When Stanford defeated Wisconsin 20-14 on Tuesday night to win its first Rose Bowl since 1972, the program not only accomplished what former head coaches Bill Walsh and Jim Harbaugh and former quarterbacks Andrew Luck and John Elway could not, it also became one of the leading contenders for next season's national championship.
"We're still on the ascent," said Stanford Head Coach David Shaw, who also became the first black head coach to win a BCS bowl game. Shaw said the program could do better next season.
There is only so much improvement the program, which finished the season 12-2, can make.
If not for a questionable goal-line call at Notre Dame (a game they lost in overtime), Stanford would be playing Alabama in this year's title game. Stanford, along with Texas A&M, was one of the hottest teams at the end of college football's regular season, defeating Oregon at Autzen Stadium and derailing the Ducks' national title hopes.
Stanford is one of six schools to go to three consecutive BCS bowl games in the BCS era. To put this in perspective, no school from the Southeastern Conference (SEC), which has won the last six national titles, has accomplished this feat.
And this week, NationalChamps.net released its 2013 early bird college football rankings. Alabama was no. 1. Stanford was second.
Despite having college football's toughest academic standards that are enforced, Stanford, under Harbaugh, who insisted Stanford would win games with "character and cruelty," put an emphasis on toughness and grit when recruiting potential football players. This has allowed Stanford to play a smash-mouth brand of football on both sides of the ball. On Tuesday, Stanford's defenders stuffed heralded Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, holding him to a mere 13 yards in the second half.
The Cardinal alumni value a Rose Bowl win as much as a national title, and this was the school's first appearance at the game referred to as the "Grandaddy of 'em all" since 2000, when they lost to Wisconsin.
But Stanford may have higher expectations after the Rose Bowl victory for the program reamins loaded with talent.
Next year, defensive stalwarts like sophomore defensive back Jordan Richards will return to anchor the unit. As will redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan, who went undefeated after replacing embattled and ineffective quarterback Josh Nunes at Colorado during the middle of the season. Stanford's stout and nasty defensive line in addition to offensive linemen Stanford Offensive Coordinator Pep Hamilton calls "playmakers" will also return with more experience. And running backs like Barry Sanders Jr. will see playing time and spark the offense.
Shaw often talks about how his players do not get the respect they deserve on the national stage. This will change next year, and Shaw may have to convince his players they are still being disrespected to keep them from becoming complacent.
Stanford will be in the pre-season national championship discussion. The question now will be whether the football program from sleepy Palo Alto can be insulated from or will be impacted by the inevitable pre-season hype and expectations that will come its way in 2013.