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.

David ShawThe 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 departure. 

Replacing Luck 

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 level.

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. 

Early outlook 

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.