Smelling Roses

On a sunny September morning before the school year began, before Stanford left to play TCU early in the 2008 season, players gathered for their post-practice rallying cry. "Rose Bowl!" was the unanimous bark as the team broke the huddle.

Considering the fact Stanford was coming off a 4-8 season and in the midst of a 5-7 campaign, it was hard not to smirk hearing those words when that practice ended. Though the Farm Boys had miraculously beaten them a year prior, USC was still in the midst of its annual string of New Year's Day visits to Pasadena. Chip Kelly was only Mike Bellotti's offensive coordinator at Oregon. Meanwhile, believe it or not, Cal was a legitimate national power.

Boy, does that seem like a long time ago. Jim Harbaugh's club would topple USC's reign the following year (think about the watershed "What's Your Deal?" moment), but in 2008 it was still impossible to envision Stanford trading places with the juggernauts at the top. When the Las Vegas Bowl was improbable, Rose Bowl aspirations seemed laughable.

Four years later, the conference has taken a 180-degree turn. It's not called the Pac-10 anymore, and the Farm Boys are an elite force favored to head to three straight BCS bowls. 

Lest Stanford assume it's immune to upset in tomorrow's Pac-12 Championship Game, remember a time, not long ago, that the Cardinal hosted a conference game as significant favorites with Rose Bowl hopes on the line.

The year was 2009. Cal shredded a still-slow Stanford defense, overcame a 14-0 deficit, and escaped the Toby Gerhart wrecking ball when the hard-charging Cardinal passed momentum away with the game on the line and less than a minute remaining for some inexplicable reason. Mike Mohamed intercepted redshirt freshman Andrew Luck's play-action toss, and roses were ripped away from the Farm Boys in the most gut-wrenching fashion possible. Jeff Tedford's last laugh: 34-28.

So close to the Granddaddy of Them All, yet so far away.

Now, Stanford has another chance to punch its ticket back to Pasadena. Jim Harbaugh has migrated 25 minutes north, Luck has graduated, and one of the nation's elite defenses has replaced the Cardinal's once-porous unit. The Rose Bowl teased Stanford last week, playing host to their regular-season finale against UCLA and beckoning for their return come January 1.

"The locker rooms were pretty nice," nose tackle David Parry said. "We wouldn't mind going back."

But, as the past has shown, punching that return ticket to one of football's most iconic venues is one of the biggest challenges in the college game. Gerhart didn't do it. Harbaugh didn't do it. Luck didn't do it.

Now, the new-look Farm Boys, country-strong with the likes of Trent Murphy on the edge and A.J. Tarpley roaming the entire field, have their own chance.

"I was lucky enough to play in two Rose Bowls," UCLA coach Jim Mora said. "But it's the game that puts you in the Rose Bowl that always sticks with you."

Cue the driving rain, muddy field, gusting wind, and bright lights. Stanford football has another chance to win a championship, the one they dreamed about when this wild ride first began.

David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.

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