Every year you're the king, more and more people want to behead you. Even if it's just two people instead of one. But hey, you're the king. You can laugh it off from on high. Call the have-nots a jealous bunch.
But there's a time when those threats, those whispered doubts about you, must come home to roost. And I see them circling right now, ready to flock to the 2014 Stanford season as soon as week two.
Why is 2014 the year the Cardinal return to the middle of the Pac-12? There's not just one reason: there's a reason at every position.
Let's begin at the most critical position on the field. Kevin Hogan has survived on talent and close-up magic to this point in his career. And another year of experience doesn't buy you wins. He was too loose with the football last season, throwing ten interceptions and completing only 61 percent of his passes. It seemed like the coaches trusted him less with the offense a season ago, and he didn't give them any reason to trust him in a big road game after the flops at Utah and USC. Will he get it done on the road at Oregon, Washington or UCLA? I have my doubts.
And if you want to say that Hogan's biggest asset is his pass catchers, that's probably a true statement, but it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. Sure, the receiving corps is talented, but can they really be counted on in every game this fall? Ty Motgomery's hands are a bit suspect from time to time, Devon Cajuste battled a knee injury last season, and Michael Rector isn't exactly a high-volume target right now. Throwing a lot more passes would mean Hogan would also have to turn to a bunch of redshirt freshmen at tight end, which, while preferable to throwing to converted defensive ends, doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence in me.
At running back, the situation becomes even more dire. In the past, the coaching staff never trusted Kelsey Young to touch to football more than five times in a game, and now he's the starter in a totally different role - not just a jet sweep back. Behind him is Barry Sanders, but he hasn't seen the field much at all despite his unparalleled pedigree. Stanford's proved it needs a primary workhorse back to get the job done, and they've been pretty lucky to find three in a row. Can we really count on four or five guys to pick up all those key third-and-shorts against Oregon like Tyler Gaffney did a year ago? Again, I have my doubts, particularly about these smaller running backs.
Meanwhile, the offensive line, the crux of power football, has been more than decimated. There are four new starters with varying degrees of experience, but there aren't any cagey veterans along the line who can help these guys combat the myriad twists and stunts they'll see from opposing pass-rushers. Will the Cardinal be particularly vulnerable up the middle, with a new center and guards heads' spinning from making checks? Even the great stone wall that is Andrus Peat can't play the other 4 positions on the line. (And even Peat may be a bit overrated as an NFL prospect.)
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line, linebackers and defensive backfield all have to replace players - and they were the best players in each unit. A team can preach the doctrine of "next man up" all it wants, but if the next man isn't capable of doing the job, where does that leave you?
Shayne Skov paced this defense for the last two seasons, and his hole can't just be spackled over with some former four-star. Intangibles matter on the football field, and Skov was one of the best I've ever seen at divining just what the snap count would be and ruining the other team's play before the quarterback was away from center.
Alex Carter has battled injuries, Aziz Shittu and James Vaughters have underperformed so far in their college careers, and Ed Reynolds' consistent play on the back end isn't easily replicated. Did I mention that Stanford is also losing the nation's sack leader and their defensive coordinator? It almost doesn't matter who replaces these guys - they can't hold a candle to the unit of the last two years. If that dropoff is bigger than some expect it to be, can the Cardinal survive a season where they have to win shootout after shootout?
All in all, it adds up to a fall of confusion and frustration for the Cardinal. And about 7 wins.