Without question, the Cardinal program now truly belongs
to Shaw. He took over the head coaching duties when Harbaugh left for SF last
season and while his first official recruiting class was last season, he didn’t
truly become the face of the program until now.
Harbaugh rebuilt the Cardinal into a contender and even
after he left, all eyes were on Andrew Luck last season. On March 22nd,
Luck was again the focus of attention for his Pro Day workout and on April 26th,
he’ll be drafted to the NFL. That leaves Shaw as the man leading the way into
the future, and we’ll quickly find out whether he was just riding the wave of
what Harbaugh built or whether he’s truly capable of keeping the high standard
of success at Stanford.
The recruiting trail
Shaw had a critically acclaimed first recruiting class
last season but the skeptics are still out there. To be fair, Harbaugh did most
of the work on last year’s additions and Shaw reaped the rewards of that labor.
But there was no drop-off in 2012 and if anything, Shaw
brought in an even better class. Rivals.com ranked Stanford’s recruiting class
as the fifth-best in the country while Scout.com rated them sixth. The 2011
class was valued in the Top 25 but many pundits have suggested that this year’s
class is Stanford’s best ever.
The Cardinal picked up the two top tackles in the country
and a slew of other well-regarded prospects, including running back Barry
Sanders, who is the son of the NFL legend.
If there is a concern, though, it’s that Shaw’s crew
didn’t pick up a quarterback. The 22-player class is lacking in that respect
and that will continue to be a question mark – especially with Luck’s
It was blatantly clear to anyone who watched college
football in the last two seasons: Andrew Luck led, guided and at times carried
the Cardinal to much of their success. Now the question becomes who is the heir
apparent to the throne?
Brett Nottingham will get the first look at spring
practices start after working as Luck’s backup last season. The third-year
sophomore tossed only eight passes last season, though, and hasn’t flashed any
skills that will make jaws drop. Without question, he still has to win the job
but having a year of experience in Shaw’s system will help.
Luck is a once-in-a-generation quarterback, so he’s not
going to be replaced. The good news is that Nottingham and his competition,
Josh Nunes, should have enough around them to keep this offense effective.
One other note to point out is that Luck was protected by
one of the best offensive lines in college football last season. Two starters
from it – Linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin –will be joining Luck in
the NFL this season, so the Cardinal will have to rebuild another area that was
the strength of the team.
Leaning on the defense?
There’s no question that the 2011 Cardinal team was built
around the offense, churning out more than 30 points all but once the whole
season. Could the 2012 unit rely more on defense? As the offense searches for a
new identity, they might have to.
The Cardinal defense did get stronger as the season
progressed and there’s good reason to believe it’s on track to be even better
this season. Linebacker Chase Thomas put off the NFL for one more year to
return and if his partner in the middle Shayne Skov is ready for the season
(after tearing his ACL last year) the Cardinal should be stout at the second
The real question mark is the secondary, which lost two
of their best players in the safeties Michael Thomas and Delano Howell. Both
must be replaced or the back end of the defense will be a sore spot in 2012.
The offseason is still young but it’s pretty clear that
the Cardinal have a few crucial areas of the team that will either make or
break their success in 2012.
Keep an eye on the quarterback competition to see if
anyone can emerge as the true No. 1 starter in spring. The offensive line
should be sturdy, but it’s also an area to monitor as the Cardinal did wave
goodbye to some good talent there.
If the secondary holds up and the offense is still
effective, Shaw could very well be coaching a Top 25 team this year. More so
than last year, though, if the team stumbles because of any of the aforementioned
factors, the burden will fall on his shoulders and the heat will come after
back-to-back BCS-caliber seasons.
In the betting odds the Cardinal are just 75/1 for the BCS title in 2013 and I would steer clear of them in your college football picks.