Three years, three BCS bowls. And now it's going to get even better.
Stanford's road to a BCS title couldn't be more clear in 2013. And led by Kevin Hogan and a brutal defense, the Cardinal will get there - and it will win.
It all starts with Kevin Hogan, the revelation from 2012 that turned a team that was bound for the Alamo Bowl into a Rose Bowl champion. His record as a starter speaks for itself - five wins over ranked teams in a row, including downing the most powerful Oregon team to date in Autzen and taking home the Grandaddy of the All.
The coaching staff is going to put more on Hogan this year with the loss of Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo and Stepfan Taylor, and there's no reason to doubt that he will answer that call. He completed over 70 percent of his passes and had a 3-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio a year ago. Extrapolate that out over a full season, and Hogan might throw more than 25 touchdown passes while protecting the football even better than Andrew Luck did during his career on the Farm.
In front of Hogan, the mammoth offensive rivals - and probably betters - anybody in the country. It's not a reach to say that this group is probably close to Alabama's line a year ago, which had two first-round draft picks and possibly more to come. David Yankey is already an All-American, and now that's he's been put back at guard (his natural position), he'll wreck opposing linebackers the way that David DeCastro did.
At left tackle, Andrus Peat is an immovable force - a 6-foot-7, 315-pound golem that will eat potential pass rushers alive. There's a reason the coaches have already starting comparing this guy to Jonathan Ogden. Every other position is occupied by a senior - Khalil Wilkes, Cam Fleming and Kevin Danser - and as a group of five they should maul defenses on the ground and in pass protection. Hogan will have all day to throw, and the running backs will have massive lanes to run behind.
Speaking of running backs, the stable is full, and the horses are ready to run. There's no one single thoroughbred like Stepfan Taylor - instead, there's a pack of Clydesdales that will team together to pound the football week after week. Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson have already shown their power and speed in limited samples, Kelsey Young might be the most dangerous player on offense, and a name like Barry Sanders speaks for itself. The only question is how carries will be split - but it's not like it really matters. Any one of these guys can carry the rock.
As for pass catchers, this crew comes with very little stats next to their names. But they do bring loads of potential and a chip on their shoulder. Ty Montgomery proved as a freshman that he can be a threat when fully healthy, and the rest of the receivers have just been waiting for their chance to shine. Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector, Kodi Whitfield and Francis Owusu all have big frames and speed to spare, and Kevin Hogan will be able to get them the ball even if they're well-covered. His two biggest throws last year - a touchdown pass to Zach Ertz against Oregon and a touchdown to Drew Terrell against USC - came against blanket coverage. Any concerns about this young group will dissipate by the time the second half of the schedule rolls around.
On the other side of the ball, there isn't much to write about the defense. One of the nation's best defenses from 2012 should get even nastier. Shayne Skov, the heart and soul of the defense, should be a wrecking ball now that his knee is fully healthy. Trent Murphy, who had 10 sacks and 18 tackles for loss a year ago, will finally force the national media to pay attention to what a beast he is. And Ed Reynolds might break his own record for pick-sixes in a single season.
Even the young players stepping into new roles are already studs - James Vaughters, who coaches have already deemed "unstoppable," will take over for Chase Thomas, and Wayne Lyons, the new starter at cornerback, has been dubbed a future Thorpe Award winner.
Sure, the defense is heavy with seniors, but the Cardinal should blow out opponents throughout the first half of the schedule and build some depth by getting younger players some playing time. All in all, the defense has established itself as an elite group - and they will rise to answer any challenge presented to them.
On top of that, the schedule and the Pac-12 conference shake out perfectly for the Card. All of the critical games at home. UCLA won't have Jonathan Franklin to pace their offense. Oregon State lost to freaking Eastern Washington. USC is leaking so much oil that pelicans in Louisiana are in danger.
Of course, there is the issue of Oregon - but Derek Mason and his defense have proved that the flashy Ducks attack can be stopped. What's more, without the black magic and *ahem* huevos of one Chip Kelly, Oregon has nowhere to go but to regress ever so slightly. Therefore, the door is wide open for the Cardinal to steamroll its way through the Pac-12 North without too much trouble.
From there, the Cardinal can take on anyone. Even if Alabama is the team squaring off against the Cardinal in Pasadena, the Tide are plenty vulnerable this year. Their offense was rickety against Virginia Tech - and they might not even be the best team in the SEC, anyway.
One way or another, this optimist sees only one thing when he looks into his crystal ball: a shiny crystal football for the Cardinal.
For the 2013 Pessimist's preview, click here.