The last time Stanford entered a season in this position -- facing a serious rebuild, skeptics circling -- it was in exactly the same position.

It was the late summer of 2012. Andrew Luck had departed, the depth chart was full of holes, the coaching staff had much to prove, and the Cardinal was No. 21 in The Associated Press preseason poll.

This year, coming off a five-loss season with questions on both sides of the line of scrimmage and on the sideline, Stanford is ... No. 21 in the AP preseason poll.

"It's a similar position in that we lost a lot of guys the outside world put a lot of value in," senior quarterback Kevin Hogan said. "People are sleeping on us, and that's fine."

Stanford Cardinal’s Lewis Burik (49) runs with the ball during practice on the football practice field at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., on
Stanford Cardinal's Lewis Burik (49) runs with the ball during practice on the football practice field at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) ( Nhat V. Meyer )

There is good reason for the outside world's tempered expectations. The Cardinal defense, dominant for so many years, has a vulnerable front and inexperienced secondary. The right side of the offensive line is unproven. And the coaching staff must prove it can maximize the offensive personnel after issuing numerous mea culpas during the 2014 season.

But dig deeper, and there is potential for a major upside surprise:

  • Hogan, who was erratic in 2014 as he dealt with the illness and eventual passing of his father, seems poised for a breakout year.


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  • The offensive line, which had four first-time starters last season, has only one newcomer this fall, and skill positions are stocked with playmakers, from receiver Devon Cajuste (six touchdowns in 11 games last season) and the tight end tandem of Austin Hooper and Dalton Schultz to the dynamic Christian McCaffrey, a threat to score from anywhere as a tailback or receiver.

  • The schedule sets up perfectly for the Cardinal. Most of the toughest games are at home (No. 7 Oregon, No. 11 Notre Dame, No. 13 UCLA, No. 22 Arizona), and over the final two months of the season, the Cardinal leaves town only twice -- to face perennial conference bottom feeders Colorado and Washington State.

  • Stanford's competition, both in the division and the conference, has issues to resolve:

    Oregon must replace Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota and several defensive playmakers. Cal's defense is unproven. USC looks leaderless after coach Steve Sarkisian made his personal problems public. UCLA has a new quarterback, as does Arizona State.

    Back in 2012, Stanford responded to the preseason skepticism by winning the conference and the Rose Bowl.

    Stanford Cardinal’s Denzel Franklin (28) runs with the ball during practice at the Stanford football practice field in Stanford, Calif., on Tuesday,
    Stanford Cardinal's Denzel Franklin (28) runs with the ball during practice at the Stanford football practice field in Stanford, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) ( Nhat V. Meyer )

    A repeat hardly seems out of reach.

    "We'll let the naysayers say what they'll say," cornerback Ronnie Harris said. "We'll be ready" when the season starts.

    For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at jwilner@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5716.