The aspiration is to return to Pasadena -- but this time, on January 6, 2014.
To make it to a national title game is always a tough task: it requires a team to be elite, but also to get lucky. For example, the 2010 Stanford football team peaked late in the year -- but its best opponent was inconveniently scheduled in the middle of the year. The 2011 team featured more than a few inconvenient injuries. The 2012 team was not quite the rarefied level of 2010 or 2011, but had Kevin Hogan developed just a bit faster, the Cardinal could well have been a national championship participant.
The luck part isn't under the team's control (at least, that's my understanding), but the skill part is. The 2013 team has to improve quite a bit from the 2012 edition. Here's a simple statistic to demonstrate that: margin of victory. As most statistically-minded folk will tell you, margin of victory is more predictive of future results than a mere win-loss analysis -- better teams blow teams out, essentially. There's more margin for error that way.
To take a perfect example, think about the losses to Washington and Notre Dame last season. In each game, the Cardinal staked itself to a decent-to-substantial lead -- only to surrender them because the offense couldn't get it together. Mentally replace the pre-Hogan offense with an average one. Instead of a peak lead of 10 against UW, the team is leading by (we'll say) 17; instead of a peak lead of 7 versus ND, the team leads by 10 or 13. Now, one bad run fit or one instance of not hustling to the ball isn't a back-breaker and a game-loser. In short: it's better to blow your opponents out.
National champions since 2004 have beaten their opponents, on average, by around 26 points per game. Championship game losers since the same time have beaten their opponents by around 23 points per game. Stanford last year scraped by opponents at around 10 points per game -- good, but not national-championship worthy. (Note that the championship game team with the lowest margin of victory -- 2012 Notre Dame, beating teams by around 13 points per game -- was one nearly everyone not wearing blue and gold agreed was somewhat overrated and got destroyed by Alabama in the national championship game.)
So Stanford will likely have to double, and then some, its margin of victory. If they do it, here's how it might happen:
1) The kicking game
As Stanford improved in the late season, so too did Jordan Williamson. The once-beleaguered kicker, starting with the overtime Oregon winner, became more than competent, nailing important kicks against UCLA and Wisconsin. Considering the kicks he missed against USC, Notre Dame, etc., it'd be quite helpful if he could be more consistent -- or even return to his pre-injury freshman year form. (He was nearly perfect, missing only one kick, before his injury against USC in 2011. Yes, small sample size.)
Williamson's field goal percentage ranked 83rd in the country last year. Significant improvement could garner Stanford some extra points without any improvement from the offense (which would be helpful nevertheless!).
2) Better kickoff returns
Ty Montgomery is a very good kickoff returner! He's averaged over 25 yards per return over his career. Sadly, injures meant he couldn't return much and the kickoff return game averaged 22 yards overall. Montgomery's propensity for explosive returns could be pretty helpful (though we're hoping not too helpful.)
3) Hold the line elsewhere on special teams
Improvements from kicking could be offset by regression elsewhere in special teams. Ben Rhyne was a bit worse than Zychlinski as a punter in a limited sample; Drew Terrell was as reliable as a metronome as a punt returner. Hope for improvement, but be pleased with duplication.
Offensively, you've heard enough about the need to present more of a vertical passing threat to open up running lanes and create more big plays, which makes it unnecessary to repeat that Michael Rector and Ty Montgomery will have to present more of a vertical passing threat to open up running lanes and create more big plays. I don't even have to say that it'd be nice for Kelsey Young to stretch the field horizontally (a la fly sweep specialists like Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon or Oregon State's Brandin Cooks) to help open up running lanes. Even if nothing else about the offense improves, merely having Hogan starting instead of Nunes is very helpful indeed. So let's instead focus on something else: sacks.
With Hogan in there, there were too many of them. (Hogan took 11 sacks in 6 games, a rate which -- if extrapolated -- would've ranked 57th in the country.) Why? Part of it was that Hogan trusted his legs a bit too much. That will have to improve. Part of it was opposition: Oregon State, UCLA, Oregon, Wisconsin -- all of those were pretty darn good pass rushes. Part of it rested on the offensive line: while Yankey was an All-American, the interior line was often bullied down the stretch. (Rewatch the UCLA championship game for a gory recreation -- not only did the interior line give up a lot of sacks, but they took some bad penalties to boot.)
Moving Yankey to left guard will help solve a lot of problems, and Wilkes and Danser should be better with a year's experience (and they may get pushed by younger offensive linemen). If Peat is the prototype they say he is, we may even get a slight improvement at left tackle. The offensive line, as they note, should be nasty, and the direct beneficiary should be Hogan, who will take fewer drive-killing sacks.
5) Better defense
Duhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. The team is more experienced and talented than the year before. The secondary will go from inexperience (all five starters were first-year starters) to experience. The front seven is boring to analyze with mere words -- please refer to nature videos of sharks, lions or hyenas for a more accurate depiction.
But there's not much room for improvement here. They (probably?) aren't going to massively improve from 17 points per game. They might go to, say, 13 or 14 or 15 points per game. Which means, as you know, that the offense will have to improve. Massively. (But you knew that.)