USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
All that's preventing Stanford from implementing its desired formation are those pesky NCAA rules.
Rule seven, section one, article four, subsection three: "At least five linemen must wear jerseys numbered 50 through 79."
Rule seven, section three, article three, subsection one: Eligible receivers are described as "each lineman who is on the end of his scrimmage line and who is wearing a number other than 50 through 79" and "each back wearing a number other than 50 through 79."
Sigh. The Catch-22 of the whole deal is that offensive linemen must wear a number between 50 and 79, but in so wearing said numbers – and therefore playing offensive line – these linemen cannot be eligible for any skill-player duties.
Yet heaven is a buffet of 11 offensive linemen on the field simultaneously, with your normal five from tackle to tackle, two playing tight end, one a fullback, one a traditional running back, one creating a full-house backfield and one a quarterback.
We can only dream, hope, pray and write our local congressmen to petition for an alteration to existing NCAA rules. Stanford also dreams of a world where offensive linemen rule the day rather than hulk in the background, passing the meantime with traditional – and some untraditional – formations designed to take its strength and push your finesse into next week.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Stanford has to get through Oregon, UCLA, Notre Dame and others – which I think the Cardinal will do, using home-field advantage to their benefit against the Ducks. There's something about this team, this program; it's a dash of toughness, a heaping of talent, a bucketful of coaching excellence and a tubful of quiet yet unbridled confidence – we do what we do better than you do what you do, says Stanford.
In a nutshell: Stanford beat five ranked teams – six, if we count Arizona State twice – and lost three games by six points, three points and four points, respectively. It was frustrating only in the sense that Stanford could've won them all. But the year still ended with another Pac-12 title and another trip to the Rose Bowl, the program's second in a row, and ended with yet another résumé of victories perhaps unmatched across the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Cardinal's failures, when they came, were not as a result of any faults or weak links: Stanford simply doesn't deviate course, which comes in handy far more often than not but can make the Cardinal predictable on, say, fourth down in Pasadena.
High point: Beating Oregon. As you may have seen, Stanford has as many wins in a row against the Ducks, two, as first-place votes to win the North Division in the preseason media poll.
Low point: Losing to Utah.
Tidbit: Stanford has won 33 of its past 36 games played in California. The three losses: Oregon in 2011, USC in November and Michigan State in the Rose Bowl.
Tidbit (home edition): Stanford has won 16 in a row at home, the second-longest streak among major conferences, and has won 26 of 27 at home since the start of the 2010 season. Last season was ridiculous: Stanford went 7-0 at home, outrushing opponents by a combined 1,529 yards to 497 and holding opponents to 340.14 yards per game.
Tidbit (coaching edition): David Shaw's staff includes three new assistants: Duane Akina with the secondary, Lance Taylor with the running backs and Peter Hansen with the inside linebackers. With Derek Mason off to Vanderbilt – taking along former Stanford staffer David Kotulski – the Cardinal's defense will have a new coordinator, Lance Anderson, who spent the past four seasons with the outside linebackers. This won't be the last time Shaw's staff gets raided.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
1. Samuel Beckett
2. George Bernard Shaw
3. Oscar Wilde
4. Sean O'Casey
5. W.B. Yeats
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: All that this offense must do in order to win the Pac-12 and compete for the national championship is convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. That was last year's issue: Stanford reached the red zone with regularity but sputtered, eventually scoring touchdowns on little more than half of its trips. Part of this has to do with a lack of receiving targets built to excel in short space, but let's put a little bit of blame on quarterback Kevin Hogan, who enters his second full season as the Cardinal's starter needing to take that extra step forward in must-score situations. He's otherwise ready: Hogan won't land the acclaim of a Mariota or Hundley – or even a Taylor Kelly – but he did lead last year's offense to a substantial uptick in production after one season of post-Luck malaise.
The funny thing about Hogan – and this entire offense – is that he doesn't struggle stretching the field: Stanford was explosive in its vertical passing game, believe it or not, and when you team this big-play potential with a projected increase in close-quarters situations you have the makings of a top-flight offensive attack. Hogan averaged 8.93 yards per attempt last fall, nearly a two-yard increase on the Cardinal's 2012 totals – that's a ridiculous leap – and an average that compares very favorably with Luck's numbers as an All-American. Basically, the Cardinal have surrounded Hogan with playmakers: Ty Montgomery (61 receptions for 958 yards), Devin Cajuste (28 for 642), Michael Rector (14 for 431), Francis Owusu and Jordan Pratt form perhaps the strongest receiver corps of the program's recent renaissance. Montgomery's an All-American, I think, while Cajuste and Rector simply find seams downfield.
But the passing game really needs to work the tight end back into the mix. This was clear throughout the season, and in those red-zone situations in particular, as noted. But the tight end is such a crucial part of the Cardinal's intermediate game that a lack of options at the position essentially robs this offense of a key slice of its identity; Stanford football is a nasty running game and middle-of-the-field strikes off of play-action, and adding this vertical game to those two qualities would make this offense dangerous. There are high hopes that three players coming off redshirt seasons – Austin Hooper, Eric Cotton and Greg Taboada – will be just what the doctor ordered after spending a full offseason digesting all the quirks and nuances of Mike Bloomgren's offense.
It's time for the greatest collection of offensive linemen in recruiting history – in Shaw's words – to live up to its potential. Here's guessing that these linemen will do just that: Stanford is reloading up front, not retooling or rebuilding, and despite the changing cast I have my sincere faith in this group standing as one of the nation's best. It's anchored by an All-American left tackle, Andrus Peat, a major contender for end-of-year hardware. He'll bookend the line with another classmate, junior Kyle Murphy, likewise a five-star talent. Inside, Stanford will turn left guard to Josh Garnett, center to Graham Shuler – another future star – and right guard to Johnny Caspers, though senior Brendon Austin is an option. These five starters, all juniors, form Stanford's backbone. I don't get the concerns: I see one of the best lines in college football.
Defense: There's a chance that Stanford starts 11 seniors on defense. It's a certainty that three seniors – fifth-year seniors, by the way, and that's scary – start up front, led by end Henry Anderson, one of the top defenders in the Pac-12. Stanford wants more from Anderson; he complied by dropping some unneeded weight during the offseason, streamlining his physique to become as equally adept at harassing plays in the backfield as standing up at the point of attack. It will be Anderson on one side and Blake Lueders (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks) on the other, with Lueders comfortable at end after shifting down from linebacker; they'll flank David Parry, a former walk-on who grabbed the starting role in the latter half of last season. The line rotation will find time for Aziz Shittu, a total monster in the making, and Luke Kaumatule, a converted tight end who should make an impact on passing downs. This line is just like its offensive counterparts, with one difference: Instead of pushing opponents forward, Stanford's front plans on moving them back.
The second level shifts to a new cast of starters but won't miss a beat: Stanford remains elite at the position, thanks to its returning experience, and may be more athletic across the board due to the staff's increasingly impressive recruiting efforts. The new leader – replacing Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov – is senior A.J. Tarpley (93 tackles, 5.0 for loss), a preseason All-American starving for the shot at calling the shots from the middle. On the outside, the Cardinal return James Vaughters (36 tackles, 4.0 sacks) – he needs to take a step forward in terms of production – and Kevin Anderson (26 tackles, 6.5 for loss), who takes on the unenviable task of replacing Murphy on the edge. The defense also needs to settle a competition for Tarpley's running mate inside, with junior Blake Martinez, a solid contributor in reserve last fall, the defense's best choice. But Stanford isn't short on options.
An experienced secondary has a new position coach, Akina, and reason for optimism when teamed with a ferocious front seven. All that should change under Akina are some basic techniques – the tricks he's picked up during the last few decades – and, perhaps, some very slightly tweaked terminology. Continuity would be a smart thing: Stanford returns three starters, including both cornerbacks, and has three options to fill Ed Reynolds' shoes at free safety. Two contenders, Kodi Whitfield and Dallas Lloyd, were moved to the secondary during the spring from wide receiver and quarterback, respectively; the learning curve is intense, but one or both, along with Kyle Olugbode, should factor into the rotation in 2014. Elsewhere, the Cardinal have to feel supremely comfortable in the three returning starters: Jordan Richards (69 tackles, 3 interceptions) brings all-conference production and reliability to strong safety, along with some All-American credentials; Alex Carter is just behind Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Marcus Peters among the Pac-12's best cornerbacks; and Wayne Lyons is going to be very strong as a second-year starter.
Special teams: One reason why David Shaw has such a great record against ranked competition: When Stanford plays teams of equal or greater talent level, it typically holds a distinct advantage on special teams. That'll be no different in 2014, with Jordan Williamson back at kicker and Montgomery perhaps the nation's most electric returner, and let's not forget some of the nation's stingiest coverage teams.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Running back: There may be as many as five backs in the rotation, if true freshman Christian McCaffrey ends up grabbing touches at some point during the season. McCaffrey's hopes of earning immediate playing time is boosted by a shift in mentality: Stanford seems more and more likely to go with backfield-wide approach to replacing Tyler Gaffney, at least until one back steps forward in September. For now, let's call it a four-back unit led by Kelsey Young, who had the strongest spring, and followed by Remound Wright, Barry Sanders and Rickey Seale. Stanford's pick for a go-to back won't be based purely on running skills, though that's clearly important; equally vital, on the other hand, is an ability to do the little things, picking up blitzes on third down and giving Hogan time to deliver.
Another thing this group lacks when compared to recent backfields is size: Stanford doesn't have a bruiser, a Gaffney, instead trading size for speed and elusiveness. That might have an impact on the Cardinal's power running game, though it shouldn't be a huge issue given the physicality of this offensive front. In essence, the ground game might be only slightly less muscular between the guards but far more explosive outside the box, again giving this offense a greater sense of explosiveness. But part of me does think this offense works better with a clear leader in the backfield, with that decision not coming until the Cardinal kick off the regular season – if it comes at all.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Oregon: Let's do it again, with the North Division, the Pac-12, the playoff and everything else in the balance.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Nothing's changed here, from the very bottom of Stanford's cleats to the tops of the Cardinal's white helmets: It's all status quo, the same as usual, and that means this team is again one of the nation's very best. Beat Oregon? They've done it once – twice, actually – and they may well do it again. Beat Arizona State? Done it, liked it, decided to do it again in the conference championship game. UCLA? Been there, done that. Everyone else? Stanford is so possessed by an unyielding sense of self-confidence that it doesn't matter who's on the other side; Stanford's just going to be Stanford, come rain or shine, and that's what makes this not just a great program today but a program that shows no sign of going anywhere anytime soon.
You have to include Stanford as a contender for the first College Football Playoff. The offense has already discovered some explosiveness; next, the Cardinal need to continue this hard-charging running style and reincorporate the tight ends. Being equally productive on the ground shouldn't be an issue, but we won't know if the smaller backs will be able to churn out tough yards until we see them in action during the regular season. Stanford's high on the young tight ends, but there's learning curve: Zach Ertz didn't turn into a star overnight, for example, and it's hard to gauge just what sort of impact these rookies will have within the framework of the passing game.
But there's some impressive balance on both sides of the ball. The defense is led by seniors, and that matters to me far more than the lost production: Stanford is supremely experienced across the board. When it comes to handling this schedule, experience is going to count. In addition facing USC at home, the Cardinal face a murderer's row on the road: Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA. I'm not sure any team – and this includes Florida State – would escape that road slate unblemished. So that's an issue, but it shouldn't keep Stanford from closing the regular season in striking range of the playoff. It all comes down to Oregon in November. Will the Ducks be healthy enough to handle Stanford?
Dream season: Stanford beats everybody.
Nightmare season: The Cardinal lose to USC, Stanford, UCLA and Arizona State.
Who's No. 6? This team's coach has 42 more wins and just three more losses than his predecessor in the position.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM 64-1