Stanford preview: Can Cardinal go undefeated?
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2012 record: 12-2 (8-1 Pac-12, 1st in North)

Bowl game: Beat Wisconsin, 20-14, in the Rose Bowl

Top returners: QB Kevin Hogan, So.; LG David Yankey, Sr.; DE Ben Gardner, Sr.; OLB Trent Murphy, Sr.; ILB Shayne Skov, Sr.; S Ed Reynolds, Sr.; CB Alex Carter, So.; RB Tyler Gaffney, Sr. (sat out last season to play baseball)

Key Losses: RB Stepfan Taylor; TE Zach Ertz; TE Levine Toilolo; OLB Chase Thomas; CB Terrence Brown; NT Terrence Stephens

Games to watch: There’s every reason to believe the Cardinal will be 6-0 headed into a showdown with No. 21 UCLA on Oct. 19. That game kicks off a brutal final stretch that includes five ranked teams -- including No. 25 Oregon State and No. 24 USC on the road -- and the Big Game vs. Cal. It has been for the last few years, but Stanford football should be considered appointment viewing.

Reason for optimism: Stanford is one of three programs in the country to have played in three consecutive BCS bowl games. The others, Oregon and Wisconsin, saw their head coaches depart in the offseason. The defense, led by defensive end Ben Gardner and linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, has the makings to be among the best in the country. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason -- a name that should pop up for head coaching openings -- has plenty of depth, a key component to success in a conference loaded with fast-paced offenses. Hogan was 6-0 after displacing Josh Nunes and has already started generating Heisman buzz -- the well-respected website HesimanPundit.com ranks him No. 5 in its preseason Heisman watch list.

Reason for concern: The team is replacing its all-time leading rusher (Stepfan Taylor) and its top five receivers in terms of yards. Among the returning players, only fullback Ryan Hewitt caught a touchdown pass last season. Coach David Shaw has his fingerprints all over the offense, but Mike Bloomgren steps to replace Pep Hamilton as offensive coordinator -- known on the Farm officially as the Andrew Luck Director of Offense. Hamilton left to direct Luck’s offense with the Colts in the NFL.

Forecast: When Stanford extended Ben Gardner its final scholarship offer in the Winter of 2009 -- at the urging of Jack Harbaugh --  it was his lone FBS offer. Gardner readily accepted. He was more than thrilled at the prospect of a free Stanford education and intrigued at playing a role turning around a program that just finished 5-7.

Before Gardner arrived, Stanford had won just two bowls in his lifetime. Since he signed, the Cardinal has been to four, won two and is now a 20/1 bet to raise a crystal football in January.

He thought they could eventually be good. But this good?

“The biggest thing that Coach (Jim) Harbaugh instilled in us was that we aren’t going to back down from anybody,” Gardner said. “As soon as we showed up on campus in 2009, we thought we had a chance to win the conference.”

There are nine players left from Gardner’s recruiting class and, barring disaster, they’re set to become the first in school history to be apart of five bowl games. Gardner was named to the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik (overall defensive player), Bronko Nagurski (overall defensive player) and Lombardi (most outsanding lineman) Awards.

After opting to put off the NFL for a final year, his expectations are higher than ever.

“With our personnel, our coaching staff and our work ethic we don’t see any reason why we can’t go out and dominate every Saturday and be in the conversation for the best defense in the country,” Gardner said. “If we go out and win every game, we don’t know what’s going to happen with the computers, but we do know we’ll win our conference.”