By Chris Mahr
Be honest with yourself: If you closely follow those teams at or near the top of college football’s pecking order, when was the last time you talked about or heard someone else talking about Stanford following their Rose Bowl victory this past January?
The Cardinal is a consensus preseason Top 10 team, yet on a national scale, it has generated few (if any) offseason headlines. Compare that to the likes of Alabama, Ohio State, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Notre Dame, Louisville and its other fellow Top 10’ers. The college football-watching populace seemingly can’t stop talking about them.
In fact, forget being overshadowed by other teams across the country. Within the Pac-12, you hear much more about what’s transpiring at Oregon (new uniforms/facilities galore) and/or USC (Lane Kiffin-generated drama) than you do at Stanford.
Not that head coach David Shaw and his troops mind the spotlight shining elsewhere. In fact, they probably prefer it. Despite a 35–5 record and three consecutive BCS bowl berths (including two wins) since the start of the 2010 season, the Cardinal is given about as much attention as a perennial eight- or nine-win program.
That lack of attention allows the team to function in a pressure-free environment. Simultaneously, it allows us to admire their success through a lens other than the Hollywood-like one that accompanies their fellow preseason Top 10 teams.
Meet Stanford: The team you should root for if you care about college football — but not the carnival sideshow that so often comes with it.
Before I sing the praises of an ascendant Cardinal program free of dramatics entering the 2013 season, it’s worth noting that Stanford has been far from immune to it.
For starters, the team’s rise was powered by a combative head coach in Jim Harbaugh whose most lasting memory as Stanford’s head coach might be his chippy postgame exchange with USC counterpart Pete Carroll following their 2009 match-up. During the 2011 season, the national media fawned over golden boy QB Andrew Luck, both for his arm and his brain.
Both Harbaugh and Luck have moved on to the NFL, yet the win totals keep growing on The Farm — even as writers and other media outlets are given less headline-grabbing stories to work with. After all, one can only document the blue-collar and hard-nosed nature of a football program so many times. Yet Stanford holds more true to that M.O. than most teams.
The strength of their team — and the one area where they recruit as well as anyone across the country — is the offensive line, which isn’t exactly a “star power” position. After that is a defense that led the FBS in sacks a year ago (57) but achieved that gaudy total as a unit rather than relying on one player’s star power; Trent Murphy led the Cardinal with 10 sacks yet was one of seven Stanford players with four or more on the season.
Murphy is one of five Cardinal defensive players — along with DE Ben Gardner, LB Shayne Skov and safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards — who should be preseason First Team All-Pac-12 selections. Yet chances are that if you’re not a Stanford fan, you’ve never heard of any of them.
There’s even more anonymity among the skill players on offense. Sophomore QB Kevin Hogan went 5–0 as a starter last year — including four wins against Top 25 teams — due to smart and steady yet unspectacular play. The ground game will likely be running back by committee as several ball-carriers will join forces in an effort to replace the production of the departed Stepfan Taylor. Same thing with the pass-catchers.
On the sidelines, Shaw has done nothing but win since taking the reins following the 2010 season. There have been no Harbaugh-like controversies to speak of. The closest thing I can think of is when he initially and unintentionally blew off his on-the-field postgame interview with ESPN’s Heather Cox following the Rose Bowl win (he later came back to do it).
There is a system in place at Stanford that has churned out nearly 12 wins a year for the past three seasons. With the exception of Luck, it doesn’t churn out stars. Nor does it set a college football world permanently fixated on the next juicy story on fire.
But after an offseason replete with one too many stories about Johnny Manziel’s latest shenanigans, fixations on Jadeveon Clowney’s physical awesomeness and so forth, it’s refreshing to know that there’s a team contending for a BCS bowl berth and a national title that’s not swept up in all of that. They’re merely here to play and hopefully win at football.
After all, if they do the latter, that’ll be more than enough to get us all talking again.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Top Photo Credit: Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports