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Best case-worst case: Stanford

8/31/2011

Eleventh in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-12 teams.

Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction. You can read last season's versions here.

We're going in reverse order of my post-spring power rankings (which might not be identical to my preseason power rankings).

Up next: Stanford

Best case

Stanford doesn't look like it misses Jim Harbaugh much, and rumors about this Andrew Luck guy being pretty good at playing quarterback turn out to be true.

Luck throws six touchdown passes in the Cardinal's first two games, but as big a story is the defense, which pitches a pair of shutouts against San Jose State and at Duke.

At Arizona, Luck throws for two touchdowns and runs for another -- the Cardinal rushed for 225 yards -- in a 38-17 win. The Cardinal heads into the bye week ranked fifth.

"So I was sitting around with Shayne Skov watching TV and the talking heads were talking about balancing the budget," Luck says during his weekly sit-down with reporters. "So Shayne and I got to talking about it. We ordered a pizza and got out some graph paper and in about 90 minutes we figured out how to balance the budget without cutting Social Security or Medicare."

"Or defense!" Skov adds.

"Oh, Shayne! Always thinking about defense," Luck says through a laugh. "We had to raise taxes. But we found out a perfect way to do that: We'll only raise taxes on people who are jerks. That's where Moose and David come in."

Offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro join the news conference. Says Martin, "It's a simple, painless blood test David and I came up with in the lab. It immediately recognizes who is a jerk and who isn't with 100 percent accuracy. We've been testing it for a year."

"Did you test it on Oregon coach Chip Kelly?" a reporter asks.

"Yes," DeCastro says. "Not a jerk. His millions are safe."

"So can you give us any names of jerks?" the reporter asks. Luck, Skov, Martin and DeCastro exchange amused glances.

"We tested it on a certain Pac-12 blogger from ESPN.com," Martin says. "Thanks for helping balance the budget, Miller."

Stanford blows out UCLA, Colorado, Washington State and Washington. It rises to No. 3.

"Luck has thrown for 20 touchdown passes and run for five more through seven games," ESPN's Chris Fowler said."Along the way, he balanced the budget. Is there anything he can't do?"

"And don't forget, he made the Kardashians, the cast from the Jersey Shore and all of the housewives who appear on shows calling them housewives spontaneously disappear from the collective cultural consciousness of the nation," replies Kirk Herbstreit. "It's not easy to make this country smarter, but he did it."

"I don't know what you're talking about -- did you see 'The Real Scientists of Harvard' last night?" Fowler replies. "Riveting."

Stanford trails No. 10 USC by two with 58 seconds remaining, but a 25-yard Luck scramble sets up the winning field goal.

"Students claim they saw me walking on Lake Lagunita?" Luck says. "No. That's silly."

Stanford beats Oregon State 42-10, setting up a marquee showdown with top-ranked Oregon.

Oregon explodes out of the gate, scoring touchdowns on its first three possessions. Luck has a sure touchdown pass dropped, and the Cardinal lose two fumbles, including one from Luck, just his third turnover of the season. At halftime, Oregon leads 24-3.

Poised, polished, Stanford-educated first-year Cardinal coach David Shaw goes ballistic in the locker room. "&$%#@," he says, then adds. "&%@#."

He calms himself. "We are letting ourselves down. We are letting our families down. We are letting our fans down. I let you down in the first half because we weren't ready to play. We are all accountable here. So it's simple. We redeem ourselves one play at a time. If we each put everything we have into every play, one after the other, we win this game. Now go out there and @*&^% do it!"

But with 12 seconds left, the Cardinal still trails by four. On fourth and eight from the Ducks 38, Luck drops back, then ducks under a sack attempt from Dion Jordan and sprints to his right. He shakes off Brandon Hanna, reverses course back across the field to his left. Looking, looking. He sets. Fires. Coby Fleener in the corner of the endzone. Touchdown. Clock hits zero.

On Monday, Stanford is the No. 2 team in the land.

The highlight of the throw will be spooled endlessly for an entire week, broken down from every angle.

"It was a laser -- seemingly never more than 10 feet off the ground for roughly 49 yards of flight," Herbstreit says.

"See how he sets here ... look at the vision ... he picks up Fleener here and releases," says ESPN draft guru Todd McShay, frenetically telestrating. "There is no margin for error, but see how committed he is? Total confidence. Nothing tentative. He just threads it through one of the best secondaries in the country and puts it in the only place Fleener and no one else can catch it. Extraordinary."

The Cardinal hands California its seventh loss of the season, ensuring no postseason for the Bears for a second-consecutive year. The Axe stays in Palo Alto.

"I know this might be an unpopular position on the West Coast," says an East Coast college football analysis. "But when you get down to it, Stanford really hasn't beaten anybody. I know Oregon beat LSU and everything but the Tigers didn't have their starting quarterback, and Alabama whipped LSU pretty good. Luck has put up big numbers against weak Pac-12 defenses. I think he and Stanford struggle against Notre Dame, to me a far more physical team."

Stanford rolls the eighth-ranked Fighting Irish 40-10. It then wins the Pac-12 championship game 30-28 over Arizona State when Luck muscles through a tackle attempt from Vontaze Burfict on a scramble for the game-winning touchdown.

Stanford earns a berth in the national championship game opposite Alabama.

"I know this might be an unpopular position on the West Coast," says an East Coast college football analysis. "But when you get down to it, Stanford really hasn't beaten anybody. I know Oregon beat LSU and everything but the Tigers didn't have their starting quarterback, and Alabama whipped LSU pretty good. Notre Dame? The Irish aren't any good. Luck has put up big numbers against weak Pac-12 defenses. I think he and Stanford struggles against the Crimson Tide, to me a far more physical team."

Luck wins the Heisman Trophy by the largest margin in the award's history.

"You're probably wondering why I've brought what looks like a chemistry set to the lectern here," Luck says after receiving the award. "But my outstanding receiver Chris Owusu and I were sitting around one day and we wondered why no one had created a device that could quickly and inexpensively convert sand into fresh, potable water. This is neat. Watch!"

Stanford whips Alabama 33-17 and wins the national championship with a perfect, 14-0 season. Luck wins game MVP.

"So, Andrew, what are you going to do before the NFL draft," a reporter asks.

"Glad you're curious," Luck says. "Well, Owen Marecic was in town the other day and we got to talking, and you know what really, really bothers us?"

Everybody waits.

"Cancer."

Worst case

Stanford and Luck looked dominant during a 2-0 start. That was not the case at Arizona, where the Cardinal faced a team armed with a talented secondary and a hunger for revenge.

Wildcats quarterback Nick Foles outplays Luck, throwing for 405 yards and four touchdowns in a 40-35 victory, his completely rebuilt offensive line muting the Cardinal defensive front. Stanford's three new offensive linemen struggle to protect Luck, while its rebuilt receiving corps struggle to get open.

Luck and the Cardinal bounce back with five consecutive victories, with Luck throwing for 10 touchdowns during the streak to put himself back in the Heisman Trophy race. Stanford rises back to 12th in the country and heads to USC for a marquee matchup with the 10th-ranked Trojans, who are fresh off a win over Notre Dame.

But USC quarterback Matt Barkley, with a superior supporting cast of receivers, outplays Luck, throwing for 295 yards and three scores in a 31-28 victory.

"It's a lesson we've learned before but it frequently comes back to remind us," says Fowler. "One guy can't do it all. It's hard to do great things as a quarterback when your line isn't protecting you and your receivers aren't good enough to get open and make plays."

"And injuries," replies Herbstreit. "The Cardinal has taken some injury hits and they don't seem to have the depth to overcome them, at least at the level of a top-10 team."

The Cardinal wins at Oregon State. Up next: No. 1 Oregon.

Not unlike the 2010 game, Luck and Stanford start quickly and lead at halftime. And not unlike the 2010 game, the Ducks roll in the second half. The stadium is less than half-full when the clock hits zero on a 48-31 Oregon win.

"Sure, we've had some tough times this season," says Luck, who's been sacked 19 times, six more times than he was the previous two seasons combined. "But keeping the Axe would make up for a lot."

But resurgent Cal gets a sterling performance from quarterback Zach Maynard in a 28-24 win. Maynard scrambles in from 18 yards for the winning score with three minutes left.

Stanford beats Notre Dame in the season-finale and earns a berth in the Sun Bowl, where it loses to Clemson, 28-24, to finish 8-5.

Not long ago, that would have been a successful season. But the headline in the Stanford Daily tells the new story: "Is Shaw up to replacing Harbaugh?"

Cal ends up 11-2 and ranked ninth after beating Texas 45-3 in the Alamo Bowl.

"The balance of power has shifted back North, as it should," crows Cal linebacker Mychal Kendricks, not typically one to crow.

After Stanford loses its bowl game, offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro as well as linebackers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas opt to join Luck in the NFL draft a year early.

Stanford's recruiting class ends up ranked eighth in the Pac-12, six spots below Cal.

Cal eclipses Stanford on the National University Ranking from US News & World Report.