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Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Best Case-Worst Case: Stanford

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

This is the ninth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting from the top of our preseason power rankings and working down.

Up next: Stanford

Best case

Before Stanford takes the field against Oregon State, coach Jim Harbaugh puts an enlarged copy of the New York Times college football blog "The Quad" on a projector. It's from the day the blog ranked Stanford 90th in the nation, seven spots behind the San Jose State team the Cardinal beat, 37-0, last season.

The ranking is a complete absurdity -- teams ranked ahead of the Cardinal would be double-digit underdogs to them in Las Vegas -- but Harbaugh wants his players to see how poorly they are perceived on a national level.

Stanford and its 16 returning starters then whips Oregon State, 28-10, with tailback Toby Gerhart rushing for 138 yards and three touchdowns, and the Cardinal defense throttling the Beavers.

Stanford blows a fourth-quarter lead and loses on a late field goal in the heat at Arizona State, but the game at least shows that the Cardinal can play with the Pac-10's elite. It then crushes TCU, 34-17, and rips No. 83 San Jose State, 48-3.

Harbaugh calls a press conference. He tells reporters that he's noticed every consistent winner in the Pac-10 opens its practices to the media. He now plans to do the same, he says.

"We also want to be a successful program," he says. "There's no reason for Stanford to hide any longer. I don't need to feed my ego and paranoia with a silly gesture like closing practices."

Consecutive road games victories at Washington and Notre Dame earns the 5-1 Cardinal real live top-25 votes. That ends with a home loss to Arizona -- a disappointment in front of a suddenly spirited home stadium -- but workmanlike wins over UCLA and Washington State earn bowl eligibility.

The next two games, however, reveal how far the Cardinal still needs to travel to get to the top-third of the Pac-10. Stanford gets rocked, 37-20, at Oregon, and blitzed at USC, 41-10.

But Harbaugh again rallies his team, and a second-consecutive Big Game victory over California earns the 8-4 Cardinal a berth in the Las Vegas Bowl opposite BYU.

Tavita Pritchard hooks up with Richard Sherman for a 12-yard TD pass with 47 seconds left for a 28-27 victory, and the Cardinal's only worry is big-time programs asking for Harbaugh's cell phone number.

Worst case

Sometimes returning starters aren't enough, particularly when the injury bug hits.

That improved offensive line? Nope. A stouter defense? Nope. Three capable QBs? Nope.

Stanford opens with three decisive losses, slip San Jose State, 21-17, and then lose three straight to Washington, Notre Dame and Arizona. Coach Jim Harbaugh benches QB Tavita Pritchard, but Alex Loukas can't do any better in a loss at UCLA.

Harbaugh goes with true freshman Andrew Luck against Washington State, and Luck spurs the Cardinal to a 24-20 victory.

Luck has no Luck, however, in blowout losses at Oregon and inside a quiet Stanford Stadium against USC.

California plays host to the Cardinal with an outside shot at securing a BCS bowl berth. The Bears also are motivated by a humiliating 20-13 Big Game loss in 2007.

Nate Longshore throws four TD passes and the Bears roll up 560 yards of offense in a 44-10 victory.

Harbaugh becomes the Oakland Raiders' offensive coordinator.

Stanford hires John Mackovic to replace him.