STANFORD -- It's possible no one was happier when the Pac-12's preseason media poll picked Oregon to win the North Division than Stanford coach David Shaw and his players.
After all, the Cardinal have been at their best when they're counted out.
While many predicted the program would fade, Stanford survived the departures of Toby Gerhart, Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck - and several other key contributors - by actually getting better. The Cardinal have captured back-to-back conference championships and won at least 11 games in four straight seasons, which all ended in BCS bowls.
Stanford will have to overcome the odds again if it wants to complete a threat-peat. The Cardinal lost 10 starters from last season and have one of the country's most difficult road schedules.
"We just like to prove people wrong," senior linebacker A.J. Tarpley said. "It seems like it's been for all these transitions, but it's something we work toward every day. We know how hard it is to keep up that standard. We're hungry to prove ourselves again."
Even with an influx of new starters and a schedule that includes rigorous road games at Oregon, UCLA, Arizona State and non-conference rival Notre Dame, Stanford is optimistic about its chances to complete a three-peat.
Quarterback Kevin Hogan is back for his redshirt junior season and Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste anchor a deep and talented receivers group. The tight ends, led by redshirt freshman Austin Hooper, are expected to re-emerge as a part of the offense. And the one returning starter on the offensive line, junior left tackle Andrus Peat, is already being mentioned as a top NFL draft pick next year.
Some of the most important spots to fill will be on defense, where Stanford lost all-conference players and team leaders in linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, defensive end Ben Gardner and free safety Ed Reynolds. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason also left to become Vanderbilt's coach.
"We're as proud as anything in those guys' accomplishments and them moving on," Shaw said. "We also take a lot of pride in saying, `We can't have a drop off. We just can't.'"
Here are five things to watch as Stanford goes for its third straight Pac-12 title:
REPLACING GAFFNEY: There is no bigger hole to fill than in Stanford's backfield, where Tyler Gaffney ran for 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior last season. Seldom-used backups Kelsey Young, Barry Sanders,Remound Wright and Ricky Seale are all vying for carries now.
DEFENSIVE SHUFFLE: The front seven has anchored Stanford's defensive dominance the past two years. With the departures of Murphy, Skov and Gardner, among others, the Cardinal will count more on the secondary. Even still, starting cornerbacks Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons - both already among the Pac-12's best - and strong safety Jordan Richards will still need a pass rush to develop up front for Stanford to be successful.
NEW-LOOK O-LINE: While four of Peat's fellow starters on the offensive line are gone, their replacements were part of the acclaimed 2012 recruiting class - which Shaw dubbed "one of the best offensive line classes in modern football history" - and have played significant time in the Cardinal's power package. Shaw is sticking by that statement but said the key will be how quickly the new group can develop a strong communication.
MONTGOMERY'S MAGIC: Montgomery had a breakout season as a junior, leading Stanford in receptions (61), yards receiving (958) and touchdown catches (10). He also had 1,091 yards and two TDs returning kicks to earn first-team All-America honors. Montgomery had offseason surgery on his right shoulder, which could keep him out of the opener against UC Davis on Aug. 30. If he can stay healthy, he could be one of the country's best playmakers.
LANCE'S SHOT: Lance Anderson was promoted from outside linebackers coach to defensive coordinator after Mason moved on to Vanderbilt. Shaw said he had been preparing Anderson for the promotion the past three years. Whether Anderson can get the most out of his players the way Mason so often did could have a major impact on the program this season and beyond.