Exceeding expectations

Avis tries harder than its rental car competition, so says an advertising campaign that dates back to an era romanticized on "Mad Men." Stanford football ads followed suit a year ago...

The Cardinal's radio and print ads implored that the team would "work hard," and it made sense. The program's built-in disadvantages mean that it must often prove the skeptics wrong long before the season kicks off. The critics enjoyed a few laughs once Jim Harbaugh advised them of his Rose Bowl expectations around this time last year.

Some of the Cardinal's best seasons in recent memory have come on the heels of some decidedly low expectations. The first half of this series examines four campaigns in particular, when extra efforts on the field made the fourth estate look a bit cut-rate.

1986

Predicted finish: Mostly sixth or seventh.

Actual finish: 8-4 (5-3 Pac-10, tied for third)

Sample prediction: "If only coach Jack Elway can figure out how his defense will allow fewer points, Stanford will make some noise. How noisy is sixth place?" – Football Digest

The elements of surprise: The pundits followed the Cardinal's trend throughout the '80s, when the starting lineup had talent but depth was an annual shortage. This group offered an all-time mix. The seniors were recruited by Paul Wiggin. Newcomers would years later be part of Denny Green's finer moments. The club adapted Elway's unique persona, succeeding in a most unassuming fashion. Highlights included a road win over preseason AP No. 4 UCLA. The year opened with a stomping at Texas, which in 1983 came within a win of a national title. Stanford went 1-10 that year.

1995

Predicted finish: Between eighth and tenth. One local rag had Stanford ninth, behind Cal and Oregon State.

Actual finish: 7-4-1 (5-3 Pac-10, fourth)

Sample prediction: "This can be classified as a rebuilding year for the Cardinal. …It doesn't help that four of the first five games are on the road." – Orange County Register

The elements of surprise: What a concept: Everything that should have gone wrong went right. Led by a first-year starting quarterback, with an unproven head coach and new formations on both sides of the line, the Cardinal equaled its victory output in Bill Walsh's final two years combined. Mark Butterfield led the Pac-10 in passing yards and touchdown passes. Stanford won each of its first four road dates, going unbeaten after five games for the first time in 44 years.

1999

Predicted finish: Eighth, per the same Pac-10 media poll that had Arizona running away with it.

Actual finish: 8-4 (7-1 Pac-10, first)

Sample prediction: "The Pac-10 has no greater enigma. …The sobering reality is that Stanford – which has a championship-level passing game, though little running game – is headed for a third consecutive sub-.500 season unless the defense improves." – San Jose Mercury News

The elements of surprise: A wide-open (bad) conference always aids a turnaround. Amazingly, not a single Pac-10 team was ranked in four different regular season AP polls. The defensive playbook was cut in half from the previous year, the philosophy revised to allow for easier in-game adjustments. Generous as it was, the unit tallied huge numbers in sacks after returning 10 of 11 starters. The aerial circus put up 50 points three times in conference play. Oregon, the one Pac-10 team who actually finished ranked, wasn't on the schedule. A year after having one win entering November, Pasadena was finally in reach.

2009

Predicted finish: Fifth place was the safe bet for most.

Actual finish: 8-5 (6-3 Pac-10, third)

Sample prediction: "Stanford needs every bounce, break and blessing of the football gods just to post its first winning season in eight years." – San Jose Mercury News

The elements of surprise: The year's most telling numbers involved not the feet of Toby Gerhart, not the end of USC's latest dynasty, but the right arm of Andrew Luck (2,515 yards, 13 touchdowns, four interceptions). It had been four years since a Stanford quarterback started every regular season game (when a woozy Trent Edwards many times yielded to T.C. Ostrander). You need to go back a full decade to find the last time a Cardinal signal-caller didn't miss significant time to injury. Remember when eclipsing 2,000 yards was no big deal at Stanford? Luck's efforts were a first since Todd Husak ten years earlier.

Proving the prognosticators wrong isn't always a good thing. Stay tuned for Part II, which will examine four other seasons memorable for all the wrong reasons. Good preseason pub gave way a series of flubs when it counted.


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