Click on the Pac 10 team logo for more on the outlook for the upcoming football season.
STANFORD, Calif. (AP) -- In just one season, Jim Harbaugh turned Stanford from a team that flirted with a winless season into one that could challenge and even beat the top teams in the country.
Harbaugh's task in his second year as coach is to get his team to play as well as it did in that shocking 24-23 upset of 41-point favorite Southern California often enough to get the Cardinal to their first bowl game in seven years.
"It was a great thrill winning down at the Coliseum. That's water under the bridge. This 2008 season is a whole new dynamic," Harbaugh said. "We're halfway there. We've done half the work to put us in position to have a successful season. The standard for this year is to get to a bowl game."
That's a heady goal for a school with a 20-48 record over the last six years, including a 4-8 mark in Harbaugh's first season.
But after showing remarkable improvement from the 1-11 season under Walt Harris in 2006 and with a conference-high 16 returning starters, confidence is high on The Farm.
"This is the best team I've been a part of here," offensive lineman Alex Fletcher said. "We were right there. We played in big games. We won some big games, we lost some big games. We know what it takes to finish. Now we have to do it. You can't teach the game experience we got last year."
The most memorable experience came in the game against USC when quarterback Tavita Pritchard made his first career start and engineered a late comeback to beat the second-ranked Trojans with a game-winning TD pass in the final minute.
Pritchard had less success after that, winning only one more game in his final six starts. He completed 50 percent of his passes last season for 1,114 yards, five touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Those struggles forced him to compete for the starting job this season with Alex Loukas and Michigan transfer Jason Forcier. Harbaugh had yet to name his starter a week before the season opener against Oregon State, but Pritchard was No. 1 on the depth chart and expected to at least open the season as the starter.
Pritchard was thrust into the starting role last year when starter T.C. Ostrander suffered a seizure. Pritchard remained there much of the rest of the season because of what he did against USC. He feels much more comfortable with his role this season because of the experience he had a year ago.
"Last year I was so concerned about getting the play in, getting the play called, getting in and out of the huddle," he said. "That stuff is just second nature now. Now I'm more concerned about reads and checkdowns and finding open guys and getting us into the right plays. I think that will really help the offense progress."
The offense also should benefit from an improved offensive line and a healthy set of running backs. Anthony Kimble and Toby Gerhart both had success a year ago when healthy, but that wasn't often enough.
Kimble led the team with 509 yards rushing and eight touchdowns but missed five games with injuries. Gerhart played only once because of a knee injury, but showed signs of what he can do by rushing for 140 yards on 12 carries against San Jose State.
Adding Gerhart's power to Kimble's speed this year should make the Cardinal much more successful on the ground.
"When guys come up to tackle him, they don't know what they're in for," Pritchard said. "He's fun to watch."
The strength of the team this year should be on the defense, where linebacker Clinton Snyder and defensive lineman Pannel Egboh lead the way.
Stanford's defense finished third last season in the Pac-10 in both sacks and tackles for loss, as well as fifth nationally in tackles for loss and 11th in sacks. But the Cardinal also were susceptible to the big play, allowing nine touchdowns of 45 or more yards.
Harbaugh said the biggest improvement for players often comes in their second year playing in a system. He acknowledges that coaches can also improve in year two because of the lessons they learned.
Harbaugh is more subdued this year, after rankling many with controversial comments about his alma mater Michigan, as well as USC and California.
"I didn't know I was a bulletin-board guy," he said.
His players also see changes
"He knows Pac-10 football," receiver Richard Sherman said. "He knows what to expect now. I feel like he has grown and has adapted the offense and we'll be even better this year."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.