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Checkin' on the Pac: Stanford

With Pac-10 media day now in the books, it's time to start looking toward training camp and the actual 2010 season, which will likely be one of the more wide-open races in the recent history of the conference. We certainly know a lot of the ins-and-outs of the USC roster, but how much do we know about our Pac-10 counterparts? To shore up any gaps in our knowledge, we'll be running a 9-part interview series with many of the best team-specific Pac-10 blogs on the web. For part six, here's a Q&A with Avinash of SB Nation's California Golden Blogs for some info on the Stanford Cardinal (hey, you try finding a Stanford blog):

Q: We'll start off on a hot topic. As a Cal guy, who's more irritating Harbaugh or Kiffin? Come on now, though, it can't possibly be Kiffin?

A: I don't know anything about Kiffin. I know he's been notably unimpressive whereever he's gone, and he seems to be a fine hustler. But that's about all I know. I can't really be contemptuous of a blank face, even if I've been told by people from Memphis and Nashville that he drinks the blood of your children and feasts on human flesh.

It's clearly Harbaugh. He feels so out of place as a Cardinal, especially when he goes on espousing that "blue-collar mentality" in one of the wealthiest private schools in the nation. Does this sound like a guy who knows where he's coaching, or a guy who believes he'll be here much longer?

I guess my annoyance with Harbaugh is that he doesn't fit that program very well. It's kind of like watching The Dark Knight with a different Rachel Dawes.

Q: ESPN called Andrew Luck the LeBron James of College Football Live earlier this offseason, and Mel Kiper Jr. appears to be a big believer in the Texas native as well. How good a quarterback is Luck? Did he simply benefit of the play of RB Toby Gerhart?

A: Does that mean Andrew Luck is going to no-show the Big Game with the Rose Bowl on the line and lose by 30 points, then desert them next year to take his talents with Mark Ingram and A.J. Green to form an unstoppable trio at the U? Fine by me.

Luck is good. But he's a sophomore and he's going to struggle transitioning from a run-first to a pass-first offense. The offensive line will return, so he should have all the time in the world to throw like last season. Can he handle the 3rd and longs that are likely to happen when the new running backs get stuffed behind the line of scrimmage and he has to throw into blanketed coverage? Are Chris Owusu and Ryan Whalen a good enough duo to take advantage of secondaries week after week? What'll happen when defenses start dropping seven-eight men into coverage when they stop the Cardinal's running attack and make Luck try to beat them in a more spread out type game? Can he handle those 3rd and longs better than last season (when he averaged just over 50% on 3rd and 4+ yards)? There'll be a lot of pressure on him to succeed this season, and it remains to be seen whether he can adjust to a life without Gerhart.

Q: Speaking of Gerhart, how much do you think the 'Furd is going to miss him this season?

A: Not totally sure. Toby's got skills, but I think everyone grossly underestimated the strength of his offensive line, tight ends and especially fullback Owen Marecic, Gerhart was perfectly fit for the Cardinal line. They brought an extra tackle in for blocking purposes, pulled him backside, and created one big hole for Gerhart to burst through. He's built like a fullback and runs like a tailback (how well that'll translate to the pros, I don't know), but that O-line deserves a lot of credit. They're mostly back and should be able to do a lot for whatever new Cardinal running back takes over.

With Gerhart doing his thing, that opened up the passing game as they took advantage of defenses keying in on Gerhart. A lot of the Cardinal success depended on play-action, misdirection, and Luck making perfect throws. With Gerhart not there, those plays could be easier to guard against and the whole tenor of the team's offense will probably have to change.

Q: There's been some talk about the Cardinal switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. What's the defense going to look like this year? Something Matt Barkley should be worrying about?

A: The Cardinal defense wasn't very good last year. I'm not sure why Barkley had trouble last season, but of all the things you should be worrying about, pass defense comes close to last. There's not much talent back there--Kevin Riley and Jimmy Clausen ripped them apart in their final two regular season games.

The 3-4 shift is interesting. The Cardinal defensive line looks pretty solid next year, especially with Sione Fua manning the middle and taking up nose tackle responsibilities. However there's going to be a lot of shifting--they lose three seniors and will have to build around Thomas Keiser and Chase Thomas (but the problem is both of them are converted defensive ends) at linebacker. Marecic is going to play two-ways as a linebacker, and their secondary looks like a mess, so it's hard to feel any real confidence about anything but their defensive line.

Q: How long before Harbaugh ends up in the NFL? Or, is he a Stanford guy for life? Or a Michigan man?

A: This should tell you all you need to know about how I feel about Harbaugh's time at Stanford (

Q: Where do you project Stanford to finish in 2010? Will they continue their upward ascent or will there be a dropoff?

A: I think they have a good chance to be an upper-tier Pac-10 team. It's all going to depend on that defense improving; the Cardinal defense's inability to generate stops last year kept them out of Pasadena, blowing games against Arizona and Cal and getting blown out by the Rodgers brothers in Corvallis. They nearly blew games against Notre Dame and Oregon because their defense could barely stop anyone.

I feel the situation is the same for them this year. Strong offense, could be one of the best if Luck reaches critical mass, but they just don't enough defensive backbone to win the big ones.