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Can Stanford Contend?

Behind freshman quarterback Andrew Luck and bruising running back Toby Gerhart, the Stanford Cardinal were one of the surprise teams of the 2009 college football season.

The Cardinal had arguably one of the best back-to-back weeks of any team in Division I last season thanks to a 51-42 win over then-No. 8 Oregon on Nov. 7, followed by a 55-21 thumping at No. 9 Southern Cal. That was the most points allowed in USC history and the worst Trojans’ home loss since 1966. It also got Stanford into the Rose Bowl picture, but that fell out of focus on Nov. 21 in the Big Game, a 34-28 loss to Cal.

Stanford finished a very respectable 8-5 for its most wins since 2001. It lost to Oklahoma – without an injured Luck – in the Sun Bowl.

Gerhart, who led the nation with 28 rushing touchdowns last season and finished second to Mark Ingram in the Heisman balloting in the closest finish ever, is by far and away the key loss for the 2010 Cardinal. But overall the team loses just seven starters (three on offense, four on defense) and should certainly be in contention in the Pac-10.

Another strong season by Luck could see him as the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft and could see a bigger college program (Michigan?) or an NFL team lure away Coach Jim Harbaugh, as was rumored this offseason.

Here is Stanford’s 2010 schedule:

Sept. 4 vs. Sacramento State
Sept. 11 at UCLA
Sept. 18 vs. Wake Forest
Sept. 25 at Notre Dame
Oct. 2 at Oregon
Oct. 9 vs. USC
Oct. 23 vs. Washington State
Oct. 30 at Washington
Nov. 6 vs. Arizona
Nov. 13 at Arizona State
Nov. 20 at California
Nov. 27 vs. Oregon State

The offensive line, which only lost right tackle Chris Marinelli, should be a big strength again. That unit allowed the second fewest sacks (7) in the nation last year while paving the way for the most productive ground game in school history (218.2 yards a game, 2,837 total). It's likely a backfield by committee of Jeremy Stewart, Tyler Gaffney and Stepfan Taylor will try and replace Gerhart. But with Luck more mature and with one more offseason under his belt, maybe the Cardinal throw more this year, especially with their top two wide receivers back in Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu.

As for the schedule, running the non-conference table is very doable. I won’t bore you with Sacramento State, and the Cardinal should handle a solid Wake team in Palo Alto. It’s rather hard to know what to make of Notre Dame this season with all the changes going on in South Bend. But the Cardinal ended a seven-game losing streak to the Irish last season.

UCLA is on the way up and Stanford only beat the Bruins by 8 at home last season. I think UCLA returns the favor in a close one this year. Can’t see Stanford winning at Oregon – which will be out for vengeance – or Washington with Jake Locker back. I do think the Cardinal hold serve in every home game this season but the finale with Oregon State – I went back and forth on the USC game and may well change my mind by the time I write about the Trojans’ schedule.

So, take that home loss to the Beavers and throw in road losses at UCLA, at Oregon and at Washington – I’ll give the Cardinal a close win in South Bend. That’s an 8-4 regular-season record for the second year in a row. Not bad for a team that hasn’t posted back-to-back winning seasons since 1995-96. I’m guessing oddsmakers will put Stanford’s total either at 7.5 or 8 when released.

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