Stanford’s days as plucky little underdog are over

Stanford’s days as plucky little underdog are over
December 28, 2012, 12:45 pm
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David Shaw is 22-4 in two seasons at Stanford, and has the Cardinal in their third straight BCS game. (AP)

People still seem surprised by the fact that Stanford has reached three consecutive BCS bowls in succession – maybe because the other seven teams to do it are traditional football factories.

But to quote the noted philosopher Parcells I, you are what your record says you are, and if Stanford is in the same company as USC, Ohio State, Miami of Florida, Oregon, Florida State, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, then football factory it is.

This of course flies in the face of how Stanford wants to be labeled – as Oxford with bigger playing fields. And while we’re not that keen on figuring out what Stanford actually is, we do know what David Shaw wants.

And that’s for people to stop being surprised by what Stanford has become.

Shaw, who has consolidated and advanced Jim Harbaugh’s early work, has said after every big win by the Cardinal that he wants people to stop considering their best work to be upsets.

The Cardinal is a seven-point favorite over Wisconsin in Tuesday’s Rose Bowl, and its three-year record of 34-5 (27-11-1 against the line) is as good as anyone’s – yes, including Alabama.

This doesn’t make Stanford into Alabama, mind you. That is not yet “a hill to die on,” to take the new in-vogue hockey phrase and twist it to our own cheap ends.

But it means that Shaw is right. Stanford’s days as the plucky little underdog are simply over. Even in Las Vegas, where underdogs and favorites are defined, Stanford has been a favorite in all but five games over the past three seasons.

That means that, separated from the world of college football where nobody can ever agree on what the definitions mean, let alone how to apply them, Stanford is a routine favorite, and is as good as anyone at proving it.

Thus Shaw has a point, even if it might make some of the more cloistered Stanfordians a bit uncomfortable.

Moreover, they are achieving this with minimal dazzle and almost no razzle at all. They do not use misdirection as the centerpiece of their work. They strike hard, and repeatedly. They use their big-‘uns to hit the other guys’ big-‘uns until the other guy’s big-‘uns shrink to normal size.

They are, if anything, less subtle under Shaw than they were even under Harbaugh, and it is clear that they intend to stay that way for as long as Shaw is the head coach.

And in a weird way, this makes them more like Stanford against the world – the way the alums flatter themselves to think.

College football is about fast-paced offenses, the end of the stodgy old huddle, the photogenic elegance of footballs in the air and fantasy points in the wind. Stanford is not that. Stanford isn’t the Woody Hayes Ohio States or the Nick Saban Alabamas either, but it is closer philosophically to the physical nature of the game than the speed nature.

The Cardinal is not out of step, because 34-5 says they are not. But they tromp to their own beat, which makes them in their own way special, and separates them from the new orthodoxy of the sport.

Thus, David Shaw has given Stanford more than what it actually said it wanted. It wanted wins – check. It wanted more people in the seats – with all due respect to the underpopulated Pac-12 Championship Game, check. And it wanted the Stanford feeling of specialness – and that check is in the mail.

A win over Wisconsin in Stanford style would provide more of that feeling, but it would not yet eradicate it. Stanford fans still have some adjusting to do when it comes to understanding fully what their new favorite team actually does.

But they know the basics – which is that they win 88 percent of the time. And that is football factory production, whether you like the sound of that or not.

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