Tonight the Stanford football team will play both its most and least important game of the season. It’s the most important game for obvious reasons. It’s the culmination of an entire season that can be described as nothing short of euphoric. Nationally televised against a perennial power, tonight’s game provides the opportunity for Stanford to make a statement about its program and the power of the Pac-10 Conference.
So sure, tonight’s game has intrinsic value, and winning a bowl game for the first time since 1996 would be nice, but whether Stanford wins or loses likely has little bearing on the program as a whole. While the first 12 games of this season were all do-or-die, vitally important games with massive ramifications in the Pac-10 and bowl races, when Stanford takes the field next after the Orange Bowl, it will be 0-0, whether it wins or loses tonight.
Now you may be asking yourself why I am downplaying the importance of what is unquestionably the most notable Stanford football game since the 2000 Rose Bowl. Well, the answer is because playing in the Orange Bowl is a symbolic point in the ascension of the Stanford football program. What is even more important than the game is to see if the Cardinal peaks, plateaus or keeps climbing after playing Virginia Tech tonight-again, win or lose.
Consider this: when Stanford played in the Rose Bowl 11 years ago, it was considered a program on the rise; it had a hot young coach (Tyrone Willingham) and seemed destined to be a Pac-10 contender year in and year out.
What happened next? Stanford played in one bowl game (the illustrious but now-defunct Seattle Bowl) in eight years, Willingham bolted from the Farm for Notre Dame and Stanford became, by 2006, the laughingstock of the Pac-10.
Now with the Cardinal primed to take the field for its second BCS bowl game, it is considered a program on the rise, it has a hot young coach (Jim Harbaugh) coveted by every school and NFL team with a vacancy, and the team looks ready to compete every year. The question is, will history repeat itself?
Initially, I want to say no. First off, the 2000 Stanford Rose Bowl team frankly wasn’t all that good. In most years, it would not have played in a BCS bowl (think Connecticut this year). Including the Rose Bowl loss to Wisconsin, Stanford went 8-4 that season, including a 52-point defeat to Texas and a loss to the always-powerful San Jose State Spartans.
This year’s team is not a mediocre BCS team-it is a juggernaut in all facets of the game with its only loss coming at the hands of the nation’s best team.
Secondly, Stanford has become a recruiting force and has gotten better year after year, from 1-11 in 2006 to 11-1 in 2010. In the years leading up to that Rose Bowl appearance, Stanford had actually been getting worse (7-5 in 1996, 5-6 in 1997 and 3-8 in 1998 before going 8-3 in the 1999 regular season leading up to the 2000 Rose Bowl).
However, a drop-off after this year’s Orange Bowl is both possible and not far-fetched. Although someone’s mailman’s friend’s sister’s boyfriend told them that Andrew Luck is planning on returning to Stanford for a fourth year, he could leave and be replaced with a sinkhole at quarterback. That, coupled with the loss of three offensive linemen, two key wide receivers and numerous important defensive players, could set the Cardinal back next season.
More likely than Luck heading to the NFL, however, is Harbaugh doing his best Willingham impression and leaving the Farm when the going is good (at least that is what someone’s mailman’s friend’s sister’s boyfriend is telling some reporters). Stanford has quite the reservoir of great assistants, but much of the success of the program has depended on Harbaugh’s celebrity, energy and recruiting ability.
His departure would undoubtedly have an effect on Stanford’s recruiting. Prized linebacker recruit James Vaughters indicated last week that he is considering reopening his recruitment because of the uncertainty about Harbaugh’s status. Stanford fans know that the Cardinal cannot afford another Buddy Teevens-like hiring (or Walt Harris, for that matter).
I would suggest that Harbaugh take a look at the nosedive Willingham’s career took after leaving Stanford (he failed at Washington after failing at Notre Dame and is now “retired”), and consider himself content on the Farm. Under his tutelage, it is not outrageous to envision Stanford as a BCS candidate season after season.
What might be a bit scary for Stanford fans is that a fall from grace isn’t uncommon for Orange Bowl participants-and coaches.
Louisville, Wake Forest, Kansas, Cincinnati, Georgia Tech and Iowa all regressed after their Orange Bowl showings in the past four years, while only Virginia Tech, Stanford’s opponent, remained strong since its 2009 Orange Bowl appearance. Only time will tell if the Cardinal will fall victim to the struggles of these other programs, or if it can build off this amazing season.
If you’re someone’s mailman’s friend’s sister’s boyfriend, tell Daniel Bohm what you think about the future of Cardinal football at [email protected].