Close your eyes and count to six.
That's how long it takes for a season to change and a team to lose control. In six seconds, USC long snapper Peter McBride delivered a strike to holder Cody Kessler and Andre Heidari bull’s-eyed a 47-yard field goal that altered the landscape of college football.
And in those six seconds, the Stanford Cardinal lost control of the Pac-12 North and control of their postseason destination.
In college football, a sport that’s contingent on subjectivity, control is an illusion. Stanford head coach David Shaw knows this. So rather than playing the what-if game, he’s cutting to the chase with his guys as they prepare to wrap up the Pac-12 season this weekend in the 116th Big Game against Cal.
“Honestly, until the playoff starts, you’re never in control outside of your conference,” Shaw said. “Who knows what’s going to happen? There are already some coaches around the country asking ‘What’s going on?’ You can be an undefeated team and still be behind some one-loss teams. Once again, until there is a playoff, you are never really in control. We never tried to pretend we were in control of anything. Let’s just try to win as many games as we can. We’re still in that mode. We still don’t know what’s going to happen.
“It’s very, very unlikely we’ll get in the Pac-12 championship game the way Oregon is playing. For us, we know we still have a bowl game. Let’s try to win these last two games and get to the best bowl game we can get to.”
Exactly what that bowl will be remains to be seen. There is still a shot -- an outside one -- but a shot that the Cardinal are picked as an at-large team for a BCS bowl game. But a lot has to happen, starting with a few upsets. Otherwise it’s the non-BCS variety -- probably the Alamo or Holiday bowls -- for a Cardinal squad that had previously gone to three-straight BCS games.
A win this weekend against reeling Cal seems likely. The Cardinal are 5-0 in the Shaw era following a loss. Ironically enough, this is the third-straight year Stanford is facing the Bears coming off of a loss. The Cardinal haven’t dropped back-to-back games since midway through the 2009 season.
Stanford’s win two weeks ago over Oregon and its subsequent loss last week to USC serves as a reminder of the rigors of playing a Pac-12 schedule. There are no “get-well” games in November in the Pac-12. There’s no Idaho or Chattanooga waiting as an appetizer before a rivalry game feast.
“It’s something that I’ve personally talked about really for two years and most of us in the conference have talked about the same thing,” Shaw said. “It’s not only the nine-game schedule, but the fact that you have to get your nonconference games out of the way early so you’re going to have a string of conference games in a row. I’d like to know if anybody has had a stretch like we’ve had.
“That’s not making any excuses. We lost two games. But we lost two games to two unranked teams after beating ranked teams. That doesn’t really happen in any other conference but ours. You play a highly-ranked conference opponent and then come back with another tough conference opponent, sometimes on the road. You don’t get those breaks. Again, not making excuse. We don’t make excuses. We lost fair and square. But to say the road that you travel in our conference is not tougher than other conference is just wrong.”
That’s why Shaw is an advocate for scheduling equality as college football moves into the playoff era next year. He doesn’t care if it’s an eight- or nine-game conference schedule, he just wants to see everyone on the same page.
“My personal take is if you’re in a conference, you should play your conference,” Shaw said. “But going forward, if all the other conferences aren’t going to nine games, we should go back to eight. Let’s put us all on the same playing field.”
From a public relations standpoint, it’s been a fairly trying week for Shaw, who faced some scrutiny for his team’s red zone playcalling in the USC game. Shaw was quick to point out that Stanford has been one of the highest-rated red zone teams in college football the last couple of years and there were few complaints after the 31 wins.
Still, each game is a lesson learned for Shaw.
“Either you are learning or you’re dying,” Shaw said. “You live and you learn and you grow and you have to continue to learn and continue to grow. I think we’ve learned a lot of different lessons this past year than the years before because every team is different. Having to tweak our offense without the tight ends has been different. We’ll be a different team next year losing all of the older guys, especially on defense. It will be a different makeup. Every year you have to keep the lessons you learned from previous years, but you have a new team with new challenges and new strengths.”