Stanford May Not Get What It Deserves
They are a potent combination of skill and confidence and they are led by a young man who is more clearly by the day the best quarterback in the country not already playing in the NFL. They are a legitimate top-10 team.
But with Oregon in the national championship picture, the end of this story is fuzzy for the Cardinal.
The burning question after Stanford's 42-17 win over No. 13 Arizona at Stanford Stadium Saturday night is this: What's Stanford playing for?
"We're playing to win a championship," said Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh.
But Stanford (8-1, 5-1), which will vault a few spots in the rankings, probably isn't going to win a Pac-10 title. Even if Oregon loses once now before the end of the season, the Cardinal couldn't win a tiebreaker because of their 52-31 loss in Eugene on Oct. 2. Only two losses by the Ducks -- which is practically unthinkable -- would give Stanford a championship.
They may not be able to get into the Rose Bowl because if the Ducks go to the title game, the Rose Bowl might be obligated to take one of the non-automatic qualifiers (i.e. TCU or Boise).
They may not be able to secure a BCS bowl berth if the Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl choose to go different directions with any at-large picks. Frankly, despite the star power of Andrew Luck, the Cardinal will lack appeal for the simple reason that they aren't going to travel very well. They couldn't get more than 43,000 tickets sold for one of the biggest games in this program's recent history.
That could leave the Cardinal with the Alamo Bowl, which would be have to be viewed as mere consolation prize for a pretty impressive 11-1 season.
Harbaugh stated his team's case after the game.
"I'm not a guy who concerns himself with the polls and things like that, but speaking on behalf of my guys and Stanford football, this is a one-loss team that's only lost to the No. 1-ranked team in the country," Harbaugh said. "It's probably about time they get some recognition."
Stanford is indeed playing their way into something better that they ultimately might get. The Cardinal dominated the Wildcats on their home field Saturday night. They showed up defensively and let quarterback Andrew Luck do his thing against one of the top defenses in the country.
Luck has taken on nearly all quarterback comers so far this season in the Pac-10 and come out on top. Matt Barkley, Nick Foles and Jake Locker. Those are the guys he traveled with to Bristol during the summer. And they've all been vanquished. He is gaining momentum as a Heisman candidate and rightfully so. He finished Saturday's game completing 23 of 32 attempts for 293 yards and two touchdowns. The offensive line, working against some of the best defensive ends around, kept Luck from being sacked.
"I honestly don't think about (the Heisman)," Luck said. "I figure if I'm good enough and I play well, I'll win it. And if I'm not, I won't."
Chris Owusu, who has missed a total of five games this season, and the last two with one of those mysterious injuries that Harbaugh doesn't want to talk about, was back with a vengeance. He finished with nine catches for 165 yards and a touchdown. Add in his 84 yards in kickoff returns and he was good for 261 all-purpose yards.
Arizona had No. 1 quarterback Nick Foles under center for the first time since Oct. 16, back after a knee injury. But Foles couldn't match Luck's production, going 28 of 48 for 248 yards with a touchdown pass and an interception.
The Cardinal, coming off last week's shutout at Washington, gave up 428 yards, but no single play longer than 26 yards and the Wildcats were seven of 16 on third down.
Stanford's Rose Bowl possibilities got brighter Saturday night with TCU's 47-7 win over Utah and Alabama's loss to LSU. If either TCU or Boise State could play its way into the national championship game -- with the Horned Frogs looking to be the better bet at this point -- there still might be a spot in Pasadena for the Cardinal.
The company line from Harbaugh and co., of course, is that they will play the game in front of them and worry about nothing else.
"We understand we could have a very special season for Stanford," Luck said. "There are many different situations out there, but all of that doesn't matter if we don't win."
"We are playing to win," said safety Delano Howell. "We can't control the rest."