After leading the Cardinal to an 11-2 mark and a Fiesta Bowl visit in 2011, Shaw's 2012 squad was even better. The Cardinal rolled up three victories to start the season. Stanford hit a roadblock though in Seattle with a 17-13 loss to USC. The next two weeks featured the highs and lows of overtime. Stanford outlasted Arizona 54-48 in a shootout and then on an infamous goal- line call, fell to Notre Dame, 20-13. After the setback to the Fighting Irish the Cardinal would not lose a game the rest of the season, including arguably the most impressive win of its campaign, a 17-14 overtime victory at Oregon.
Stanford dispatched of UCLA in back-to-back weekends after that to capture the Pac-12 title. Then won its first Rose Bowl since 1971 with a 20-14 victory over Wisconsin.
OFFENSE: In the free-wheeling, high-tempo, offense heavy Pac-12 there is one team that stands out for its adherence to a more traditional philosophy. That is the Stanford Cardinal, which uses a ground-and-pound pro-style attack that doesn't exactly match the spread offenses used at Oregon and Arizona.
Keeping to that gameplan this season will be tougher as three-time 1,000-yard rusher Stepfan Taylor and All-American tight end Zach Ertz and fellow tight end Levine Toilolo have moved on.
The hole at running back is certainly the most concerning. Taylor was the definition of a work horse last season as he had 322 carries for 1,530 yards and 13 touchdowns, while also ranking second on the team in receptions (41). No other running back on the team had more than 50 rushes. In fact, Anthony Wilkerson, who is slotted to replace Taylor, had exactly 50 for 224 yards. Expect more of a committee style running game until a back separates himself from the group.
Despite not having a firm replacement for Taylor, the Cardinal will still be able to bowl teams over with the run. That begins and ends with the strength Stanford is bringing back on the offensive line. Arguably the best in the nation, the Cardinal's front five has four starters coming back including All- American David Yankey.
"We will have a lot of guys play running back for us, as long as our big guys can play well up front we will be productive," Shaw said.
Ertz and Toilolo hauled in a combined 93 passes for 1,291 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Obviously replacement Luke Kaumatule has big shoes to fill. The sophomore has the size to be a threat in the passing game at 6- foot-7 and 260 pounds. Assuming Shaw continues to favor tight ends and backs in the passing game, Kaumatule will get plenty of opportunities to shine.
Playing wide receiver for the Cardinal has not been a particularly glamorous job in the last few seasons. Last season Drew Terrell led all wideouts with 33 receptions and 463 yards. He is gone, leaving the primary spots on the outside to Ty Montgomery (26 rec, 213 yards) and Devon Cajuste, who had just a single catch for seven yards.
Trying to adjust to the new receivers and a new backfield will be starting quarterback Kevin Hogan. The sophomore took over for inconsistent starter Josh Nunes last season and went 5-0, while completing 71.7 percent of his pass attempts for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns to just three interceptions. Hogan isn't Andrew Luck but he can get the job done.
DEFENSE: The ground-and-pound offense matches perfectly with the aggressive style of the Cardinal defense. The Cardinal really know how to pin their ears back and get into the backfield. That was proved last year when Stanford lead the league in sacks (57.0) and tackles for loss (124.0) while ranking fifth against the run (174.3 ypg). It is the kind of defense that would make any SEC team jealous.
"I think more than anything we pride ourselves on being physical and aggressive, so our offense helps us build that characteristic going up against them every single day," Linebacker Shayne Skov said. "But we want to emphasize that we do what we do and we want to emphasize our own strengths."
The punishment opponents felt last season won't let up this year as there are eight starters back on the field and just about every one will contend for all-conference honors.
The 3-4 scheme which the Cardinal utilize obviously requires strong play at the linebacker spots. The Cardinal have that in spades once again led by Trent Murphy and Skov, who are both Butkus Award contenders. Skov led the team with 81 tackles last season, 9.0 of which came behind the line. Murphy was even more lethal to opposing backfields as he led the team with 18.0 tackles for loss and 10.0 sacks. A.J. Tarpley (66 tackles, 7.0 TFL) makes the unit that much more intimidating.
Opponents can expect to get pressure from outside of the linebacking unit. Ben Gardner and Henry Anderson are both destructive forces at defensive end. Gardner finished last season with 14.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Anderson was just behind him with 13.0 TFL and 5.5 sacks. Having time to throw the ball will not be a luxury other Pac-12 quarterbacks will enjoy against the Cardinal.
Those same signal callers will also not have an easy time picking apart Stanford's secondary. Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards are both hard-hitting safeties that track the ball well. Richards had 68 tackles, three interceptions and 15 passes defended last season. Meanwhile, Reynolds hauled in six interceptions. Alex Carter is also coming back to again start at cornerback.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Jordan Williamson missed 10 field goal attempts last season (17-of-27). However he stepped up in big moments especially when he nailed the game-winner against Oregon. Some more consistency could go a long way for the Cardinal. Ben Rhyne had nine punts last season, averaging 41.1 yards per boot. He will take over for departing starter Daniel Zychlinski.
Montgomery should once again be the primary kick returner after he averaged 26.6 yards on kickoff returns. Who takes over for Terrell in the punting game is up in the air.
OUTLOOK: The Cardinal don't have the flash of some of their counterparts in the rest of the league. However, there are few teams in the Pac-12 that can match Stanford in terms of wins and losses.
In 2013 the Cardinal open the season against San Jose State before visiting Army. League play begins at home against Arizona State before battling Washington State on the road. In October, Stanford alternates home and away games with contests against Washington, at Utah, against UCLA and at Oregon State. The big contest on the schedule is without a doubt the Nov. 7 showdown with Oregon at home. That game will have Pac-12 and possibly national title implications. Stanford travels to face USC before taking on rival California the next week. The season ends on a non-conference note as Stanford hosts Notre Dame with revenge on its mind. This is another game with some huge implications attached.
Obviously the schedule is a challenging one but the way Stanford plays, it can grind out wins against just about anyone. Shaw has really elevated what Harbaugh built and should continue that this season. Though questions loom on offense, Stanford is so stout on defense that getting back to the Pac-12 title game and the Rose Bowl are entirely realistic goals. However, Stanford has its eyes set on playing in Pasadena on Jan. 6 for a national title. Its a tougher goal but still an achievable one.