No. 3: Stanford. It’s not often you lose the country’s most productive running back and the prognosis is still this good. That says a lot about the recruiting coach Jim Harbaugh has done since he arrived at Stanford and the type of program he is building.
No player in America may be harder to replace than Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart, who led the nation in with 1,871 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns. He gave the Cardinal an irreplaceable dynamic with his ability to turn a short gain into eight yards.
Stanford will be hard-pressed to get even near that production with tailbacks Jeremy Stewart, Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney, but each features unique talents that should help ease the transition to the post-Gerhart era.
The Cardinal feels pretty good about itself offensively with the return of quarterback Andrew Luck, who was terrific as a redshirt freshman and is already considered a high NFL draft pick if he were to choose to leave college after this season. Stanford also returns its top two recievers — Chris Owusu and Ryan Whalen — while sophomore Jamal-Rashad Patterson could be a star down the line.
The rock of the offense is the offensive line, which at times last season was as dominating as any unit in the country. Four of five starters return, meaning you can expect more of the same this season. Replacing physical tight end Jim Dray will be a challenge.
The Cardinal is switching to the 3-4 on defense this season under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. The inside linebackers could be pretty formidable with Shayne Skov and converted fullback Owen Marecic (Marecic will continue to play fullback as well). Former defensive ends Thomas Keiser and Chase Thomas are in the mix to play outside backer.
Stanford is hoping experience in the secondary will help improve a defense that ranked ninth in the Pac-10 last season (402.9 yards allowed per game). Safety Delano Howell and cornerback Richard Sherman return, and both played well last season. The Cardinal need to replace leading tackler and safety Bo McNally.
With back-to-back top 25 recruiting classes, Stanford has built a deep enough roster to continue to contend in the Pac-10, even without the country’s most irreplaceable player.