by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

There is consensus opinion around the college football world that Stanford is due for a drop-off this season in the wake of QB Andrew Luck’s (left) departure for the NFL. We don’t necessarily disagree with that assumption; it’s how much the Cardinal might slip that is open to conjecture.

The subject has already been broached by Las Vegas oddsmakers; we know because we were involved with the Golden Nugget’s Tony Miller and Aaron Kessler in setting the lines for 111 college “Games of the Year” that were posted at the Nugget sports book in early June. Stanford was involved in a number of those future numbers, and one of the more extended discussions in the entire process was how much the Cardinal should be downgraded from a year ago.

We expect some sinkage on The Farm from its recent high-water marks that included top ten rankings and BCS appearances the past two seasons. After all, a special player such as Luck might appear only once in a generation. But we’re also thinking that Stanford might not fall as far and as quickly as some might be expecting.

Remember, it’s not as if Stanford football hasn’t had great QBs throughout the years, or had to replace several legendary signal-calling names in the past. Luck was hardly the first star QB to grace the Palo Alto campus.

Before we go any further with this train of thought, we need to make a quick disclaimer regarding perhaps the most-accomplished of all Cardinal QBs, John Elway (right), whose four-year career in Palo Alto ended thirty years ago, in 1982. While true that the program completely collapsed in the year (1983) following Elway’s graduation, dropping all of the way to 1-10 and prompting the dismissal of HC Paul Wiggin, it’s worth remembering that the Elway Stanford teams never reached a bowl game. Even with Elway, the Cardinal was no powerhouse in those years (although it was in an admittedly stronger era for the then-called Pac-10), and finished 5-6 in John’s last season. Ironically, the final act of a game in Elway’s college career was Cal’s famous lateral-laced “The Play” in 1982, when the Golden Bears’ Kevin Moen weaved through the Stanford band and scored perhaps the most improbable TD in college history on the final play of the 1982 Big Game. That result prevented the 1982 Cardinal from receiving an expected Peach Bowl invitation, thus ensuring the Elway years would be bowl-less ones in Palo Alto.

The Andrew Luck-led 2011 Stanford team was a lot stronger than Elway’s 1982 version. And even if this year’s Cardinal endures some slippage, it still figures to be a factor in the Pac-12 and perhaps continue its recent string of appearances in the national rankings. And also make it back to the program’s fourth straight bowl game, which would mark a school record and beyond the reach of any of the bowl-less Elway teams on The Farm.

We suggest a better Stanford analogy might exist in the early ‘70s, when the then-called Indians had a QB of some repute on campus, too. Quarterback Jim Plunkett (left) was every bit the college star as was Elway, and helped lead a resurgence of Stanford football in the late ‘60s into 1970 under creative and colorful HC John Ralston. Plunkett’s 1970 team won the Pac-8 and went on to upset Woody Hayes’ Ohio State, 27-17, in the Rose Bowl, while Jim was awarded with the Heisman Trophy in his senior year...another honor that escaped Elway in college.

In the following year of 1971, much of the college football world was as dismissive of the then-called Indians much as they are for the upcoming 2012 version, reckoning, as current onlookers are similarly projecting post-Luck, that there would be no way Plunkett could be adequately replaced.

Ralston (right), however, had by that time developed a solid foundation, with a talented supporting cast around Plunkett and an underrated, big-play defense that simply ceded some of the spotlight to Plunkett in 1969 and ‘70, two big years on The Farm. Indeed, there are some longtime Stanford fans who to this day believe the ‘69 team might have been better than the ‘70 Rose Bowl/Plunkett Heisman edition, and we are not inclined to argue, recalling that Ralston-coached Indians team from 43 years ago very well.

In Plunkett’s junior campaign of 1969, Stanford was five points from an unbeaten season, a berth in the Rose Bowl, and a possible national championship, losing a couple of heartbreakers at Mike Phipps’ Purdue (36-35) and an all-time thriller at Southern Cal on a desperate, last-second FG by Trojan PK Ron Ayala (26-24). A blocked Steve Horowitz 32-yard field goal attempt on the final play by the Bruins’ Mike Ballou kept the UCLA scoreline at 20-20 in late October that year and marked another heartbreak for that hard-luck Stanford edition.

It’s worth noting that all from among the Boilermakers, Trojans, and Bruins were ranked n the top ten when facing the Indians in 1969.

It was said by many that Stanford’s 1969 team might have been the best 7-2-1 team in college football history. Unfortunately, in those days, there were no bowl options for capable Pac-8 entries which didn’t win the conference. Stanford 1969 (as well as the great UCLA team in ‘69) stayed home for the postseason, while USC squeezed into Pasadena on New Year’s Day.

Ralston and Plunkett were able to finally get over the hump and into the Rose Bowl in 1970, but the Indians (who wouldn’t drop that nickname until March of 1972) were hardly about to disappear in 1971. Ralston had an able backup through the later Plunkett years in the heady Don Bunce (right), who simply needed a chance to perform as a senior so he could shine. Much of Plunkett’s supporting cast (RBs Jackie Brown, Hillary Shockley, & Reggie Sanderson, and WR Miles Moore) was still on hand, and Ralston’s improved recruiting pipeline introduced new components in ‘71 including dangerous WR John Winesberry and a highly-regarded crop of offensive linemen.

Moreover, much of the Stanford “Thunder Chicken” defense from 1970 was still in the fold in ‘71, including linemen Pete Lazetich and Greg Sampson, LBs Jeff Siemon & Mike Simone, and DBs Benny Barnes and Charles McCloud.

The ‘71 Thunder Chicken "D" proved airtight, holding four of its first five foes to single-digit scoring and allowing a mere 12.3 ppg through the regular season. Bunce (who would go on to a medical career and serve as Stanford’s team doctor before sadly passing in 2003 due to a heart attack) was more than a serviceable replacement for Plunkett, passing for 2255 yards, with Moore and Winesberry proving a pair of big-play targets.

The then-called Indians suffered a few upset defeats (much as did the ‘70 squad) but rose to the occasion in mid-October Pac-8 road showdowns vs. Sonny Sixkiller’s Washington and Southern Cal, the latter game one we saw in person at the L.A. Coliseum and recall vividly with an accompanying electric storm. Stanford's defense dominated both of those games, especially the mid-October trek to Seattle when facing an undefeated Huskies team scoring nearly 50 ppg. But the Thunder Chickens throttled Sixkiller, who completed only 12 of 46 throws and suffered 4 picks, while Bunce and Co. eased to a 17-0 halftime lead thanks to a pair of 20-yard TDs by Winesberry (on a pass from Bunce) and Sanderson (on a run), then calmly played it safe in the second half en route to a 17-6 win. It was more of the same next week in L.A. vs. the Trojans, with Stanford dancing to an easy 33-18 romp, SC scoring all of its points during garbage time in the 4th quarter after the outcome was decided. The Indians then cruised onward to another Pac-8 crown.

To top things off, just as it did the previous year, Stanford pulled another major Rose Bowl upset, nipping an undefeated Michigan 13-12 on a last-second Rod Garcia field goal (left)

There might not be a direct link of analogies between the 1971 and 2012 teams, but we suggest it might be a lot closer to what eventually transpires this fall than the doomsday, post-Luck scenario in which some Stanford critics are trying to promote in the run-up to the fall.

Second-year Cardinal HC David Shaw (right) knew he had a tough act to follow when promoted from o.c. last year to succeed Jim Harbaugh, whose winning act continued miraculously in the NFL with the 49ers. Shaw hardly inherited a bare cupboard in Palo Alto, with Luck and many other key contributors still in the fold from the 12-1, Orange Bowl-winners the previous season. But Stanford is not entering 2012 with a hand tied behind its back, either.

Indeed, if the post-Luck QB situation can sort itself out, there’s no reason the Cardinal can’t continue to appear in the national rankings this fall.

We’re also sure Shaw realizes that the wine-and-cheese crowd in Palo Alto has always been a bit more demanding about Cardinal football than it might outwardly seem. Indeed, Stanford has had no tolerance over the years for coaches who underachieve, not wasting time to hit the eject button several times in the past 30+ years, as the likes of Jack Christiansen, the aforementioned Paul Wiggin, Jack Elway, Buddy Teevens, and Walt Harris all found out. The Palo Alto crowd now expects more than merely holding its own against Big Game rival Cal, especially with the Cardinal winning back-to-back vs. the Golden Bears, and on 3-game streaks vs. Notre Dame and hated Southern Cal (also winning 4 of the last 5 vs. the Trojans).

Shaw undoubtedly also knows the history of his many predecessors on The Farm. Curiously, the average tenure of a Stanford coach over the past four decades since Ralston departed for the Denver Broncos in 1972 is barely three years. In addition to those aforementioned who were forced to walk the plank, the likes of Ralston, Bill Walsh (who had two different terms), Rod Dowhower, Dennis Green, Ty Willingham, and Harbaugh have all used The Farm as a steppingstone to the NFL, or in Willingham’s case to Notre Dame.

Interestingly, for all of the riches at the disposal of the school and athletic department (which has the largest endowment in the country), Stanford has never been one to pay “funny money” for any of its coaches, which partially explains why so many have used The Farm as a stopover in their careers.

Although most get the feeling that Shaw would like to make his Stanford appointment an extended one, it’s worth noting that he will soon be working for a new Athletic Director after the man who hired him, Bob Bowlsby, recently resigned to take over as commissioner of the Big XII. For the moment, it’s something to tuck away in the back of our minds and perhaps reference again down the road, especially of Shaw should hit some bumps in the road.

We’re not sure, however, that happens in 2012, even with Luck having traded his Stanford uniform for one of the Indianapolis Colts.

Playing the Don Bunce ‘71 role this fall will be either soph Brett Nottingham (right) or junior Josh Nunes, a pair of 6'4 gunslingers who separated themselves from pack of five QB contenders in the spring. Each has thrown only a handful of passes in their respective college careers, but both are well-versed in the Cardinal’s pro-style, power-oriented attack with well-defined West Coast principles.

Heading into fall camp, Nottingham, likely due to the fact he served as Luck’s official back-up last season and appeared in six games (albeit with limited snaps) last season, is listed as the slight favorite to win the job. But Nunes, one of the gems of the 2009 recruiting class, impressed enough in spring for Shaw and o.c. Pep Hamilton to wait until camp reconvenes later this summer to name their starter.

If it’s Nottingham, expect a QB who has the wheels to get out of the pocket and the sort of snap and accuracy on his short-and-intermediate routes that the coaching staff desires. Nunes, well-versed in the offense entering his fourth year in the program, has impressed with his poise.

Update August 21: HC David Shaw names Josh Nunes starting QB...

Neither is Andrew Luck, nor are they expected to match Andrew’s 3517 YP and 37 TD passes from a year ago, but Don Bunce wasn’t Jim Plunkett, either, and Stanford didn’t do so badly in 1971. Like Bunce long ago, Nottingham or Nunes will have plenty of help from a supporting cast that will make their jobs easier.

There were other key offensive weapons besides Luck who moved to the NFL in last April’s draft (G David DeCastro and T Jonathan Martin, and TE Coby Fleener, each of whom picked within the first two rounds at Radio City Music Hall), but expect the Stanford offense to again operate in a similar fashion, its pro-style looks augmented by a power running game designed to leverage the big bodies creating space up front.

The fall will prove a test for Stanford’s recent recruiting emphasis on top-notch blockers, some of whom being required to immediately step into the breach after the graduation of All-Americans DeCastro and Martin. Three starters still return on the forward wall, and o.c. Hamilton spent the spring shuffling some of the pieces in the OL puzzle. One of those, 302-lb. jr. David Yankey, appeared to make a smooth transition to Martin’s abandoned yet crucial left tackle spot after starting 13 games as a RS frosh last year at left guard. Should another 300-pounder, RS frosh LT Brendon Austin, fast-forward his progress enough to warrant a starting assignment, Yankey can easily slide back to his old and adjacent left guard position.

Senior center Sam Schwartzstein also returns to the mix; as the elder statesman of the OL, he is expected to provide leadership and stability after accounting well for himself in his starting debut a year ago. The next superstar Stanford lineman looks to be RS soph RT Cameron Fleming, a 6'6, 308-lb. moose who blocks the sunlight and was named to various Frosh All-American teams a year ago.

Thus, expect the Stanford infantry to effectively punish the opposition once more after bulling for 210 ypg and better than 5 yards per carry in 2011. Senior RB Stepfan Taylor (left) is an accomplished slasher who churned for 1330 YR a year ago, with another senior, Tyler Gaffney, still around for a nice change-of-pace in the more physical, Toby Gerhart-like mold after banging for 449 YR in 2011. Shaw, however, is hoping that Gaffney simply stays in the fold this fall as he contemplates a pro baseball career as a Pittsburgh Pirates draftee. Underrated and punishing 243-lb. fullback Ryan Hewitt is an effective H-back for the offense who doubles as a reliable receiving threat out of the backfield, reflected in his 34 catches a year ago.

Though Fleener has graduated, Shaw is still knee-deep in top-flight tight ends. A pair of mountainous juniors, 6'6 Zach Ertz and 6'8 Levine Toilolo, are both on an NFL career-trajectory and offer plenty of options for o.c. Hamilton, including double TE sets as well as the ability of each to line up as wideouts. Which might tempt Hamilton, as the Cardinal will be looking for new go-to sources at the WR spots after the graduation of last year’s starters Griff Whalen and Chris Owusu. Soph Ty Montgomery (right), who performed with plenty of flair when catching 24 passes as a frosh last fall, is expected to move seamlessly into a featured role. Whippet-like senior Drew Terrell is a smaller-sized option at 5'11 and only 180 pounds, but could provide a spark as he does as a feared return man. He’ll get his chance to make his mark as a wideout in the fall.

Expect this strike force to rely upon the power-based infantry and RB Taylor’s north-south instincts a bit more than a year ago, especially at the outset, with the expectation that one of the new QBs gets comfy at the controls in the first two games, home dates vs. likely big underdogs San Jose State and Duke. It is hoped by Shaw and the offensive staff that either Nottingham or Nunes will be up to speed by the time USC visits The Farm for a mid-September showdown in an early-season litmus test.

Another situation to watch will be at PK, where jr. Jordan Williamson was mostly reliable last season when hitting 13 of 19 FG attempts and routinely boomed kickoffs through the endzone. But he’s had all offseason to think about his two late misses in the Fiesta Bowl vs. Oklahoma State that sailed wide left, including a 35-yarder that would have won the game in the final seconds of regulation, and another hook in overtime that preceded the Cowboys’ game-winning field goal. Will his psyche be recovered in time for the fall?

Meanwhile, much like ‘71's Thunder Chickens, the 2012 Stanford defense could similarly dominate. It’s not Lazetich, Sampson, Siemon, and Simone, but six starters return in the front seven of d.c. Derek Mason’s robust 3-4 that ranked third nationally in rush defense last season, allowing a puny 3.01 ypc and 84 ypg.

The anchor of the line, immovable 296-lb. NT Terrence Stephens, returns for his senior year, while another sr., DE Ben Gardner, was one of the pleasant surprises of 2011 and enters the fall as a definite honors candidate.

But it’s the LB corps that could be really special, especially if playmaking ILB Shayne Skov (left, vs. San Jose State in last September) is beyond last season’s knee injury that KO’d him for most of the campagn. Skov, who was held out of spring work, is expected to be ready for fall camp, although hanging over his head is a February DUI that likely causes suspension in the first game or two.

If Skov is back in the fold, however, this becomes the best LB tandem on the coast if not the nation. The Cardinals attack with vengeance from the edge with OLBs Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy, who combined for 15 sacks and 27.5 tackles for loss last season. (Indeed, Stanford’s sack total of 39 ranked 11th in the country a year ago.) And waiting in the wings are a gaggle of recent top-shelf recruits such as RS frosh Kevin Anderson and soph James Vaughters who help provide quality depth that goes as much as three deep at each LB slot.

If there is a concern in the stop unit it’s in the secondary, where three starters must be replaced. As it was, the Cardinal was vulnerable to the highest tech pass attacks it faced last season, allowing at least three TD passes to each from among Southern Cal, Oregon, and Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. Although its 95th ranking vs. the pass was a bit deceiving because foes couldn’t run on the Cardinal and were often playing a desperate game of catch-up a year ago, it was still the most-vulnerable component of last year’s stop unit.

The strength of the front seven and its ability to generate a pass rush should again come in handy and allow the DBs to more concern themselves with pass-coverage chores. There are high hopes for RS frosh CB Wayne Lyons, a ballyhooed recruit in 2011 but coming off of a nagging foot injury that had yet to fully heal in spring. If he’s okay by the fall, he’s likely be the Tree’s top cover man. Both safeties must also be replaced, although soph SS Jordan Richards saw significant action last fall when the graduated Delano Howell went down with injury. Projected jr. FS Devon Carrington has also had his baptism by fire in a reserve role a year ago and gets a long-awaited chance to crack the starting lineup this fall.

The schedule has a slightly different look this season with the Big Game against Cal moved to a midseason slot (October 20 at Berkeley) after being a traditional season-ender for almost 90 years. A trip to Notre Dame precedes the Big Game, but otherwise the key games are well-spaced, including hosting revenge-minded Southern Cal on September 15 and trekking to Eugene to face Oregon on November 17. For all of Stanford’s success in 2010 & 2011, it has not been able to cope with the fast-paced Ducks, who have put 52-31 and 53-30 beatings upon the Cardinal in the last two seasons, Stanford’s only regular-season losses during that span.

Pointspread-wise, the Andrew Luck factor was certainly a plus the last few years, as the Cardinal sported an eye-opening 27-12 spread mark the past three seasons (including 11-2 a year ago). Much like the straight-up record, we expect that mark is going to be hard to replicate this fall.

Summary...We’re not expecting Stanford to fall off of the map, as its emergence the past few seasons had other contributing elements besides Andrew Luck. Importantly, it’s worth noting that upon his hire in 2007, Jim Harbaugh was able to squeeze some entrance requirement concessions, which were not as draconian as those that hindered recruiting efforts of predecessors Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris. Shaw, like Harbaugh, has a bit more leeway with special admits than past Stanford coaching regimes, and the talent base in the program has increased substantially thanks to some of these relaxed entrance requirements. That figures to be an underlying benefit to Shaw this fall and into the near future. With blue-chip talent stockpiled in Palo Alto in greater numbers than at any time in recent memory, Stanford likely doesn’t slip too much this fall, and if either Nottingham or Nunes hit the ground running at QB, the Cardinal could even find itself in the hunt for BCS bowl berth in January. The memories of Don Bunce and the ‘71 Thunder Chickens could be evoked the entire autumn on The Farm.


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