Preseason countdown: No. 7 Stanford

The All-American quarterback remained on the Farm. The transformational head coach has left it behind. Now what?

When QB Andrew Luck passed on the NFL draft, all but his family were stunned by the decision. On the other hand, when his mentor, Jim Harbaugh, accepted an offer to lead the San Francisco 49ers, very few observers were caught off guard. Lucky for his successor, David Shaw, the coach didn’t leave the cupboard empty upon his return to the NFL.

There’s no way to get around the loss of Harbaugh, who guided Stanford to unprecedented heights after arriving in 2007. The Cardinal, which went 1-11 in 2006, won 20 games over the last two seasons. No. 4 in the country last fall, it capped a brilliant 12-1 campaign by pillaging Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Shaw’s directive, strenuous as it may be, is to keep the program in Pac-12 contention while facing unusually lofty expectations.

At least for one more year, Stanford is absolutely elated to have Luck back behind center. The poised leader of the program, he’s the equivalent of an NFL-caliber hurler operating against amateur defenses. His supporting cast is strong enough for the Cardinal to once again average close to 40 points a game, but only if the line adapts to three new starters and a few more capable receivers emerge. While Chris Owusu is the logical choice to be a go-to guy, his history of injuries has become a disturbing trend.

The defense figures to be somewhat of a work-in-progress, especially since coordinator Vic Fangio followed Harbaugh out of Palo Alto. Too bad, too, since the coach did a phenomenal job a year ago. While the Cardinal harbors some serious talent, such as DE Matt Masifilo, linebackers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas, and SS Delano Howell, serious questions exist as well. A drop-off in performance from 2010 is almost inevitable. The job of the new staff is to make sure it isn’t too steep.

Half of the dynamic duo that fueled Stanford to national prominence last season is still with the program. Cardinal fans are wondering if Luck and his teammates will be enough to offset the departure of Harbaugh. Shaw is nicely positioned to start quickly in his head coaching debut, though he’ll have to contend with a higher bar and as much pressure as any first-year hire in program history.

What to watch for on offense: The new targets. Someone is going to benefit from the graduations of last year’s top receivers, Ryan Whalen and Doug Baldwin. The program is still a little unsure of who that’ll be. Coby Fleener will once again be one of the nation’s more prolific tight ends, and WR Chris Owusu has star potential if he can ever stay healthy for an entire year. For an elite quarterback, like Andrew Luck, though, two targets aren’t nearly enough. There’ll be a sizable opportunity for senior Griff Whalen and junior Jamal-Rashad Patterson, in particular. Whalen is Luck’s roommate, and Patterson has the athletic ability to erupt in a big way in 2011.

What to watch for on defense: Good things from the linebackers. Even with the loss of two of last year’s starters, the Cardinal will have no problem filling out a terrific two-deep in the 3-4 alignment. With All-Pac-12 candidates Shayne Skov on the inside and Chase Thomas on the outside, the foundation of the unit is rock solid. However, the talent doesn’t end with the two returning starters. Stanford has recruited the second level well in recent years, landing future starters in rising underclassmen, such as Joe Hemschoot, A.J. Tarpley, Trent Murphy, and Blake Lueders. The competition for reps will be fierce in the summer.

The team will be far better if: The defensive line winds up a pleasant surprise. Losing Sione Fua and Brian Bulcke has made the front wall a tender area entering the summer. Matt Masifilo is back at one end spot, but another end and a new nose tackle must be found. The Cardinal is counting on sophomore Ben Gardner and junior Terrence Stephens, respectively, to fill the voids. If the defense is soft up front, it’ll impact more than the run defense. The secondary, which played so well a year ago, is going to be more vulnerable as well.

The schedule: All things considered, this is the type of schedule a great team can win a national title with. No, Stanford won’t be good enough to run the table, but getting Oregon and Cal at home should make winning the North a bit easier. The problem could be the games against the South. Colorado and UCLA at home shouldn’t be that big a problem, but going on the road to face Arizona and USC could bring at least one loss. A run of three road games in four weeks isn’t all that awful considering two of the games are winnable against Washington State and Oregon State (USC is the other), and this comes off a nice early stretch of three weeks without leaving home and an off week before facing UCLA and Colorado. The non-conference schedule all comes down to the Notre Dame showdown to close out the regular season, and if both teams are as good as expected, it could be a classic.

Best offensive player: Junior QB Luck. Luck elevated his play a year ago, becoming one of the nation’s premier players as a sophomore. Pro scouts, many of whom felt the quarterback would have been chosen No. 1 overall in April, feel he’s the best all-around prospect at the position in years. On the short list of Heisman contenders, he has the total package of physical ability and football acumen. The 6-4, 235-pounder authored a real gem in 2010, throwing for 3,338 yards, 32 touchdowns, and only eight interceptions. He’s also an overlooked runner, gaining 453 yards and scoring three times on the ground in 2010. Luck returned to Stanford to earn a degree, but also wants to school overmatched defenses for another semester.

Best defensive player: Junior LB Shayne Skov. On a national scale, Skov is one of the emerging stars at linebacker. The 6-3, 244-pounder is a classic inside linebacker, using his instincts and toughness to sniff out running plays. Despite missing a pair of games in 2010, he still rustled up a team-best 84 tackles, 10.5 stops for loss, 7.5 sacks, and five pass breakups. In the Orange Bowl blowout of Virginia Tech, he delivered the game of his brief career by making a dozen tackles and three sacks. No. 11 is one of the country’s hidden defensive gems of ’11.

Key players to a successful season: Junior C Sam Schwartzstein. Or sophomore Khalil Wilkes. The pivot has been the location of one of the Cardinal’s most, er, pivotal positional battles of the offseason. One potential stumbling block for the Stanford offense in 2011 is an O-line that’s replacing three starters, none bigger than All-American C Chase Beeler. Schwartzstein and Wilkes duked it out in the spring, with the junior gaining an early edge. Whoever captures the job in August must provide clean snaps to Andrew Luck, and proper direction to the rest of the line.

The season will be a success if: The Cardinal wins the inaugural Pac-12 championship. Yeah, it’s a tall order in light of the fact that the head coach is green, but Andrew Luck is back at the controls and conference favorite Oregon must travel to the Bay Area on Nov. 12. Stanford is a safe bet to begin the season right around the top 10 in the polls, so anyone eyeing less than a crown and another BCS appearance will be guilty of aiming too low.

Key game: Nov. 12 vs. Oregon. The game of the Pac-12 in 2011 is also one of the most important games of the year, regardless of conference affiliation. Sure, the outcome could decide the North Division, but it also might eliminate the loser from National Championship contention. Last season’s meeting in Eugene was a predictable track meet, with the Ducks overcoming a halftime deficit to pull away, 52-31. From team goals to individual awards, there’ll be a ton at stake when Stanford and Oregon meet late in the year.