By ANTONIO GONZALEZ
STANFORD, Calif. — The smart kids are not sneaking up on anybody this season.
Since Stanford first fielded a football team in 1892, never have the Cardinal carried so much momentum. The defending Pac-12 champions and Rose Bowl winners return almost everybody from a dominant defense, an intriguing quarterback who is still undefeated as a starter and the conference’s twice reigning coach of the year.
Once thought out of reach for a prestigious academic university, Stanford has risen to a national title contender that everybody is taking seriously now.
The Cardinal finished with a No. 7 ranking in the AP poll last season — and could crack the preseason top five for the first time in school history when the rankings are released Saturday — and has made a BCS bowl the last three years.
“The biggest thing for us is to continue to push the envelope and not buy into the fact that Stanford can have success but not continue to be successful,” Cardinal coach David Shaw said. “I don’t carry a lot of chips on my shoulder, but I carry that one.”
After coming up one win short of a possible berth in the BCS championship game the past three seasons, the Cardinal believe this could finally be their year to win it all.
Here are five things to watch as Stanford tries to crack college football’s marquee game this season:
1. QB KEVIN HOGAN. The dual-threat quarterback sparked Stanford’s surge last season, going 5-0 after taking over for Josh Nunes. Hogan led wins over four ranked teams — including at top-ranked Oregon — before beating Wisconsin for Stanford’s first Rose Bowl victory in 41 years. The redshirt sophomore quarterback will be asked to carry the Cardinal offense more this season with all new starters at wide receiver, tight end and running back.
2. CATCHING THE BALL. All-American tight end Zach Ertz and 6-foot-8 target Levine Toilolo are in the NFL now. Wide receivers Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson also graduated. Along with school-rushing leader Stepfan Taylor, the quintet combined to catch 18 of Stanford’s 19 touchdown passes last season. Stanford is hoping Ty Montgomery, who had a strong freshman season but was saddled most of his sophomore year with a knee injury, will bounce back stronger. Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector, who redshirted last season after tearing the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, both impressed in the spring and could make some noise this fall. Luke Kaumatule is expected to start at tight end, but the Cardinal are counting on at least one — if not two — highly touted freshmen to emerge from among Eric Cotton, Austin Hooper and Eric Taboada.
3. OFFENSIVE SHAKE-UP. Mike Bloomgren takes over the primary play-calling responsibilities for Pep Hamilton, who left to be the offensive coordinator for Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. Bloomgren oversaw the run game and offensive line the past two seasons, and in many ways, already has been the coordinator considering the Cardinal ran the ball 57.9 percent of the time last season. Bloomgren’s job should be made easier because of the personnel group he groomed. The offensive line is stacked — and could be one of the best in the country again — in front of a rotation of running backs that will fill Taylor’s spot, most notably Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney, who returns for his final season of eligibility after playing baseball in the minors last year.
4. DEFENSIVE DOMINANCE. With offense working in new starters at the skill positions, Stanford will need its defense to dominate the way it did last season. The Cardinal ranked first nationally in sacks (4.07) and second in tackles for loss (8.86) per game. They held opponents to 17.21 points per game, best in the high-scoring Pac-12 and 17th in the nation. Nine of the 11 starters are back and depth is at an all-time high, especially at linebacker, where Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy anchor the vaunted 3-4 defense.
5. STIFF SCHEDULE. If Stanford wants to repeat as Pac-12 champion, let alone play for a national title, the Cardinal will have to earn it. The nation will be tuned in for what could be the biggest weeknight game in college football on Thursday, Nov. 7, when Oregon visits Stanford Stadium. But Stanford has plenty of big games before that, including Washington (Oct. 5), UCLA (Oct. 19) and at Oregon State (Oct. 26), before traveling to Southern California (Nov. 16) and welcoming Notre Dame (Nov. 30) in the regular-season finale.
Predicted finish in conference: Second in the Pac-12 North.