Not too long ago, that seemed like a pipedream. But the turnaround that started under Jim Harbaugh has been sustained and even amplified under coach David Shaw, who is 34-7 in his first three seasons on the Farm. Stanford has lost some integral pieces off last season’s 11-3 team, but the Cardinal have been able to overcome that before. They enter 2014 ranked No. 11 in the Associated Press preseason poll and a contender to win their third straight conference title.
Here is a look at three keys to Stanford’s 2014 season:
REPLACING OFFENSIVE LINE
The turnaround at Stanford the past five seasons can largely be attributed to the Cardinal’s devotion to playing a physical brand of football that emphasizes strength along both the offensive and defensive lines.
On offense, that has meant massive offensive linemen paving the way for a punishing rushing attack. That philosophy could be tested this year, however, as Stanford will have four new starters on the offensive line. Coach David Shaw is confident the Cardinal can adequately fill the void, but has admitted it is probably his team’s biggest question mark entering the season.
Junior Andrus Peat (6-foot-7, 316 pounds), expected to be a future NFL star, is the lone returner at left tackle. The other four expected starters all came to the Farm with Peat as part of a heralded recruiting class in 2012.
Joshua Garnett (6-5, 325), Graham Shuler (6-4, 287), Johnny Caspers (6-4, 297) and Kyle Murphy (6-7, 298) -- all juniors -- are expected to fill out the line alongside Peat. The quartet of new starters have all seen action at one point or another, but are playing bigger roles and need to gel quickly as Stanford faces a tough Southern Cal team in its second game.
FINDING A NEW LEAD BACK
Few teams have been as devoted to running the ball the past few seasons as Stanford. The Cardinal use a variety of jumbo packages and motions to maximize their advantage against opposing defenses.
This year, however, Stanford needs to find a new lead back to take advantage of that rushing attack. The Cardinal must replace Tyler Gaffney and his 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns last year. Even No. 1 backup Anthony Wilkerson (353 yards) is gone.
There hasn’t been a clear front-runner to emerge in camp thus far, as a number of players are jockeying for the starting job. Kelsey Young, Remound Wright, Barry Sanders and Rickey Seale have all had opportunities in camp. Young will start, but if no one emerges, the wild card could be freshman Christian McCaffrey, the son of former Stanford and NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey.
At least at the start of the season, it appears as though Stanford will give a couple players the opportunity to carry the ball. Stanford has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year since 2008 and if one player does wind up with the lion’s share of the carries, success should follow. The Cardinal were 22nd in the country with 207.4 rushing yards per game last year.
In college football, teams deal with turnover every season, and Stanford is no different. But this year, Stanford must also replace its defensive coordinator, Derek Mason, along with a few stalwarts who left for the NFL.
Mason was the defensive coordinator at Stanford since 2011, but left to take the head-coach job at Vanderbilt this offseason. Outside linebackers coach Lance Anderson was promoted to take Mason’s place, which should help with keeping the consistency of the system in place.
Anderson takes over a unit that was third in the nation in run defense last year (89.4 yards per game), 10th in points allowed (19 per game) and 16th in total defense (343.1).
But gone from that defense are linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, defensive lineman Josh Mauro and Brent Gardener and safety Ed Reynolds.
The good news for Anderson is he has a solid core intact in his secondary. Corners Wayne Lyons and Alex Carter and safety Jordan Richards all are back and poised for big seasons.
If Stanford can plug in some holes in its front seven, it should be another season of wreaking havoc on Pac-12 offenses.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The redshirt freshman out of De La Salle High School (Concord) is expected to enter the season as Stanford’s starting tight end. After the Cardinal churned out current NFL tight ends Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo in 2011 and 2012, the team received little production out of the position last year. Stanford is optimistic the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Hooper can fill the void in 2014. Hooper has shown the ability in camp to be a solid blocker and pass catcher.
The fifth-year senior defensive end will be asked to play a bigger role this season with pass rushers Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner gone to the NFL. Coach David Shaw has raved about Anderson’s potential this offseason, calling him a “special, special player.” Anderson missed some time last year with a knee injury and finished the season with three sacks. The preseason accolades have already come in for the 6-foot-6, 287-pound Anderson, who has been named preseason All-Pac-12 first team by several media outlets.
At one point thought of as just a dynamic kick returner, the speedy senior wideout has developed into a big-time receiver as well. Montgomery caught 61 passes for 958 yards and 10 TDs last season. Montgomery (15.7 yards per catch), along with fellow receivers Devon Cajuste (22.9 yards per catch) and Michael Rector (30.8 yards per catch), is part of a receiving corps that has developed a knack for big plays. Montgomery also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns last year.