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Chen: Best football team in Stanford history?

The scene was a spectacle to behold. The endless rain of confetti. The roaring approval of 40,000-plus faithful. The roses came in Cardinal red as Stanford football captured its first Rose Bowl victory in over four decades.

It’s been over a week since Stanford came out on top in Pasadena, emphatically capping a historic season that included three overtime games, two heartbreaking losses and one improbable conference title. The future looks even rosier for the Cardinal with head coach David Shaw inking a long-term extension, much to the dismay of at least seven NFL teams and most of the starters returning next season.

But before we look ahead, we must do one final thing that all sports writers love to do: make comparisons. With the season officially over, where does 2012-2013 team rank among the best Stanford teams of all time?

There are two things that we should keep in mind. For starters, “best” is a subjective word and there are multiple components of “best” that must be taken into consideration, especially when comparing teams from different years.

Second, it’s difficult to compare teams that are separated by more than three decades. Pop Warner’s 1926 team won Stanford’s only national championship, but the eighty-year gap makes it an apples-and-oranges type of comparison. John Ralston led the Cardinal to two straight Rose Bowl titles between 1970 and 1972, but those two teams also suffered three losses.

To make things easier and more relevant, we’ll narrow it down to three clear candidates for the best Stanford team of all time: the 2010-2011 Orange Bowl team, the 2011-2012 Fiesta Bowl team and of course, this year’s Rose Bowl team.

From a results standpoint, it’s clear to me that the Rose Bowl team beats out the two other squads. Last year’s team failed to deliver on the biggest stage against Oregon in the de facto Pac-12 semifinal game and also against Oklahoma State in a BCS bowl. The Orange Bowl team tripped just once, but it was against Oregon and cost the Cardinal both a conference title and a Rose Bowl berth. The fact that this year’s team was able to both beat Oregon and win the Pac-12 is enough to overshadow its two losses earlier in the season. The Orange and Fiesta Bowls are great, but there’s no questioning that the Rose Bowl is more special to Stanford.

Talent-wise, I would place the Rose Bowl team ahead of the Orange Bowl team, but behind the Fiesta Bowl team. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of talent on the field this year; Zach Ertz has a good shot at being selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft while Chase Thomas and Stepfan Taylor will likely be selected in the second or third rounds. But it’s difficult to outdo the four players — Andrew Luck, David DeCastro, Jonathan Martin and Coby Fleener — who went in the first two rounds of the 2012 NFL draft.

You also can’t forget that a lot of talent carried over from the Fiesta Bowl team to the Rose Bowl team. Veterans like Stepfan Taylor and Ryan Hewitt saw a ton of action in both seasons while defensive players like Trent Murphy, Henry Anderson and Ed Reynolds possessed the talent all along, but just needed more playing time to showcase their skills.

But I do think the Rose Bowl team is the most complete team among the three. Sure, this year’s offense wasn’t nearly efficient as it was with Luck at the helm, but the sheer dominance on defense and improved consistency on special teams gives it a slight edge. It’s well-documented that this year’s defensive unit has punished speedy running backs like Kenjon Barner, frustrated playmaking wide receivers like Keenan Allen and terrorized elite (or so-called elite) quarterbacks like Matt Barkley.

The only thing sports writers love more than making comparisons is pitching hypotheticals. So, would the Rose Bowl team defeat last year’s Fiesta Bowl team or the Orange Bowl team two seasons ago? Part of me thinks that behind one of the greatest offensive lines in school history, Luck would have found a way to beat this year’s exceptional defensive unit. But then again, this year’s squad made a name for itself by proving people wrong.

Either way, it’s incredible that three of the best Stanford teams of all time have come from the past three years. And the best part of this debate is that next year’s team will have the chance to end the discussion for good by bringing the national championship trophy to the Farm.

George Chen tried calling Pop Warner for an interview, but instead he was sent youth-medium sized football pads. Check on dates for “George the Giant’s” revival tour, coming to a peewee league near you, at gchen15 “at” stanford.edu.

About George Chen

George Chen is the President and Editor in Chief of The Stanford Daily. Previously he worked at The Daily as the Executive Editor, Managing Editor of Sports, the football beat reporter and a sports desk editor. George also co-authored The Daily's recent book documenting the rise of Stanford football, "Rags to Roses." He is a junior from Painted Post, NY majoring in Biology. To contact him, please email eic@stanforddaily.com.