The implications of Andrew Luck's 2011 return

Stanford Media Relations announced at 11:26 a.m. Wednesday that Andrew Luck would be returning for the 2011 season, intent on graduating with his class in June 2012. We at the Bootleg haven't stopped hyperventilating yet, for the more we think through all the implications of Andrew Luck's decision to return for 2011 for Stanford football, the more excited we are for the future of this program.

2011, holy smokes

1. Where are we going to enter the preseason ranked? Definitely top five, as we'll finish no worse than No. 4 this year, return most of our best players and won our last eight games, most of them in decisive fashion. I think it could be even better, as Cam Newton is eligible to go pro and Andy Dalton's gone as well, so that's two teams currently ahead of us which will probably drop in the rankings by preseason 2011. Alabama and Ohio State would ordinarily be good bets to leapfrog us as well, but Terrelle Pryor and Mark Ingram are gone as well. Recent powers Florida and Texas, meanwhile, had bad enough 2010s that they won't start 2011 ahead of the Cardinal.

Best-case scenario, in our opinion, would see Stanford start as a preseason No. 2 to Oregon. If Oregon wins on Jan. 10 and as the defections to the NFL pile up, I think this becomes increasingly likely.

2. Andrew Luck is now the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite. LaMichael James and Denard Robinson, especially if he surfaces at another school, would be my other preseason frontrunners, but this trophy is going to be Luck's to lose.

3. Stanford/Oregon is set up to be the biggest game of the year, especially if Oregon wins the national title. In fact, Stanford/Oregon could be the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 regular season game since Michigan/Ohio State in 2006. Oregon opens with LSU in Arlington, Tex., and will have to visit Arizona and host Cal before coming to the Farm on Nov. 12, but the Ducks face Stanford before their season-ending clashes with Oregon State and USC, so I think Oregon could well come to Palo Alto undefeated.

For Stanford, meanwhile, the path is tougher. The first seven games are, on paper, wins: San Jose State, at Duke, at Arizona, UCLA, Colorado, at Wazzu and Washington. The last five, however, are at USC, at Oregon State, Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame. Then, of course, would come a potential Pac-12 Championship game, (perhaps Utah or a rematch with Arizona?).

It's a tough schedule, but using this year's Sagarin ratings, the Card would be favored by three over Oregon, and by at least 12 over every other team on the schedule. And yes, this year's ratings are imperfect predictors for 2011, but then again, this year's ratings have Stanford the No. 1 team in the country and haven't even accounted for the Orange Bowl yet, so the rest of the league has quite a bit of distance to cover.

But who will coach them?

4. First point of order: Bob Bowlsby deserves a lot of credit for running a really tight ship. Why do you think the press looks so silly? There are simply no leaks. As a reporter who likes getting a scoop or two when he can, it can be frustrating, but I think it's to the benefit of the department. No Wikileaks coming off Campus Drive, no sir.

We were the first outlet to mention the name Johnny Dawkins after Trent Johnson left town, and we didn't figure it out until Dawkins was actually on campus for his interview. The Harbaugh hire was similarly well-orchestrated, and so we have no doubt our Athletic Director would do a better job than, say, his counterpart in Ann Arbor if it were to come to finding a new coach. That "if", however, is more of a question the more we think about it:

5. Again, no inside sourcing here. We don't know what Jim Harbaugh's doing, and we do know enough to keep our mouths shut and not pretend otherwise. What we do know, however, is this: If you're Jim Harbaugh, now that Luck's returning, returning is a much sexier proposition.

Logically, the risks of coming back are much lower, and the potential reward much higher. First, as to the lowered risk, Stanford has improved in every year thus far under Harbaugh. Now though, assuming Luck stays healthy, all Stanford needs to do is keep playing to the same level to have a special season, as very few teams even came close to catching Stanford in 2010. Indeed, based on those Sagarin ratings that have Stanford favored in all 12 of their games in 2011, 11 of them by double-digits, even if the Card were to drop off slightly, a repeat 11-1 performance is a very real possibility.

Better yet, that prognosis of 11 double-digit spreads is based on Stanford not improving one iota from 2010 (or actually getting worse), which I think is unrealistically pessimistic. The Cardinal are still a relatively young team, with six of this year's starters football sophomores. While 11 starters graduate (admittedly, slightly high), most of the team's standout players return – David DeCastro, Luck, Stepfan Taylor, Chris Owusu, Delano Howell, Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov among them. Also, Stanford is still benefitting from annual talent upgrades as outgoing classes are replaced with more highly-regarded incoming classes, and this 2011 class in particular has some players who could make an immediate impact at linebacker and receiver. Plus, another year of experience for first-year defensive coordinator Vic Fangio would help him and his players, as evidenced by how Stanford's defense improved throughout 2010 as Fangio gained familiarity with the college game.

All told then, Stanford looks en route to another top-10 season in 2011, at a minimum, and after such a campaign at Stanford, Jim Harbaugh's stock will only be higher in 12 months' time. (And with his return, a top-five team competing for a national title and the Heisman trophy frontrunner and future No. 1 draft pick, Stanford will be the most-watched team in the Pac-10 by far.) Meanwhile, when you're double-digit favorites over every other team on the schedule save one, even a poor 2011 would have Stanford going "only" 9-3. Think Jim Harbaugh couldn't get an NFL job in a year after going 9-3 and helping Luck win the Heisman Trophy, especially when he has his choice of three now? Previously, there was the fear that Harbaugh would need to cash out "on top", as his stock would only fall if Stanford came back to a mediocre, say, 7-5 mark in 2011. NFL, now or never. But today, Andrew Luck's return has all but eliminated that downside and Harbaugh can be virtually certain the NFL is there for him in 12 months, if he wants it then.

Meanwhile, the potential reward of returning just shot through the roof. Harbaugh now has the chance for a legendary season, with a true senior quarterback, fourth year in the system, who the experts all agree is the most polished quarterback since at least John Elway 30 years ago, and possibly ever. The coaching staff, my unheralded MVPs of the season, simply ran circles around the rest of the league, and would presumably return if Harbaugh did.

All told, Harbaugh has a very real chance to do the unthinkable and win a national title at Stanford in 2011 with the whole country watching. If Jim Harbaugh, by all accounts the most competitive guy on the planet, is attracted to the ultimate achievement, he should realize his best odds of doing just that involve staying put and doubling down hard for the big upcoming recruiting weekend. After all, forty-four coaches have won a Super Bowl. One has won a national title at Stanford.

Final thoughts

5. How about Andrew Luck following up his Orange Bowl MVP night with a post-Orange Bowl MVP night? He had until Jan. 15 to decide whether to declare for the Draft, so that he announced two days after the game that he was returning, with his coach very much on the fence, is probably not a coincidence. Looks like Harbaugh isn't the only Stanford footballer capable of doing a little recruiting.

Speaking of, think Luck's return won't help with 2011 recruiting? A chance to overlap with him for a season isn't going to help win over wide receivers and running backs? Andrew showing that a year at Stanford is worth risking tens of millions of dollars for isn't going to cause any high schooler to think twice about passing over the Farm? That the amount of national exposure Stanford football receives in the next 12 months is now double what we might have expected a day ago isn't going to help with recruiting 2012 kids and beyond?

6. My dream, dream scenario is that Harbaugh returns and announces he's signed a long-term deal and he's here for years and years to come with no more annual circuses. (I wanted to write a column that laid out all the reasons for him to make such a move, but realized I'm still too close to my Stanford experience, and my years there meant too much, to fully articulate it. Many of the best things in life are unexplainable, and I guess that's still how I feel about time on the Farm.) Suffice it to say there are wonderful reasons to settle down here for life, perhaps none bigger than the fact that Stanford is the one oasis of sanity in the desert of big-time college athletics. Harbaugh could ensure we don't lose that sanity as we become big-time.

If Harbaugh doesn't want to go whole-hog for Stanford, however, I hope he designates a coach-in-waiting. It would go a long way to shutting up opposing fans and recruiters, and would do wonders to ensure this wonderful success continues if he does leave one day.

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