Ratto: Stanford May Not Be As Lucky When Bowls Come Calling

November 7, 2010, 6:39 am
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Nov. 6,2010

PALO ALTO -- Mentioningthe future in an uncertain world makes Stanford players and coachesbreak out in hives. Bowl games, BCS placement, out of town scores ingeneral ooh, scary, kids.Before, its because the Cardinal was not involved. Now, its becausethey all claim that a narrow focus is good for the mind and healthy forthe soul.And coach Jim Harbaugh well, leave it to him to find the one thing the Cardinal cant have.Were playing for a championship, he said after the Card throttledArizona, 42-17, Saturday night. Thats our goal. To go to the RoseBowl and win that. The Pac-10 championship, to get that.Well, Stanfords not winning the Pac-10, not unless Oregon has twolosses in it amidst a field that includes Cal (barely beat WashingtonState), Arizona (just got boxed) and Oregon State (lost to UCLA).And the Rose Bowl?Well, maybe they can get that. A lot of dominoes still need to fallright, though, including either Boise State or TCU playing for thenational title against Oregon. And if the dominoes fall wrong . . . oog.Put another way, Stanford could go 11-1 and win the title as the bestteam ever to end up in the Alamo Bowl. And that speaks to the one thingthat Harbaugh has been unable to control in his four years here:Crowd control. The Cardinal, dominating a huge game that will probably propel theminto the Top 10 in the BCS standings with one of the games elitequarterbacks (Peyton Manning-like, according to Harbaugh) in AndrewLuck, drew an announced 43,506, which was the second-smallest crowd bya Top 25 home team this week (Boise States capacity is a modest33,500) and third-smallest among any Top 25 teams playing anywhere(Iowa drew only 42,991 at Indiana).Crowds dont normally matter when youre unbeaten, but when youre not,crowds matter a lot, especially to people with bowl invitations, andStanford has a notorious reputation for not, as they say in bowlcircles, traveling well.So while the players say they have their destinies in their own hands,they do so only in terms of winning as many games as they can (atArizona State, at Cal, home against Oregon State), they could still endup in El Paso, trying to plaster happy faces onto unhappy mugs.Or not. There is also the possibility that incandescent performanceslike Saturdays might make them an attractive team under anycircumstances. For this, next to the USC win in 2007, was quitepossibly their finest hour.I told them (afterward) that I thought this was their best game,Harbaugh said. It was our most complete game. I thought we were veryphysical, and disciplined, and I liked the way we just trusted eachother.Harbaugh then went on to list five coaches and, by our informal count,about 19 players who were exemplary, the most noticeable of which wereLuck (23 of 32, 293 yards, two scores), wide receiver Chris Owusu (ninecatches in 10 balls thrown his way, 165 yards, a score and maybe thebest catch Ive ever seen on a sideline, according to Harbaugh), theoffensive line that allowed no sacks and very few hurries of Luck, thesecondary that shut down Arizona quarterback Nick Foles, the defensiveline that slowly squeezed the Arizona running game, andblah-blah-blah-de-blah-blah.This was, in short, a comprehensive throttling of a top-15 team by onewhich is by any measure a top-10 team, maybe even a top-7 or top-5 team.Its hard to know really where the Cardinal stands now, because theloss to Oregon puts them in an odd kind of stasis a bad loss after aquick start, yet the only loss on the resume, a fact Harbaugh pointedout speaking of behalf of our guys.It is hard to fit them amidst TCU (which crushed Utah), or Boise (whichtortured Idaho) or Auburn (which dismembered 1-AA Chattanooga), orNebraska (which has lost to a bad Texas team and nearly been clipped bynot only Iowa State but South Dakota State) or Oklahoma State (whichlost to Nebraska) or Michigan State (crushed by Iowa) or Ohio State (byWisconsin) or Wisconsin (by Michigan State) or Utah (TCU) or Nevada(Hawaii).You can make the case that Stanford ranks ahead of all but the fourremaining unbeatens because their loss was to the best team, but on thebackhand they have only played three teams with winning records(Oregon, USC and Arizona).Even the computers tend to fritz the more you expand the field.But Saturday proved that this might be the finest Stanford team innearly forever, a team that would be a worthy representative in the RoseBowl, or the Fiesta, or the Sugar, or the Orange.Or God help them, the Alamo. The BCS has been a crueler mistress toequally deserving teams in the past, after all, and if the Cardinal isto be punished for not traveling well, then thats just how it plays.Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area