This is what I wrote before the Oregon game. What's happened since then? Stanford beat Oregon and UCLA. And Colin Kaepernick is the starting quarterback for the 49ers.
It's amazing what three successful years can do to a historically mid-tier Stanford program. Incompletions and mediocre play calls are met with groans. Turnovers are all of a sudden unacceptable and missed tackles are a reason for Stanford alumni to recite rivals.com articles about the recruiting class of 2013s dearth of viable 4-star cornerback prospects from Southeast Florida. That's a change from when Cardinal faithful supported Walt Harris's punt-on-third down strategy.
Stanford fans are accustomed to perhaps the best QB in the history of the BCS-era. Expectations are sky high on The Farm. Anything less than a BCS bowl will be met by low attendance and calls for David Shaw's head.
The key words in the previous paragraph are "accustomed" and "expectations." On a campus where anything less than excellence is viewed as failure, Andrew Luck is the standard. Stanford fans have been told they won't see another Andrew Luck caliber QB on The Farm for at least 20 years, so something has to give.
What many people forget is how well Andrew Luck played as a freshman. Luck was good, but he wasn't great. He completed nearly 57% of his passes and had a 3:1 TD to INT ratio. Stanford won eight games, beating Notre Dame in the final regular season game of the year, and the Cardinal was invited to a respectable bowl after five years of anemic football. Luck was anointed the savior of the program and immediately projected as a top-5 pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
People also forget that Luck was under the tutelage of Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh has proven that he can take mediocre quarterbacks and turn them into hard-nosed signal callers and efficient passers, queue Alex Smith. Luck also had the luxury of Heisman trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart in the backfield. Stanford's offense was less than creative and Luck was asked to throw fewer than five passes each game over 20 yards. Harbaugh's offense was a run first, run second, run third and maybe throw a pass if absolutely necessary.
Fast forward to 2012, and enter Josh Nunes. Nunes was named the starter in late-August after a competitive training camp battle. Nunes was chosen to succeed Luck because he had the "best command of the offense," according to Coach David Shaw. Command of Stanford's offense is no simple feat. Nunes was not selected for his accuracy or his scrambling abilities, nor his rocket-like arm, but because he could keep everything in order. Shaw gave us all a queue in August that Nunes wouldn't ultimately remain at the helm. Nunes helped Stanford win a few close games including a nail-biting overtime comeback against Arizona and a home victory over USC. He also oversaw atrocious road losses to Washington and Notre Dame. Games that Stanford should have won easily.
Stanford fans didn't accept Nunes's inconsistency and mediocrity. He didn't meet the new Luck standard.
Nunes bounced easy throws to open receivers, managed the clock poorly and changed too many plays at the line of scrimmage that led to nothing. Granted, key drops by Stanford receivers, phantom officiating calls and missed field goals are easy culprits for Stanford's losses. But in the quarterback driven offense that Stanford now runs in the post-Luck era, Nunes couldn't cut it. Would redshirt freshman Luck have led Stanford to road wins at Notre Dame and UW in 2012? Most evidence says no (Big Game interception in 2009).
When David Shaw decided to put Kevin Hogan at the helm of the Stanford offense mid-way through the second quarter of the Colorado game, Stanford fans were ecstatic. Hogan had taken about a dozen snaps the entire season. Hogan was 18-23 in his first game. Last week, against a top-15 opponent in Oregon State, Hogan again led Stanford to victory throwing for 254 yards on 22/27.
Let's not get too caught up in the numbers and wins. Hogan has barely played. What impresses everyone about Hogan is his footwork, his pocket presence and his ability to make basically every throw that Andrew Luck made as a senior, both in and out of the pocket. Not to mention that the guy is just as big as Luck with two more years before he's NFL eligible. Hogan is the real deal. He's better than Luck was as a freshman in nearly every aspect of the game (except for tackling), or at least he's getting to prove that he can do more than hand the ball off. And he's doing it with an inferior offensive line, a good but not great running back, a more complicated offense and without NFL coaching sensation John Harbaugh. It remains to be seen whether Hogan will be the NFL prospect that Luck was and is. But Hogan gives Stanford a legitimate shot at the Rose Bowl this year. That's more than we could say about Luck in his first year.
Filling Andrew Luck's shoes could haunt Stanford quarterbacks for years. Filling Kevin Hogan's shoes could haunt the Cardinal program for generations.