By Winston Shi
After Saturday, Stanford controls its Rose Bowl destiny for a second straight year, and Cal football has never looked worse. Not bad for an afternoon’s work. But what Stanford gained from last weekend, above all, was clarity.
Stanford now knows exactly what it needs to do. Win the Pac-12 title, and Stanford goes to the 100th Rose Bowl Game – a match made by destiny, because the Cardinal was also in the first. (Thanks, Arizona!) Lose, and a three- or four-loss Cardinal squad goes to the Alamo or Holiday Bowls.
The Notre Dame game is now irrelevant for postseason purposes. If Stanford loses, it still goes to the Pac-12 Championship Game. If Stanford wins and is bested by Arizona State a week later, beating Notre Dame won’t save its BCS hopes.
With that in mind, I have every confidence that Stanford will come out to play. Last year’s loss in South Bend was effectively a play-in for the National Championship Game, and while I have no interest in further disputing its controversial result, Stanford still has a very large score to settle with the Irish.
But the question still remains: Why bother getting up for Notre Dame? Why not play the backups and avoid injuries? Stanford won’t do that. But there’s no doubt that David Shaw isn’t at least thinking about it.
I wrote in a previous column that Notre Dame was not a real rival — that it’s a “mutually beneficial scheduling agreement” and is “just a big game for both sides.” I stand by my words. You can still imagine Stanford football without Notre Dame. You could replace the Irish with Alabama and little would change.
Nor do the Irish need Stanford. Notre Dame’s been very clear on that point as well.
We know that when Notre Dame’s new Olympic sports alliance with the ACC forced it to drop a game from its schedule, the Irish ended the Michigan series rather than break its agreement with Stanford. But Notre Dame did not cite shared history or mutual tradition as a reason to keep the Stanford “rivalry.” Rather, it cited more pragmatic reasons: an annual game in California to entertain the Irish’s far-flung alumni and its need to play and recruit across the country.
The very pragmatism of this decision is why the Notre Dame series isn’t part of Stanford lore, or vice versa. Notre Dame doesn’t need to justify playing USC or Navy or Michigan State. Fighting Irish football would be forever changed without these teams. On the other hand, if Stanford no longer meets Notre Dame’s needs, the Cardinal will have to look for a new out-of-conference series.
But that doesn’t mean that this game doesn’t matter.
Certainly, the showdown on Nov. 30 is less important to Stanford than it is to the Fighting Irish. I don’t mean that as an insult. Sometimes that’s just how the cookie crumbles. Stanford has nothing to play for but pride. Notre Dame is trying to save what’s been a mediocre season (by its lofty standards).
But the regular season finale is still important enough to matter. When you’re building a strong program with a sustainable foundation, winning at home and rallying the fanbase is important. Stanford is on the verge of two straight perfect seasons in Stanford Stadium. In five years it has lost only two games at home. If anything, the Cardinal sends its fans home happy.
There’s also much at stake for the program in a more immediate sense: the reputation of its schedule. Notre Dame is the great anomaly in college football as an independent that has retained its relevance throughout the decades. It plays games across the country, free from the shackles of conference scheduling and long-term commitments.
In an age where out-of-conference scheduling boils down to who can schedule the most cupcakes, Notre Dame guarantees a certain degree of conference linkage. Without the Irish, it would be even more difficult to tell conferences apart. Even the much-maligned Southeastern Conference is aware of this. The Pac-12’s brutal in-conference schedule means nothing if the league can’t get the job done against its faraway foes.
This is the last nonconference game the Pac-12 will play this season, and it’s up to Stanford to turn the lights out with a flourish. The Pac-12 has already dropped two games to a three-loss Notre Dame squad this season, with Arizona State and USC falling to the Irish.
With conference standard-bearers Stanford and Oregon knocked out of the national title conversation, the Cardinal needs to beat the Fighting Irish, if only to defend the reputation of the West Coast. Notre Dame will give Stanford its best shot, but while it won’t go down without a fight, it needs to go down nevertheless.
Winston Shi is ignoring the fact that Touchdown Jesus is truly responsible for scheduling Notre Dame’s out-of-conference games. Send him on a flight to South Bend at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.