Stanford's 20-14 Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin on Jan. 1 answered the questions about whether the Cardinal could win without Jim Harbaugh as its coach or Andrew Luck as its quarterback.
The Cardinal program proved it has staying power without the two people who delivered it into national prominence after years of ineptitude. And with redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan and much of the defensive talent back next year and coach David Shaw signing a contract extension, there's every reason to believe Stanford will challenge for the Pac-12 title next season and for the next few seasons.
But this team also raised one major question: Was this Stanford team more successful than the previous two?
Neither of the past two teams quarterbacked by Luck won a Pac-12 title and neither got to the Rose Bowl. But each lost only one regular-season game - both to Oregon - and the 2010 Cardinal team clobbered Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl to finish the season ranked No. 4, and last season's team lost in overtime to an Oklahoma State team that was considerably better than the five-loss Wisconsin team Stanford struggled to beat in the Rose Bowl.
This season's Stanford squad lost twice to finish 12-2. One was a controversial overtime loss on the road to a Notre Dame team that finished the regular season ranked No. 1, but the other was a loss to an unranked Washington team. The past two Stanford teams suffered no such upset loss.
However, Stanford recorded a major breakthrough this season by beating Oregon - on the road, no less - and not only got to the Rose Bowl, which is the goal of every Stanford team, but won it for the first time since the 1971 season.
This season's Cardinal team did not blow out opponents like last year's team did, with 10 of Stanford's games decided by a seven points or less. But the Cardinal won eight of those 10, and rallied from a tie or deficit in the fourth quarter for six of those wins. It was enough for the Cardinal to finish the regular season No. 6 in the BCS standings, and Stanford will finish in the top eight of the final Associated Press rankings.
It was really two seasons for the Cardinal: the pre-Hogan Stanford team, which went 7-2 and showed little offense under quarterback Josh Nunes, and the Hogan-led Stanford team, which went 5-0 with Hogan as the starter and demonstrated an ability to move the ball and score points with Hogan's versatility and creativity. And Hogan's record was really 6-0 because the Colorado victory was mostly his doing.
Hogan had perhaps his worst game in the Rose Bowl, showing he still needs to work on his throwing accuracy, and the Cardinal's running game, which is the team's offensive identity, was not as potent as it was the previous three seasons. However, the Cardinal defense was better than it had been in those seasons, standing sixth in rushing defense and 11th in scoring defense as of Jan. 2. The Cardinal led the nation in sacks with 57, and Stanford scored six defensive touchdowns.
It limited Wisconsin's Montee Ball to 13 rushing yards in the second half of the Rose Bowl.
The Cardinal loses several key players, including running back Stepfan Taylor, tight end Zach Ertz, inside linebacker Shayne Skov, outside linebacker Chase Thomas and two offensive linemen.
But Hogan returns and should be better next season as the Cardinal tailors its offense to his innovative skills during the spring and as he improves his throwing. He completed 71.7 percent of his passes this season, but showed in the Rose Bowl, he has plenty of room for improvement with his accuracy, especially on deep throws.
Taylor finished the season with 1,530 yards and leaves as the Cardinal's career rushing leader. But the Cardinal has enough talent at running back to compensate for the loss of Taylor, and that includes Barry Sanders, who redshirted his freshman season but figures prominently this spring. No Cardinal running back will be as complete as Taylor, who not only runs hard, but seldom fumbles, catches passes and pass-blocks effectively.
Levine Toilolo, assuming he doesn't turn pro, provides another potential star at tight end, and Stanford has a wealth of young talented offensive linemen ready to improve Stanford's power running game.
Again the Cardinal survived without much of a receiving threat on the outside, which will be a concern next year as well.
Defensively, the Cardinal will return three all-conference selections -- defensive end Ben Gardner, outside linebacker Trent Murphy and safety Ed Reynolds -- along with a host of talented defensive linemen and linebackers. Unless several unexpectedly turn pro, the Cardinal should be just as good, if not better, in 2013.
One thing that was overlooked this season was that the Cardinal was fortunate not to have any key players miss significant time with injuries.
STANFORD GAME OF THE YEAR: Stanford 17, Oregon 14 (overtime) - You could claim the 48-0 victory over Colorado on Nov. 3 was the game of the year, because that was the game in which Kevin Hogan took over the offense, becoming the starter the next week. But the Nov. 17 victory over the Ducks represented a major breakthrough for Stanford and paved the way for its first Rose Bowl berth since the 1999 season. The Cardinal had been overwhelmed by the Ducks' speed in blowout losses the previous two seasons, but the Cardinal held the nation's highest scoring team to just 14 points, ending a streak of 13 straight games in which Oregon had scored more than 40 points. Hogan and Zach Ertz came up with the big play when they connected on a game-tying 10-yard touchdown pass with 1:35 left. And the Cardinal did it at Oregon's Autzen Stadium, considered the toughest venue for visiting teams on the West Coast.
STANFORD PLAYER OF THE YEAR: TE Zach Ertz - You could make a strong case for Stepfan Taylor, who became the school's career rushing leader, or OLBs Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy or S Ed Reynolds. You could even claim QB Kevin Hogan was the player of the year, because of the difference he made when he became a starter. But Ertz was simply the best player. He was a first-team Associated Press All-American, the only Stanford player so honored, and was the focal point of the Cardinal passing game. The 6-6, 252-pound Ertz had 69 catches - 28 more than the team's No. 2 receiver - and his 898 receiving yards were nearly double anyone else on the team. He also led the squad in touchdown receptions with six and always seemed to come up with the pivotal catch.
LOOKING AHEAD: The Cardinal coaching staff seems set as David Shaw signed a contract extension before the Rose Bowl to eliminate talk that he might go to the NFL. The Cardinal also seems set at quarterback for the next few years with Kevin Hogan being a redshirt freshman, although he still has plenty of room to improve, especially throwing the deep ball. But in many ways he was better as redshirt freshman than Andrew Luck was as a starting quarterback in his redshirt freshman season. Running back will be an in issue with the school's alltime leading rusher Stepfan Taylor gone after three seasons as a starter, but there are a number of suitable replacements, namely Barry Sanders, who redshirted the season. The elusive Sanders would be a different kind of back for Stanford, though, as the Cardinal has built its identity as a power running team with Taylor and Toby Gerhart. Stanford loses two key offensive linemen, but is well-supplied in that department. TE Zach Ertz will be missed, but Levine Toilolo is poised to become a star at the position if he does not turn pro. The Cardinal desperately needs to develop a big-play receiving threat on the outside, something that has been lacking the past few years. The Cardinal will miss the big-play capabilities of OLB Chase Thomas and ILB Shayne Skov, but the return of OLB Trent Murphy, DE Ben Gardner, S Ed Reynolds and a slew of talented defensive linemen and linebackers should make up for that. CB Alex Carter, who became a starter midway through his freshman season, could become a star.
RECRUITING: Stanford does not look like it will have the outstanding recruiting class it had last year, when its class was ranked among the nation's top 10 by virtually every recruiting service. It has just 10 verbal commitments as of Jan. 2, with ILB Peter Kalambayi being the most highly rated of the commits, ranking as the No. 73 prospect in the nation by Rivals.com and No. 106 by Scout.com. He and another ILB, Kevin Palm, will make Stanford stronger at a position where it is already strong. WR Francis Owusu may be the most important commitment, because the Cardinal needs playmakers on the outside. The Cardinal also got a commitment from QB Ryan Burns, although opinions differ on him. Rivals.com ranks him as the nation's No. 43 overall recruit, but Scout.com does not rank him among the top 300. Stanford focused on offensive linemen in last year's recruiting, but has a commitment from only one offensive lineman (Dave Bright) as of Jan. 2 this time.
QUOTE: "It was about us being us. We say that a lot. It's about playing our scheme. We did some things early in the game to loosen them up a little bit, but we want to play our style of football." - Stanford coach David Shaw, to the San Francisco Chronicle, about the Cardinal's conservative approach in the second half, using power football and a stout defense to sneak past Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2013:
QB Kevin Hogan - He went 5-0 as a starter as a redshirt freshmen, with four of the wins coming against ranked teams. He completed 71.7 percent of his passes and also rushed for 263 yards. He is still raw and can improve his throwing, but provides a dimension of versatility and creativity that should make the Cardinal offense productive.
TE Levine Toilolo - Overshadowed the past two seasons by Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz, the 6-8 Toilolo should become the main passing target next season - if he does not turn pro. The 6-8 Toilolo had 24 catches for 393 yards and four scores, and is a good blocker.
OLB Trent Murphy - A first-team all-conference selection as a redshirt junior, Murphy led the team in sacks (10), tackles for loss (18) and quarterback hurries (eight). He also intercepted a pass and forced a fumble.
DE Ben Gardner - Gardner had 7.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss as a redshirt junior, while earning all-Pac-12 first-team honors. He may be the conference's best defensive lineman next season.
S Ed Reynolds - The safety position was a concern entering the season, but Reynolds took over and became a big-play defender. He intercepted six passes and had 301 return yards after those picks. He returned three of those interceptions for touchdowns, and came within a half-yard of making it four.
STANFORD PRO PROSPECTS
TE Zach Ertz - The top pro prospect on the squad, Ertz is expected to go in the first or second round. A 6-6, 252-pounder with speed and outstanding hands, Ertz led the team in receptions with 69 and averaged 13.0 yards per catch.
RB Stepfan Taylor - Taylor is Stanford alltime career rushing leader, and does all the things the pros like - he can run inside or outside, he can catch passes, he seldom fumbles and he is an excellent pass-blocker. He is not quite the dominating runner the NFL wants for him to be a first-round pick and is more likely to be taken between the second and fourth rounds.
OLB Chase Thomas - A productive and versatile player who had 7.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for losses, Thomas is a good fit for a team that runs a 3-4 defense. Not quite athletic enough to be a first rounder, Thomas should be taken by the fourth round.
ILB Shayne Skov - There may still be some doubts about Skov's knee after he missed nearly the entire 2011 season with a major knee injury. But he played well in 2012, leading the team in tackles. His biggest asset is his mental toughness, and that may not be apparent to NFL scouts. He is expected to be taken in the middle round.
TE Levine Toilolo - As of Jan. 2, he had not decided whether he will turn pro or return to Stanford. Whenever he turns pro, he's likely to be an early draft pick, because he has the size (6-8, 265), hands, speed and blocking skills to be an excellent pro.
-- NT Terrence Stephens was ruled ineligible for the Rose Bowl because of an issue related to his off-campus housing. He missed the final three games of the season after being a starter.
-- DE Henry Anderson did not have any tackles for losses in the Rose Bowl but had 11.5 in the Cardinal's final seven regular-season games.
--OT David Yankey was the winner of the Morris Trophy, which goes to the most outstanding offensive and defensive linemen in the Pac-12. (Arizona State's Will Sutton won the defensive Morris Trophy.)
-- P Daniel Zychlinski, who had missed the Pac-12 title game with an injury, averaged 45.5 yards on six punts in the Rose Bowl in what David Shaw called his best game ever.