The list of undefeated teams in Stanford football history is short. In 1926 Pop Warner led a Stanford team that finished 10-0-1 and won the national championship, and fourteen years later Clark Shaughnessy was at the helm for a perfect season that concluded with a 21-13 win over Nebraska in the Rose Bowl and a #2 ranking in the final AP poll.
And so as the Cardinal takes the field tonight against San Jose State, the team will kick off what is certainly the most anticipated season in Stanford history. Yes, the team has compiled a 35-5 record over the past three seasons while winning two BCS bowl games, but none of those teams opened with anything like the hype and expectations which surround the 2013 squad.
The 2009 team had lost five games with a Heisman Trophy finalist in the backfield, so most experts predicted a step back in 2010 after Toby Gerhart's graduation to the NFL. Not even the most optimistic Stanford fans could have predicted twelve wins and a decisive victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
When quarterback Andrew Luck announced his return only a few days after that Orange Bowl win, enthusiasm swelled within Cardinal Nation, but outside observers noted the loss of Jim Harbaugh and once again predicted a step back. Stanford was ranked in the top ten throughout the season, but never were they considered national championship contenders.
Finally, there was 2012. With an unproven commodity at quarterback, Stanford finally appeared ready to come back to the pack a bit -- or more than a bit; even their #21 pre-season ranking seemed a bit generous. The Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin was a landmark victory for the program, but it certainly wasn't something anyone outside the Cardinal locker room would have thought about in September.
All of which brings us to 2013. Stanford captains David Yankey, Shayne Skov, and Ben Gardner will walk to the center of the field at Stanford Stadium within the hour, and they will carry on their shoulders the weight of expectations never before felt by any Stanford team in history. The Cardinal has claimed a place amongst those elite teams for whom victory is no longer enough. The quality of each win will be examined and measured against the outputs of Oregon and Alabama, and the pressure will build with each week. The coaching staff and players will implore us all to take things one game at a time, but it will be impossible. Why worry about San Jose State or Army or even Washington State when Oregon and Notre Dame are lurking in the months ahead?
But even as we look to Oregon and consider cancelling our daughter's soccer practice on November 7th, there is the paranoid voice in our head that whispers about the dangers of Spartans and Sun Devils and even Golden Bears. And when we worry about those teams, we worry about much more than the loss in a single game. For the first time in Stanford history, an opening night loss to San Jose State wouldn't be just a defeat, it wouldn't be just an upset, it wouldn't be something to learn from -- it would be disaster.
So welcome to the razor's edge, Stanford fans. The next three months will test your nerves as they've never been tested, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
Go. Mighty. Card.