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Best case-worst case: Stanford

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Fifth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.

Up next: Stanford

Best case

While one explanation for Toby Gerhart's 235 yards rushing in Stanford's season-opening 30-10 victory at Washington State was the Cougars' poor defense, it also was abundantly clear that any discussion of the Pac-10's or the nation's top running backs needed to include the 230-pound bull.

Of course, a bigger test for whether the Cardinal and, particularly, redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck, came the next weekend at Wake Forest.

Just three plays into the game, however, things turned ugly. Stanford fullback Owen Marecic engaged in a heated argument and shoving match with Wake noseguard Boo Robinson. Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh demanded an explanation.

"Robinson started jawing at me about the superiority of supply-side economics and all of this crud about Adam Smith's invisible hand and I just couldn't allow that intellectually and morally bankrupt position to be promulgated in this setting without a strong response," Marecic said.

"Did you mention our present economic malaise is due in large part to the greed that often emerges in the absence of regulation?" Harbaugh replied.

"Yep, and I got him good when I said Ayn Rand was a stylistic failure," Marecic grinned. "Everyone knows those Wake guys love Rand."

Stanford, dominance established intellectually, then won the game 30-27, Luck throwing for two touchdowns and Gerhart scoring another.

Wins over San Jose State, Washington and UCLA followed, the 33-24 win over the Bruins being witnessed by 52,000 fans at sold-out Stanford Stadium.

When the No. 18 Cardinal visited No. 14 Oregon State, Stanford was playing its biggest game since its unlikely run to the Rose Bowl after the 1999 season. After Gerhart outdueled Jacquizz Rodgers, scoring the winning touchdown with a fourth-down dive from the Beavers' 1-yard line, ESPN's Mark May called Gerhart a "legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate."

Of course, there are no weeks off in the Pac-10. Stanford figured that out during a 21-17 loss at Arizona.

The Cardinal bounced back with a 35-24 victory over Arizona State, but Oregon's offensive firepower proved too much in a 44-31 Ducks win.

A 42-17 loss at USC seemed to take the starch out of the now-unranked Cardinal, but they had little time to mourn with No. 5 California entering the Big Game with a shot at its first Rose Bowl since 1959.

In the second overtime, needing a field goal to tie, Harbaugh calls a flea flicker, and Luck finds Richard Sherman, who is uncovered, for the game-winner.

Palo Alto goes insane as only Palo Alto can.

After bludgeoning Notre Dame 41-10, Stanford accepts an invitation to the Sun Bowl, where the Cardinal slip by Pittsburgh 3-0 to win a 10th game and finish ranked 14th.

Worst case

Stanford overcame a pair of interceptions from redshirt freshman Andrew Luck, jittery in his first start, to beat Washington State 28-24, but the next weekend at Wake Forest the wheels came off shortly after running back Toby Gerhart suffered a high ankle sprain.

Luck's first pick was returned for a touchdown, and the offense could never get in sync against a rebuilding Demon Deacons defense. Tavita Pritchard came off the bench in the third quarter, but his two touchdowns passes weren't enough to rally the Cardinal.

Luck started again and played better in a win over San Jose State, but he got off to a slow start against Washington and again yielded to Pritchard, who led the Cardinal to a 24-20 win over the Huskies.

Pritchard was named the new starter. "We don't have a quarterback controversy," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "We have two good quarterbacks, but Tavita is our starter."

After Pritchard throws five interceptions in losses to UCLA, Oregon State and Arizona, Luck takes over again.

"We don't have a quarterback controversy," Harbaugh said. "We have two good quarterbacks, but Tavita, er, Andrew is our starter. I'm getting tired of this question."

Gerhart returns to the lineup and rushes for 110 yards, and Luck doesn't throw a pick in the Cardinal's 24-20 win over Arizona State, but the Stanford offense doesn't have the firepower to matchup with Oregon and USC.

Not to mention California, as the No. 2 Bears and Heisman Trophy front-runner Jahvid Best roll in the Big Game 44-10. Best, already called the nation's best player by Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, rushes for 205 yards, giving him 2,000 for the season.

Two weeks later, a 45-7 win over Washington earns Cal a spot opposite Florida in the BCS national title game.

"While disappointed we're not playing in the Rose Bowl, it is some consolation to play for the national title in the Rose Bowl Stadium," Cal coach Jeff Tedford says.

Notre Dame blasts Stanford 33-10.

Harbaugh becomes the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator. Stanford rehires Walt Harris.