Shayne Skov is back after missing most of 2011 with a knee injury.
The Stanford Cardinal check in at No. 21 in Athlon's college football 2012 top 25 countdown. Here's a look at our predictions for the most valuable players, games to watch, breakout candidates and other key categories for 2012.
Offensive MVP: Stepfan Taylor, RB
Taylor has topped the 1,100-yard mark in each of the last two seasons, and he could threaten Darrin Nelson’s school record of 4,033 rushing yards with a solid 2012 campaign. The Texas native has 30 total touchdowns in his career, and he should become the focus of the Cardinal offense with the departure of All-America quarterback Andrew Luck.
Upset Alert: Oregon State (Nov. 10)
The Beavers struggled mightily last season, but Mike Riley’s crew should be much-improved this year. The OSU contest at home should be a win for David Shaw’s Cardinal, but he must make sure that his team is not looking ahead to the following week’s trip to Oregon. The Ducks are the North favorites, but Stanford must take care of business against Oregon State first.
Trap Game: Arizona (Oct. 6)
The Wildcats will present a challenge with Rich Rodriguez’ offense coming to the Pac-12. Stanford has a trip to Washington at the end of September, and then road games with Notre Dame and rival Cal in the middle of October. In between those contests, the Cardinal will host an interesting Arizona squad that cannot be overlooked.
Defensive MVP: Chase Thomas, LB
Thomas was a first-team All-Pac-12 defender last year, and he will be up for All-America honors in 2012. Stanford’s outside linebackers do a quality job at getting into opponents’ backfields, and Thomas led the team last season with 17.5 tackles for loss while also forcing five fumbles. He will need similar big plays this year with the Cardinal inexperience in the secondary.
Breakout Player: Ty Montgomery, WR
Stanford lost its three leading pass catchers in Griff Whalen, Coby Fleener and Chris Owusu, and Montgomery is the top candidate to fill that void. The native Texan had 24 receptions for 350 yards and two touchdowns last season, and he should put up big numbers in 2012 if the Cardinal can find stability at the quarterback position.
Unsung Hero: Terrence Stephens, NG
The linebackers get much of the credit – and deservedly so – for Stanford’s productive defense, but someone has to tie up the blockers so the LBs can make plays. Stephens is that type of hard-working player. He does not show up much on the stat sheet but plays an important role in the Cardinal top rushing defense.
Biggest Game: at Washington (Sept. 27)
USC and Oregon may be the Pac-12 favorites, but the road trip to Seattle may hold the key to the season for the Cardinal. A loss to the favored Trojans would not derail Stanford’s shot at the North division, but losing to an improving Huskies club would be tough. A victory against UW could provide the confidence that the Cardinal need to have another special season.
Revenge Game: Oregon (Nov. 17)
With all of the success that Stanford has enjoyed over the last couple of seasons, there is not much in the revenge department. However, the Ducks have won two straight over the Cardinal by a combined score of 105-61. Oregon will be breaking in a new quarterback as well, and a win in Eugene would be very sweet for David Shaw’s club.
Freshmen to Watch: Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy, OT
Stanford will find it difficult to replace left tackle Jonathan Martin, but one of this pair of highly-touted recruits could claim the job in August. Both tackles were ranked in the top 25 overall players in the AC100, and they could make the unusual jump to playing time as true freshmen.
Comeback player: Shayne Skov, LB
The 2010 leading tackler suffered a severe knee injury in last season’s third game at Arizona. His healthy return will add even more playmaking to a loaded linebackers unit. Skov had 84 tackles and 7.5 sacks during that ’10 campaign, but it’s difficult to know how much burst he will have when he returns to the filed in the fall. After a brief suspension, Skov should provide a lift to the Stanford defense.
Position Battle: Quarterback
This one is obvious, as Stanford has the monumental task of trying to replace All-America signal caller Andrew Luck. Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes are the top two candidates, and coach David Shaw said the competition was still even after spring ball. Nottingham has the stronger arm, while Nunes seems to excel at managing the game. The winner of the QB derby will be a major factor in deciding if Stanford will remain a top team in the Pac-12.
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