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LAST SEASON STANFORD WON EIGHT GAMES—INCLUDING BACK-to-back victories over eventual league champion Oregon and the team the Ducks replaced at the top, USC—produced the runner-up in the closest Heisman race in history, earned a bowl game berth for the first time in eight years and reenergized a drifting fan base. But don't even think about giving coach Jim Harbaugh or his players a pat on the back. "We despise satisfaction," says Harbaugh, deadly serious. "We don't like a lot of the good things written about us."
This year Harbaugh & Co. get a clean slate. With the aforementioned Heisman candidate, Toby Gerhart—a bull of a back who accounted for 1,871 yards rushing and 28 touchdowns—now with the Minnesota Vikings, the offensive spotlight shifts to redshirt sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck, an elite talent who has already entered the Heisman conversation. "There will be more on his shoulders," says Harbaugh of Luck. "Last year we were more heavily a running team. This year I think we'll be much closer to a 50 percent passing, 50 percent running team."
While the committee to replace Gerhart—senior Jeremy Stewart and sophomores Stepfan Taylor (the team's second-leading rusher last season, with 303 yards) and Tyler Gaffney—has much to prove, Luck has a veteran receiving corps, including junior Chris Owusu and senior Ryan Whalen, who combined for 94 receptions and 1,608 yards. He'll also be playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the country, one that has four starters returning and that paved the way to 218.2 rushing yards per game in 2009.
The defense, which gave up 402.7 yards a game (second-most in the Pac-10) and was particularly soft in the secondary, has four new coaches and a new look. Vic Fangio, who spent 11 years as an NFL coordinator, has changed the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and is instilling a more aggressive attitude. "We have to get better defensively, develop more of a killer instinct and find more leaders on that side of the ball," says Harbaugh.
If his players and staff can do those things, the Cardinal could make a run at its first conference title since 1999. "We want to get to the Rose Bowl, that's our goal," says Harbaugh. Neither he nor his players will be satisfied with anything less.
COACH Jim Harbaugh (4th year)
17-20 (13-14 in Pac-10)