It wasn't until I was deep into my thirties that I finally understood what was meant by the phrase "not seeing the forest for the trees." After all, if you're looking at the trees, how can you not see the forest?
This phenomenon manifests itself in sports constantly. When your focus lies solely on your own team, you tend to see the flaws without realizing that the strengths far outweigh what is lacking. Even more importantly, you don't compare, say, your team's offensive line to other offensive lines around the country, but instead you measure it against an unattainable ideal that resides only in your head.
Stanford fans are guilty of this. There has been a fair amount of angst spreading through the ranks of Nerd Nation over the past few weeks, with concerns ranging from the quarterback to the coaching staff to the tight ends to the mounting injuries on the defensive side of the ball. The reality, of course, is that this Stanford team is quite good. According to this week's BCS rankings, they are the fifth-best team in the nation and one of probably only seven teams that can realistically dream of a national championship.
The interesting thing about the BCS standings over the past three weeks is that Stanford's loss to Utah -- once thought to be crushing for their national championship hopes -- almost doesn't matter. Not only is Stanford the highest-ranked one-loss team, but they're also exactly where they would be in the standings had they had beaten Utah. An undefeated Stanford team wouldn't have had a prayer of cracking the top three (Alabama, Florida State, and Oregon), and they'd likely still sit behind Ohio State.
So the game remains the same for the Cardinal. If they hope to play in the BCS Championship game, they have to take care of business themselves and hope for teams in front of them to falter.
The good news is that they can knock off one of those teams this Thursday night when they host the Oregon Ducks. A win over Oregon would put the Cardinal firmly at #4 and silence any claims from Baylor or Clemson supporters that their teams should be in the mix. Even though many of the computer polls might move Stanford ahead of Ohio State, I can't imagine any human voters would follow suit. With that in mind, let's take a quick look at the four teams ahead of the Mighty Card. Three of them would need to slip up for Stanford to get one of the coveted top two spots.
Sometimes it feels like Alabama has won the last 17 national championships. Even though they're always ranked #1 in the BCS, this year seems like the weakest Crimson Tide team we've seen in a few years. (Of course, they've won their past six games by a total of 246-26, so everything is relative.) They play #13 LSU this Saturday and #9 Auburn on November 30th, and if they win those two games -- plus a tension-filled matchup against Chattanooga on November 23rd -- they'll earn a spot in the SEC Championship game against either Missouri or South Carolina. If they can navigate all that, they'll certainly deserve a spot in Pasadena on January 6th.
Remember when Jameis Winston was deciding between Florida State and Stanford? Ah, what might have been. Of all these teams, Florida State looks like the biggest lock to finish undefeated. Their four remaining opponents have a combined record of 13-21, so they'll likely take a 12-0 record to the ACC title game where they'll get to beat up Miami again. FSU alums should look into plane tickets to L.A. and hotel rooms in Pasadena now before the prices start to go up.
The only thing that matters about the Oregon Ducks is that Stanford needs to beat them on Thursday night in order to have any shot of getting into the top two.
The Buckeyes are accurately ranked as the fourth of the top four undefeated teams. Urban Meyer's squad hasn't lost a game since 2011, but they haven't done much to impress anyone in 2013. After playing one of the more embarrassing non-conference schedules you'll ever see (Buffalo, San Diego State, Cal, and FCS Florida A&M combine for a 14-20 record), Ohio State has been up and down against the few respectable opponents their Big Ten schedule has offered. They beat Wisconsin rather comfortably, but then had to rally late for a 40-30 win over Northwestern and needed a 10-0 fourth quarter to beat Iowa, 34-24. Unless Michigan feels the heat of the rivalry and rises up to defeat them on November 30th, the Buckeyes will finish the regular season undefeated and head to the Big Ten championship game to face Michigan State. It certainly wouldn't be a surprise to see the Spartans pull the upset, so Stanford has a good shot to jump ahead of them.
While Stanford does have a small chance of being invited to the BCS Championship game by winning out and getting help elsewhere, fans would do well to remember the consolation prize waiting should the Cardinal fall short of that goal -- the Rose Bowl on January 1st. If Stanford loses to Oregon and Oregon goes on to the BCS big stage, Stanford would almost certainly fill the vacancy in the Rose Bowl. And that is never, ever, a bad thing.