Stanford's 24-20 loss to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl provided a distasteful ending to what had been another standout season for the Cardinal. And the criticism coach David Shaw received for calling two failed fourth-down runs in the second half of that final game will soon fade into the realization that he has become the key to the Cardinal's continued success.
The bottom line is that Stanford finished 11-3, won the Pac-12 title for the second straight year and played in a BCS game for the fourth consecutive season.
That would have seemed impossible a few years ago, and the Cardinal did it with an entirely different cast than it did in 2010 in Jim Harbaugh's final season.
It appears the Cardinal will not lose Shaw, who has denied interest in NFL coaching vacancies, although defensive coordinator Derrick Mason may be vulnerable to the appeal of the NFL.
It was the defense, after all, that was the strength of the Cardinal the past few years, including this season. Stanford ranked 10th in scoring defense, third in rushing defense and first in total sacks, with 44.
The Cardinal will lose their two best defenders - outside linebacker Trent Murphy, who led the nation in sacks with 15, and inside linebacker Shayne Skov, a third-team All-American - and they might lose their third-best defender if safety Ed Reynolds chooses to enter the NFL Draft.
However, virtually everyone else is back on defense. That includes cornerback Alex Carter, who could emerge into a star next season as a junior, and a slew of talented linebackers ready to fill the gap left by Murphy and Skov.
The offense faces two questions: Will guard David Yankey be back, and who will be the starting running back?
Yankey, the team's only first-team All-American, is likely to turn pro rather than return as a fifth-year senior, although he has yet to make that decision. The Cardinal have plenty of young talented offensive linemen, and even though Stanford may have to replace three of the five starters up front, it should retain its dominance up front.
Replacing running back Tyler Gaffney, who rushed for 1,709 yards this season, may be more of a challenge. There are a number of candidates to earn that starting job next season, but the public's favorite is Barry Sanders, who showed flashes of brilliance in his few opportunities as a redshirt freshman. However, Sanders is not the kind of power back Stanford has relied on to become a national player. Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor and Gaffney were all straight-ahead runners; the 5-foot-10, 192-pound Sanders relies more on his elusiveness, like his father.
Shaw also faces a decision about the team's identity. Presumably, the Cardinal will remain a run-first team that tries to wear down opposing defenses. But there will be a temptation to pass a lot more. Kevin Hogan will be entering his third year as the starting quarterback next season, and he improved his ability to throw the deep ball this season. All the wide receiver threats are back, including standout Ty Montgomery as well as Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector.
Plus, several freshmen who redshirted this season could make the tight end position a threat in the passing game again after tight ends caught just 10 passes this season.
All of the Cardinal's special-teams players will return, so the Cardinal should be solid again in that department.
By beating Oregon for the second straight year, the Cardinal proved its old-school style of play can still be productive amid today's fast-paced attacks, epitomized by the Ducks.
Stanford may not be quite as intimidating on defense next season with the loss of Murphy and Skov, but it should have enough talent to challenge for the conference title again.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Stanford 26, Oregon 20 - The Cardinal dominated the game far more than the score indicates. Stanford held a 26-0 lead early in the fourth quarter, shutting out Oregon's touted offense for three quarters. Helped by a recovered onsides kick and a blocked Stanford field-goal attempt returned for a touchdown, Oregon scored three touchdowns in the final nine minutes to make the score close. Stanford ran the ball 66 times, including 45 carries for Tyler Gaffney, who finished with 157 yards. Stanford limited Oregon to 62 rushing yards, and kept Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota in check. Stanford held the ball for 42:34 compared with 17:26 for Oregon. The result left both teams at 8-1 with one loss in the conference. But it gave the Cardinal the tie-breaker, which proved decisive in getting Stanford to the Pac-12 title game.
STANFORD PLAYER OF THE YEAR: OLB Trent Murphy - Four players were candidates -- Murphy, ILB Shayne Skov, WR/KR Montgomery and RB Tyler Gaffney. And that does not include the Cardinal's lone first-team All-American, OG David Yankey. However, Murphy led the nation in sacks with 15 and was the epitome of the Cardinal defense, which dominated games by stopping the run and rushing the passer. A fifth-year senior, Murphy also ranked second in the country in total tackles for loss, with 23.5. He also had six quarterback hurries, broke up seven passes, forced two fumbles and intercepted a pass he returned for a touchdown while being named a second-team Associated Press All-American.
LOOKING AHEAD: Stanford hopes to keep David Shaw, which seems likely, and defensive coordinator Derrick Mason, which may be a more difficult. The Cardinal lost offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton to the Indianapolis Colts last year. The three priorities in the spring will be to restructure the offensive line, develop a running back hierarchy and set the linebacking crew. By then, the Cardinal will know whether OG David Yankey and DE Henry Anderson will be returning as fifth-year seniors and whether S Ed Reynolds will be back for his senior year. The Cardinal may have to find replacements for all three. The Cardinal have plenty of talented offensive linemen and linebackers to fill the voids left by departed players, and ILB A.J. Tarpley and OLBs James Vaughters and Kevin Anderson will be counted on to produce the big plays that ILB Shayne Skov and OLB Trent Murphy produced the past two seasons. Finding a replacement for the ball-hawking Reynolds, if he leaves, will be more problematic. The spring may determine whether RB Barry Sanders, a redshirt freshman this past season, can develop into the big-play back many envision. Someone needs to step in to replace Tyler Gaffney. Quarterback Kevin Hogan figures to be a bigger part of the offense next season, especially with a bevy of talented receivers returning, including Ty Montgomery.
RECRUITING UPDATE: Stanford has commitments from 16 players, 11 of whom are defensive players, which indicates where the Cardinal's emphasis lies. Three players of note have committed so far: quarterback Keller Chryst, defensive end Nifae Lealao and running back Christian McCaffrey. Lealao, rated the nation's No. 59 recruit in the class of 2014 by Scout.com, could see time as a freshman with the team's potential void at defensive end, and McCaffrey, ranked No. 84 by Scout.com, will get a look because of the Cardinal's running back needs. But the star of the class undoubtedly is Chryst. Scout.com ranks him as the No. 50 recruit, but ESPN.com rates him as the No. 17 overall recruit and the nation's No. 1 drop-back passer. He is not going to supplant Kevin Hogan, who has two years of eligibility remaining. Chryst is likely to redshirt his first year, but has the makings of another standout Stanford quarterback.
QUOTE: "They're one of the best defenses in the nation, and they proved it on every play.'' - Stanford All-American guard David Yankey, after Michigan State limited the Cardinal to one offensive touchdown in the Rose Bowl. That touchdown came on Stanford's first possession.
STANFORD PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2014:
WR Ty Montgomery - Montgomery had just three receptions for 21 yards in the Rose Bowl and did not break any big kickoff returns. But he led the team in receiving with 61 catches for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns and led the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 30.3 yards. He is the team's big-play guy. He also was the team's fourth-leading rusher with 159 yards and 12.2 average per attempt.
QB Kevin Hogan - Although Hogan's completion percentage dropped from 71.7 in 2012 to 61.0 in 2013, his pass efficiency rating improved. That's because he threw the deep ball more effectively, averaging 14.6 yards per completion this season compared with 10.1 a year ago. He also threw 20 touchdown passes in 2013 compared with 10 last season. His passing figures to be a bigger part of the Cardinal offense in his third season as a starter next season as a fourth-year junior. He was also the team's No. 2 rusher this season.
CB Alex Carter - Although Carter's statistics were not eye-catching (one interception, eight passes defensed), there is a reason opposing teams avoided his side of the field like the plague. Observers will begin to appreciate Carter's talent next year as a junior, which will be his third season as a starter.
RB Barry Sanders - Sanders had just five carries as a redshirt freshman, but he averaged 8.4 yards on those five attempts. He also caught four passes for 31 yards. It's unclear whether he will even be the Cardinal's starting running back next season, partly because he is not the power back the Cardinal prefer. However, he is likely to produce some game-changing plays.
OG David Yankey - Yankey would probably be the best offensive lineman in the country if he returns next season, but it's more likely he will turn pro.
S Ed Reynolds - Reynolds had six interceptions in 2012 and one more in 2013. He was a first-team all-conference player in 2013, and should be the backbone of the Cardinal defense if he returns for his senior season rather than turning pro.
PRO PROSPECTS as ranked by NFLDRAFTSCOUT.com.
OLB Trent Murphy (32 overall/No. 4 outside linebacker) - Murphy led the nation in sacks with 15 and was a second-team All-American. He often played a defensive end position on passing downs and can play either position in the pros. He is likely to be a first-round pick.
ILB Shayne Skov (66 overall, No. 2 inside linebacker) - A third-team All-American, Skov excels partly because of skills but mostly because of his determination, anticipation and knowledge of the game. He led the team with 109 tackles, including 13 for loss. He is expected to be taken in the second or third round.
DE Josh Mauro (115 overall/No. 12 defensive end) - Mauro got less attention than Stanford's other two defensive ends, Henry Anderson and Ben Gardner, but he was the most productive of the three in 2013, getting 12.5 tackles for loss. He is expected to be taken in the middle rounds of the draft.
RB Tyler Gaffney (167 overall/No. 13 running back) - Gaffney did not attend Stanford in 2012 while he played minor-league baseball. But in his only season as a starter, he ran for 1,709 yards in 2013. He figures to be a mid-to-late-round pick.
DE Ben Gardner (189 overall/No. 18 defensive end) - Gardner will have to prove that he is recovered from the surgery to repair his pectoral injury that sidelined him for the final six games of the season. He was still named first-team all-conference and is expected to be taken late in the draft.
FB Ryan Hewitt (287 overall/No. 7 fullback) - A blocking back who can catch passes (nine receptions in 2013, 14 in 2012), Hewitt might get taken in the late rounds, but is likely to be a free agent pickup.
OG David Yankey (not ranked) - Yankey has another year of college eligibility remaining and has not announced whether he will turn pro. He was a first-team Associated Press All-American and would likely be a first-round pick if he enters the NFL Draft.
S Ed Reynolds (not ranked) - Reynolds has not decided whether he will give up his final year of college eligibility. He has outstanding instincts and adequate speed. He would likely be an early-round pick if he enters the NFL Draft.
--- OG David Yankey, a senior who is eligible for another college season because he was limited to two games as a freshman because of injury, has not announced whether he will return to Stanford, but there is a good chance he will turn pro.
---S Ed Reynold has another year of college eligibility, but he is contemplating turning pro. There is about a 50-50 chance he will return to Stanford.
---WR Ty Montgomery suffered a leg injury in the second half of the Rose Bowl that sidelined him for the rest of that game. He is expected to be back for spring ball, however.
---DE Henry Anderson is eligible to return for his fifth year after redshirting as a freshman, but it's unclear whether he will decide to return. He missed six games this season with a leg injury, and that hurt his NFL draft status.
---DE Ben Gardner did not play in the final six games because of a pectoral injury, but he was in uniform for the Rose Bowl.
---WR Jordan Pratt is 28 years old, but has two years of college eligibility remaining and plans to return for at least one more. He had 12 catches for 148 yards in 2013. He delayed his college career while playing professional baseball.