April 13, 2013; Stanford, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan (8) passes the football during the Cardinal

Stanford Football: Are the Cardinal Still Underrated?

The Stanford Cardinal experienced one of the most surprising and impressive 2012 seasons of any team in college football. With the departure of Andrew Luck and numerous other weapons to the NFL, most believed that the Cardinal would be lucky to hold a spot among the nation’s Top 25.

This reluctance to grant Stanford the benefit of the doubt was reinforced when the Cardinal eked out a 20-17 victory over San Jose State. Two weeks later, however, David Shaw’s squad took down what everyone imagined would be the eventual Pac-12 South champion USC, and all of a sudden it looked like the Cardinal were still a force to be reckoned with.

A loss to Washington down the road proved the fact that Stanford still had some things to work on. It was at this point that Shaw benched the inconsistent Josh Nunes to start Kevin Hogan, a redshirt freshman who cemented himself as a first-rate starter in very little time.

An overtime win over Oregon followed by back-to-back wins over UCLA gave the Cardinal their first conference championship since 1999, and Shaw’s team proceeded to take down Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. This marked a huge step for Stanford on the national stage, after falling to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl two seasons ago.

With such a strong finish, it is natural for the Cardinal to earn a good amount of praise. With the exception of Chase Thomas, they return most of the key pieces of an elite defense that was able to shut down numerous potent offenses in 2012.

On the other side of the ball, however, Hogan returns to lead a band of rather unsexy misfits that lacks a true playmaker on the outside or in the backfield.

Tight end Zach Ertz and running back Stepfan Taylor were two of the most valuable players in the Pac-12 last season. Hogan is an extremely capable quarterback who has a tendency to make something out of nothing on a consistent basis. However, he often found himself in deep trouble  in the backfield only to find Ertz’ reliable hands five or ten yards downfield at the last moment.

While Hogan will, obviously, maintain these capabilities, there is no one receiver or tight end remaining on the Stanford squad that has separated himself as a true go-to guy. Many hoped that Ty Montgomery would be that No. 1 option last season, but his injuries and inconsistency forced Ertz to remain in the spotlight.

Jan 1, 2013; Pasadena, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal running back Anthony Wilkerson (32) stiff arms Wisconsin Badgers defensive back Shelton Johnson (24) during the 2013 Rose Bowl game at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

On top of that, Hogan was able to do so much in the pocket because of the respect opposing teams had for Stepfan Taylor and the Cardinal running game. Sure, Stanford returns an excellent front wall, but Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney lack the all-around playmaking abilities that Taylor demonstrated over the past three seasons.

The Sports Illustrated post-spring Top 25 Rankings for 2013 has Stanford listed at No. 3. While I think that the Cardinal have warranted a spot near the top of these rankings, that seems a little high. Even with Ertz and Taylor, eight of the team’s twelve wins were by one score in 2012. While Stanford’s losses to Washington and Notre Dame also could have gone the other way, they never really dominated opposing teams the same way that other national powerhouses did.

Though the defense will be as good as its ever been, the offense just does not have enough playmakers to make as much out of Hogan’s magic as last year’s bunch did. The Cardinal will be a great team, and without a doubt have a shot at repeating last year’s success.

However, I believe that, if anything, Stanford is currently slightly overrated heading into 2013.

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