Record: 11-1, 8-1 Pac-12
The 2011 Stanford Cardinal looked a lot like the 2010 team. Andrew Luck tossing touchdowns to Coby Fleener. An 11-1 record. Stepfan Taylor rushing for 1,000 yards behind Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro. Another BCS bowl game.
But the main difference this season was that expectation was higher, the spotlight brighter and every play over-scrutinized. David Shaw stepped in as head coach and calmed the seas. At times, the Cardinal looked perfect and unstoppable. Others, over-hyped and exposed. But through it all -- including the disappointing Oregon loss -- Shaw kept the team focused on whatever the next task was.
Luck turned in a Heisman-worthy season, throwing 35 touchdowns to nine interceptions. He was perfect in the red zone -- 26 touchdowns, zero interceptions -- and Shaw made the most of his cerebral quarterback by giving him control of the offense at the line of scrimmage. The tight ends were sensational and the running backs were consistent and productive, if not a little underrated.
Defensively, bright stars like A.J. Tarpley, Ben Gardner and Jarek Lancaster emerged, giving promise that even though Luck is leaving for the NFL, the Cardinal might be able to sustain some of the success from the last few years.
Offensive MVP: Luck, a Heisman finalist, performed wonderfully under the microscope. His interception total was a little higher and completion percentage a little lower because of sketchy wide receiver play, but the way he commanded Stanford's offense was brilliant. He broke John Elway's major touchdown records in three seasons and leaves Stanford as, perhaps, its most celebrated player.
Defensive MVP: Hard to pass on outside linebacker Chase Thomas, but it was safety Michael Thomas who held the team together during a rough patch midway through the year. He had a couple of off games, but when safety Delano Howell missed time with a hand injury, Thomas rotated back and forth between free and strong safety and coached up some younger players until Howell could return. He was second on the team with 61 tackles and provided three of Stanford's six interceptions.
Turning point: Luck announces last January that he's returning for another season. Those aforementioned expectations reach atmospheric heights.
Up next: Oklahoma State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. One last chance for the fourth- and fifth-year seniors, credited with turning the program around, to enjoy one last, well-earned game on the national stage.