sunset in late February, but there was no fanfare or anything ceremonious about the day.

In that respect, nothing has changed over the past five years.

[+] EnlargeJames Vaughters
AP Photo/Rob HoltJames Vaughters spurned the SEC to join a Stanford team that, at the time of his commitment, was just beginning its upswing.
"It was a good start. The tempo I thought was outstanding for a first day, which is always what you're looking for when you lose so many seniors," coach David Shaw said. "It wasn't perfect, of course, but it was fast and that's what we were looking for Day 1."

As the only program to play in BCS bowls the past four seasons, there is no denying Stanford's place in the current hierarchy of college football. Any list of the nation's elite must include the Cardinal or it would be incomplete.

In that respect, everything has changed.

Former coach Jim Harbaugh recruited with an offer for a world-class education and the chance to turn things around. When Stanford signed outgoing fifth-year seniors such as Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner and Ryan Hewitt in 2009, it did so following a 5-7 season.

That group leaves Stanford not knowing what it's like to be a part of a losing team.

Only the 13 fifth-year seniors on the spring roster were on the 2010 team, Harbaugh's last season, and only defensive end Blake Leuders saw action that season. They're the last group that bought into a program that had yet to play in a major bowl game and, as a byproduct of that, the first not to miss one.

Senior outside linebacker James Vaughters is in a different boat. He spurned several SEC offers and left his home state of Georgia to sign with Stanford following its Orange Bowl victory to cap the 2010 season.

"They showed me they were just as committed to winning as the schools that were recruiting me from the South," Vaughters said.

He got what he signed up for.

"If you see success, it's a challenge to sustain it," Vaughters said. "It's a matter of finding a formula that works. When you have so many guys that started for so many years, we just have to find our way to be successful."

One could worry about a sense of entitlement creeping into a program with as much success as the Cardinal has experienced over the past four years, but both Vaughters and Shaw didn't seem to think that it would be a problem.

Shaw pointed to senior running back Ricky Seale as an example.

"[Last year] he would just be on the sidelines on his toes," Shaw said. "So now we have the anxiety and that energy because they all want a chance to play. I think we're in a great spot because we're going to get their best because they all want to get on the field."

Senior receiver Ty Montgomery (knee) and senior nose tackle David Parry (midsection) will both miss the first session of two spring sessions with minor injuries.

Backup quarterback Ryan Burns will miss the first session to due a disciplinary reason, according to Shaw.

Shaw has still not hired a defensive backs coach, but he said it "should be solved in the next week or so." For the time being, graduate assistant Marc Mattioli will coach defensive backs.
Get this. Stanford’s Lance Anderson actually wanted to be a defensive coordinator in the Pac-12. Crazy, right? Biletnikoff winners to lose sleep over; Doak Walker finalists dashing and gashing for 20 yards a pop; and All-American offensive linemen that must be displaced. Oh, the humanity.

“There are some pretty good quarterbacks, too,” says Anderson.

Oh yeah, the quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeLance Anderson
Peyton Williams/Getty ImagesLance Anderson, who has been on Stanford's staff since 2007, will have to replace some big names on the Cardinal's 2014 defense.
Anderson has his wish. With the departure of Derek Mason, who was named the head coach of Vanderbilt last month, Anderson takes over one of the most respected defensive outfits in all of college football. The Cardinal have led the conference in scoring defense and been ranked in the top 15 nationally in three of the last four years. They live by the mantra #partyinthebackfield and have put the brakes on some of the nation’s top offenses.

Now it’s Anderson’s turn to add his own flavor to the scheme -- however minor it might be.

“Every year we tweak a little bit no matter what,” said Anderson, who first came to Stanford in 2007 with Jim Harbaugh. “We go back and watch film and do all of our self-scouting and analysis. We try to find places where we can get better and improve and that’s naturally going to lead to tweaking. I think every coordinator has a different feel and some stuff you might like a little better than the other guy.

“We’ve been in a system for a few years now and I think the kids are really comfortable with that. They like it. And I think the systems we’re in on both sides of the ball suit our personnel really well. Vic Fangio came in in 2010, installed the system at that point and we’ve kept it pretty similar ever since.”

That includes transitions from Fangio to the co-defensive coordinator team of Jason Tarver and Mason to just Mason and now to Anderson, who will continue to work with the outside linebackers after coaching the defensive tackles his first two seasons on The Farm.

Equally known as a top-flight recruiter, Anderson must now help the Cardinal transition to life without some of their marquee players. Gone next year are linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, defensive end Ben Gardner and safety Ed Reynolds. All were major contributors in one form or another to Stanford’s appearances in four straight BCS bowl games.

Despite those losses, Anderson is confident the Cardinal have the depth -- both in and out of the locker room -- to stay atop the defensive standings.

“I look at guys like A.J. Tarpley and Jordan Richards who have played a lot of football and they really stand out,” Anderson said. “Both guys display some natural leadership and they are well-respected by their teammates. Henry Anderson and David Parry are a couple of other guys who are really looked up to among the defensive players. I think we’ll be OK.”

Interestingly enough, the Pac-12 has seen the defensive coordinators from the top five scoring defenses move on after the 2013 season. Mason went to Vanderbilt, Nick Aliotti retired at Oregon, Justin Wilcox moved to USC with Steve Sarkisian, Lou Spanos returned to the NFL and Clancy Pendergast was not retained with the Trojans after Sarkisian came in. Three of those were replaced internally, with Anderson, Don Pellum (Oregon) and Jeff Ulbrich (UCLA) all being promoted. Pete Kwiatkowski joins Chris Petersen in Washington by way of Boise State and Wilcox followed Sark. So despite the transitions, the continuity among coaching staffs remains relatively unscathed.

However, that combination of coordinator shuffling, along with some A-list offensive players returning in 2014, makes for an interesting setup. The Pac-12 is known for its offensive diversity, and when you factor in the possibility of nine teams returning their starting quarterback, the dice seem loaded to the offensive side of the ball.

“There is a lot of offensive talent in this league and it doesn’t look like that’s going to slow down,” Anderson said. “The quarterbacks all have experience. It’s not going to be easy.

“We know that every week we are going to be tested. All we can do is try to go out and learn the techniques and the fundamentals and get the physical and mental mastery of the position. Once we get that in spring ball and the preseason, it’s just matter of going out and applying what we’ve learned during the season. Every week is going to be different. All we can do is prepare the best we can, master the position and try to apply it on Saturdays in the fall.”

Even at the top, Mason still scrapping

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Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason played cornerback at Northern Arizona, and he'd rate as short for the position even at an FCS school. He's compact and powerfully built, but you'd suspect that more than a few receivers took one look at his 5-foot-8 frame and thought, "I am going to steal his lunch money and send him home to his mommy in tears."

Some of those guys got the best of him, no doubt. The Lumberjacks never posted a winning record while Mason, a two-year starter, was on the team. But Mason made sure their afternoon wasn't easy, and that they'd remember him the next morning when they crawled out of bed and needed an aspirin or four.

"I felt like I was tough. I felt like I was physical. I felt like I competed all the time," he said. "I felt like because of my size I played [with] a big chip on my shoulder, mad all the time, mad at everybody. Mad at receivers, tight ends. So I played angry."

[+] EnlargeDerek Mason
AP Photo/Damian DovarganesDefensive coordinator Derek Mason has helped Stanford become one of the top defenses in the nation by, as his players say, doing a "tremendous job of explaining what we do and why we're doing it."
Mason's description of himself as a player surely will make those around the Stanford program smile, particularly those who play defense for him. Mason, 43, is a ball of compressed energy, a demanding guy who sees the entire field in a way that allows him to rapidly process both imperfections that mattered on a specific play and imperfections that didn't matter but might next time. He's not the sort who lets things slide, even when the ultimate result suggests proper execution to the casual observer.

"I think the best thing he does is he helps us stay motivated to show up every day for work," Cardinal All-American outside linebacker Trent Murphy said. "He never lets us get complacent or lets us get content. Some of our best games, as far as score-wise, our win margin, some of those games he gets furious. You would think we lost the game by the way he rips us apart after the game. He's always hungry and keeps us hungry, calls great plays and puts us in a great position to be successful, so you can't ask for anything more from a coach."

The ability to scheme, motivate and teach has made Mason into one of the nation's hottest defensive coordinators, yet his route to success at Stanford has been twisting. This is his 10th coaching stop since 1994. Stanford is the first time he has coached four consecutive seasons in the same place. With five of those coaching jobs, Mason was on the offensive side of the ball. A wide receivers coach at Ohio in 2005 and 2006, he jumped to the Minnesota Vikings to become an assistant defensive backs coach. It looked like the NFL was his future, but then Jim Harbaugh came calling in 2010.

"Anybody who has been around Jim Harbaugh knows he can sell anything," Mason said.

It proved an inspired decision to come West with Harbaugh, who had just hired Vic Fangio to switch Stanford from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. Mason preferred a 3-4 himself -- the Vikings were using a 4-3 -- and Fangio helped him earn his Ph.D. in the scheme.

Of course, Stanford would go 12-1 that season, blowing out Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, and Harbaugh and Fangio would jump to the San Francisco 49ers. When David Shaw was promoted to head coach, he made Mason co-coordinator with Jason Tarver in 2011.

When Tarver left of the Oakland Raiders, Mason took sole control of the defense in 2012. It was Mason who solved Stanford's "Oregon Problem," not Fangio or Tarver. In 2010 and 2011, Stanford surrendered 105 points in losses to the Ducks. In 2012 and 2013, the Cardinal yielded 34 in victories.

"I think the sign of any good football coach at any position is the ability to have a philosophy and have a general scheme that you believe in," Shaw said. "But more importantly, to be able to teach that scheme and then fit the scheme around the players that you have and their talents. I think Derek has done that, and you've seen him do things for Shayne Skov, you've seen him do things for Trent Murphy, do things for Chase Thomas, do things to help Ed Reynolds shine. You put guys in positions to do things that they're good at."

Said Skov: "He does a tremendous job of explaining what we do and why we're doing it."

Stanford has led the Pac-12 in both scoring and rushing defense the past two seasons. Its 97 sacks over the past two seasons is five more than any other conference team. The Cardinal have held opponents to 20 or fewer points in 20 of their last 25 games, and have not allowed a foe to reach 30 points in their past 21 games. Rose Bowl foe Michigan State is the only team with a longer streak (26).

Mason's defense has a massive inventory -- at least for a college team -- of fronts, stunts and blitzes that makes it difficult for offenses to know what they are getting before the snap. The Cardinal's defense is big, athletic and physical at all three levels, but Mason's scheme also takes advantage of the intellect of football recruits who can get into Stanford. They simply can handle more information than a collection of players at just about every other FBS school. Michigan State's offensive players repeatedly talked about how Stanford's defense thrives on keep opponents off-balance.

"They do a great job of trying to confuse the offense," Spartans quarterback Connor Cook said. "They do a lot of different fronts and a lot of movements and stuff like that to try and confuse you."

Seven years ago, Mason was a receivers coach at Ohio. Now he's one of the nation's top defensive coordinators in the country.

The reason he jumped from point A to point B probably has a lot to do with him coaching the same way he played cornerback at Northern Arizona. He still sees that 6-4 receiver grinning at him, thinking he's about to grab some extra lunch money.

"I absolutely coach with a chip on my shoulder," Mason said. "I want these guys to be the best. There's not a day that goes by that my head hits the pillow that I'm not thinking of how we can get better, how these guys can get better, because that's what they came here to do."

Video: NFL coaches in mix for Texas job?

December, 15, 2013
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Adam Schefter discusses some of the biggest names to surface in Texas' head-coaching search, including NFL coaches Mike Tomlin and Jim Harbaugh.

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.

Calm before Oregon-Stanford hype

October, 31, 2013
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Apologies to the eight Pac-12 teams playing this trick-or-treat week, but this slate of games really is a light murmur before the hype volume is turned up to 11 next week.

The conference's two highest-ranked teams -- No. 2 Oregon and No. 5 Stanford -- are not only off this week, they square off next Thursday in what should be the Pac-12 game of the year.

That doesn't mean there aren't games worth watching over the next three days. Arizona State will try to prove it can beat a solid team on the road Thursday night at Washington State. USC's visit to Oregon State is intriguing on Friday night. And there are always upset possibilities as Arizona and UCLA are heavy favorites at California and Colorado, respectively.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota will have the opportunity to make a Heisman Trophy statement as well as put the Ducks in the top position in the Pac-12 race next Thursday at Stanford.
But those games won't attract eyeballs from all areas of the country the way the Ducks-Cardinal showdown will. Oregon will be trying to polish its national championship contender bona fides with its toughest test yet -- Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota also could make a Heisman Trophy statement, and Stanford will be trying to take control of the Pac-12's North Division, as it did last year when it shocked the heavily favored Ducks 17-14 in overtime in Autzen Stadium.

Still, the primary focus for both teams was and will be more on themselves this week. There's recruiting calls to make and injured guys needing to get treatment. Both teams have banged-up players whose presence could be critical for the matchup, most notably Stanford with defensive end Henry Anderson and receiver Devon Cajuste. Stanford already announced that defensive end Ben Gardner is out for the season with a pectoral injury.

Earnest game preparation won't begin until the weekend, as both teams are trying to stick to a typical game-week schedule.

Even though both coaches want to keep the emotions contained and treat the matchup like any other, there's no question that the buzz started on their respective campuses not long after each dispatched a tough opponent last Saturday, with the Cardinal winning 20-12 at Oregon State and Oregon running away from UCLA in the fourth quarter for a 42-14 victory.

"We know that it's there," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "The guys know what the game is going to be about."

The teams have split their last four meetings, with Stanford winning in 2009 and 2012. Shaw is 1-1 as the Cardinal head coach against the Ducks and he was 1-1 as the team's offensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh. This will be Mark Helfrich's first taste as the Oregon head coach; he was the Ducks' offensive coordinator under Chip Kelly the previous four meetings.

While the game will be heated and the stakes high, Shaw and Helfrich seem to get along well. They chatted frequently during the Pac-12 meetings in May. They certainly have a lot in common, as both replaced charismatic former head coaches credited with creating a national power before bolting for the NFL.

And, yes, they talked about exactly that.

"Mark and I talked about that a couple of times," Shaw said. "I think he's done it perfectly. You have to completely take your ego out of it. So many people say from the outside, 'How are you going to make this your program?' You look at it and say, 'This is not my program, it's the kids' program.' Every decision you make is what's best for the kids. And if the scheme is great, who cares if they call it Chip Kelly's scheme? Or Jim Harbaugh's scheme? Whoever, it doesn't matter. The things that work, you don't change. The things that don't work, you take them out."

However, they won't be chatting much over the next six days.

Both coaches subscribed to the notion of nameless, faceless opponents and every game being equally big. That's what elite programs do. Preparation is always the same. Every game is big when conference and national titles are the chief goal.

But the fact is the Oregon-Stanford game is bigger, and has been now for going on four years. We know this because all of the college football nation will be tuning in a week from now, just as it did last year, and in 2011 and 2010.

Cardinal antsy to get season started

September, 6, 2013
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Saturday’s 8 p.m. PT kickoff between Stanford and San Jose State ensures that the Cardinal, who had a Week 1 bye, will be the last team in college football to start its season. So yeah … Stanford’s players are more than a little anxious to get going.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireWith an extra week before starting the season, David Shaw and Stanford have not played a game in 250 days.
“I was 50-50 before but now I’m in favor of playing (in Week 1),” Stanford head coach David Shaw said. “It’s hard not to play when other people are playing -- especially the start of a season. The start of the season has such a buildup. We’re antsy.”

Shaw split last Saturday watching games and pulling dad duty. Most of his players rallied around TVs and watched games with as critical of an eye as possible. Still, others were so focused on Stanford’s Week 1 that they failed to realize it was actually college football’s Week 1.

“I didn’t even realize the season started on Saturday until I turned on the TV and saw College Football Live,” defensive back Usua Amanam said. “It was awesome. I love watching football.”

Now he gets to play some, finally, with a familiar foe coming to town. Last year the Spartans pushed the Cardinal in the opener. Not that the Cardinal took SJSU lightly last year, but they probably weren’t expecting Mike MacIntyre’s team to come out with such tenacity. A fourth quarter field goal was the difference in Stanford’s 20-17 victory.

“We were ill-prepared,” Amanam said. “They came out fast and punched us a couple of times in the mouth. It wasn’t until the third or fourth quarter that we realized we were in a dog fight. Looking back at that game will help prepare us better for this year.”

It’s also, for the foreseeable future, the last Bill Walsh Legacy game on the schedule. Whether the game will/should continue in the future has added a little fuel to the rivalry in the Bay Area media this week.

The Spartans are led by new head coach Ron Caragher. Ironically enough, Caragher replaced Jim Harbaugh and Shaw -- Harbaugh’s assistant -- at the University of San Diego after Harbaugh left for Stanford.

“We met for the first time at the Bay Area Media Day, about a month ago, which is strange because we know so many of the same people,” Shaw said. “We had never met before or been in the same room before. I feel like I know him because I’ve heard so much about him from guys we’ve both coached at USD as well as other places he’s been.”

Pleasantries aside, the Cardinal will be out to rattle and disrupt Caragher’s QB. San Jose State quarterback David Fales, the most accurate quarterback in FBS last year, is a top priority for the Stanford defense. With some good receivers around him like Noel Grigsby and Chandler Jones, the pressure is on Stanford’s front seven to create some pressure, while the back half of the defense closes up passing lanes.

“He can fit tight balls in,” Shaw said. “He played extremely well (last week) and still had a few balls that were dropped on him that were very well-placed. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. He’s hard to get to. He sees things quickly and gets the ball out of his hands.”

The Cardinal offense, on the other hand, spent this past week installing new red zone schemes. With some critical weapons -- like running back Stepfan Taylor and tight end Zach Ertz – gone to the NFL, Shaw is looking for the next generation of players to step up.

“We’ve had good receivers, but the guy (Ertz) was phenomenal," Shaw said. "And I loved Coby Fleener. Coby Fleener was special. But I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a guy like Zach that can run all the routes. He’d run every single route the smaller, quicker, faster guys could run and most of the times run them better.”

Expect a heavy rotation of Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney at running back, with others trying to carve out their own niche. The maturation of quarterback Kevin Hogan will also be a storyline to watch.

Stanford's defense, which is being heralded as one of the nation’s best, is also looking to make a good first impression.

“We have a chance to do something special this year,” Amanam said. “We want to make the most of the opportunities we have.”

Pac-12 as NFL coaching pipeline

June, 4, 2013
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ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel looks at which conferences send head coaches to the NFL and makes a conclusion: "The shortest road for any FBS head coach to the NFL is through the Pac-12. In fact, no other conference even comes close."

He points out that Chip Kelly (Oregon to the Philadelphia Eagles) was the 15th Pac-12 coach to jump to the NFL since "Tommy Prothro moved crosstown from UCLA in 1971 to coach the Los Angeles Rams."

And during that span the SEC has sent three to the NFL. The Big Ten one.

Figuring out exactly why this is true is more of a challenge, particularly because folks in other regions will get mad hearing the real reason: Brains and sophistication.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Matt Rourke/AP PhotoChip Kelly's offensive creativity helped him become the latest Pac-12 head coach to land an NFL head coaching gig.
Hey... take it easy. Just saying. And you Pac-12 folks need to behave.

Just look at the list: Dick Vermeil, Bill Walsh, John McKay, Mike Riley, Dennis Erickson and Chip Kelly. Those are some of the most innovative minds in football history, particularly offensive football.

Schematically, the Pac-12 -- historically and I think still at present -- is the nation's most sophisticated league. There's just more ... stuff. Playbooks are thicker. That, by the way, includes both sides of the football. The QBs are asked to do more. And that forces defenses to do more, too.

This, by the way, fits in with those who -- wrongly -- view the Pac-12 as a finesse league: A conference that is physically inferior has to use its wits to succeed.

But sophistication is about more than scheme. It's about psychology and managing people. There's more diversity on the West Coast. That complicates the job, so doing it well is meaningful. John McKay probably would have been successful coaching in Tuscaloosa. Not as sure the same could be said of Bear Bryant in Los Angeles.

Part of that is this: There's not as much "Yes, sir," "No, sir" on the West Coast as there is in other regions, particularly the Southeast and Texas, though that as a historical trend is likely narrowing. Going old school on an 18-to-23-year old from L.A. or Seattle probably won't work as well as it would on a kid from small town Alabama. The way a successful Pac-12 coach talks to and motivates his team is, in general, different. And, historically, it's probably closer to the NFL model, where the players are paid professionals and less willing to respond positively to a ranting coach.

Understand, there are plenty of exceptions to that. Frank Kush at Arizona State and Don James at Washington were as old school intimidating to their players as any of their contemporaries. Probably part of the reason neither made the NFL jump, either.

There's another level to that sophistication: Big cities. The NFL is a big-city league. So is the Pac-12. Maisel thinks this matters:
It could be that universities that share a market with NFL teams lose more coaches to the league. A school such as Boston College, clamoring for attention in a crowded market, might be more liable to hire a prominent NFL assistant coach such as Tom Coughlin, who left the Eagles for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1994. That best explains why, even without counting Johnson or Erickson, the 22-year-old Big East has lost five head coaches to the NFL.

But there are other potential reasons:

  • Out of the box hires create fast-rising stars: Kelly, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll each arrived in the Pac-12 in creative ways. Mike Bellotti made the inspired decision to hire Kelly away from New Hampshire. Harbaugh mostly generated head scratches when Stanford hired him away from San Diego. And Carroll was USC's 174th choice after a bumbling search. Heck, even Bill Walsh was a frustrated NFL assistant when he arrived at Stanford.
  • Previous NFL experience: Carroll had previous NFL coaching experience. So did Dick Vermeil, Bill Walsh and Dennis Erickson. Harbaugh was a longtime NFL QB. Several other guys on the list at least had a cup of coffee as an NFL assistant before taking over a Pac-8/10/12 team. You could conjecture that many of them viewed returning to the NFL as their ultimate ambition, unlike a college coaching lifer.
  • Recruiting rules in SEC: The most important skill for a head coach in the SEC is without question: Recruiting. The competition for recruits nationwide is brutal, but it's a blood sport in the Southeast. And that is not really a skill that translates in the NFL.
  • Money: Some conferences' pay scales are competitive with the NFL. The Pac-12's is not.
Mark Helfrich has a few more months before he can officially coach a game as Oregon's new man in charge. And yet he's already received an encouraging endorsement from the guy who would love nothing more than to squash the Ducks' on Nov. 7, crushing their chances of a North Division crown and possible berth in the BCS championship game.

Stanford head coach David Shaw knows a little something about taking over for a strong-willed coach who left for the NFL. Shaw's calm and even-tempered demeanor was a stark juxtaposition to the animated, and at times hot-headed and eccentric Jim Harbaugh. And yet in two years, Shaw has earned a pair of Pac-12 Coach of the Year awards and found a way to make Harbaugh's team, almost seamlessly, his own.

[+] EnlargeOregon's Mark Helfrich
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY Sports"This is a place where succession and continuity has been very successful," new Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said, "and hopefully, obviously, we hope for that to continue for a long time. "
Helfrich, Shaw says, is on the same path.

"I think he's done it perfectly so far," Shaw said. "The first thing you don't want to do is spend so much time putting your stamp on it that you don't do what's best for the kids. The most important thing is that you put the kids in position to be successful. It's got to be about the team. And your team feeds off of that.

"It's a great opportunity for Mark to step out in front and poke his chest out and talk about how great he is and all the things he's going to do and change. He hasn't done that," Shaw continued. "He's said 'Hey, we're going to play our offense. This is Oregon's offense. We're going to play as best as we can. We're going to improve every single day.' All the moves he's made, all the decisions he's made, all the words he said have all been exactly what should be done. That reassures your team. Really, that's how the team becomes your team because they believe in the coach and they believe he's going to do what's best for them."

Pretty classy answer. He could have just as easily said, "We try not worry about anyone but ourselves," a quote Shaw is fond of during the season, and that would have been perfectly acceptable.

From what we know about Helfrich, which is limited until we see what he does on fourth-and-3 from the 50, we do know that he has a different personality than Chip Kelly -- who departed for the Philadelphia Eagles after taking the Ducks to four straight BCS bowl games. Kelly was a confident coach. Fearless. Brash, even. No one is certain if Helfrich will share Kelly's aggressive nature or take on a more conservative approach. Not even Helfrich.

"I don't know," Helfrich said. "I guess we'll find out."

Oregon's new coach isn't worried about the comparisons to his predecessor -- which will no doubt be flying in the preseason, during the season and after the season. He simply sees himself as the next in line.

"[From coach Rich] Brooks, to [Mike] Bellotti, Chip, they all gave me the advice to be yourself," he said "This is a place where succession and continuity has been very successful and hopefully, obviously, we hope for that to continue for a long time. We have a lot of great things in place here from an infrastructure standpoint. Not only the facilities, which are obviously incredible, but the people inside the facilities are even more important. When your strength coach has been here for almost a quarter of a century and almost every person that touches our guys' lives have been here for more than a decade. That's continuity of culture."

Then again, he's also following a coach who won 91 percent of his conference games. The expectations for Helfrich and the program are atmospheric. But he's off to a good start. So says the guy who wants to beat him.

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.

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