Stanford and Oregon enter their much-ballyhooed showdown on Saturday as two programs with plenty of similarities.
For the second consecutive year, both are ranked in the top 10. Both are led by multidimensional quarterbacks from Texas. Both carry prolific offensive attacks buoyed by defensive units underrated for their stinginess. And both are rising powers in a Pac-12 conference once dominated by USC.
Or, at least one of them is.
You see, what I came to realize this week is that 2011 may be the tip of the iceberg for Stanford. It’s all or nothing at this point. Andrew Luck will depart next April to become the next Peyton Manning (literally, since the Colts seem determined to stumble their way into him) and so too will Chris Owusu and half of the offensive line.
From there, it’s hard to say where Stanford will go. The program may well be on the map for good, but its future is far more uncertain than that of its opponent this weekend.
Oregon (potential NCAA sanctions aside) is far from a one-hit wonder and closer to a well-oiled machine set for years to come. In comparing Oregon and Stanford, you might say the Ducks are simply further along in the program-development process. They had their breakout year (think to 2007 with Dennis Dixon’s Heisman campaign and Chip Kelly’s entrance as a flashy offensive coordinator) and built on that success with a clear recruiting agenda and innovative development formulas for their players. Dixon was replaced by Jeremiah Masoli, who was in turn followed by Darron Thomas. Jonathan Stewart gave way to LeGarrette Blount, then LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner. Lather, rinse, repeat.
That’s why, despite losing 11 starters to graduation last year, the Ducks have barely missed a beat in 2011. That’s why, when Thomas and James and Barner move on, Bryan Bennett De’Anthony Thomas and Tra Carson will be ready to match — perhaps even eclipse — the accomplishments of their older peers. There’s a system in place, and it’s proven many times over to be an effective one.
Contrast that with Stanford. Already, just this past offseason, head coach Jim Harbaugh departed for the NFL. The primary force behind Stanford’s resurgence — the man who famously told his teams, “We’re going to win with character, but we’re also going to win with cruelty” — was gone. Just like that. That alone is more upheaval than Oregon has had to deal with over these past few years.
David Shaw has done a great job in Harbaugh’s place, making the transition seem damn near seamless (as that No. 3 ranking can attest). But he’s doing it all on the wings of players Harbaugh recruited, including the golden child himself in Luck. In stark contrast to Kelly, Shaw has no proven track record to bank on, and it remains to be seen whether he can sustain the path Harbaugh helped forge.
To be clear, I’m not saying he can’t. Shaw’s resume is impressive, and there’s no reason to believe that he’ll stumble as Stanford’s head coach. The point is that it’s no sure thing, especially when compared to the speed machine Oregon has become.
With two straight BCS bowl appearances, including a painfully close miss in the BCS National Championship Game last year, Oregon has established itself. Losing this weekend to Stanford would be a setback, but the Ducks appear to be well set for the future. Anyone who has watched De’Anthony Thomas or Bryan Bennett recently can confirm that sentiment.
Stanford is a bit more in limbo, and as such, this game could not be much bigger for the Cardinal. Win, and they’re on the fast track for a Pac-12 title and maybe even more. Lose, and … well, what then?
Buckle up, everyone.