Before we focus forward, we're going to look back with team-by-team season reviews.
We continue today in reverse alphabetical order.
STANFORD (12-2, 8-1)
MVP: Can we just go ahead and name the entire defense as a singular MVP? Judges? No? Oh well, I guess we have to pick one. And since determining the MVP from that defense is unbelievably impossible, because they truly are the sum of their parts, we'll look to the offensive side of the ball, where running back Stepfan Taylor broke 1,000 yards for third straight season and leaves the school as one of its greatest backs ever. He hit career highs in rushing yards (1,530), carries (322), and receptions (41). When an inconsistent offense stalled, he was one of the few gears that didn't shut down. He rushed for at least 100 yards in eight games, and scored at least one touchdown in nine. He's a complete back -- running, vision, catching, toughness, blocking -- and some NFL team is going to be very happy to have him.
What went right: They won the Pac-12 championship and the Rose Bowl, giving the Cardinal their second BCS Bowl victory in the past three years. The goal of every team should be -- first and foremost -- to win your league. Only one team can actually do it -- and it was Stanford, hence the 'A' grade. While the offense lacked for explosiveness -- it averaged just 27.9 points per game -- the defense was one of the best in the country. Led by a front seven that often enjoyed its "parties in the backfield" and a secondary that was perceived as a possible weak point in the preseason but turned out to be a valuable asset, the Cardinal finished 11th nationally in points against (17.2). In a league where half of the teams average at least 30 points per game, that might be the most impressive number of all.
What went wrong: When head coach David Shaw says Stanford would not have beaten USC or Arizona with Kevin Hogan as the quarterback, you have to believe him. Why? Now this might come as a shock, so I hope you're sitting down ... because he knows more about quarterbacks, offense and football than you do; more than I do and more than Ted Miller does. Debate all you want about whether he was too late pulling the trigger in replacing Josh Nunes. He is the two-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year. I'll stick by his story. So the quarterback controversy left a few ink stains on the season -- most notably at Washington, where Nunes was making his first road start and the team ran into a highly motivated Washington defense that shut down Taylor and kept the Cardinal without an offensive touchdown. The Cardinal were bad in that game -- but let's also make sure we give Washington some credit, because the Huskies played inspired football. As for the Notre Dame game in South Bend -- Stanford's only other defeat -- there's no evidence the Cardinal would have won the game had Taylor not been stopped on that controversial goal-line ending. But it would have been nice to let it play out.
2013 outlook: The defense should once again be nasty. The news that defensive end Ben Gardner, and linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy will be returning, makes the Cardinal the league's best defense until proven otherwise (we'll learn a little more when ASU's equally nasty defensive front comes to Palo Alto on Sept. 21). Chase Thomas' absence will be noticeable. But there are some young outside linebacker's in the pipeline who can fill in adequately. The issue for the Cardinal is going to be finding a way to score. With Taylor gone -- as well as five of the top six receivers from last season -- the offense has some question marks. Tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo were huge security blankets in the red zone and on third down. Also, the development of Hogan will need to take a big step forwar,d because he'll be asked to do a lot more. They also need to replace center Sam Schwartzstein -- a very underappreciated asset for what he did the past two seasons. Still -- with the defense headlining their efforts -- there's no reason to think the Cardinal won't be one of the top two teams in the conference again.