With all of the preseason rhetoric about Stanford having potentially its best chance in history at a BCS National Championship, I can’t help but pause and chuckle at the irony heading into a date with Oregon. Stanford is a huge underdog, but the Cardinal is guaranteed to capture the Pac-12 Title if it wins out and could easily make the Rose Bowl with a win or a loss to the Ducks.
Sound familiar? It’s exactly the same outlook — besides a slightly smaller double-digit point spread and a small back-door shot at a national title — that Stanford had heading into Autzen Stadium just under a year ago.
Heading into both seasons, not many people would have expected that scenario to be the case. This season, the loss to Utah shocked most around the program — and seems more shocking with each Utah performance since; last season, few expected that then-sophomore quarterback Kevin Hogan could save the season the way he did.
But those offseason storylines have now disappeared for the new reality. On Thursday night around 9 p.m., another storyline will disappear. Whether it’s the one that has Stanford beating the Ducks or Oregon stomping the Cardinal on the way to a date with Alabama in January remains to be seen, and each scenario has very different long-term effects.
If Stanford can beat Oregon — which has to be at least as likely as Nick Foles throwing seven touchdowns against Oakland yesterday — the Cardinal will be in prime position for a great postseason. USC is looking like a tougher game every week, but if Stanford can take care of business in Los Angeles then home contests against Cal and Notre Dame shouldn’t be too tough at all.
A sweep of those three games would make Stanford the host of the Pac-12 Championship Game for the second year in a row, most likely against Arizona State or UCLA. Stanford looked great against both of those teams, abusing the Sun Devils for 45 minutes and shutting down the Bruins for 60, so it would be reasonable to feel very confident in a victory.
At that point, Stanford’s worst-case destination with a victory would be the Rose Bowl. It would probably take losses from both Florida State and Ohio State to put the Cardinal in the national championship, and I don’t see that happening. It’s worth noting that a loss in the Pac-12 title game would be the worst possible outcome for Stanford, as the winner of the game would go the Rose Bowl and Oregon would most likely grab the second BCS at-large spot, sending the Cardinal to the Alamo Bowl.
If Stanford loses to Oregon, the Cardinal will still have a good chance at playing in the Rose Bowl but will cede control of that destiny. If the Cardinal can avoid the Trojan trap and win out after Thursday, it would probably replace an undefeated Oregon in the Rose Bowl, assuming the Ducks go to the national championship game.
If for some reason Oregon doesn’t go to the championship game and ends up in the Rose Bowl, Stanford might actually end up in the Sugar Bowl, which would be an intriguing prospect. Stanford has played at all three of the other BCS sites, so a Sugar Bowl berth in New Orleans would be a fun consolation prize for a two-loss Stanford team.
I’ll give a full breakdown of what to watch for in Thursday’s paper, but in my brief opinion, the deciding factor in which of these paths Stanford will be heading down when it goes to bed Thursday night is the Cardinal offense. Heading into Autzen last year, a resurgent offense led by a spark plug named Kevin Hogan did just enough to allow Stanford to capitalize on an epic defensive performance.
It would be unfair to expect Stanford’s defense to be quite so spectacular for a second consecutive year, especially with injuries on the defensive line, so it’ll be up to the offense to buy them a few mulligans. We’ll see if that happens come Thursday night.
Sam Fisher is salivating over the prospect of a Stanford Sugar Bowl berth. Let him know about the great gumbo spots on Bourbon Street at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @SamFisher908.