Stanford proving to be a reliable investment

In its first year without Andrew Luck, Stanford is one win away from the Pac-12 title game. Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

If Stanford football were a tradable commodity, it would not be for the timid investor. In the first preseason of the post Andrew Luck era, investors were taking more of the long view approach -- good recruiting class with good offensive linemen; invest in the future, proceed with caution in the interim.

Then USC happened. Buy, buy, buy.

Then Washington happened. Sell, sell, sell.

Then Notre Dame happened. Insider trading!

And now, following a bullish defensive performance against an Oregon team that has made a bear market out of the Pac-12 the last three years, the Cardinal's stock is trading somewhere between the stratosphere and the mesosphere.

"We've got a great coaching staff that understands the kind of team we have," said Stanford head coach David Shaw. "We said this is going to be a team that rides its defense. Depends on its defense. Depends on its running game with some seniors at key position at outside linebacker and running back and center and tight end. We were going to lean on those positions.

"We knew we had to grow at the quarterback position and grow at the wide receiver position and we're going to have some tight games. Last year's streak of winning games by x-amount of points, whatever it was, that wasn't going to be us. We knew we were going to have some bumps and bruises. But we also figured when you have a great defense, you're going to be in a lot of games."

A lot of tight games. Prior to Shaw coming on board as Stanford's head coach, the Cardinal had only played in four overtime games in school history. Since he's been the head coach, Stanford has played in five overtime games over the past two seasons -- including a triple-overtime game.

"I don't know how to respond to that," said Shaw with a laugh. "I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing. I have no idea what that means."

Well, he's won more overtime games than he's lost -- a 3-2 record to be exact -- so that's better than being on the south side of .500. And both of their losses this year have come by a touchdown or less -- a four-point loss at Washington and a seven-point loss in overtime at Notre Dame. Conversely, six of Stanford's nine wins have come by a touchdown or less.

This is not a team for the faint of heart.

"We devote more time to redzone than any other segment of our game plan," Shaw said. "That's spring football. That's training camp. That's throughout the season. Part of it was because of [the possibility of overtime]. We know how vital scoring touchdowns is in the redzone. We have scripted overtime plays throughout training camp and spring football and we prepare our guys specifically for that segment of the game. When it happens, it's vital that you're ready. You have to be good. You have to have a plan going into it and guys have to know how to execute. It's been a priority for us."

And now Stanford is on the precipice of doing something that not even the great Andrew Luck pulled off -- winning the Pac-12 championship and going to the Rose Bowl. To do that, all they have to do is beat UCLA. Twice.

If the Cardinal beat the Bruins (or if Oregon loses to Oregon State) they will be the Pac-12 North champs. UCLA has already locked up the South with its 38-28 win on Saturday over USC, so the two would play again next week with the league crown and a trip to the Rose Bowl at stake.

Not exactly an easy task, mind you. The Bruins are also trending up behind the play of redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley and running back Johnathan Franklin -- who was recently named a Doak Walker finalist.

Then again, the defense is coming off a performance where they held another Doak Walker finalists, Oregon's Kenjon Barner, to just 66 yards, no touchdowns and 3.1 yards per carry.

Offensively, a late-season quarterback change from Josh Nunes to Kevin Hogan hasn't completely jump-started things, but it's gotten Stanford out of neutral -- where it stalled several times this year. Particularly on the road. Shaw said to expect more of the same when his team heads to SoCal.

"Probably the best example [of Stanford this year] is what they do in New England," said Shaw, who had a life as an NFL assistant in Baltimore and Oakland before joining Jim Harbaugh in the college ranks. "How is our team built this year? There are some years when New England has a great defense and they are going to run the ball. And the next year, they say we don't have the same defense but a great quarterback. We've got weapons around him so let's throw a bunch.

"We've shown in spots we can score -- we did that against Arizona and we spread Oregon out a little bit. But that doesn't play to our strengths. Playing to our strength is running the ball, using an athletic quarterback and play good defense. Our kickers and punters had great nights. Our kickoffs were great our punts were great our coverage teams were great. We played defense and the field position game and run the ball, that's how we're built this year."

And so far this year Stanford knocked of the AP Nos. 1 and 2 in the same season. Their opponents have a combined record of 71-50. They are 3-1 in games against top 25 opponents.

It's not as pretty offensively as it was when Luck was running the show. And that doesn't always sit well with investors. But the results are indisputable.