Notre Dame wraps up their 2011 regular season by once again making the trip out to the west coast to take on a Pac-12 rival. This year it is Stanford’s turn. The Cardinal will probably be the best team the Irish will play this year and will most likely also have the best player ND will face in quarterback Andrew Luck. This series has been very competitive and BCS bowl hopes could be on the line for both teams making this year’s clash even more important.
Stanford had one of their best seasons in school history going 12-1. The 12 wins were the most wins ever and their .923 winning percentage was the third best ever for a Stanford team. Their only loss came to national championship runner-up Oregon. They finished off the season in style by blasting ACC champion Virginia Tech 40-12 in the Orange Bowl.
Against Notre Dame, the Cardinal led only 19-6 going into the fourth quarter, then put up 18 points in the final frame to blowout the Irish 37-14. ND could only manage 44 yards rushing the entire contest.
Obviously, the biggest strength for Stanford this season is their star quarterback Andrew Luck. Luck could have left early and entered the NFL draft where he most likely would have been the #1 pick, but instead he decided to return for his senior season and go for a national championship. Luck is on most everyone’s short list for the Heisman and, as said before, will probably be the best player Notre Dame will face this year. Last season Luck was phenomenal completing over 70% of his passes for 3,336 yards with 32 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. He also rushed for 461 yards and three more scores. As scary as it sounds, he could be even better this year. With him on the field, the Cardinal have a chance to win every game.
Along with Luck, Stanford also returns five of their top six rushers from last season. Leading the way is senior Stepfan Taylor who gained 1,151 yards and scored 15 touchdowns in 2010. He’ll be joined by junior Anthony Wilkerson who ran for 400 yards and three scores and senior Tyler Gaffney who picked up 254 yards and four touchdowns. The Cardinal will be a most well-rounded offense this season with all the talent back running the football. They averaged over 40 points a game last season and should be at or above that mark this year.
Time will tell on how good David Shaw will be as a head coach, but unquestionably, the loss of Jim Harbaugh is a huge hole for Stanford to fill this season. Shaw may be a great head coach, but Harbaugh infused the Cardinal with attitude and talent they hadn’t had in decades. Stanford was supposed to be a school that could never succeed consistently in football because of their stringent academics and admission policies. Harbaugh didn’t believe that and turned the Cardinal into one of the best teams not just in the Pac-10, but in the entire country. Until Shaw proves he has what it takes to continue this success, not having Harbaugh on the sideline will be considered a weakness.
Stanford loses three offensive linemen from last year. That’s a tall order to try and replace that when you’re coming off a great season. The line only gave up six sacks in 2010 and was a huge reason why the offense was so prolific a season ago. Working in a new offensive line could slow down the Cardinal and force Luck to scramble a bit more this year. Keep an eye of their line early this season.
Can Stanford win without Harbaugh? Jim Harbaugh did something at Stanford that many thought was not possible. He made them tough and nasty and made them winners. Now with him gone, will that same mental attitude and confidence continue? Chances are they will be good the next couple of years especially this season with Luck back in the fold. But once David Shaw’s recruits start to take over, will there be a dropoff? Again, time will tell, but it’s going to be hard to keep it up.
Stanford is going to be good again. There’s really no doubt about that. The Pac-12 will be tough this season, but there’s no reason to believe the Cardinal will not be in contention for the Pac-12 North title. The only thing they have going against them is the fact Oregon is in their half of the conference, but Stanford gets them at home on November 12. That game follows back-to-back road contest at USC and Oregon State and precedes their big rivalry game against California. It’s a tough stretch, but one that the Cardinal can navigate through unscathed. We’ll see, but another BCS bowl should be in their future.
Against Notre Dame, a BCS game could be in the offing for both team so this year’s game could be the biggest game ever between the two, at least since their initial meeting in the 1924 Rose Bowl. The one thing that ND has in their favor is that Stanford plays Washington, USC, Oregon State, Oregon and Cal in a row with no weeks off before the Irish come to town. That could lead to some let down emotionally, not to mention physically, for the Cardinal. Not saying there will be, but there could be. Regardless, this should be a great game that comes down to the final few possessions.