No. 31: Whale watching

Ohio State versus Stanford, USC versus Stanford, Texas versus Stanford. The casual fan knows that it wasn't that long ago those matchups would have been absolute laughers on the field. Truth is, it wasn't that long ago those matchups would have been absolute laughers in recruits' living rooms. No longer.

We continue our ambitious offseason series, counting down the top 40 moments of the Harbaugh/ Shaw era.

No matter how you slice it, Stanford football has arrived. Though we've since assumed all the trappings of a football powerhouse – the three straight runner-up finishes in Heisman voting, the two straight BCS bowl berths and top-10 finishes, the top-ten 2012 recruiting class, or the eminent graduation of top pro prospect of the last decade – it wasn't that long ago that Stanford football was an afterthought.

On December 19, 2006, new athletic director Bob Bowlsby hired Jim Harbaugh, a former star quarterback, but an unproven coach who had never worked at the FBS level. The rest, as they say, was history.

We are pleased to present Stanford football's 40 most memorable moments, trends, games and personalities from the magical five-plus years that followed that December 2006 announcement.

31. Whale watching
Stanford starts recruiting at an elite level

It would be safe to say that, in the years immediately preceding Jim Harbaugh's arrival, Stanford football signed less than its fair share of star high school prospects. If you go back long enough, you'll hear that Ty Willingham, for all his successes as a coach, was a lazy recruiter. Then came Buddy Teevens, who admittedly was a good recruiter at first, as several of the signees from early in his tenure ended up making All-Conference; a few are enjoying a cup of coffee the League. But when Teevens couldn't win despite decent talent, he would be neither a stud recruiter nor on the Farm for much longer.

Then came the Walt Harris regime. Hard to win when you're personally uninspiring, have lost the respect of the team, do not understand the uniqueness that is Stanford, are winning only a few times each season and are operating under a stringent Dean of Admissions. (Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…) So the top-end guys were few and far between.

2005 brought Ekom Udofia and the Homerian epic that was Erik Lorig's recruitment. (For newer Booties, the tight end dragged it out past Signing Day and well into spring, and every day seemingly brought a new twist or turn. In fact, if memory serves, his dog ultimately influenced his decision to come to the Farm. Hey, whatever works.) Levirt Griffin and Sione Fua, now of the Carolina Panthers, were among the few highly-ranked 2006 signees. The 2007 class was probably the low of the low, with no five-stars and four-star guys Kellen Kiilsgard, who saw the baseball diamond more than he would ever see the gridiron, and Matt Masifilo. The kicker, pardon the pun, is that the highest-rated guy in the class was actually a kicker, four-star David Green. Never a good sign. (Of course, the lowest-rated guy in that lowest-rated class was Jeremy Stewart, so go figure.)

Things did start to turn around when Captain Comeback hit town, but mostly in terms of depth at first: the plurality of guys at the bottom of the class had three stars next to their name, not two. Plus, many of the whales of those first years we didn't so much harpoon as they did flop onto our boat, with Andrew Luck and, to a lesser extent, Shayne Skov preeminent examples. (See also: the Lopez twins, two more players from a similar era, and with similar hype and happenstance.)

Then, Stanford started winning, Richard Shaw became Dean of Admissions, this Harbaugh guy started building a reputation, this Arillaga guy finished building a stadium, the coaching staff started ironing out its pitch, and the University bought in anew. A perfect storm was coming ashore.

Stanford's classes ranked 38th in 2006, 43rd in 2007, and 43rd in 2008. On the strength of Skov and nine four-star recruits, the 2009 class was 15th. The Cardinal wrestled Tyler Gaffney away from USC, and signed Levine Toilolo and Jamal Rashad Patterson, each guys with Florida offers. The Dark Ages were firmly in the rear-view mirror. In 2010, Stanford pulled some late coups, including keeping Blake Leuders from Notre Dame and taking Brett Nottingham from UCLA, to finish 24th.

In 2011, Stanford stayed at 23rd. Although there were "only" seven four-star guys that class, and no five-stars (all rankings are Scout's), other programs wanted our guys more, and it consequently made a bigger splash when we landed them. Linebacker James Vaughters committed to Stanford over home- state Georgia, past and would-be champion Alabama and perennial powers Ohio State, Oklahoma and USC, among countless others. Florida's Wayne Lyons had offers from each of his state's "Big Three", but the young man from Fort Lauderdale headed west.

College football, though it pains me to say it, is played at its highest level in the SEC. High school football is played at its highest level in the SEC's footprint (especially now that the SEC has a member in the state of Texas) and, without a doubt, high school and college football matter most in the Southeast. Add in a Georgia pipeline that has been burgeoning for years – Henry Anderson, Ronnie Harris, Patterson, Ra'Chard Pippens, Chase Thomas, Vaughters, David Yankey and very nearly Tai-ler Jones – and Stanford has captured the attention of the epicenter of the college football world. All of this, of course, was prelude to February 1, 2012.

Stanford was the 2012 national signing day story. In five-star Kyle Murphy, four-stars Aziz Shittu and Andrus Peat and three-stars Zach Hoffpauir and Michael Rector, the Cardinal added a cumulative 19 stars in one day. It was as dramatic to those in the know as it was to Joe Fan too, as Peat, among others, hadn't informed the Stanford staff ahead of time of his pending commitment. Add in five- star OL Joshua Garnett, who committed a week before signing day, and the rest of a 22-man class, and Stanford jumped from a ranking in the mid-teens to a final ranking of No. 6 on one fateful day. (No. 6 could have been higher yet, as a last-minute push for five-star quarterback Jameis Winston came up short, with the football/baseball star signing with in-state Florida State.)

Stanford only has 15 scholarships, plus or minus, with which to build its 2013 class, so a ranking in the lower half of the top-25 would be a pretty good outcome. Nonetheless, I wouldn't bet against the Cardinal landing several whales in the next 12 months either.

50-41. More memorable moments - Loukas, a lot of Luck, and a phantom clipping call
40. Fake out - Luck stuns UW with a naked bootleg in 2010
39. Polls and bowls - Stanford climbs into college football's beauty contests
38. Steamrolled - Card run for 446 yards in 2011 beatdown of Washington
37. Opening act - 2009 win over Oregon launches a November to remember
36. Going bowling - Loss to Oklahoma doesn't ruin first bowl game since 2001
35. "Shut up and play football" - After pregame jawing, Cal finds itself in a 45-0 hole in 2010
34. Look ma, no legs - Luck throws a 52-yard dart while in free fall
33. Sit down - Burfict's head leads to go-ahead TD, Wilkerson's head ices the W at ASU
32. Injury bug - After a who's who of talent succumbs to injuries, Card find a way to rally

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