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The 2014 Stanford football optimist's preview: Playoff-bound Cardinal remain atop Pac-12

We're not sure where Stanford football will end up in 2014, but let's see what an optimist thinks about the fall campaign

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

If you've played chess, you know one thing: the king stays the king.

When other pieces fall off the board, new pawns can replace them. But the king is the one piece that never changes in stature. And it can stay on the board forever.

And why would the king ever change places? You don't want to go back to being a pawn. The road to the top wasn't easy at all. Once you've reached the top, why would you ever want to leave?

That's the case for Stanford football in 2014, which finds itself polishing two Pac-12 championship trophies, four consecutive BCS bowl rings of different size and value, and suddenly doubted by the world at large.

And here's the rub: it's silly - borderline farcical - that anyone should doubt Stanford anymore.

If we've learned anything over these past few years, we've learned this: we can trust in Stanford football when all men doubt them.

Kevin Hogan assumes his place under center for his second full season as a starter, and he's done nothing but come up big. Sure, he burst onto the national stage a few years ago, but now's the time for him to smash whatever conceptions we previously had. He's fine-tuned his short and intermediate passing touch to complement his electric deep ball. He's answered David Shaw's call for complete mastery of the offense. And he's got a supporting cast that just might be his best, most complete group yet. Hogan won't throw for 5,000 yards like some quarterbacks in this conference, but his savvy and steel nerves - coupled with his refined playmaking ability - suggests he might be a sneaky dark horse Heisman candidate.

And what of those weapons? All-American Ty Montgomery was deadly a year ago, and now all reports indicate that he's bigger and meaner this season. It's like attaching a pair of elk antlers to Frank Bullit's matte-green Mustang. Montgomery should take center stage as the most prolific receiver of the Harbaugh-Shaw era this fall before he blows away scouts at the combine next spring.

And don't forget about Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector. Cajuste might be the closest thing Stanford football has to a jungle cat - he's far too fast for a man that massive - and Rector is a speed demon who opposing defenses seem to forget about until he's slipping a knife right between their ribs 45 yards down the field.

Tyler Gaffney isn't irreplaceable in the backfield, just as Stepfan Taylor and Toby Gerhart were eminently replaceable. That's what happens when the foundation of your team is power football. Someone's going to do the bludgeoning, thanks to a line that is full of veterans who've earned their chance to start after cutting their teeth against the rugged Cardinal defense in practice. It's just a matter of who will carry the ball. Kelsey Young always seems to go for 20 or more yards when he touches the ball, and his backup is Barry Freaking Sanders. This running back corps might be a little less blunt force trauma than last year, but this group of backs is agile, mobile and hostile - and they've all got something to prove.

The legs feed the wolf. So you better be ready to run and hunt if you want to touch the ball on offense this year. That competition will breed success.

On defense, it's the same kind of questions and the same kind of answers. Shayne Skov gone? Next man up. Trent Murphy gone? Next man up. Ed Reynolds gone? Next man up.

The guys stepping into the roles vacated by those veterans aren't some green freshmen. They've been competing against players on one of the nation's best defenses for years now, and they're also out to prove something.

AJ Tarpley is one of the nation's best unheralded players - a sure tackler and a master at dropping into coverage. Henry Anderson is a wrecking ball aimed at shattering the foundation of your run game. Alex Carter is one of the meanest, surest cornerbacks in a league where the ball's in the air almost every single snap.

And don't forget that Stanford has perhaps the best special teams unit in the nation. That matters in close games, when opponents can't get out from underneath their own goalposts and you're setting up shop on their 45 yard line over and over again.

On top of that, the other teams in the Pac-12 have just as many - or more - questions as Stanford. Brett Hundley and the wildly overrated UCLA Bruins lost several of their best players from a season ago, and Oregon's already shown that they don't want any part in the cage matches Stanford challenges them to on a yearly basis. USC's season is already in disrepair before their first kickoff.

What happens in the playoff is anyone's guess - Alabama, Florida State and Michigan State are all worthy foes - but this year might just be that the sun rises Cardinal red.

The king always stays the king.