With its no. 4 ranking in the first coaches poll, Stanford football will enter the 2013 college football season as a legitimate national title contender after finishing the 2012 season with a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin on New Year’s Day.
Stanford returns a stout defensive–with stalwarts like Shayne Skov returning to party in the backfield–and, most importantly, a more seasoned quarterback in Kevin Hogan, whose mobility and moxie has convinced some NFL scouts that he will eventually be a first-round draft pick in the NFL Draft. Hogan, as a redshirt freshman, led the team to five straight wins–including a win at Autzen Stadium over Oregon–to close out Stanford’s memorable 2012 campaign after he took over for a struggling Josh Nunes at Colorado.
Before 2007 season, Jim Harbaugh took over a beleaguered Stanford football program and vowed to “win with character and cruelty.” Nobody believed Harbaugh when he said he would somehow get the school with the toughest admissions requirements in big time college athletics–that are actually strictly enforced by the admissions committee–to compete in a sport in which nearly 75% of the top players are automatically not even eligible to attend the school.
Harbaugh managed to recruit players who were “tough” and focused on intangible qualities to make his teams SEC tough in the trenches. For all the flash that skill players like Andrew Luck brought, the team has become dominant with its toughness on the defensive and offensive lines.
After Harbaugh left for the San Francisco 49ers, his offensive coordinator David Shaw took over. And though he has been criticized for being too careful and timid with his play-calling (see the 2011 Fiesta Bowl and his reluctance to take out struggling quarterback Josh Nunes last season that could have prevented the team from contending for a BCS title), Shaw has maintained and even surpassed what Harbaugh has built on the Farm, leading a team to a Rose Bowl victory that eluded Harbaugh, Bill Walsh, John Elway, and Andrew Luck.
The same season Stanford hired Harbaugh, Alabama hired Nick Saban, who promptly won three national titles and put himself on the Mount Rushmore. As different as Stanford and Alabama are on the gridiron, Saban and Harbaugh brought the same kind of toughness to their teams and Stanford and Alabama were built the same, though Stanford, it goes without saying, is a much poorer man’s version of Alabama.
A lot will have to fall in place for Stanford and Alabama to meet in the last BCS title game. But a Stanford-Alabama championship game would be interesting because both teams do not engage in gimmick offenses. Stanford’s Kevin Hogan is the type of dual-threat quarterback that has given Alabama trouble while the Cardinal have a stable of running backs that can wear down even Alabama’s line. On the other hand, Stanford’s stout defense, which has at least five legitimate NFL starters, will be tested to the max by Alabama’s quarterback A.J. McCarron, who can be as good of a gunslinger as he can be a game manager, in addition to Alabama’s skill players (T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper) that can often make it seem like they are players in a video game. Alabama may have too much depth that Stanford will never be able to match, but an Alabama-Stanford title game at the Rose Bowl, where Alabama put Southern football on the map, would be a fitting and compelling way to end the BCS era.