Clardy's Corner: Final Four

Four games left. One win needed to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2001. One win needed to officially show quantitative progress from the 2008 season. And one win needed to further cement its status as a program on the rise in the Pac-10.

Stanford is starting its most important November in years. They're also staring at a pretty impressive gauntlet of opponents. Oregon. U$C. cal. Notre Dame.

So…who is that one win going to come against? Stanford can beat all four of those teams, but they can just as easily lose to all four of those teams, too. Still, some of those matchups are more favorable to the Card than others.

As of 10:38 a.m. Eastern time on November 4, 2009, here's how I see Stanford's chances of beating its remaining opponents. This list goes from least-likely to most-likely, which means we start with…

Oregon. Dick Cheney scares me. So does NBA Commissioner David Stern. But this week, nothing frightens me more than the Oregon Ducks. And this time, I'm not just talking about their uniforms.

The good news for Stanford is that they win in the "intangibles" department. The Cardinal had an extra week to prepare for the Ducks' offense, and Stanford's defense plays markedly better inside the friendly confines of the Eucalyptus Curtain. And after such an incredible win last week, who knows what state of mind Oregon will be in this week?

Plus, Oregon has a funny habit of short-circuiting at very odd times. The Ducks have a funky offense, and when it's at its best, it's funkier than Earth, Wind & Fire in 1975. But when it's not at its best, it's just funky. As in, "wrinkle-your-nose-up-and-wonder-what-the-hell-that-is" funky.

But much more often than not, intangibles don't win ballgames. Matchups do. And it's no secret that, on paper, Oregon's strengths seem to play perfectly into Stanford's weaknesses, especially on defense.

Oregon's offensive scheme stretches defenses to their limit, and they run at a light-speed tempo. They force defenses to play assignment football, instead of allowing them to fly around and just hit anything that moves. They also do a very good job of getting their speedy guys in space on the perimeter.

By the way, those just happen to be the very same things the Stanford defense struggles with most. Of course.

On the other side of the ball, I feel better about Stanford's chances of moving the ball than I probably should, given how well Oregon's defense has been playing lately. But if you had to guess which team was going to reach 40 points first, who would you go with? Exactly.

Lord knows I've been wrong before. But I still can't shake the initial thought I had while watching the Ducks shred the Trojans, "My God…if they can do that to them, what chance do we have?"

Notre Dame. Look, I like what I saw from Johnson Bademosi and Quinn Evans against Arizona State. But with Golden Tate and Michael Floyd running around for the Irish, I still have visions of Jimmy Clausen doing his best Daryle Lamonica impression on Stanford for a second straight year.

Is Notre Dame a better team than Stanford? Overall, no, I don't think so. But again, football is mostly about matchups. And that one matchup is going to be a major, major factor in deciding that ballgame. Right now, I need to see more week-to-week improvement from Stanford's secondary before I begin to feel better about the Card's chances against the Irish. That's why they're slotted here.

U$C. While back on The Farm for the Arizona State game a couple weeks ago, I told anyone who would listen that Stanford has a much better chance of beating U$C than Oregon. Some people bought it. Others didn't. After last week's result in Eugene, I suspect that may have changed a bit.

U$C doesn't need to resort to some gimmicky offense that drives you nuts. They can beat you playing straight-up, pro-style football. No constant pre-snap motion, no odd formations, no multiple ball fakes. They just line up and knock you in the dirt.

This also makes U$C much easier to defend scheme-wise. Because they generally don't do much to try to confuse you before the snap, it makes it easier for the defense to fly around and get to the ball. A pro-style scheme plays into Stanford's hands much better than the Quack Attack does.

They can also beat you by playing like the Steel Curtain on defense. Unfortunately for the Trojans, that curtain has been raised, and there's no one behind it. The linebackers have taken their share of the blame, but their secondary has really fallen off the charts. And I have zero idea where their once-impenetrable defensive line has been. At this rate, the Trojan band may have to replace "Tribute to Troy" with the loser's horns from The Price Is Right.

I don't know how much initial prep the Stanford coaches have done on U$C to this point. But given the current state of the Trojan defense, and given the Cardinal's ability to move the ball against just about anyone, the Stanford offensive brain trust may see a lot of things it likes when the U$C tape gets looked over.

The only thing that has ever made U$C difficult to defend has been their talent. They never necessarily win because of their scheme; they win because their players are better than yours. Much, much, much better.

This year's Trojans are still a very good team. The problem is that their personnel isn't up to its usual lofty standard this year. Sure, Matt Barkley can throw a nice ball, Joe McKnight and Allen Bradford can carve you up on the ground, and Taylor Mays can bring it (although he's had a really rough go of it the last couple of weeks). But we're not exactly talking about Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White, and Troy Polamalu now, are we?

Does this mean I'm guaranteeing a Stanford win in South Central this year? Hell no. But does it mean I think another happy plane flight home from LAX is more likely than it should be? Hell yes.

(Quick tangent…anyone who is suggesting that U$C's dynasty is over is, I think, reactionary at best, and asinine at worst. No, they're not the best team in the Pac-10 right now. But a team this young and inexperienced in so many key positions is bound to go through growing pains. Which Pac-10 program is best equipped to be competing for national championships for the foreseeable future: U$C, Oregon, or other? There's very little, if anything, that suggests to me an answer that isn't U$C. Just had to get that off my chest. Back to the Corner…)

cal. As I type this, I honestly think this is the most winnable game left on Stanford's schedule. Yes, Jahvid Best could make it a very, very long day for the Card. But I'm still not sure of cal's ability to win convincingly on the road, even against teams they should beat.

Even then, I don't think Stanford is in the category of teams that cal should beat. I've alluded to this before throughout the season: Stanford can beat you in more ways than cal can. Who do you trust more in the clutch, Andrew Luck or Kevin Riley? Whose special teams are more likely to have a positive impact for their team? Which team is more consistent from week to week?

I have fewer questions about how effectively Stanford matches up against cal than I do about the other opponents. That's why I think they're the most likely team to fall to Stanford. But in all honesty, I don't care which team Stanford beats…as long as the Cardinal find a way to win at least one.

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RANDOM PAC-10 THOUGHTS

Good to see the 1999 Rose Bowl team being saluted at the game this week! Has it really been ten years? Wow…

As I type this, there is no news on whether LeGarrette Blount will be fully reinstated and ready to play for the Stanford game this week. If I'm Chip Kelly, I wait until next week, when they host Arizona State. Even though the Stanford Stadium crowd is pretty tame, I would feel more comfortable unveiling him at Autzen, given how Blount acts before road crowds…

Plus, have you seen how LaMichael James has been running lately? I'm not sure they need Blount now anyway…

So, let me get this straight. Try to gouge a guy's eye in the pile? Half-game suspension. Punch an opposing player and nearly incite a riot on national TV? Seven-game suspension, at least. Hang out with Deion Sanders, and then panic when asked about it? Banned for a year. College football sure has a funny way of dispensing justice, doesn't it?

UCLA walked into Stanford Stadium 3-0. Now they're stumbling around at 3-5. Looking back on it now, it seems that, just like 1999, 2001, and 2003, a trip to The Farm has irreversibly altered the Bruins' season. And not for the better…

Why does Oregon State's defense always pick the wrong times to go on autopilot? There's no way in the world that game should have been as close as it turned out to be…

What's this? Kevin Riley actually leading a game-winning drive in the final seconds? Wow. And he actually looked pretty good while doing it too…

I bet a lot of Sun Devils fans saw everything flash before their eyes when they saw Vontaze Burfict down on the turf being attended to by trainers early in that game against cal…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but… now that's what we've been waiting to see from you, Texas. If that Longhorn team that showed up in Stillwater last week is the same Longhorn team we see going forward, they may actually be worthy of getting that BCS Title Game slot…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but… so here it is, the first week of November, and the Philadelphia college or pro football team with the most wins is…Temple. Yes, Temple. They're 6-2 right now, making them bowl-bound for the first time since 1979…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but… put Aaron Rodgers on the Vikings and keep Brett Favre with the Packers, and Sunday's score remains exactly the same. Heck, switch Aaron Rodgers with Peyton Manning or Drew Brees and I don't think things are much different. Minnesota got to the other team's quarterback. Green Bay didn't. That's how the Vikings won that game…

Not a Pac-10 thought, but… Alex Smith and Vince Young are back on the field? What is this, 2006?

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CLARDY'S CORNER INBOX

This actually sat in my Inbox through last week and I apologize for just now getting to it, but Brandon from parts unknown asks: "Why don't you pick Stanford games? Too afraid to put your money where your mouth is?"

Simple question. Simple answer: if I pick Stanford games in my Pac-10 picks, I'm in a no-win situation no matter what.

If I'm constantly picking Stanford to win, I'm a homer. If I'm constantly picking Stanford to lose, I'm a hater. If I'm constantly picking Stanford games incorrectly, I don't know what I'm talking about. If I'm constantly picking Stanford games correctly, I might know too much. I hate to paraphrase the ending to WarGames, but the only way to win is not to play.

Besides, I've got enough stress in my life as it is. That's why I not only don't pick Stanford games, it's also why I don't gamble at all. The only tables I play in Vegas are the buffet tables. I always win there!

Agree with this Corner? Disagree? Got something else on your mind? Drop me a line at my Scout.com inbox (username: troyc) or e-mail me at troyc@thebootleg.com. The best e-mails will be answered in next week's Clardy's Corner Inbox!

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PAC-10 PICKS

Except for one game in Tucson, we're going to learn a lot of things in the Pac-10 this weekend, folks!

Washington State @ Arizona. Our wait to find out whether the Wildcats are really for real continues. Until then, I like Arizona by 31.

Washington @ UCLA. I don't like UCLA right now. I just don't. But I like Washington even less. Especially if Jake Locker is more dinged up than the Huskies are letting on. I like UCLA by 10. At least they actually put up a fight in their last game.

Oregon State @ cal. This is the most intriguing Pac-10 game of the weekend. Sean Canfield looks better and better every week. Can't say the same for Kevin Riley, despite his game-winning drive last week. Jahvid Best and Jacquizz Rodgers will both do their things, but QB play is the difference. I like Oregon State by 4.

U$C @ Arizona State. One of the more underrated subplots of the Pete Carroll Era is U$C's ability to bounce back after their tough losses. Based on what I've seen from ASU this year, I don't see that trend ending this week. I like U$C by 12.

Last week: 2-1 (straight-up), 2-1 (ATS).
This year:
12-7 (straight-up), 11-8 (ATS).
Last year:
30-6 (straight-up), 24-12 (ATS).

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Troy Clardy hosts the Stanford Daily Update, airing every weekday at 7:30p on Cardinal Sports Network flagship radio station XTRA Sports 860 in San Francisco, and available in podcast form at gostanford.com.

Clardy's Corner appears Wednesdays on TheBootleg.com. You can also check him out online at TroyClardy.com.


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