Luck in no hurry for NFL, real world

First off, apologies to all the Stanford folks who e-mailed, Tweeted or otherwise reached out with this thought: Quarterback Andrew Luck wants to come back to Stanford next year.

Lots of you did, and I sort of shrugged and discounted that talk. So my bad. Luck announced he's coming back in 2011 and not entering the NFL draft, and Stanford, the Pac-12 and all of college football are better for it.

It's always nice when your cynical attitude proves wrong.

"I am committed to earning my degree in architectural design from Stanford University and am on track to accomplish this at the completion of the spring quarter of 2012," Luck said in a statement, which felt entirely authentic to me.

There is no ulterior motive here. Luck has told everyone who would listen that he loves college. He's never seemed obsessed with the NFL, even if he would have been the No. 1 overall pick. And he comes from an affluent background: He didn't need the NFL right now, like so many young men who decided to leave college early do.

But enough of the pleasantries. What does this mean?

Well, the remote chance of this formula -- Luck + coach Jim Harbaugh = Pac-12 championship? -- remains, though reports are coming out that suggest such hope is extremely thin.

But even if Harbaugh bolts for the NFL, as expected, Stanford today became a leading Pac-12 contender and potential preseason top-10 team. Luck also becomes the leading Heisman Trophy candidate.

Luck led Stanford to a 12-1 finish this season and a likely top-five rating in the final rankings, which the program hasn't produced since 1940. Luck passed for 3,338 yards this year with 32 touchdowns. He completed 71 percent of his passes with just eight interceptions. He also rushed for 453 yards. He passed for 287 yards and four touchdowns in the Cardinal's 40-12 win over Virginia Tech in the Discover Orange Bowl.

He's a program changer: He makes everyone around him better.

That said: Stanford's depth chart takes some hits. Even some unanticipated ones: Defensive end/linebacker Thomas Keiser quietly followed the thunderous news about Luck with an announcement that he will enter this spring's NFL draft.

That means the Cardinal lose five starters on defense and seven on offense. And they're looking for a new kicker. There will be many questions this spring, questions that likely will be faced by a new head coach.

Still, Luck makes the Cardinal a legitimate threat to Oregon in the inaugural season of the Pac-12 North. Good recruiting under Harbaugh means Luck will have a solid supporting cast on both sides of the ball.

The potential downside: What if Luck pulls a Jake Locker?

Locker warmed everyone's hearts with his decision to return to Washington for his senior season, despite the likelihood he, too, would have been an high first-round -- even No. 1 overall -- NFL pick in the spring of 2010. Then his senior season was a mostly a flop, at least in terms of improving his NFL stock.

But Locker's prospects were based on upside and physical talent. Luck has already proven he's got all the NFL tools right now, particularly accuracy.

Nor does Luck's decision compare to Matt Leinart in 2005. Though it didn't get a lot of attention at the time, Leinart was scheduled for elbow surgery after the season, so he would have missed the combine and workouts.

And Luck is a different talent than Leinart or Locker. You hate to call a guy "can't miss," but Luck certainly feels that way. If he blows out his knee in the second game -- knock on wood -- he'd still be the top pick in 2012 (see Sam Bradford).

And if he plays all 12 games, it's hard to imagine him regressing to any significant extent.

But there we go again: Talking about the NFL. This decision wasn't about that.

This is about a young man taking a measured look around and saying: Life is good. It's good to be young. It's good to be the QB at Stanford. The real world can wait.