Coach Jim Harbaugh set the bar high the second he took over the team that was previously the Walt Harris Horror Show in 2006. Many scoffed at the football utopia he envisioned for the Cardinal, with mentions of going to a BCS bowl game and winning the conference amusing members of the media.
Harbaugh has certainly silenced many of his doubters already, but Stanford clearly has a long way to go before it'll be chomping down tortilla chips or smelling roses. His goal of turning the Cardinal into a BCS program may never be realized, but cementing Stanford as one of the top Pac-10 teams in the coming years may be a bit more plausible. Which brings us to our question for this week: Is Stanford destined to eventually reach the upper echelon of the conference under Coach Jim Harbaugh?
Let's set things straight first. By upper echelon, we mean being one of the top three or four teams who are always near the top of the conference. For the last decade or so, it's clear who belongs in this club—USC, Oregon and Cal. Our second assumption is that Harbaugh will stay on the Farm for at least another five years, which may or may not be the case. Let's just pretend for now, though.
I personally don't think the Cardinal will realize Harbaugh's goal of being one of the established teams in the conference. My first reason? It has to do with the very people reading this. Well, not you personally, but the collective you, you as a whole.
Stanford's fan base has never been solid, and it continues to be mediocre, despite the emergence of one of the best Cardinal football teams in years. Take a look at the Bears, Ducks and Trojans and you'll see something quite different, something resembling big-time football. And sure, if you win, they will come. But it doesn't take too many winning seasons for fans of those teams to drive out to their respective stadiums in hordes. A lot of this is fundamental to Stanford University itself--a prestigious private university has never been the ideal place for tailgates and packed stadiums. But the fact remains.
A statement I disagree with right off the bat: "but Stanford clearly has a long way to go before it'll be chomping down tortilla chips or smelling roses. His goal to make the Cardinal into a BCS program may never be realized."
I'd say that Stanford is a year away from being in serious contention to "smell roses." Until this Saturday, many fantasized about a potential BCS berth in 2009, which is far ahead of schedule. Indeed, it's still a possibility, given the Pac-10's rampant parity, but it's unlikely. But I find it hard to look at the athletes Stanford is bringing in and declare that they won't be in Rose Bowl contention in the near future. By next year, our freshman quarterback will no longer be a rookie--he'll be on a trajectory that could carry him to the pinnacle of college football. That alone is cause for optimism. Then what about the development of the WR corps, for instance? Sure, key players are graduating, such as Toby Gerhart (unless he applies for a medical redshirt), but we have three freshman four-star running backs to work with. It's not like we'll be depleted. We are building a fine program. I've heard "mini-USC" tossed around. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, but to even be in that conversation indicates something special.
Ed: Wyndam, Wyndam, Wyndam: What about our defense? Our defense is in the bottom half of the conference right now, so how does it go from near-worst to near-first in one season? I'll say seven or eight wins with a lot of shootouts – much like Michigan this year.
With that said, I can't understand how his dream of building a BCS program here "may never be realized." It's not that odd of a possibility. We're taking steps--from 1-11 to a likely bowl game in three years is quite impressive, especially considering Stanford's bright future. Plus, our definition of upper echelon is also fairly wide--as much as 40 percent of the conference could be considered part of this group. You don't have to be a perennial BCS contender to be there.
It's interesting to think of who might be in contention for those top spots. In terms of "new" teams, only UCLA really pops out at me for the near future. Ed: Not Washington? Could Oregon and Cal keep it up? Sure. But the conference as a whole is getting stronger, from us to Arizona to Washington, and so on--no team is truly safe at the top. We may see a lot of rotation in and out of the upper echelon, instead of the longevity we've seen throughout this decade, or at least the latter part of it.
As for Harbaugh sticking around: a different debate for a different time. My inclination is that he's here for the long run. Quickly: he believes in the school's mission (how many other coaches routinely post about academics on their Twitter accounts?) and has stated his own task--to make the Cardinal a BCS program--time and time again. He's revered on campus, which isn't a guarantee no matter if he were to jump to the pros or another collegiate program (see: Rodriguez, Rich). And so on, and so on.
First off, just because many have fantasized about a potential BCS berth doesn't at all mean it is a likely occurrence. And while you're right that the talent level has only seen a significant increase since Harbaugh arrived, I'd be surprised if any of the incoming freshmen play a huge role on this team next year. Adjusting to the collegiate level takes at least a year, if not more. Look at Chris Owusu—he had the same speed and cutting ability last season, yet he was nowhere near the player he is this year. Ed: Or how little Jamal Patterson, a guy we project to be a big-time player, is seeing the field this year. These things take time.
And yes, we do have talent at running back for the future years. But replacing Toby is going to be a very difficult task. Let's assume our offensive line is just as good as next year as it is this year. Would you still think that our running game would be just as effective as it was this year? I don't think so. The backs might adequately replace Toby, but there is still going to be a relative drop in production from the position. I don't think that can be disputed.
Finally, as you state, much of Stanford's position in the conference depends on the progress of the rest of the programs. USC obviously isn't going anywhere, but I don't think Cal and Oregon are, either. The Holiday Bowl and Sun Bowl have seemed to invite them for the whole past decade, and unless something unforeseen happens, that will most likely continue to be the case.
That is not to say these programs are insurmountable; I just don't think that they are leaving where they are anytime soon, so we'll have to do even better. As for schools like UCLA, Arizona State, Oregon State, Arizona, and even Washington now, nothing at this point distinguishes us. Washington and UCLA have new coaches apparently destined to lead their programs back to the glory they once held, while Oregon State has the ever-consistent Mike Riley. I don't see too much breathing room.
On the note about freshmen: it's not necessarily about them as much as it is the frosh on this current team who are playing in spot roles right now. Guys like Drew Terrell, Jamal-Rashad Patterson, Terrence Stephens, Tyler Gafney, Shayne Skov, Stepfan Taylor, and so on. While not being asked to carry a tremendous amount of weight, they're getting accustomed to the collegiate game--experience in the actual contests themselves outweighs practice. So next year and beyond, we'll have highly regarded, young talent at running back, wide receiver, linebacker, defensive tackle, and so on, that will be able to step in and assume larger roles, like Owusu did this season. Rinse and repeat for the Class of 2010. And, with more than half the season left in 2009, it's entirely possible that they make significant contributions this year--Skov, Taylor and Stephens come to mind.
In regards to Toby, I again go back to my New York Giants example (look over the two teams and see how similar they are--it's striking). Tiki Barber, the best running back in franchise history, retired in 2006 and they were left with a committee--Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw. What happened? The three combined in 2007 to post identical numbers to 2006. Which isn't to say this will happen with the Cardinal, but it's hardly infeasible. It won't be one guy chugging for 1,200 yards, but some combination of Taylor, Gaffney, Jeremy Stewart, Usua Amanam and incoming freshmen Anthony Wilkerson and Brandon Bourbon should give Stanford a nice running back committee.
We've been emphasizing the running backs but it's indicative of a large point: the Stanford football program is getting to a place where they're at least capable of replacing their stars. The only exception, in my mind, is quarterback, and that's both because of the position and because Andrew Luck has immeasurable and rare talent.
As for the other schools: why are Slick Rick and Sark any more destined to lead their teams to glory than Harbaugh and his staff? Because Neuheisel had previous success at the D1 level, and because Steve Sarkisian is a Pete Carroll protege? Please. Harbaugh picked up a program in far worse shape than either of them (yes, even Washington) and has turned it into a bowl contender on a consistent upward trajectory in less than three seasons.
Meanwhile, Cal hasn't been able to match up with the big guns this year, when many thought this would be the season that they broke the USC stranglehold on the Rose Bowl. Oregon State is always dangerous, but they've had a hard time making the final jump to the top, generally stalling at around nine wins or so--I'm not sure why that would change. Given the smooth transition from Mike Bellotti to Chip Kelly in Eugene, I'd agree and say Oregon may be at the top for a while, along with the Trojans. But there are spots for the Cardinal. It won't be easy or expected; no one would claim that. But this notion that it is an impossibility is misguided.
Well, I never said it was impossible. But I'm not putting my money on it.
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