What they're saying: Card 45, Notre Dame 38

That Stanford is asking "what if" means that us Cardinal fans are in the same category as supporters of all the big-time football schools. That we're so fervently asking "what if" now means that we received the affirmative answer to a "what if" we asked so desperately three years ago: "What if Jim Harbaugh somehow makes Stanford football relevant again?"

For the factory programs, an 8-4 record is the very mark of mediocrity. Too many four-loss seasons gets a coach fired; for fans, a single four-loss season means enduring a whole offseason of teasing and torment from your archrivals. (Indeed, Ohio State fans still call him LLLLoyd Carr, and Stanford fans have been no nicer to their Cal bretheren following the Bears' fall from grace of recent years.) Their unpleasantness notwithstanding, every major program endures some four-loss seasons (or, for erstwhile powers like Florida State, Michigan and Nebraska, much worse) from time to time – USC, LSU, Oregon and Cal are among the teams who could finish with four Ls in 2009.

Fans in any of those cities will view their season as a disappointment should it end with four losses, and prove unable to help themselves from thinking of what could have been, if only. While any rational Stanford fan is certainly ecstatic over this 2009 season, Cardinalmaniacs also can't help but think "what if." What if Andrew Luck had thrown it better (or not at all) in the final seconds versus Berkeley? What if we'd found a way to stop that same outside run before Wake Forest gained 300 yards and a last-second victory with it? What if we didn't let Arizona score a 70-yard touchdown – on a screen pass – on a late-game 3rd and 17?

Indeed, had Stanford hung on versus Arizona, the Card could have clinched a Rose Bowl berth with a win over Cal, and would likely be going to the Holiday Bowl now with just one more win in the Pac-10. Had Stanford hung on versus one of those squads and Wake Forest, the 10-2 Card would be looking at an at-large BCS berth, and Toby Gerhart would be the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman, instead of stuck in the testosterone fest to the finish line that this next week's worth of games and lobbying will represent. In an immediate sense, those are the answers to our pesky questions of "what if".

But, in a larger sense, that us fans are asking "What if?" in the first place signifies something more fundamental. We weren't asking "what if?" during most of the Harris or Teevens years, at least not about on-field results. (If anything, we were asking "What if I rearrange my socks so I don't have to watch this unfolding disaster of a season?") Not a lot of what-ifs when you finish 4-8, not to mention 1-11, with every loss seemingly by 30-plus points.

No, that Stanford is asking "what if" means that us Cardinal fans are in the same category as Tennessee fans and Notre Dame fans and Oregon fans and Penn State fans and supporters of all the other big-time football schools. That we're so fervently asking "what if" now means that we received the affirmative answer to a "what if" we asked so desperately three years ago: "What if Jim Harbaugh somehow makes Stanford football relevant again?"

There's no escaping it: Stanford football is one of the big boys now. And there's plenty of reason to think that the Cardinal will only grow more relevant in the years to come.

First off, as disappointing as it is that Stanford was 1-3 in games decided by seven points or fewer this year, that mark is a wonderful sign for next season. Over the long haul, teams should go about .500 in close games, and so history has shown that teams with a losing record in close games one year usually do better the next year, and teams with winning records in close games usually do worse the next year, when their streak of good luck runs out.

Even out that 1-3 mark then and the Card are at nine wins. Given how few seniors Stanford graduates, how much stronger the incoming recruiting classes are than the outgoing recruiting classes, and the relative continuity on the coaching staff, despite the loss of Willie Taggart, I think it's reasonable to bump up that nine to 10, for an expected 2010 mark of 10-2. (Obviously, sheer combinatorial probability dictates that there are many more ways to go 8-4 or 9-3 than 10-2 or 11-1, and so I'd look for Vegas to set Stanford's 2010 win total at something like 8.5 or 9.)

Still, Stanford should be back in the Top 25 this week, will stay there with a bowl win, and, as long as they keep winning, they will stay ranked, because this is a preseason Top 20 team in 2010, make no mistake about it. Seeing as the 2010 schedule starts Sacramento State, Wake Forest, bye, I think you just saw Stanford unranked for the last time in a long time. (Admittedly, the next three games of at Notre Dame, at Oregon and vs. USC will make or break the season, along with vs. Oregon State and at Cal to finish the season.)

That's our two cents. Here are Stanford-Notre Dame links from around the country.


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