Somewhere in the avalanche of preseason drills and scrimmages and repetitions is the truth about a football team, and it’s not always easy to discern.

The other day, Stanford ran the ball 30 times in a mid-camp scrimmage, and 21 of the snaps gained three yards or less. That could mean:

* The Cardinal offensive line, which includes four new starters but is a group coach David Shaw says “could be as talented as we’ve ever had,” will actually be less than overwhelming.

* Stanford’s defense, which lost four first-team all-league players, has merely plucked replacements off the stock shelves and will again be truculent.

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That’s the perennial push-pull of working against oneself, and it’s the delicious unknown for fans. But however you read that last scrimmage, the Cardinal deserves the benefit of the doubt, having won 46 games the past four seasons, capping each with a BCS bowl.

This could be a watershed kind of season for Stanford, one in which it either succumbs to the heat behind it from a program like Washington, or shows that it simply reloads and again fights Oregon for Pac-12 North supremacy.

“I believe the bar has been set,” says assistant coach Duane Akina, former Washington quarterback (1976-79) who arrives from a long tenure at Texas. “Next man up. I still see us being an outstanding defense.”

Obviously, that’s what’s being preached.

“It’s something we talk about each and every year,” says safety Jordan Richards. “We talk about being a product of the program. We did lose a lot of stars, but that’s not to say there’s not a lot of talented players, ready and hungry behind them.”

It seems crazy that the Cardinal could adequately cover for the loss of guys like linebackers Trent Murphy (15 sacks last year, 23.5 tackles for loss) and Shayne Skov.

If it’s going to happen, the offense may have to max out, which would suggest the touted class of 2012 offensive-line recruits comes to fruition.

Left tackle Andrus Peat is a future first-round NFL draftee and right tackle Kyle Murphy is an all-star in waiting. Now it’s up to three other players, including Puyallup product Josh Garnett at guard, to fulfill Shaw’s billing.

The quarterback is Kevin Hogan, whose best attribute seems to be that he wins. He threw 10 interceptions last year and isn’t mentioned in the Mariota-Hundley-Mannion constellation in the Pac-12, but he’s also 10-1 against the AP Top 25 as a starter.

Shaw seems to relish the competition at running back, where Stanford is likely to get away from the bell-cow rushers it had recently in Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney.

“If we have a group of guys that can all help us win a football game, I want to play them all,” Shaw says. Junior Kelsey Young (5-10, 191) appears to lead, but the group also includes Barry J. Sanders (5-10, 198).

Of Sanders, son of the NFL great of the same name, Shaw says, “He’s learned a lot. He’s learned the pass-protection game, which is big for any back, because we have a lot of protections. “There will be days when he looks like his father.”

The senior Sanders won the 1988 Heisman Trophy. Tim Brown of Notre Dame won the one before that, and Shaw thinks he has a Brown facsimile in receiver-returner Ty Montgomery, whose 290 all-purpose yards sabotaged Washington last year.

“I expect him to just be himself,” Shaw says. “I want him to just relax and play football. There’s nothing on a football field he can’t do.”

The Cardinal may need every unit perking, because the schedule is a bear, from the ration of only four league home games to the “misses“ (Colorado and Arizona) to the gauntlet on the road, including Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA.

Get through all that, with, say, one loss, and Stanford probably makes the first college playoff.

“If you want to be really good, why not travel a tough road?” Shaw says. “Hopefully, the schedule is not just tough on us. Hopefully, we can make it tough on some of the teams we’re playing.”

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com