StanfordWhat kind of magic will David Shaw pull out of his hat this season at Stanford.

The Cardinal lose their top defensive end, their best runner and a host of graduates.

Now that appears the Pac-12 will be tighter this season with USC and Washington getting better, to go along with Oregon, Arizona and Stanford, the conference out west that not many pay attention to could be the second best conference in the nation.

Yes, I just said that.

But first, the team must get over some hurdles early on in spring ball and find players to replace key cogs in the offense and defense. No one said it was going to be easy, but the Cardinal has another chance to get back to the BCS and the Rose Bowl.

Here are the five biggest questions for the franchise heading into 2014. Stats and information were obtained from

How will the new faces on the coaching staff mesh together?

Defensive coordinator Derek Mason left to be the head coach at Vanderbilt, Mike Sanford was named the offensive coordinator at Boise State, and David Kotulski followed Mason to Vanderbilt.

Shaw promoted Lance Anderson to defensive coordinator, hired Peter Hansen to replace Kotulski and Lance Taylor was brought aboard to coach running backs. Shaw has one more opening to fill, but there’s not expected to be a significant transition period under the new staff.

Anderson has worked at Stanford since 2007, and his experience under Mason should ensure the defense remains one of the best in the Pac-12.

The new running back will be?

Great question since Tyler Gaffney was the bell cow for this school last season. Stanford has produced a 1,000-yard rusher for six consecutive seasons. Will that streak run to seven? Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson combined for 2,062 yards last season but expired their eligibility after the Rose Bowl.

The cupboard isn’t completely bare for coordinator Mike Bloomgren, as Remound Wright, Barry Sanders and Ricky Seale return. Sanders was a four-star recruit in the 2012 signing class and high expectations surround the Oklahoma native.

But Sanders won’t have to carry the entire workload, as Wright and Seale have experience, and incoming freshmen Christian McCaffrey and Isaiah Brandt-Sims are capable of playing this season. While running back is a question mark, there’s enough talent returning for Shaw and Bloomgren to feel alright about this position

Who plays on the interior on offense?

Only four starters return from last season. The line was hit hard by personnel losses, with guards David Yankey and Kevin Danser, tackle Cameron Fleming and center Khalil Wilkes all departing. That’s the bad news. The good news? Talent isn’t an issue.

Left tackle Andrus Peat is a future All-American, and Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy are highly-touted prospects waiting for their chance to start. Graham Shuler is the frontrunner to replace Khalil Wilkes at center, while Johnny Caspers is likely to replace Danser at right guard. There’s no question Stanford has talent here. But how quickly can this line jell?

Can the defense be just as good?

The Cardinal must replace standout ends Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro, and linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov also depart. Much like the offense, there’s talent waiting in the wings to step into the starting lineup.

Henry Anderson earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors last season and is due to become an even bigger piece of the line in 2014. Blake Lueders and Luke Kaumatule shifted from other positions to the defensive line and join Anderson as key cogs in the trenches. Aziz Shittu is another name to watch at end, but Anderson also needs to develop more depth behind tackle David Parry.

How many games can this team win?

How about nine? Some have this team with 11 wins (again) but I think there will be an adjustment period. Kevin Hogan is really good, but his supporting cast this season is not as strong.

Assuming the line jells early in the year, quarterback Kevin Hogan should take another step forward in his development. It’s a lot to ask the defense to replicate last year’s numbers without Murphy, Skov, Reynolds, Gardner and Mauro.

However, this unit is still one of the best in the Pac-12. Stanford will be in the mix for another BCS bowl and will contend with Oregon for the North Division title.