Stanford is a university that collectively prides itself on innovation. That mindset carries over into David Shaw’s football program, evident in the Cardinal’s applied problem-solving.
Stanford discovered the key to slowing down Oregon’s hyper-speed offense. The Cardinal learned adaptive methods for countering the Pac-12’s wide-open style. Shaw even worked out an equation for momentum.
But the problem Stanford football’s been unable to solve, which is starting to loom once more, is how it parlays its Pac-12 success into a national championship opportunity.
Each of Stanford’s conference championship-winning regular seasons, 2012 and 2013, ended with the Cardinal sporting two losses. Only once in the history of the Bowl Championship Series did a two-loss team play for the national title, and that squad — the 2007 LSU Tigers — hailed from the all-mighty SEC.
In the summer of 2013, between Stanford’s two conference championship runs and ahead of the final BCS season, I sat at a table with Shaw at Pac-12 media days on the Sony Studios lot in Culver City. He pointed out then that the 2012 Cardinal could have garnered the fourth and final spot in a playoff had it existed that season.
In the months that followed, as Stanford made its way to a second consecutive Pac-12 title, the Cardinal once again would have been in that conversation. They closed the regular season No. 5 in the BCS polls but having a strong case to leapfrog Michigan State were the decision left up to committee.
Hypothetical scenarios aside, Stanford wasn’t playing for a national championship. The 2012 team lost a confounding, early-season game at Washington before Shaw made the decision to start then-freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan.
The Cardinal dropped another contest midway through the campaign, this one in overtime against Notre Dame — the same Notre Dame team Stanford would have seen as the No. 1 seed had the Cardinal landed a No. 4 spot in a playoff.
The next season’s squad lost twice in similar fashion: once at Utah, and later in the season at USC. Take away either, but especially the USC defeat given its timing late in the season, and the Cardinal likely snatch the BCS title spot that went to Auburn.
The 2015 incarnation of Stanford football is back to playing at a championship caliber after last year’s regression to 8-5, but the Cardinal already carry the customary loss.
Stanford’s Week 1 defeat at Northwestern bears all the traits of the losses that kept past Cardinal out of the national championship discussion: low-scoring, away-from-home and utterly confounding.
Key for Stanford heading into the final month is simple: avoid a repeat.
Positing that is easy enough for someone in front of a keyboard and not facing down the competition ahead of Stanford in the month to come.
The Cardinal’s upcoming slate tightens up considerably, starting this weekend at resurgent Washington State. The Cougars are 5-2 and received some votes in the most recent Associated Press Top 25, and head coach Mike Leach promised an atmosphere at Martin Stadium this weekend reminiscent of “Woodstock,” in his weekly conference call.
Oregon and Cal also loom, and should the Cardinal survive those, a possible Playoff play-in against Notre Dame closes out the regular season.
The upcoming stretch is unquestionably the toughest of Stanford’s season. But then, elements of this Stanford team are unquestionably improved from Shaw’s past conference championship lineups.
A freshman and sophomore for the Cardinal’s last two runs, Hogan is now a senior, and playing with every bit of savvy one would expect of a four-year starter.
Austin Hooper has revitalized the pass-catching tight end that had been Stanford’s offensive calling card in prior years, while Heisman Trophy-contending running back Christian McCaffrey adds a multifaceted explosiveness the Cardinal once lacked.
At 37.4 points per game, Stanford is the nation’s 23rd-most prolific offense. The uptick in offensive production hasn’t come at the expense of its signature defense, which is allowing just a little over 20 points per game.
Variables beyond the Cardinal’s control impact its path to the Playoff. They’re playing catch-up to undefeated teams like Baylor, TCU, Clemson, Ohio State, LSU and Michigan State.
But then, as Stanford knows all-too well, the postseason landscape has a way of transforming.
All the Cardinal can do is continue to win, and the championship opportunity that repeatedly eluded them can be within reach.