Any way you look at it, the recent rise of Stanford Football from the ashes of irrelevance to the spotlight of the national stage has been nothing short of amazing. The past four seasons have produced 39 wins, two BCS bowls, three separate trips to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York, and a spot in the AP top 25 for 43 consecutive weeks, a feat matched by only five other football powers.
That isn't just amazing for a school like Stanford, that would be impressive for any school in America.
The problem, though, is that while Stanford has been one of the best teams in the country for the past few years, they've only been the second-best team in their conference. Over that same stretch of time, the Oregon Ducks have won 44 games and appear to be headed to their fourth consecutive BCS bowl game. The Cardinal managed to beat the Ducks 51-42 in 2009 behind a freshman quarterback named Andrew Luck, but Oregon's fast-paced offense outscored Stanford by a combined 105-61 over the next two years.
If the Cardinal are to be taken seriously as a football powerhouse -- and make no mistake, that's the goal here -- they must beat Oregon. It doesn't have to happen this Saturday, but it has to happen soon.
Five years ago the team to beat in the Pac-10 was the USC Trojans. Pete Carroll's team was not only the class of the conference, they were the top program in the country, and Jim Harbaugh realized that his success or failure as a coach would not be measured by provincial goals such as winning the Axe. He knew that in order to establish Stanford as a serious team, a team that would "bow to no program," he had to beat the Trojans.
In typical Harbaugh fashion, he started by needling Pete Carroll at his first Pac-10 Media Day and never let up. The Biggest Upset Ever in 2007 was nice, but it was the What's Your Deal? thrashing two years later that announced Stanford's arrival and turned the balance of power in the conference.
Now in his second year as head coach, David Shaw faces a similar challenge with the Oregon Ducks. Even though Stanford has continued its dominance over USC, the Oregon problem looms large. Conventional wisdom says that Stanford cannot keep up with Oregon's overall team speed, but most team's struggle with the Ducks' lightning-fast receivers and running backs. It is only because Stanford has performed so well against everyone else on their schedule (23-1 against non-Ducks in 2010 and '11, 19 straight home wins against non-Ducks) that these two losses against Oregon are discussed so much. It's only because America's college football consciousness still thinks of Stanford as plucky little overachievers that that two-game winning streak is expected to last forever.
Oregon plays the game differently than anyone else (check out this phenomenal piece from Grantland contributer Chris Brown for a detailed look at Chip Kelly's offense), and that's part of the problem. They aren't just good, they're an anomaly. Should Shaw and his staff throw out a system that beats the other eleven teams on their schedule in a desperate attempt to match up with Oregon? Obviously not.
But this Stanford team seems closer to beating the Ducks than the past two. As great as the offense was under Andrew Luck, particularly in his second and third seasons, there were still two enormous deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball that made victory unlikely.
First, the secondary was vulnerable against fast, athletic receivers, and it seems like just about everyone in an Oregon uniform is fast and athletic. In last year's matchup, the Stanford defense surrendered scoring plays that covered 41, 58, and 59 yards. Shaw's defensive philosophy dictates that defensive backs should never allow any passes over their heads, but should instead rush forward to tackle receivers in front of them, limiting yardage gained after the catch. This hasn't worked against the Ducks because the Cardinal simply hasn't had the athletes to compete.
Things are different this year. The emergence of freshman cornerback Alex Carter and sophomore safety Ed Reynolds has changed the look and feel of the Stanford secondary, and receivers aren't getting loose nearly as often as they had in the past. You're certainly aware that Stanford has the #1 ranked rushing defense in America, but here's something you might not know about the Cardinal defense. They've essentially eliminated the big play from the opposing team's offense. They are the only defense in the land that hasn't allowed a touchdown drive of three or fewer plays, and they're one of just five teams that haven't allowed a touchdown drive of less than a minute.
The second issue Stanford has struggled with is something that bothers every team that lines up against the Ducks. Oregon's frantic pace keeps defenses on the field until the defenders begin to wilt and wither like eleven grapes left on the vine. Even though the Stanford defenses were improved in 2010 and '11, they still lacked depth, so there was a choice between keeping winded players on the field or playing inferior athletes in their place. Both options played right into Oregon's hands.
If you've been paying attention to the defensive rotations recently, however, you've noticed that everyone on the two-deep depth chart has seen significant playing time, and there has been no noticeable dropoff with second string players on the field. The defense is so deep, in fact, that defensive coordinator Derek Mason has often had all eleven backups on the field at once, and the staff has talked openly about wanting to develop the second unit in preparation for Oregon. Aware of the confusion that can result from sending in one player off the bench to find and sub out another as the Ducks are rushing to the line of scrimmage, the coaching staff will instead substitute an entire unit (four linebackers in, four out), even as Oregon is running its no-huddle offense.
Do these improvements point towards an upset victory for Stanford on Saturday? I'm not sure, but here's what I am sure of. David Shaw needs to beat the Oregon Ducks, and that day is getting closer all the time.